The mercy and the truth of God involve two at least of the most important words in the Old Testament, and indeed in the whole  Bible. Micah’s: “Thou wilt perform the truth to Jacob and the mercy to Abraham, which thou hast sworn into our fathers from the days of old” (7:20),  delivered as a triumphant conclusion to his prophecy  and as a declaration of the fulfilment of the purpose  of God, is paralleled in the New Testament by the  apostle Paul’s: “For I say that Christ hath been made a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God,  that he might confirm the promises given unto the fathers, and that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom 15:8–9). It is evident that to understand what the apostle Paul has in mind, it is  essential to know what truth and mercy meant to Micah and his fellow prophets.

The mercy and compassion of God are the subject of an abundance of passages in the Old Testament; a number of words are being used, however, and their  meanings mostly correspond to the English renderings,  but sometimes not. Three of them occur in the declaration  of Yahweh’s Name: “The Lord . . . full of compassion  and gracious, slow to anger and plenteous in mercy and  truth . . .” (Exod 34:6). The terms compassion, gracious  and mercy are those which we must consider first. The  AV, by translating the last three words of the quotation  “goodness and truth” tends to give a wrong impression  and to obscure the fact that the word rendered “goodness”  is the same as that rendered “mercy” in the next  phrase, “keeping mercy for thousands”.

Significant Terms

The word chēn (pronounced “Chayn” with chas in  Scottish “loch”) is the root of the word “gracious” above and is usually rendered quite correctly as grace or favour.  “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” suggests  the favour of a superior to an inferior, implying that  the favour is unmerited. It appears as a verb in a case like that of Psalm 25:6: “Turn thee unto me and have  mercy upon me”, where the psalmist is really saying: Be  gracious unto me; as again in Psalm 26:11: “Redeem  me and be merciful unto me.” The first aspect of the divine mercy, then, is grace of favour.

The term rendered “full of compassion” in  Exodus 34:6 comes from a root racham, to have  tender feelings, as a mother for her child, and is  usually translated mercy, tender mercies, or compassion;  as in Psalm 25:6: “Remember, O Lord, thy  tender mercies . . .” It appears as a verb in Psalm  103:13: “Like as a father pitieth his children . .  .”, while Isaiah 49:15 shows that the comparison  between a mother’s feelings for her child and the  mercy of God to Israel is not a forced one: “Can  a woman forget her sucking child, that she should  not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea,  these may forget, yet will not I forget thee”—where  the root for having compassion is the same as that  rendered frequently tender mercies. The idea that  the Almighty could be capable of such feelings  may seem strange to us at first, but as we shall have  reason to see it is not an uncommon one in the Old  Testament.

Steadfast Love

The third, and probably most significant word of  all is chesed, usually rendered mercy, goodness or  kindness; but these renderings have come about  mostly because the Greek LXX and the Latin  Vulgate both translated it by words which really  mean pity (eleos, misericordia) and do not therefore  distinguish it from the two already considered, chēn  and racham. Chesed is, however, a most distinctive  word, whose right understanding adds greatly to the  value of Old Testament passages where it occurs. It  seems to have had a primitive idea of strength, as  in Isaiah 40:6: “All flesh is grass, and all the chesed  thereof is as the flower of the field”; that is, all the  firmness or strength. By contrast the word of the Lord endureth for ever.

