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Rich in Mercy

A Retranslation of Pope John Paul II’s

Encyclical Rich in Mercy (Dives in Misericordia)

Copyright © 2002 by

 Rev. George W. Kosicki, C.S.B.


            My special thanks go to Father Francis Jaworski, M.I.C. for his patient and careful checking of the original Polish text as the English translation was read aloud. We were both enriched in hearing the message of mercy once again.


Why a Fresh Translation of the Encyclical “Rich in Mercy”?

            The message of the encyclical on Divine Mercy needs to be made clear and strong. It needs to continue to reach those it should. The message is so important and the needs of the times are so urgent that the message must be broadcast again and again in the fullness of its power.

            The original Polish text, written in longhand by Pope John Paul II in his native tongue flows ever so smoothly, using words that are delicately and specifically chosen. The Latin and English translations, which had to be done quickly and immediately for the Vatican Polygot Press do not convey the full strength and beauty of the original text.

            The intention of this translation, using the original Polish as well as the English and Latin Vatican Polygot Press translations as a basis, is to convey the spiritual power of the message. There are a number of factors that would need to be combined to do this with the greatest force: a knowledge of Polish, an ease with the existential philosophical mode of thinking of John Paul II, a thorough grasp of his message of mercy and the origins of his concern about mercy, and a knowledge of the English language. The author cannot claim expertise in all of the above needed factors, but is very much aware of the urgency of the message of mercy and the origins of the concern of Pope John Paul. May his inadequacy in Polish and English, and his weakness in existential philosophy be overcome by his burning desire to convey the Holy Father’s message of mercy.

            The origins of the knowledge and concern of Pope John Paul II for the message of Divine Mercy come from his personal involvement with the message of Divine Mercy revealed to the Servant of God, Sister Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938) in his home archdiocese of Cracow, Poland. During the 1930's Sister Faustina received revelations from Our Lord telling her of His infinite mercy for mankind. He asked that His mercy be made known to everyone now, “while it still is the time for mercy.” As Archbishop of Cracow, the then Karol Wojtyla introduced Sister Faustina’s cause for canonization. He was instrumental in conscripting the leading Polish theologian, the Reverend Professor Ignacy Rózycki, to prepare a definitive study of her writings and the heroicity of her life. After ten years of exhaustive study, Professor Rózycki submitted a highly favorable document of support for the cause of her canonization.

            Now is the time to proclaim God’s great mercy, while it is still the time of His mercy. Today is the day of His mercy, before the day of His judgment. In regard to the translation itself, the author tried to bring out the force of the Pope’s message by using the English phrases and words that seemed to be as strong as his words. The changes made most often involved an addition of the phrase or word referred to in a reflexive pronoun. Often, the sentences or paragraphs in the Official English translation were so long that the “it” became ambiguous and the sentence lost its force. This repeating of the subject makes the sentences clear and strong. In some chapters, sentences were divided in order to convey the full impact of the message.



Encyclical Letter of the Holy Father John Paul II

On Divine Mercy

Dives in Misericordia

Part 1

Venerable Brothers and dear sons and daughters,

greetings and apostolic blessings!


            1.          The Revelation of Mercy

            “God who is rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4) is the one whom Jesus Christ revealed to us as Father. It is his very own Son who revealed Him and made Him visible in Himself. How memorable that moment when Philip, one of the twelve Apostles, turning to Christ said: “Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied;” and Jesus gave the following reply, “Have I been with you so long and yet you do not know me...? He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:8-9). These words were spoken during the farewell discourse, toward the end of the paschal supper, which started the events of those holy days, which were to prove once and for all, that “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 4:2-5a).

            Following the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and responding to the special needs of the times in which we live, I have devoted the Encyclical Redemptor Hominis to the truth about man, a truth which is revealed in its fullness and in its perfection in Christ. A no less important need in these critical and difficult times impels me to draw attention once again in Christ to the countenance of the “Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Cor 1:3). We read in the Constitution Gaudium et Spec (22) “Christ the new Adam ... fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling,” and does it “in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love.” The above words I have quoted are clear testimony to the fat that man cannot bring about the full dignity of his humanity without reference to God, not only in a theoretical way but in the full reality of his existence. Man and his higher calling are revealed in Christ through the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love.

