Our recent post, COMPASSION: The Noun That Used to Be a Verb, introduced some of the rich biblical vocabulary behind the English terms “compassion” and “social justice.” Why should we bother to study the biblical vocabulary?
Because compassion is central to our faith, and comes from God’s heart. Yet it has been so distorted in our day. The church badly needs a reset in our understanding of compassion. Much ground has been lost to the atheist-secularist worldview. Christians need to go back to the Word of God to see what compassion means and how God wants it to be manifested in our lives. That’s why it is important to understand the biblical language.
For example, consider two biblical terms: the Hebrew rahamîm and Greek oiktirmos. These OT and NT words mirror one another. Our English Bibles translate them ‘mercy,’ one of the attributes of God that is to flow from the lives of His children.”
God is merciful because of His love. In fact, the Hebrew root of rahamîm is rāḥǎm, to love. It means to have a feeling or attitude of strong affection based on an association or relationship. But the word indicates more than feeling or attitude. It manifests in action. It becomes an act of kindness toward the object of one’s love and affection. It can mean to “have compassion on, show mercy, take pity on, show love, i.e., have feelings and actions of kindness and concern for one in difficulty” (Dictionary of Biblical Languages – Hebrew). This word is used 45 times in the OT.
This word is used of God in two striking pictures. The Bible compares God’s love to the love of a mother and of a father.
- Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! Isaiah 49:15.
- As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him Psalm 103:13.
In both cases the compassion of the parent finds its archetype in the compassion of God. Maternal love comes from the heart of God. A father loves his children because of who God is.
Here are four further spinoffs of rahamîm.
First, racham. This term, used 44 times, is translated “mercy,” “compassion,” and “womb”! When God designed the woman, he sculpted a place in her body known as “compassion.” Through Moses, God affirms that the blessings of heaven are found in the breast and the womb:
Even by the God of thy father, who shall help thee; and by the Almighty, who shall bless thee with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lieth under, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb” Genesis 49:25 KJV.
The second derivative of rāḥǎm is rěḥěm. Like racham above, it can also be translated womb, uterus, i.e., the child-gestating and bearing organ of the female. It is also translated mother, implying care and concern for the child. How fascinating that the root of this family of words, which comprise the very character of God, is translated into “womb.” At the same time, how grievous that the womb, created as the very picture of compassion, has become a place of death. Every day 125,000 places of compassion are violated, every year 145 million precious unborn lives destroyed.
The third word derived from rāḥǎm, is rǎḥûm, an adjective meaning compassionate, merciful, favorable. That is, showing favor and not punishment as is often deserved. This word, appearing 13 times in the OT, is only used of God. In Exodus 34:4-6 we see it used in God’s first self identification:
So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the LORD had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”
The last variation of rāḥǎm, found only once, is rachamani, full of pity.
Like the Hebrew rahamîm the Greek noun oiktirmos means “mercy” as in “the mercy of God.” The verb oiktero comes from oiktos (pity[G2] ). The NT includes only two occurrences, both found in Romans 9:15: For he says to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.
Oiktirmos has two spinoff terms. The first is oiktirmon. This adjective occurs three times and is translated “merciful” and “of tender mercy.” James 5:11 provides an example: As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.
God is merciful. Mercy flows from His being. He loves deeply those whom He created, even in their rebellion. His people are to exhibit mercy. Our acts of compassion are reflections of Him.
- Darrow Miller with Gary Brumbelow