Mercy in the Old Testament

vecchio 1If we open the Bible we already find in its first pages that God created everything good but that through sin chaos entered the world.

In the first chapters of the Bible we do not yet find the word ‘mercy’. However, we find that God from the outset resisted evil and chaos. After the flood, He guaranteed the order of the world and gave man room for life and survival (cf. Gen 8-9). God wants life and protects life and even after sin gives a new beginning, a new chance. We see the same after the disaster of the Tower of Babel and the disaggregation and dispersion of men. With Abraham, God began a new history and a new congregation and reunion of the human family. The blessing given to Abraham was a blessing for all the nations: ‘and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him’ (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 28:14, passim). Here also the term ‘mercy’ is not yet present, and yet the reality of mercy is already present. God does not want death – He wants life. God does not abandon His creature, He will never abandon man. God always offers a new chance.

A new stage in the history of salvation takes place with Moses and the liberation of the people of Israel from Egypt. God reveals Himself to Moses in the burning bush as a God who listens to the cry of His people and who sees their misery: Let us note this: God listens, God sees, His heart is with men (cf. Ex 3:7ff; His name, which He reveals to Moses, JHWH, in LXX and the vulgate is translated as ‘I am who I am…I am’ (ho’òn: Ex 3:14). From this tradition springs the whole of the tradition of God and the metaphysical concept of God as an absolute being. This concept is not wrong. In truth, the original meaning of JHWH is deeper. JHWH means ‘I am and I will be present, I am and I will be with you; I am your God and you are my people’ (cf. Ex 6:7). Through his name God demonstrates emotion and a feeling of pain; compassion and readiness to help. God is God with His people. God is God who walks with His people and accompanies His people on the journey of history. He is God who frees His people.

In the second revelation God, says to Moses: ‘I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy’ (Ex 33:19). Mercy, therefore, is not only an expression of satisfaction – it is also an expression of sovereignty, freedom, independence and lordship. The metaphysical meaning is implicitly present. The Biblical meaning, however, is more dynamic and personal. Because God is God, He is also merciful. Because God is absolute, He is also merciful. Mercy is His absolute being.

A third aspect is to be found in the revelation to Moses: ‘JHWH, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Ex 34:6). Now, mercy is not only an expression of sovereignty and freedom – it is also an expression of faithfulness to God. We can entrust ourselves to Him in every situation. In the Bible the formula of the third revelation should be seen as the name of God and almost as a definition of the essence of God. Thus in the Old Testament, and above all in the Psalms, it is always repeated (cf. Dt 4:31; Ps 86:15; 103:8; 116:5; 145:8; passim).

The apex of the Old Testament revelation of the mercy of God is to be found in the prophet Hosea. He lived and worked in a dramatic situation. The dramatic character of his message corresponded to the dramatic character of the situation. The people of Israel had broken the covenant and had become a ‘dishonoured prostitute’. Thus God broke with His people and decided to no longer demonstrate any mercy towards His unfaithful people. His people was not, and would no longer be, His people (cf. Hos 1:6-9). The whole of the covenant seems to be at an end and no future at all can be espied. Then the dramatic turning point occurs: God overturns His justice; so to speak, He throws it away. The place of the annihilating overturning is taken by an overturning within God Himself. His compassion explodes and within him mercy prevails over justice. The reason for this overturning manifests all of the abyss of the mystery of God: ‘I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy’ (Hos 11:9).

By this surprising statement the following is meant: the holiness of God, His being totally different from the whole of the human, is not manifested in righteous anger or even in His transcendence which is inaccessible and unfathomable to man. The being of God is manifested in His mercy. Mercy is an expression of his divine essence. Mercy marks Him out completely from men and raises Him above all of the human. It is His sublime nature and His sovereignty. The prophet Micah says: ‘he delights in steadfast love’ (Mi 7:18)….

For the moment it is sufficient to highlight that the Old Testament is not, as many people suspect, only a message of justice, or revenge or the anger of God. The Old Testament already prepares the ground for the message of Jesus and the New Testament about the mercy of God.