            And so it is fitting that we now turn to the mystery of love. The multiple experience of the Church and modern man call for this reflection on love. It is also demanded by the pleas of so many human hearts, their sufferings and hopes, by their doubts and expectations. While it is true that every human being is the pathway for the Church, as I expressed in my Encyclical Redemptor Hominis, at the same time the Gospel and the whole Tradition unchangingly shows us that we must follow this way with every human being just as Christ has opened up His way by revealing in Himself the Father and His love (Ibid.). In Christ Jesus every path to man, as it has been assigned once and for all to the Church in the changing context of our times, is simultaneously an approach to the Father and His love. The Second Vatican Council has confirmed this truth for needs of our times.

            The more the Church’s Mission is centered on man, the more it is “man-centered,” the more it must be confirmed and made really “God-centered;” that is to say, directed in Jesus Christ to the Father. While the various currents of thought both in the past and at the present have tended and still tend to separate man-centeredness and God-centeredness, and even to set them in opposition to each other, the Church, following Christ, seeks to join the two together in human history in a deep and living way. This principle of joining together man-centeredness and God-centeredness in Christ is also one of the basic principles, perhaps the most important one, of the teaching of the last Council. Since in the present phase of the Church’s history we have put before ourselves as our primary task the implementation of the teachings of the great Council, we must act upon this with faith, and with an open mind and with all our hearts. In the Encyclical Redemptor Hominis I tried to show that the deepening and the many-faceted enrichment of the Church’s consciousness, which came thanks to the Council, must open our minds and our hearts more widely to Christ. In this present Encyclical I want to say that openness to Christ, who as the Redeemer of the world fully “reveals man to himself,” can only be achieved through an ever more mature relationship to the Father and His love.

          2.          The Incarnation of Mercy

            Although God “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tm 6:16), at the same time He speaks to man in the language of the entire universe: “ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20). This indirect and imperfect knowledge, achieved by the intellect seeking God by means of creatures of the visible world, falls short of “the vision of the Father.” “No one has ever seen God,” writes St. John in order to stress more fully the truth that “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known." (Jn 1:18). This “making known” reveals God in the most profound mystery of His being, one and three, surrounded by “unapproachable light” (1 Tm 6:16). Yet through this “making known” by Christ we know God above all in His relationship of love for man: in His philanthropy (Titus 3:4). Precisely here “His invisible nature" becomes “visible” in a special way, incomparably more visible than through all the other “things that have been made.” The invisible God becomes visible in Christ and through Christ, through His action and His words, and finally through His death on the cross and His Resurrection.

            In this way, in and through Christ, God becomes remarkably visible in His mercy. This attribute of divinity is emphasized which the Old Testament defined as “mercy,” using various concepts and terms. Christ gives the whole Old Testament tradition of mercy its ultimate meaning. Not only does He speak of mercy and explain it by the use of comparisons and parables, but above all He Himself incarnates mercy and personifies it. In a sense, Christ Himself is mercy. To the one who sees mercy in Him, who finds mercy in Him, to that one God becomes “visible” in a remarkable way as the Father “who is rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4).

            The present day mentality, more perhaps than that of people in the past, seems opposed to a God of mercy, and in fact tends to exclude from life and to remove from the human heart the very idea of mercy. The word and concept of “mercy” seem to disturb man who, thanks to the enormous development of science and technology, never before known in history, has become the master of the earth and has subdued it and dominated it (Cf. Gen 1:28). This “domination over the earth” sometimes understood in a one-sided and superficial way, seems to leave no room for mercy. In this regard we can profitably refer to the picture of “man’s situation in the world today”  as described at the beginning of the Constitution Gaudium et Spes. Here we read the following sentences: “In the light of the foregoing factors there appears the dichotomy of a world that is at once powerful and weak, capable of doing what is noble and what is base, disposed to freedom and slavery, progress and decline, brotherhood and hatred. Man is growing conscious that the forces he has unleashed are in his own hands and that it is up to him to control them or be enslaved by them” (Gaudium et Spes, No 9: AAS 58 1966 p. 1032).

            The situation of the contemporary world not only displays transformations that give grounds for hope in a better future for man on earth, but also reveals threats of many kinds far surpassing those known up until now. Without ceasing to point out these threats on various occasions (such as in address to the UNO, to the UNESCO, to the FAO and elsewhere), the Church must at the same time examine them in the light of the truth received from God.

