Divine Mercy is often described in oceanic terms. By that it is meant that it can neither be measured, nor its depths fathomed. Sacred Scripture could even be defined by its chronicling of the many divine interventions in the name of Mercy. But our English word “mercy” is not really adequate to convey the full meaning of God’s love for us. The word most used in Hebrew, that is translated into mercy, is hesed. But there also exist a couple of other words that, together with hesed, bring out the full meaning of the revelation of Divine Mercy in Scripture.
This is where the Great Circle of Love begins: it is the divine answer to the misery put upon the human race by our First Parents. In the very first book of Scripture, we find God’s promise of a Savior born of a woman. This is called the Proto-Evangelium. It is the first glimpse of Merciful Love which is destined to conquer all the forces of evil and which, in time, the Church will proclaim, “O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” (Exultet, Easter Vigil).
Deep calls unto the deep
According to Unger’s Bible Dictionary, “mercy” is defined as, “a form of love determined by the state or condition of its objects. Their state is one of suffering and need, while they may be unworthy or ill-deserving. Mercy is, at once the disposition of love respecting such, and the kindly ministry of love for their relief.”
Surely this was the case after that fatal day in Eden. We really do not know the full extent of what occurred, because we cannot fathom such a thing as immortality, freedom from suffering, superior knowledge, and inner harmony: the preternatural gifts. The test was that, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gn 2:16). It could even be said that Adam and Eve are the ones who ushered in Mercy. The losses in Eden were not intended by God, although made possible by the gift of free will. If our First Parents had not sinned, we would all be enjoying our Paradisiac inheritance at this very moment. But Adam and Eve refused to believe in God’s intentions, they did not trust that their interests were at the heart of His decree. Pointedly, the failure in the test was their questioning and rebelling against God’s sovereignty. However, Mercy was His response to our descent into misery, and this is the good news in which we can place our hope. The Father has certainly granted us His “kindly ministry of love for [our] relief.”
Meaning from the Hebrew
In order to fully understand the English word of “mercy,” it is best to go to the original Hebrew translations, as we might call them God*s definitions. The Hebrew word most often translated into mercy in the Old Testament is racham, defined as compassion (Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary, #7356). By extension, the word rechem means “the womb” (as in cherishing the fetus; ibid., #7358). Meanwhile, in the Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, racham is defined as “to love, to love deeply, to have mercy, to be compassionate, to have tender affection, to have compassion.”
A second Hebrew word that is translated into mercy is chanan (Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary, #2603). Chanan is defined as “to bend or stoop in kindness to an inferior; to favor, bestow; or to implore (to move to favor by petition). It is additionally defined as “to show favor or to be gracious” (New American Standard Dictionary). A third Hebrew word that is sometimes translated into mercy is chesed or hesed (Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary, #2617). However, the kind of mercy implied in this instance refers to “loving kindness.”
The New Testament
In the New Testament, two words exist that are most often translated into mercy. The first is eleos (Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary, #1656), meaning “mercy, pity, or compassion.” It is used as a noun and is the thing itself. The second word is eleew, derived from eleos and meaning “to have pity or mercy on, to show mercy” (Strong’s, #1653; cf. http://www.studiesintheword.org/mercy_and_grace.htm).
Studious as all of the above may seem, it is necessary to understand these words, in order to get at the full impact of the English word of mercy. It is only then that we can truly understand the many references to Mercy throughout Sacred Scripture. Visualize the prodigal son, the woman at the well, Zacchaeus, and so on. Added to this, we can then hold on to the full, rich meaning of mercy for ourselves, because a greater understanding of Mercy can only deepen the intimacy that our hearts yearn for, in our relationship with the Father.
St. Therese of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church , deeply understood God the Father’s Merciful Heart, and it is from that perspective that she drew her inspiration to totally offer herself in the Act of Oblation to Merciful Love. She composed this prayer shortly before her holy death in 1897. It is a practical response in expressing our own filial consecration.
Divine Mercy is at the heart of the human drama, but it must be understood within the context of an overarching reality: God’s sovereignty. There is a story in the Old Testament that profoundly illustrates this. The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament begins with the Book of Job. One would wonder why this story should rank inclusion in such a rarified subject. It is a devastating and pitiful story of a man seemingly struck by divine vengence, and frankly, never coming to terms with the “why” of the problem of evil in his life. That is, other than having to bow before the sovereignty of his Creator.
This is the beauty of the story of Job, the man from Uz. Each character portrayed in it is convinced of having the right answer. For Job it was his innocence, for his friends it had to be his guilt. In the end all of the characters portrayed were, not so much proven right in one way or the other, but rather put in their place. Job’s friends were convicted and displeasing to God, whereas Job was not only vindicated but rewarded beyond measure, for all the losses and suffering that he had endured. The lesson was that in front of God’s judgements, we can only do what Job did. And that is to bow before the infinity of God’s sovereignty: “Then Job answered the Lord: ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted . . . Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know, therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 40-41).
These above mentioned considerations were necessary, with regard to Divine Mercy, because we can look at mercy with unrealistic expectations. There is a tendency to think of it in terms of the solution to difficulties and painful circumstances, by way of either ameliorating them or altogether eliminationg the suffering. While it is not forbidden to do this, it must always be done subordinate to God’s Will and judgments; like Job, sometimes being overwhelmed by the sheer mystery of what is happening. It is enough that God is sovereign and that He is, somehow, performing work in our lives that will lead to the superbundance of rewarded faith. Meditating and studying the Wisdom literature, therefore, is highly recommended to widen and deepen our understanding of Mercy.