Applied to relationships between individuals it  means faithfulness, loyalty, especially to a covenant  already entered into. In this sense it may be illustrated  from purely human alliances: “I will show  kindness (chesed) unto Hanan the son of Nahash,  as his father showed kindness unto me”; that is,  said David, I will be loyal in my alliance with the  son as his father was to me (2 Sam 10:2). When  Hushai, David’s friend, came to salute the rebel  Absalom, crying, “God save the king”, Absalom  retorted: “Is this thy chesed to thy friend?” meaning  not kindness as the AV would suggest, but loyalty  and faithfulness to one with whom Hushai was in  close relationship (2 Sam 16–17). Jonathan, knowing  that the succession on the throne of Israel was  reserved by God for David, knowing too that in  such circumstances the accession of the new king  was practically a sentence of death upon the heir of  the former one, solemnly adjures his friend: “Thou  shalt not only while I live show me the chesed of  the Lord, that I die not: but also thou shalt not cut  off thy chesed from my house for ever . . .” (1 Sam  20:14–15). It was a plea that David would remain  loyal to his friend. Jonathan’s remarkable expression  “the chesed of the Lord” suggests that this loyalty  originates with God, and so it proves.

Jacob, “greatly afraid” at the prospect of meeting  the company of Esau, prays to God, thanking Him  for all the “mercies (chesed) and the truth” he has  received: he means that God has been faithful to  the covenant made with his father Abraham. Moses,  in his song of rejoicing after the deliverance from  Egypt, declares: “Thou in thy mercy (chesed) hast led  forth the people which thou hast redeemed” (Exod  15:13). God had not abandoned His people to their  bondage, but as He said to Moses: “I have remembered  my covenant.” So to the essential element of  loyalty in chesed there is added a very real element  of love and pity, a fact which the RSV recognizes  by its rendering “steadfast love”. That the sense of  loyalty to a covenant is, however, fundamental to  chesed is indicated by the number of times in which  it is found in parallel with the word covenant itself:  “Know therefore”, says Moses, “that the Lord thy  God . . . is the faithful God, which keepeth covenant  and mercy” (Deut 7:9); and to the redeemed  remnant God gives assurance: “My kindness (chesed)  shall not depart from thee, neither shall my covenant  of peace be removed . . .” (Isa. 54:10). In fact  the modern scholar C H Dodd asserts: “Chesed is  not used indiscriminately . . . (but) only where there  is some recognized tie. It is the very opposite of  chēn” (The Bible and the Greeks, page 60, footnote).

Marriage as a Type

In Old Testament times it was marriage which best  illustrated in human experience the divine chesed.  In the Middle East, as indeed elsewhere, the future  bride had little choice as to the man who was to  become her husband; for it was he who took the  initiative, choosing her first as one who would  make a desirable wife, and approaching her father  to get his consent. From the beginning of their  relationship, therefore, it was the wife who had received grace and favour and was being offered  the loyal love (so chesed) of her husband; in return  the Eastern wife owed humble love, and loyalty,  which was her chesed. It was this clear conception  of the relationship in marriage which made  it possible for God to use the figure so boldly to  illustrate His own tie with Israel: “Thy maker is  thine husband . . . The Lord hath called thee as a  woman forsaken . . .”; “I will betroth thee unto me  . . .” (Isa 54:5; Hosea 2:19).

Naturally such an important word as chesed,  appearing regularly in all the Old Testament writings  from Moses to the last of the prophets, takes  on overtones which enrich its sense. When used  of God, it moves towards grace, for had He not  chosen the fathers of Israel, redeemed the whole  people by His own arm, received them into covenant  relationship with Himself so that they had become  His peculiar treasure? Equally important, however,  is the firm resolve of God, in His chesed for Israel,  to be utterly faithful to the covenant He has made  with them. Snaith, in his book Distinctive Ideas of  the OT, calculates that chesed is linked with another  noun 43 times, of which no fewer than 23 are with  emeth, usually rendered truth in the AV but really  meaning faithfulness, firmness; and seven with  berith, covenant. Psalm 89:33–34: “. . . My mercy  (chesed) will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer  my faithfulness (emeth) to fail. My covenant (berith)  will I not break” is an example of this association.  Snaith calculates that of 60 occurrences of chesed,  no fewer than 48 are associated in some way with  the idea of keeping faith, and only nine directly  with that of kindness.

