Jesus, Son of David! Have mercy upon us!

The Character of God:  Mercy = Pity

New Testament, Greek: eleos

Mark 10:47, Matthew 15:22; 9:27; 17:15
Luke 1:46-55, 63-79
Mark 5:1-19
1 Peter 2:1-10
Ephesians 2:1-5; Titus 3:1-7

Other Aspects of God's Character

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Mark 10:47, Matthew 15:22; 9:27; 17:15 (March 21, 2011)

Today we’re looking at the verb form of eleos, “mercy,” which is eleeo, “have mercy.”  You remember that last week I said eleos is translated either “mercy” or “pity” in the New Testament; the International Standard Version (ISV) usually uses the former, and the Contemporary English Version (CEV) uses the latter, as we see below. 

Now, in English, pity is “sympathetic sorrow for one suffering, distressed, or unhappy,” and mercy is “compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one's power” (Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary).  English speakers think of them as two different things.

The Old Testament Hebrew word chesed is nearly always translated as eleos in the Greek Old Testament.  I suspect that the rabbis probably dragged all the meanings of chesed that we saw last week into the Greek word eleos.  So the question this week is, do our scriptures from the New Testament seem to carry the idea of “God’s merciful and enduring goodness and lovingkindness”, or do “mercy” and “pity” pretty well cover it?

It’s notable that in three of the verses today, when people were asking Jesus for mercy/pity, they often addressed him as “Son of David.”  “Son of David” is a Messianic title of great power and authority.  They were acknowledging not only that they thought Jesus might have compassion for them (by the act of making a request), but also that he had the power and authority to work a miracle for them (by the title they used).  Both “pity” and “mercy” are completely appropriate.
Luke 1:46-55, 63-79 (3/22/2011)

Both Jesus and John the Baptist grew up in families that knew the scriptures.  The speeches of Mary and Zechariah are chock-full of quotations, paraphrases, and allusions to their scriptures, which Jews now call the Bible and Christians call the Old Testament of the Bible. 

Now we are reading from the New Testament book of Luke.  In vs. 50, Mary refers to Deuteronomy 7:9-10 and Jeremiah 32:18-19 (among many other passages saying about the same thing).  Mary’s vss. 54-55 and Zechariah’s 72-73 remind us of Micah 7:20.  In 78-79, Zechariah says the dawn from God brings peace; in Psalm 31, David says that God’s face shines and asks to be delivered from his enemies.  All of these scriptural quotations and allusions use eleos mercy in place of chesed steadfast love.  We read these OT scripture last week, and considering that I just randomly chose scriptures with chesed and eleos in them, I think the similarity of context is striking. 
Mark 5:1-19 (3/23/2011)

Mark tells us one of the New Testament’s funniest stories.  The Gerasenes were Gentiles who lived on the east side of the Jordan River.  The plight of the demon-possessed man is in no way funny, of course.  He not only suffered from the demons, but he suffered from ill-treatment by his fellow-countrymen. 

The demons, however, just like the demon we read about a couple of weeks ago in
Mark 1, instantly recognize Jesus as the Son of God and ask him exactly the same question:  “what have we got to do with each other?”  But these demons are a little more on the ball than the first demon – maybe word has gotten around in the demon community.  They negotiate with Jesus and succeed in getting him to send them into a herd of pigs.  Now, as mostly Christian capitalists, we might have some sympathy for the swineherd.  The Jews who heard this story, however, would probably consider this to be a side-splitting comeuppance for the Gentile owners of the unclean pigs.  Demons, pigs; pigs, demons.  Not much to choose between, there.

The entire community comes out to see what’s going on, and when they see the man clothed and in his right mind, they are frightened.  They ask Jesus to please leave.  That has always struck me as hilariously misguided.  Here’s the man who was chained, naked, and a danger to the community:  free at last, dressed, and calm.  Here’s Jesus the miracle-worker, come to pay a visit.  He is recognized and obeyed by demons.  Everywhere else, Jesus is recognized and mobbed by the families of the sick and demon-possessed.  Here, they can’t wait for him to leave.

The man, naturally enough, wants to go along.  But Jesus says to him, "Go home to your family, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you and how eleeo merciful he has been to you."  Here we see an association between God’s power and authority and God’s mercy.
1 Peter 2:1-10 (3/24/2011)

The prophet Hosea preached during the reigns of Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, and of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel.  At some point in his ministry, God told Hosea to take a whore for a wife, because Judah and Israel had been whoring after other gods.  Hosea and his wife Gomer had three children, and God told Hosea what to name them.  The second child, a girl, was named Not-Pitied, or Not-Having-Gotten-Mercy.  The third child was named Not-My-People.  When your prophet starts giving names like this to his kids, you know that you are in deep trouble.  God also said that eventually the children of Israel would be called the “children of the living God.”

Peter, writing to both Jewish and Gentile Christians outside of Palestine, applies Hosea’s prophetic message to his Christian readers.  The first part of vs. 10 applies especially to the Gentiles:  once they were not a people (that is, a nation), but now they are God’s people.  The second part applies especially to the Jews:  once they had received the Law, and judgment under the Law, but now they have received mercy through Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 2:1-5; Titus 3:1-7 (3/25/2011)

In Ephesians 2:4-5, eleos mercy sounds much like our English definition of “mercy”; i.e., a commutation of a deserved judgment.  Of the seven translations I looked at, six also have “mercy” in Titus 3:5.  ISV has “steadfast love,” one of the primary translations we saw last week.  The latter seems to me to fit the context better, but I have to admit that the opinion of six translation teams carries a lot of weight.

The main reason we’re reading ISV today is that I like the way it translates Greek poetry into English poetry.  Most translators are unwilling or unable to do that, as we’ve seen before. 

So here’s the question.  Did the ISV translators render eleos as “steadfast love” because the Greek Old Testament routinely uses eleos for chesed, and chesed is frequently translated as “steadfast love”?  Did they use it because “steadfast love” is more appropriate to the context than “mercy”?  Or did they use it because it’s got three syllables instead of two, which wouldn’t work in the poem?
Other Aspects of God's Character
Glory, Old Testament, New Testament
Holiness, Old Testament, New Testament
Longsuffering, Old Testament, New Testament
Steadfast Love, Old Testament, which is Mercy in the New Testament
Graciousness, Old Testament, which is Grace in the New Testament
Jealousy, Old Testament
Intolerance of Sin, Old Testament, New Testament

Copyright 2011 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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