Ancient Faith Radio

The Beatitudes I am taking for my text tonight is: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)

The mercy of God is a very rich relational term in the Scriptures. Its roots of course are in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word that is often translated as “mercy” is “hesed” - yet we have a problem here. “Mercy” as commonly understood today does not do justice to the sheer richness and depth and range of “hesed”. If mercy means, for example, “not punishing,” or “relenting from judgement”, then it is an entirely inappropriate word to use for “hesed.” This will become clear if we now engage in a little experiment. Psalm 135 (136), as with many communal psalms, was written as a celebratory song with a congregational refrain. I shall give the verse, you will then please respond with the refrain:

“For His mercy endures forever.”

Remember that in this Psalm, “mercy” is the translation of “hesed.”

Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good!
For His mercy endures forever.

Oh, give thanks to the God of gods!
For His mercy endures forever.

Oh, give thanks to the Lord of lords!
For His mercy endures forever;

To Him who alone does great wonders,
For His mercy endures forever;

To Him who by wisdom made the heavens,
For His mercy endures forever;

To Him who laid out the earth above the waters,
For His mercy endures forever;

To Him who made great lights,
For His mercy endures forever—

The sun to rule by day,
For His mercy endures forever;

The moon and stars to rule by night,
For His mercy endures forever.

Now I am stopping the psalm at this point. Although we just might be able to stretch “mercy” to encompass the loving provision of a Creator God, the following verses do not sound like mercy at all. Let us continue chanting and we shall then discover why…. we shall omit the last two verses, adding them afterwards.

To Him who struck Egypt in their firstborn,
For His mercy endures forever;

And brought out Israel from among them,
For His mercy endures forever;

With a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm,
For His mercy endures forever;

To Him who divided the Red Sea in two,
For His mercy endures forever;

And made Israel pass through the midst of it,
For His mercy endures forever;

But overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea,
For His mercy endures forever;

To Him who led His people through the wilderness,
For His mercy endures forever;

To Him who struck down great kings,
For His mercy endures forever;

And slew famous kings,
For His mercy endures forever—

Sihon king of the Amorites,
For His mercy endures forever;

And Og king of Bashan,
For His mercy endures forever—

And gave their land as a heritage,
For His mercy endures forever;

A heritage to Israel His servant,
For His mercy endures forever.

Who remembered us in our lowly state,
For His mercy endures forever;

And rescued us from our enemies,
For His mercy endures forever;

Do you see what I mean? “Hesed” cannot possibly mean “mercy” as in “not-punishing” or “relenting from judgement”—here especially. The context is what gives the game away. “Hesed” is both what God is like and what He does within the covenant with Israel, his chosen people - and then through the “hesed” of the Messiah, the Gentile-enlarged and fulfilled Israel of the Church. So, a more accurate translation of “hesed” would be trustworthiness, with added components of divine provision in creation, deliverance and salvation. The descriptors then just cascade freely into the “hesed” of the Lord… “loving, powerful, steadfast, loyal, trustworthy”... that begins to covers it but by no means exhausts the meaning. We could and should add “merciful” to that list, in the commonly received sense of forgiving, but “mercy” by itself will not cover the rest unless we can somehow enlarge its meaning - and enlarge that meaning we must if “Lord have mercy” in our litanies is to convey this richer sense of God’s loving power and action which extends beyond forgiveness.

There is one other thing that we should notice about “hesed”... it is mutual and relational, as indeed befits the covenant. The Lover of Mankind rejoices both in the hesed with have for Him and in the hesed that we share with each other. This srteadfast, powerful, loving, forgiving trustworthiness is the divine image and likeness in both humanity and God. It is what makes the covenant relationship work. It is authenticated in the love shared between the brethren and outpoured before God in worship. It is the basis of mission as our hesed and God’s hesed as He reaches out to touch the furthest reaches of His creation .... hence the closing stanza of the psalm; which, please respond after me to conclude…

Who gives food to all flesh,
For His mercy endures forever.

Oh, give thanks to the God of heaven!
For His mercy endures forever.

And so it is, armed with the true meaning of hesed that we return to the teaching of mercy in the Beatitudes, but this time with a more accurate translation…

“Hesed for those who show hesed.”

This then is the fulfilment of our divine vocation on earth ... to be the people of the covenant, ever relating to the trustworthy God with loving faith and to all people with that very self-same love with which He both loves us and loves all. As an emblem and reality of that love we have the cross which we duly venerate with love that we might become more loving… but more of that on Sunday!