“Everlasting Love”

But the aspect of the love of God for Israel, shown  in His covenant loyalty to them in spite of their  sins, is very striking. His choice of their fathers in  the first place and His redemption were founded  upon His love. “Because the Lord loved you, and  because he would keep the oath which he had  sworn unto your fathers”, says Moses (Deut 7:8),  using the noun ahabah, love; and repeating it in its  verb form in verse 13: “. . . If ye hearken to these  judgments, and keep and do them, the Lord thy  God shall keep with thee the covenant (berith)  and the mercy (chesed) which he sware unto thy  fathers, and he will love thee (ahab).” The same  association between God’s love and His covenant  loyalty is found in Jeremiah 31:3 in words addressed  to the “virgin of Israel”: “I have loved thee with  an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness  (chesed) have I drawn thee” . . . “therefore have I continued my faithfulness unto thee.” So it would  appear that the love (ahabah) of God was the cause of the covenant, but His faithfulness (chesed) was the means of its continuance.

This love of God is shown in its intensity in  the expression of His most tender feelings, even  for Israel in their waywardness. “I will betroth thee  unto me . . . in lovingkindness (chesed) and in mercies”  (rachamim, the tender feelings of a mother for  her child) (Hosea 2:19). Hosea 11 is very striking  in this respect: “When Israel was a child, then I  loved him: . . . I taught Ephraim to go; I took them on my arms” (the figure is that of a father teaching  his young son to walk); “I drew them with cords of  a man, with bands of love.” Then, reflecting on the  “backsliding” of His people, who “refused to return”,  God continues through His prophet: “How shall  I give thee up, Ephraim? how shall I deliver thee,  Israel? how shall I make thee as Admah? how shall I set thee as Zeboim? (that is, how shall I deliver  thee up to a judgment like that of Sodom and Gomorrah?) Mine heart is turned within me, my compassions are kindled together” (verses 1–11).  The astonishing nature of this last expression as applied to God Himself, and by Himself, is revealed when it is realized that in the account of the meeting of Joseph with Benjamin, “his mother’s son”,  in Egypt, where it is written that “his bowels did yearn upon his brother: and he sought where to  weep”, the same expression is used; as indeed it is in the episode of the two women before Solomon, where of the real mother of the child it is written:  “Her bowels yearned upon her son” (Genesis 43:30;  1 Kings 3:26). This expression of the real emotion of God, like indeed many other passages both in  the Old Testament and the New, is a warning to us not to take the familiar “He willeth not that any should perish” in too coldly intellectual a sense. That we may have difficulty in understanding how God  who knows the outcome of all things before they happen can react in this way is surely due to the  limitations of our human minds. That He does so react is evident from His own testimony concerning  Himself; and the light which this throws upon what our own attitude should be towards those who are erring is searching indeed.

Israel’s “Chesed”

As chesed when used of God means His loving faithfulness to His covenant people, so when used of the  Israelite it signifies his faithful worship in humble reverence. Israel are exhorted not to “turn aside” nor to “forsake” God, but rather to “cleave unto”  Him. So their chesed emerges as reverent devotion to His revealed commandments. In Jeremiah 2:2  God remembers the early willingness of the nation  to serve Him as expressed in their thrice repeated:  “All that the Lord hath spoken will we do”, by the  following allusion: “I remember for thee the kindness  (chesed) of thy youth . . . when thou wentest after  me in the wilderness”, that is to say: I remember your youthful faithfulness to the covenant. In later  times of apostasy He tells them through Hosea:  “Your goodness (chesed) is as a morning cloud”,  that is, your loyalty to me is dissipated as swiftly  as the morning mists by the rising sun. Again in 2  Chronicles 32:32 it is said of Hezekiah: “. . . His  good deeds (the plural of chesed) are written in the  vision of Isaiah the prophet”, an allusion not so  much to the moral quality of his life as to his acts  of faithful obedience and worship.

