Mercy is such a beautiful example of love, and while it is sometimes difficult to see in our world, there are countless examples of mercy in the Bible.
Last spring I started getting texts from my daughter with pictures of kittens. One of her friend’s barn cats had kittens, and my 16-year-old daughter felt very strongly that we needed one. I, however, did not. My 91- year-old grandma, though, was a different story. Being a widow who lived alone, she had asked me repeatedly for a kitten. This was perfect! My grandma could get her kitten, and my daughter would be able
to visit grandma and the kitten whenever she wanted. Soon, the kitten was weaned and living comfortably in his new home. Until he wasn’t.
My grandma was diagnosed with cancer during this time, and the family felt very strongly she should get rid of the kitten. Since I provided the cat, I conveniently was tasked with getting rid of the cat. I should have taken it to the humane society or attempted to rehome it. I couldn’t do it, though. Let’s just say, my daughter ended up with her kitten after all, and while I would love to tell you it has been a wonderful experience, that would be a lie.
Cats are selfish, vindictive, type-A personalities, and this cat, Butters, is no exception. Repeatedly, Butters is the epitome of all of these things. My husband was ready to murder the cat, but I just couldn’t bring myself to get rid of him. Despite all of these vindictive acts, Butters is the most loving cat I’ve ever been around. He follows me around, climbs in my lap to sleep like a baby, is a veritable therapy cat during my small group, and sits at my door meowing as soon as he hears me start to stir in the mornings. I can’t help but show him mercy over and over again, mercy that is new every morning.
What is Mercy According to the Bible?
Mercy is a concept that is seen frequently in the Bible. Bibleapps.com gives a comprehensive list of the 467 occurrences of both the word and practice of mercy throughout the Bible.
Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, we see examples of both God and man showing mercy, but what exactly is mercy? According to Millard Erickson in Christian Theology, “God’s mercy is His tenderhearted, loving compassion for His people. It is His tenderness of heart toward the needy.”
If grace contemplates humans as sinful, guilty, and condemned, mercy sees them as miserable and needy.” As many theologians do, Millard connects the ideas of grace and mercy. Where grace is often associated with the undeserved gift of forgiveness, mercy is the tenderhearted, loving compassion poured out for those who need it.
We see mercy in practice through God’s consistent compassion toward the Israelites, for example, throughout the Old Testament, but we also see mercy in action throughout the New Testament interactions of Jesus.
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Examples of Mercy in the Bible
While there are countless examples of mercy in the Bible, the very first example is seen immediately after Adam and Eve’s first sin. In Genesis 3, Abraham records the narrative of the temptation and sin of Adam and Eve in the garden. After they ate off the tree, they realized they were naked. They immediately sewed leaves together to make coverings for themselves. Genesis 3:8-13 (MSG) says:
When they heard the sound of God strolling in the garden in the evening breeze, the Man and his Wife hid in the trees of the garden, hid from God. 9 God called to the Man: “Where are you?” 10 He said, “I heard you in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked. And I hid.” 11 God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from that tree I told you not to eat from?” 12 The Man said, “The Woman you gave me as a companion, she gave me fruit from the tree, and, yes, I ate it.” God said to the Woman, “What is this that you’ve done?” 13 “The serpent seduced me,” she said, “and I ate.”
Immediately following this verse, God describes how all will be punished–man, woman, and serpent.
As soon as He finishes disciplining them, though, “God made leather clothing for Adam and his wife and dressed them” (Genesis 3: 21). Here were Adam and Eve–sinful, naked, ashamed, and certainly processing their punishment and consequences. God doesn’t stomp off like an angry father, leaving Adam and Eve discouraged and alone. No, instead he extends mercy, tenderhearted love and compassion, to them by crafting leather clothing for them to cover their literal nakedness and their internal shame.
Grace covered their sin, mercy their shame.
God’s Mercy for the Israelites in the Wilderness
Another major example of God’s mercy in the Bible is seen throughout the Israelite’s forty years in the wilderness before they were able to enter the Promised Land. After God freed them from the enslavement of the Egyptians, they headed toward the Promised Land–what should have been a short 10-day journey. Almost immediately, the Israelites began complaining because they were hungry, and God provided food (Exodus 16). Then, after they had traveled another week, they began complaining because they were thirsty, and, again, God provided for their needs (Exodus 17).
These grumblings might seem minor compared to the Israelite’s repeated rebellions–building a golden calf (Exodus 32), not trusting God to give them victory when entering the Promised Land (Joshua 14), rebelling against Moses (Numbers 16), and rebelling against God again by sleeping with Moab women and worshipping their gods (Numbers 25).
