The Old Testament God of Compassion and Mercy
Perhaps you are one of those people, like me, who grew up thinking about the Old Testament as a book filled with wrath and judgment, doom and gloom, atrocity and injustice. To make matters worse, the New Testament appeared to be the product of the hippie movement of the 1970s, promoting peace, mercy, and brotherly love. Such a dichotomy, however, could not be further from the truth. The Old and New Testaments are united in their affirmation that the God of the Bible is a merciful and compassionate God. In fact, it would not be inappropriate to characterize the entire Bible as a book that journals God’s mercy and compassion.
In the Old Testament, mercy, or its English synonym, compassion, constitutes a fundamental attribute of the divine character, a reality highlighted in Exodus 32–34 and the account of the golden calf. The nation of Israel had been miraculously delivered from slavery in Egypt. They were soon camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai. There, they had heard with their own ears the very words of God as they thundered from the smoking mountain (Ex. 20:22). Central to God’s covenantal communication with Israel at this time was that they were prohibited absolutely from representing Him with images of gold or silver (Ex. 20:4, 23). It is almost shocking, therefore, to discover that some forty days later Israel does the very thing that God has forbidden (Ex. 32:1–6). This single act of disobedience constitutes the breaking of the Sinai covenant, the penalty for which is death (Ex. 32:10).
The narrative continues, however. Moses intercedes for Israel and God relents from consuming the nation (Ex. 32:11–14). Moses also secures the continuation of God’s guiding presence with Israel in the wilderness (Ex. 33:12–26). Then, at this point, Moses makes the startling request that God show him His glory (Ex. 33:18). Even more startling is that God agrees to do it (Ex. 33:19). The rest of the account is well-known. God hides Moses in a rock, causes His glory to pass, shows Moses this divine glory, and then proclaims His name. It is this last feature that we want to consider further, the proclamation of the divine name in Exodus 34:6–7: “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin… .’”
Buried deep in the book of Exodus, these two verses contain one of the central paradigmatic expositions on the attributes of God in the Bible. Adding to the profundity of this exposition on the divine name is its source, God Himself in glory before Moses.
The exposition has two basic parts: The first part in verse 6 contains five attributes: merciful, gracious, slow to anger, full of steadfast love, and faithfulness. The second part of the exposition in verse 7 describes how these attributes are manifest in God’s dealings with His people, specifically, “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
Consider now the incomprehensibility of God — His limitless excellence, His immeasurable strength, and His complete perfection. Now consider that God, from all eternity, had determined to reveal part of His incomprehensible and immeasurable being. It is truly amazing to discover, therefore, that the first thing God had determined to reveal to us about His name (or character) was that He is merciful. Of all things, He is compassionate. The Creator of heaven and earth is merciful. The One who called Abraham and delivered Israel from Egypt is compassionate.
The original context of this divine declaration helps us to understand the nature of God’s mercy. Israel had sinned against God and broken His covenant with them. They deserved death, but God relented. The mercy of God in this context is exemplified by His “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex. 34:7). But this is not just a one-time event in order to portray one of God’s “weaker” attributes. Rather, this particular attribute is central to the movement of covenantal history as portrayed in the Old Testament (Pss. 78:38; 86:15; 103:7–14), and it provides motivation for true and genuine repentance (Joel 2:12–13; 2 Chron. 30:9).
But God’s mercy is not limited to Israel in the Old Testament. Rather, it extends to all creation. Consider how Psalm 145:8 rehearses the divine attributes first recorded in Exodus 34:7 and then adds, “The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he had made” (Ps. 145:9). The biblical testimony resists a conception of God’s mercy that is narrowly focused. Rather, it is a ubiquitous force that shapes all of reality, a pervasive impetus for hope.
The merciful and compassionate character of God must not remain on the dry and dusty pages of a textbook. As we have considered above, God’s merciful character is translated into hope for sinners, and this is, without a doubt, the most important application of God’s compassionate character. But the Bible also teaches that God’s mercy and compassion reaches into everyday life, especially for those who are needy and without help.
God is merciful to the poor. Not only does God’s mercy restrain wrath toward the sinner, it also moves Him in compassion toward the poor. The significance of God’s concern for the poor is expressed in many of Israel’s covenantal laws. When making loans, the poor may not be charged interest (Ex. 22:25). When rendering judgment, no distinction is to be made between the rich and the poor (Ex. 23:3; L ev. 19:5). When it comes to making a sacrifice, the poor can offer in proportion to their means (Lev. 14:21). The text of Deuteronomy 15:7–11 provides an apt summary of how God desires the poor to be treated. It concludes, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land’” (v. 11).
The book of Proverbs teaches that caring for the poor is wise (Prov. 14:21; 17:15; 22:9, 16; 28:27). The prophets condemn those who had neglected or oppressed the poor (Isa. 3:14–15; 10:2; Jer. 5:28; E zek. 22:29; A mos 5:12). The book of Psalms adulates the L ord’s care for the poor (Pss. 68:10; 72:13; 112:9; 113:7; 140:12). There is not a section of the Old Testament that does not account, in some way, for God’s care of the poor, needy, hungry, or oppressed.
In addition to God’s general concern for the poor, specific attention is given to widows, orphans, and sojourners. Of course, the widow is a woman who has lost a husband to death and has not remarried. In the Old Testament, the orphan is a child who has lost a father. The equation of an orphan with a fatherless child is frequently expressed by English Bible translators as “fatherless” (for example, the ESV), though some translations have used the more generic designation “orphan” (NASB). The sojourner is a stranger or resident alien in a foreign land, someone who has fled his own country for political or economic reasons. A braham was a sojourner in Hebron (Gen. 23:4) and Moses was a sojourner in Midian. In fact, Moses named the son born to him in Midian “Gershom,” which translates from Hebrew into English as “a sojourner there” (Ex 2:22). E ven Israel was considered a sojourner in the Land of Promise (Lev. 25:23).
What, then, unites the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner as the special focus of God’s merciful attention? The answer to this question is vulnerability. These people groups shared political, social, and economic vulnerability. They were frequently poor and commonly oppressed, abused, or disadvantaged. Because of this, God advocated for their care when other people or systems of social protection failed. It is written that God “executes justice for the fatherless and widow” and that he “loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18). For this reason, the covenant law of God prohibited their mistreatment (Ex. 22:22; D eut. 24:17), created opportunities for food (Deut. 24:19, 21; 26:12), provided for their participation in the annual feasts (Deut. 16:11, 14), and protected their rights in civil administration (Deut. 24:17). Conversely, those who withheld justice from the widow, orphan, or sojourner were considered to be cursed (Deut. 27:19). The seriousness of this offense was equated with lying, sorcery, and adultery by Malachi the prophet (Mal. 3:5).
It is no wonder, then, that the psalmist praises God as the “Father of the fatherless and the protector of widows” (Ps. 68:5). But the God of mercy and compassion also calls His people to exemplify these attributes in their own lives. As God has been merciful to us, we bear forth the image of this mercy to the world. We are called to “give justice to the weak and the fatherless; [to] maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; [and to] deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Ps. 82:3–4).
Mercy and compassion are rooted in the very character of God. His law commands it. Wisdom teaches it. The prophets enjoin it and the Psalms applaud it. Of course, the fullest expression of the mercy of God is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the compassion of God incarnate. But the New Testament does not represent a departure from the Old Testament at this point, but rather the arrival of its fullest expectation.