Moral Demands

But the striking effect of God’s chesed towards the  Israelite is shown in the demand which it makes,  not only for humble and reverent service of God,  but for a right attitude towards his fellows. Here  Leviticus 19 is a passage of great power: “Ye shall  be holy, for I Yahweh your Elohim am holy”; and  the way in which the Israelites were to adopt the  holiness of their God is shown in detail in the  commands which follow. They were obviously to  avoid certain idolatrous and immoral practices, but  equally binding was the command to act in mercy  one to another. They were deliberately to leave  gleanings of their fields or of their vineyards for  the “poor and stranger”: they were at all times to act  in honesty and consideration one for another: the  wages of a hired servant were to be paid the same  day, the deaf were not to be cursed and the blind  were not to be obstructed (that is, the helpless were  not to be abused). In words which breathe the very  spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, they were told:  “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart . . .  Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge  against the children of thy people, but thou shalt  love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord.” The  key to the whole of this most searching demand  upon the service of the Israelite’s heart and mind  is found in verses 33–34: “. . . If a stranger sojourn  with thee in your land, ye shall not do him wrong .  . . (He) shall be unto you as the home-born among  you, and thou shalt love him as thyself: for ye were  strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your  God.” The implication of the words emphasized is  very striking. Remember, says God to His people,  that you were helpless slaves in bondage in Egypt  and in My mercy (chesed) I redeemed you; because  you have so received my mercy you must show the  same to your brother Israelites and even to the  foreigner living among you. This will be your chesed  towards Me.

So faithfulness becomes mercy; the Israelite’s  reverent obedience to the will of Yahweh leads  him to act with kindness and uprightness to all  with whom he came into contact. How remarkably  similar are the obligations of the servant of God in  Christ! For he too has been redeemed from a bondage  out of which he was powerless to free himself:  the bondage of sin; and because he has so received  grace, he is constrained to act in love to his fellows:  “Be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving  one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath  forgiven you. Be ye therefore imitators of God, as  beloved children, and walk in love”: a love which  is not humanitarian, nor sentimental, nor just a  general disposition to be helpful, but is the solemn  recognition of a deep obligation to extend mercy to  others because of mercy received from God. Thus  are the bases of the spiritual worship of God in both  Old and New Testaments revealed to be identical.  And how should it be otherwise, for the God of  Israel and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ are  one and the same!

“The Saints”

So the Israelite who remains faithful to God in  reverent service and in his obligations to his fellows  is chasid, which is the adjective and noun from chesed  and is usually translated in our AV “the godly” or  “the saints”. “O love the Lord, all ye his saints”,  alludes not so much to their separateness or to the  moral quality of their life, though these are necessary  consequences, but to their steadfast devotion:  as the next line adds: “for the Lord preserveth the  faithful” (Psa 31:23). “Precious in the sight of the  Lord is the death of his saints”, and the psalmist, as one of the saints, proceeds to describe his own  attitude: “I am thy servant . . . I will offer to thee  the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon  the name of the Lord” (Psa 116:15–17). The chasid  is then one who acknowledges the chesed of God  towards him and responds in humble and loving  obedience. So in Psalm 16, the “holy one” (chasid)  who will not be allowed to see corruption is one  who trusts in the Lord (verse 1), worships Him only,  regards Him as his true inheritance and portion  (verses 2, 5), thanks God for His correction (verse  7), and sets the Lord always before him and knows  that He is at his right hand. This is why he is God’s  chasid, utterly devoted to His service, and why the  Holy Spirit in the New Testament is able to point  to the complete unfolding of the significance of  this psalm in the person of the Son of God himself.

Vital then to the “mercy” of the Israelite as to  the “love” of the Christian is their knowledge of  the God who redeemed them, their reverent and  faithful obedience to His revealed will for them,  their careful acceptance both of the obligations of  worship and of the merciful kindness required of  them in their dealings with one another. In this way  their life of love, far from being just the expression  of a spiritual standard, is itself an act of deepest  worship to the God who has redeemed them.