            The truth revealed in Christ, about God who is the “Father of mercies” (2 Cor 1:3), enables us to “see” Him as remarkably close to man, especially when man is suffering, when he is under threat at the very heart of his existence and human dignity. And for this reason many people and groups guided by a lively faith are turning almost spontaneously to the mercy of God in today’s situation in the Church and world. They are certainly being urged by Christ Himself, who through his Spirit works in the mystery of human hearts. This mystery of God revealed by Christ as “Father of Mercies,” in the midst of the threats to man in our age, becomes like a remarkable summons directed to the Church.

            In the present Encyclical I want to follow this summons. I want to draw from the eternal and incomparable language of revelation and faith, with all its simplicity and depth, words to express in this same language once more, before God and humanity, the great anxieties of our time.

            Revelation and faith teach us not only to meditate in the abstract upon the mysteries of God as “Father of Mercies,” but also to make recourse to that mercy in the name of Christ and in union with Him. Did not Christ say that our Father who “sees in secret” (Mt 6:4, 6, 18) is as if He were always waiting for us to call upon Him in every need, and at the same time come to know ever deeper His mystery: the mystery of the Father and His love (Cf. Eph 3:18; also Lk 11:5-13).

            Therefore I want these considerations to bring this mystery closer to everyone. At the same time I want them to be a heartfelt appeal of the Church for mercy which humanity and the world need so much. And they need mercy even though they do not realize it.


          3.          When Christ began to do and teach

            In the presence of His own townspeople, living in Nazareth, Christ recalls the words of prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Lk 4:18-19). These sentences, recorded by St. Luke, are his first messianic declaration. They are followed by actions and words known through the Gospel. Through these actions and words Christ makes the Father present among men. Significantly, the people involved are, above all, the poor, those without means of livelihood, those deprived of their freedom, the blind who cannot see the beauty of creation, those living with anguished hearts or suffering from social injustice, and finally sinners. For these especially the messiah becomes a remarkably clear sign of God who is love, He becomes a sign of the Father. In this visible sign the people of our time can “see” the Father just like those people of times past.

            It is significant that, when the messengers sent by John the Baptist came to Jesus to ask him: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Lk 7:19) Jesus answered them by referring to the same testimony with which He has begun his teaching at Nazareth: “Go and tell John what it is that you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the good news preached to them.” Then he concluded: “And blessed is he who takes no offense at me!” (Lk 7:22-23).

             Especially by His life-style and His actions, Jesus showed that love is present in the world in which we live. This love is an effective love, a love that turns to man and embraces everything that makes up his humanity. This love is especially recognized in contact with suffering, injustice and poverty encompassing the whole historical “human condition,” which in various ways shows man’s limitation and frailty, both physical and moral. It is exactly in this way and with this scope that love is revealed and called “mercy” in the language of the bible.

            Christ then reveals God, who is Father, who is “love,” as St. John will express in his letter (1 Jn 4:16); Christ reveals God as “rich in mercy,” as we read in St. Paul (Eph 2:4). This truth is not just the subject of a teaching, but its a reality made present to us by Christ. Making the Father present as love and mercy is, in Christ’s own consciousness, the fundamental proof of His mission as the messiah. He points this out by the words He uttered first in the synagogue in Nazareth and later in the presence of His disciples and the messengers of John the Baptist.

            On the basis of this way of making present God who is Father of love and mercy, Jesus makes mercy one of the principal topics of His preaching. As usual, He primarily teaches “in parables,” because they best explain the essence of things. It is enough to recall the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32) or the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:30-37), but also by way of contrast, consider the parable of the merciless servant (Mt 18:23-25). However, there are many passages in the teaching of Christ that show love –mercy under some ever new aspect. We need only consider the Good Shepherd, who goes in search of the lost sheep (Mt 18:12-14; Lk 15:8-10). St. Luke is the evangelist who distinguishes himself in the number of times he treats mercy in the teaching of Christ and so his Gospel has earned forever the title: “The Gospel of Mercy.”

