“God, be merciful to me a sinner!” is one of the best prayers ever uttered in a parable or otherwise (Lk 18:13). It stands in stark contrast with the prayer of a proud religious man (Pharisee), praying, as if he were superior to other sinners (Lk 18:9–17). Our God is a merciful God (Jas 5:11), but He resists the proud (Jas 4:6).

The Greek word is eleos, meaning mercy; compassion; active pity. Many of those who approached the Lord Jesus during His earthly ministry made their request, “Have mercy…” It was often conjoined with the title, “Son of David.” Of course, Jesus was in the line of David, in the tribe of Judah. The title, as it appears in the request for mercy, is a clear reference to the Messiah, especially in Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 9:27; 15:22; 17:15; 20:30–31).

Jesus’ fame in Israel was primarily for His good works. When His jealous opponents looked for their contest with Him, they avoided His innumerable good works. These served as signs and wonders to validate the claims He made in His teaching. When the crowd picked up stones to kill him, Jesus asked for which good work they wanted to kill Him (Jn 10:32). They objected and claimed He was blaspheming about His relationship with His Father in heaven, Yahweh, the God of Israel.

God has promised to be merciful to whomever He wills (Rom 9:18). If God showed no mercy, He would remain absolutely just in His judgment against sinners. Mercy is God’s prerogative, “I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy (Rom 9:15).”

In His work of salvation, mercy is the catalyst because God is not punishing vessels of mercy, prepared for glory (Rom 9:23). God showed mercy to Jacob, but not to his twin brother, Esau, the reprobate (Rom 9:13). Esau was a vessel of wrath, prepared for destruction (Rom 9:22). What was the difference between Jacob and Esau? Nothing except God having mercy upon one but not the other.

Perhaps the Old Testament mercy seat can help us understand mercy (Ex 25:17). The mercy seat was the throne of God, atop the ark of the covenant, in the tabernacle of God’s dwelling amidst Israel. One day each year (Yom Kippur), the appointed high priest would sprinkle blood from an unblemished lamb, which was the substitute offering for the nation of Israel, for their sins as a nation. God would meet with the high priest in the holiest of holies, see the blood offered for atonement, and instead of pouring out His wrath on Israel, He would have mercy because the blood propitiated His angry wrath against their sins.

Mercy was issued by the will of God, made possible because God’s justice was satisfied by the blood atoning payment for sins. Israel deserved one thing, just wrath, but they received another thing, mercy from God (Lk 1:54), remembering His covenant (Lk 1:72).

If God is merciful, and He shows mercy to His people, then He expects His people to, in turn, show mercy to others (Mt 5:7; 18:33). The antitheses were the scribes and Pharisees, who were deficient in justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Mt 23:23). The rich man in hell wanted mercy, but he got none (Lk 16:24), for God has mercy on whom He desires (Rom 9:18). Those who do receive mercy are called vessels of mercy, prepared for glory (Rom 9:23).

Mercy, in the Bible, is sometimes qualified with terms like tender (Lk 1:78) and great (Lk 1:58; 1 Pet 1:3). When God causes one of His elect to be born again, Peter indicates this is a great mercy, for without the new birth, no one can see nor enter the kingdom of God (Jn 3:1–8; 1 Pet 1:3).

In conclusion, God is merciful (Ps 86:15; 145:8). He shows mercy, according to His will, to objects of mercy, which He is preparing for glory. God expects mercy from those who have received His mercy, knowing that the merciful man does himself good (Prv 11:17). In this, he follows his merciful high priest (Heb 2:17), the Lord Jesus Christ.

When others offend us, let us remember to forgive them and show mercy, for this is what we have received from God, while we were yet sinners. May we ever be mindful to pray, “God, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy on me a sinner,” for this is what we need every hour.

David Norczyk

Spokane Valley, Washington

October 1, 2021

Some random theologian out West somewhere, Christian writer, preacher