Despite all of this, God repeatedly extended grace to the Israelites through forgiveness and mercy to them through his tenderhearted compassion that allowed them to continue on and, finally, allow their descendants to enter the Promised Land. God could have easily turned his back on the Israelites time and time again. While He did discipline them for their behavior, He consistently showed them mercy by continuing to provide for their needs and prepare a way for them to inherit what He had promised.
Christ’s Mercy for the Samaritan Woman
Mercy is not only an Old Testament concept, though. There are also examples of Jesus Christ’s mercy in the New Testament. Two of these examples involve women who found themselves in shameful, sinful situations. John 4:5-30 tells the story of the Samaritan woman drawing water at the well at noon–long after the other women of the town would have gathered to draw their water. This woman had already had five husbands and was living with a man who wasn’t her husband. During this conversation, Jesus meets the woman where she was and shares with her the truth of his identity as the Messiah. She leaves the encounter changed. In fact, John 4:39-41 (MSG) explains that
Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers.”
Jesus could have easily judged this woman as everyone else was doing. He could have easily ignored her or avoided her altogether. Instead, he chose to see her, really see her, and extend mercy to her though. As a result of that interaction and mercy, many of the townspeople came to be believers because her life was changed as a result of Christ’s mercy.
Christ’s Mercy for the Woman Caught in Adultery
Another woman who found herself in a shameful situation was the woman caught in adultery. Her story is told in John 8. The Pharisees find this woman in the act of adultery and bring her before Jesus and in plain sight of everyone. They remind Jesus that Moses said to stone individuals caught in adultery, asking Christ what he says. Verse 6-11 (TPT) say:
Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger in the dirt. They kept at him, badgering him. He straightened up and said, “The sinless one among you, go first: Throw the stone.” Bending down again, he wrote some more in the dirt. Hearing that, they walked away, one after another, beginning with the oldest. The woman was left alone. Jesus stood up and spoke to her. “Woman, where are they? Does no one condemn you?” “No one, Master.” “Neither do I,” said Jesus. “Go on your way. From now on, don’t sin.”
Jesus could have easily upheld the law of Moses here and stoned this woman. Instead, he extends mercy to her. He shows her compassion by freeing her from imminent death at the hands of the Pharisees and the life she was living, as he simply tells her to go and sin no more.
Importance of Mercy
Mercy is important because mercy triumphs over judgment. Whereas judgment means punishment, discipline, and ultimate death, mercy means love, compassion, tenderheartedness, and ultimate triumph. Despite the fact that we all deserve hell, mercy makes heaven possible. Lamentations 3:22-23 (MSG) explains that:
God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out, his merciful love couldn’t have dried up. They’re created new every morning. How great your faithfulness!
God’s love never runs out on us. His mercy never dries up. They are new every morning because of his faithfulness to us. Because of God’s love and mercy for us, he sent Christ as the ultimate sacrifice for us. Because of God’s tenderhearted love for us, He sacrificed his son on the cross so that we may have the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of life. Much like Adam and Eve deserved to endure their shame, like the Israelites deserved to wander on their own in the wilderness like the Samaritan woman deserved to be shunned for her decisions, and like the Adulterous Woman deserved to be stoned for her breaking of the law, we deserve our punishments as well. God’s mercy, though, keeps us from our deserved fates.
When mercy is at work, lives are changed–and not just the life of my cat! Our lives have been changed, saved even, because of God’s mercy. Mercy isn’t simply an abstract characteristic of God and Jesus. Mercy is a concept we need to incorporate into our lives daily. Mercy is loving the unlovable, it’s extending compassion to the undeserving, it’s being tenderhearted to the calloused. Just as God’s mercy has been changing lives for thousands of years, our mercy toward one another can, and should, be changing lives today.
For additional resources on showing mercy:
- Loving My Enemies
- Loving My Neighbors
- Bible Studies for Women
- Who Was the Samaritan Woman at the Well?
Meet the Author:
Kristen is a recovering fundamentalist who believes that truth, faith, and the sovereignty of God will survive deconstruction and are absolutely critical components of healthy reconstruction. She loves literary analysis and reading scripture with an analyst’s eye. She lives in rural Ohio with her husband–Russ, daughter–Kate, faithful dog–Lucy, and her grandma’s cat–Butters (that’s a story for another day). When her parents aren’t snowbirds, they join the party in their mother-in-law suite, affectionately referred to as Cabin B. Find more from her at her blog.