            When one speaks of teaching, one encounters a major problem of meaning of terms and the content of concepts, especially the content of the concept of “mercy” (in relationship to the concept of “love”). A grasp of the content of these concepts is key to understanding the very reality of mercy and this is what is most important for us. But before devoting a further section of our consideration to establishing the meaning of the terms and clarifying the content of the concept of “mercy,” we must note that Christ, in revealing the love – mercy of God, at the same time demanded from the people that they also be guided in their lives by love and mercy. This demand forms the very essence of the messianic proclamation, and the very essence of the Gospel’s distinguishing character (ethos). The teacher expresses this both in the form of the commandment which He calls “the greatest” (Mt 22:38), and also in the form of a blessing when in the Sermon on the Mount He proclaims: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5:7).

            In this way the messianic proclamation about mercy keeps the characteristic divine-human dimension. Christ the very fulfillment of the messianic prophecy – by becoming the incarnation of love, which is seen with special force in the face of the suffering, the unfortunate and sinners, makes present and so more fully reveals the Father, who is God “rich in mercy.” At the same time, by becoming for people a model of merciful love for others, Christ proclaims by His actions, even more than by His words, the call to mercy which is one of the essential elements of the Gospel’s distinguishing character (ethos). Here, it is not just a case of fulfilling a command or an obligation of an ethical nature; it is also a case of satisfying a very major condition so that God could reveal Himself to man: “The merciful ... shall obtain mercy.”


          4.       The concept of “mercy” in the Old Testament  

The concept of “mercy” in the Old Testament has a long and rich history. We have to refer back to it in order that the mercy revealed by Christ may shine forth more clearly. By revealing mercy both through His actions and His teaching, Christ addressed Himself to people who, no only knew the concept of mercy, but who also, as the people of God of the Old Covenant, had drawn from their agelong history a special experience of the mercy of God. This experience was social and communal, as well as individual and interior.

            Israel was, in fact, the people of the covenant with God, a covenant that it broke many times. Whenever it became aware of its infidelity – and in the history of Israel there was no lack of prophets and others, who awakened this awareness – it appealed to mercy. In this regard, the books of the Old Testament give us very many examples.

            Among the events and texts of greater importance, one may recall: the beginning of the history of the judges (Cf. Judges 3:7-9); the prayer of Solomon at the inauguration of the temple (Cf 1 Kings 8:22-53); the request of the prophet Micah for forgiveness (Cf. Micah 7:18-20); the consoling messages of Isaiah (Cf. Is. 1:18; 51: 4-16); the cry of the Jews in exile (Cf. Bar 2:11-3:8); and the renewal of the covenant after the return from exile (Cf. Neh 9).

            It is significant that the prophetic teachings on mercy link the sin of the people with the distinct image of love on God’s part. God loves Israel with the love of a special choosing, much like the love of a spouse (Cf. Hosea 2:21-25; Is 54: 6-8) and for this reason pardons its faults and even its infidelities and betrayals. When He finds repentance and true conversion, He brings His people back to grace (Cf. Jer 31:20; Ez 39:25-29). In the preaching of the prophets, mercy signifies a special power of love, which prevails over the sin and infidelity of the chosen people.

            In this broad “social” context, mercy appears to correlate with the interior experience of individuals languishing in a state of guilt or enduring every kind of suffering and misfortune. Both physical and moral evil, namely sin, cause each of the sons and daughters of Israel to turn to the Lord and beseech His mercy. In this way David turns to Him, conscious of the seriousness of his guilt (Cf. 2 Sam 11: 12; 24:10); Job too, after his rebellion, turns to him in his tremendous misfortune (Job, passim); so also does Esther, knowing the mortal threat to her own people (Esther 4:17ff.); and we find still other examples in the books of the Old Testament (Cf. E.g., Neh 9:30-32; Tob 3:2-3, 11-12; 8:16-17; 1 Mac 4:24).

            At the root of this many-sided conviction, which is both communal and personal and which is proven by the whole of the Old Testament down through the centuries, is the basic experience of the chosen people at the Exodus. The Lord saw the affliction of His people reduced to slavery, heard their cry, knew their oppression, and decided to deliver them (Cf. Ex 3:7 f.). In this act of salvation by the Lord, the prophet perceived His love and compassion (Cf. Is 63:9). This is precisely the ground upon which the people and each of its members based their certainty of the mercy of God, which can be invoked in all tragic circumstances.

