He takes pity on you to deliver you or set you free. Only Jesus demonstrated the verb “to show compassion.”
Compassion and mercy are active. They act.
These synonymous attributes are communicable or “shareable” or “transferrable” to humans because they are made in the image of God, and he gives them the grace to have and show it.
Let’s first define the term.
What do scholars say?
In Hebrew the verb raḥam (47 times) (pronounced rakham) means “to have compassion on, show mercy, take pity on and show love.” The noun raḥamim (39 times) (pronounced rach’meem) means “compassion, mercy, pity.” Both words are related to the word for “womb,” when a woman feels close to and love for the human life growing there. It’s deep in God, too.
In the New Testament the Greek noun is difficult to pronounce: splanchnon, which is used 11 times, mostly in Paul’s writings. It means feelings of affection, tenderness, compassion, pity and refers to the intestines or the deep part of us. The verb is splanchnizomai and is used 12 times, exclusively in the Gospels. “It describes the compassion Jesus had for those he saw in difficulty” (Mounce, New Expository Dictionary, p. 128).
The other Greek words are eleos (noun), eleēmōn (noun) and eleeō (verb). They mean “mercy” and “to show mercy.”
The attributes or perfections of God means that he takes pity on, shows love for, and is moved to help his people, when they suffer or are in trouble or need and do not deserve them.
What do the Scriptures say?
In this section we look at this attribute through the lens of declarations about God’s being (he is compassionate) and through the lens of God’s actions in the world (he shows compassion), quoting the Old Testament
I use the NIV here. If you would like to see the following verses in many translations and in their contexts, please go to biblegateway.com.
God chooses those on whom he will have compassion at a time when he was about to reveal himself, which means he is sovereign and can read hearts. He chose Moses to receive a full revelation of who God is (but not in his entirety or fullness):
And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. (Ex. 33:19)
David cried out to the LORD to show him compassion after he sinned with Bathsheba:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. (Ps. 51:1)
Here is a double use of compassion or pity:
As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him. (Ps. 103:13)
God is full of this wonderful attribute:
The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion. (Ps. 116:5)
It is great:
Your compassion, Lord, is great; preserve my life according to your laws. (Ps. 119:156)
Here the Lord teaches us how much he promises compassion for Israel’s deliverance, even when the people did not fully trust in him:
Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him! (Is. 30:18)
These verses promise Israel (and us) restoration:
He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them beside springs of water. … Shout for joy, you heavens; rejoice, you earth; burst into song, you mountains! For the Lord comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones. … 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! (Is. 49:10, 13, 15)
Once again God promises restoration to Israel (and us) when the people left him, linking love and compassion:
I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion. 20 I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord. (Hos. 2:19-20)
In Judah’s later history, God will restore his people out of his compassion:
I will strengthen Judah and save the tribes of Joseph. I will restore them because I have compassion on them. (Zech. 10:6)
Rather than quoting the passages as we did above for the Old Testament, let’s briefly introduce the context and give the references. Here are the words splanchnon (pronounced splan-khnon) and splanchnizomai (splan-khnee-zo-my)
Jesus had compassion on those who had no shepherd (Matt. 9:36; cf. Mark 6:34).
He was moved with compassion for those who had no food. (Matt. 15:32; cf. Mark 8:2).
His compassion led him to heal the sick (Matt. 14:14).
Lepers received his compassion through healing (Mark 1:31).
The demonized daughter of a father was set free by his compassion (Mark 9:22).
The blind received their sight because of his compassion (Matt. 20:34).
He was moved with compassion to raise from the dead a widow’s only son who had been carried on a bier to be buried (Luke 7:13).
In the New Testament Jesus alone showed compassion in its verb form (splanchnizomai), while the Greek verb is not used of God, except when the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son represents the heavenly Father (Luke 15:20); and the compassionate king who forgave a servant his debt represents the compassionate heavenly Father in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt. 18:27). In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan shows compassion (Luke 10:25-37, specifically v. 33). And in one instance Zachariah, the father of John the (future) Baptist, when he was filled with the Holy Spirit in his prayer and praise, said that God has “compassion” or “tender mercies” (Luke 1:78).
Now we shift to the other Greek words eleos, eleēmōn, and eleeō (verb).
“I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy” (Rom. 9:15, cf. Ex. 33:19).
God shows mercy on those who are disobedient (Rom. 11:32).
God showed mercy on Paul, even though he acted against God and his people (1 Tim. 1:13, 16).
Jesus was made fully human so that in heaven he could become the merciful and faithful high priest (Heb. 2:17).
In Mary’s song of praise, God’s mercy extends to those who fear him (Luke 1:50).
God is rich in love and mercy (Eph. 2:4).
Mercy triumphs over judgment (Jas. 2:13).
In his mercy he has given us new birth (1 Pet. 1:3).
We are called to wait for mercy from God as we wait for Jesus to bring us to eternal life (Jude 22).
From Jesus’s actions we can now declare his essence or nature thus: Jesus Christ is compassionate.
Verses about God’s pity: Ps. 72:13; Mark 9:22; Luke 17:13
How do I get to know God better?
You can get to know God better by seeing compassion act in your life.
Are you in trouble or suffering, whether self-inflicted or inflicted by others? If it’s self-inflicted, God will still show compassion on you, to lead you out of your troubles—and not to do it again. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11). Remember the verses, above, that say Paul received mercy when he acted against God. He specializes in displaying his compassion on moral failures and disobedience. The more degraded and disobedient you become, the more you qualify for God’s mercy. It’s an inverse relationship. The self-righteous receive little mercy until they realize their deep need for it.
Next, if your troubles come from living life down here in a fallen, imperfect world, through no fault of your own, then God is for you, not against you. He will take pity you and deliver you from your distress or through your distress (Ps. 23). Either way, God is with you.
Further, we must give compassion away. In the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt. 18:21-35, a servant owed a king ten thousand bags of gold, when one bag was worth about 20 years of wages—an exorbitant amount calculated to shock the listeners. The servant fell on his knees and begged for time and leniency. The king “took pity” (splanchnizomai) and cancelled his debt.
However, as soon as the servant left and rounded the corner, he saw a fellow-servant who owed him a hundred silver coins or about a 100 days of wages. The first servant grabbed the second one by the neck and choked him. The second one also fell to his knees and begged for time and leniency. But the first servant had the man thrown in prison.
Then the king heard about the injustice and absence of mercy in the servant he had just forgive and called him back. “‘Shouldn’t you have had the mercy (eleeō) on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how your heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (vv. 33-35).
We must show mercy and compassion and give them away. They are not static in our soul, but kinetic, to be unleashed to help humanity. Compassion and mercy are active. They act. Do it.
Written by James Malcolm
ARTICLES IN THE SERIES “DO I REALLY KNOW GOD?”
Do I Really Know God? He Is Compassionate and Merciful