            Added to this is the fact that sin too constitutes man’s misery. The people of the Old Covenant experienced this misery from the time of the Exodus, when they set up the golden calf. The Lord Himself triumphed over this act of breaking the covenant when He solemnly revealed to Moses that He was a “God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex 34:6). It is in this central revelation that the whole of the chosen people and each of its members will find, every time that they have sinned, the strength and the motive for turning to the Lord to remind Him of what He had revealed about Himself (Cf. Num 14:18; 2 Chr 30:9; Neh 9:17; Ps 86; Wis 15:1; Sir 2:11; Joel 2:13) and to beseech His forgiveness.

            Thus, in deeds and in words, the Lord revealed His mercy from the very beginnings of the people which He chose for Himself. In the course of its history, this people continually entrusted themselves to the God of Mercies both, when stricken with misfortune and when they became aware of their sin. All the subtleties of love become manifest in the Lord’s mercy toward those who are His own; He is their Father (Cf. Is 63:16), for Israel is His firstborn son (Cf. Ex 4:22). The Lord is also the bridegroom of her whose name the prophet proclaims: Ruhamah, “Beloved” or “she has obtained pity” (Cf. Hos 2:3).

            Even when the Lord is exasperated by the infidelity of His people and thinks of finishing with them, it is still His tenderness and generous love for those who are His own which overcome His anger (Cf. Hos 11:7-9; Jer 31:20; Is 54:7 f.). Thus it is easy to understand why the psalmists, when they desire to sing the highest praises of the Lord, break forth into hymns to the God of love, tenderness, mercy, and fidelity (Cf. Ps 103 and 145).

            From all this it follows that mercy does not pertain only to the notion of God, but it is something that characterizes the life of the whole people of Israel and each of its sons and daughters. Mercy is the content of intimacy with their Lord, the content of their dialogue with Him. Precisely under this aspect, mercy is presented in the individual books of the Old Testament with a great richness of expression. It may be difficult to find in these books a purely theoretical answer to the question of what mercy is in itself. Nevertheless, the terminology that is used is in itself able to tell us much about this subject. (For Footnote see Appendix A).

            The Old Testament proclaims the mercy of the Lord by the use of many terms with related meanings; they are differentiated by their particular content, but it could be said that they all converge from different directions on one single fundamental concept to express its surpassing richness and at the same time bring it close to man under its different aspects. The Old Testament encourages people suffering from misfortune, especially those weighed down by sin, as well as the whole of Israel, who had entered into the covenant with God to appeal for mercy, and enables them to count upon it. It reminds them of His mercy in times of failure and loss of trust. So, in turn, the Old Testament gives thanks and glory for mercy every time that mercy is made manifest in the life of the people or in the lives of individuals.

            In this way, mercy is in a certain sense contrasted with God’s justice, and in many cases is shown to be not only more powerful than that of justice but also more profound. Already the Old Testament teaches that, although justice is an authentic virtue in man, and in God signifies transcendent perfection, nevertheless love is “greater” than justice: greater in the sense that it is primary and fundamental. Love, so to speak, conditions justice and, in the final analysis, justice serves love. The primacy and superiority of love in the face of justice – and this is a mark of the whole of revelation – are revealed precisely through mercy. This seemed so obvious to the psalmists and prophets that the very term justice ended up meaning the salvation accomplished by the Lord and His Mercy (Ps 4011; 98:2f; Is 45:21; 51:5; 56:1). Mercy differs from justice, but it is not in opposition to it, if we admit in the history of man, as the Old Testament precisely does, the presence of God, who as Creator has already linked Himself to His creature with a particular love. Love, by its very nature, excludes hatred and ill will toward the one to whom He once gave the gift of Himself: Nihil odisti eorum quae fecisti “you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence” (Wis 11:24). These words indicate the profound basis of the relationship between justice and mercy in God, in His relations with man and the world. They tell us that we must seek the life-giving roots and intimate reasons for this relationship by going back to “the beginning,” in the very mystery of creation. They foreshadow in the context of the Old Covenant the full revelation of God, who is “love” (1 Jn 14:16).

            Connected with the mystery of creation is the mystery of election, which in a special way shaped the history of the people whose spiritual father is Abraham by virtue of his faith. Nevertheless, through this people which journeys forward through the history of both, the Old Covenant and the New, that mystery of the election refers to every human being, to the whole great human family. “I have loved you with an everlasting love, therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (Jer 31:3). “For the mountains may depart ... my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed” (Is 54:10). This truth, once proclaimed to Israel, involves a perspective of the whole history of man, a perspective both temporal and ultimate (eschatological) (Jon 4:2-11; Ps 145:9; Sir 18:8-14; Wis 11:23-12:1). Christ reveals the Father within the framework of the same perspective and on ground already prepared, as many pages of the Old Testament writings demonstrate. At the end of this revelation, on the night before He dies, He says to the Apostle Philip these memorable words: “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me? ... He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9).



            In describing mercy, the books of the Old Testament use two expressions in particular, each having a different semantic nuance. First there is the term hesed, which indicates a profound attitude of “goodness.” When this is established between two individuals, they do not just wish each other well; they are also faithful to each other by virtue of an interior commitment, and therefore also by virtue of a faithfulness to themselves. Since hesed also mans “grace” or “love,” this occurs precisely on the basis of this fidelity. The fact that the commitment in question has not only a moral character but almost of juridical one makes no difference. When in the Old Testament the word hesed is used of the Lord, this always occurs in connection with the covenant that God established with Israel. This covenant was, on God’s part, a gift and a grace for Israel. This covenant was, on God’s part, a gift and a grace for Israel. Nevertheless, since, in harmony with the covenant entered into, God has made a commitment to respect it, hesed also acquired in a certain sense a legal content. The juridical commitment on God’s part ceased to oblige whenever Israel broke the covenant and did not respect its conditions. But precisely at this point, hesed, in ceasing to be a juridical obligation, revealed its deeper aspect: it showed itself as what it was at the beginning, that is, as love that gives, love more powerful than betrayal, grace stronger than sin.

            This fidelity vis-a-vis the unfaithful “daughter of my people” (Cf. Lam 4:3, 6) is, in brief, on God’s part, fidelity to Himself. This becomes obvious in the frequent recurrence together of the two terms hesed we’e met (= grace and fidelity), which could be considered a case of hendiadys (Cf. e.g. Ex 34:6; 2 Sm 2:6; 15:20; Ps 25 [24]:10; 40 [39]:11-12; 85 [84]:11; 138 [137]:2; Mi 7:20). “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name” (Ez 36:22). Therefore Israel, although burdened with guilt for having broken the covenant, cannot lay claim to God’s hesed on the basis of (legal) justice: yet it can and must go on hoping and trusting to obtain it, since the God of the Covenant is really “responsible for his love.” The fruits of this love are forgiveness and restoration to grace, and the reestablishment of the interior covenant.

            The second word which in the terminology of the Old Testament serves to define mercy is rahamim. This has a different nuance from that of hesed. While hesed highlights the marks of fidelity to self and of “responsibility for one’s own love” (which are in a certain sense masculine characteristics), rahimim, in its very root, denotes the love of a mother (rehem = mother’s womb). From the deep and original bond – indeed the unity – that links a mother to her child there springs a particular relationship to the child, a particular love. Of this love one can say that it is completely gratuitous, not merited, and that in this aspect it constitutes an interior necessity; an exigency of the heart. It is, as it were, a “feminine” variation of the masculine fidelity to self, expressed by hesed. Against this psychological background, rahamim generates a whole range of feelings, including goodness and tenderness, patience and understanding, that is readiness to forgive.

            The Old Testament attributes to the Lord precisely these characteristics, when it uses the term rahamim in speaking of Him. We read in Isaiah: “Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Is 49:15). This love, faithful and invincible thanks to the mysterious power of motherhood, is expressed in the Old Testament texts in various ways: as salvation from dangers, especially from enemies; also as forgiveness of sins – of individuals and also of the whole of Israel; and finally in readiness to fulfill the (eschatological) promise and hope, in spite of human infidelity, as we read in Hosea: “I will heal their faithlessness, I will love them freely” (Hos 14:5).

            In the terminology of the Old Testament we also find other expressions, referring in different ways to the same basic content. But the two terms mentioned above deserve special attention. They clearly show their original anthropomorphic aspect: in describing God’s mercy, the biblical authors use terms that correspond to the consciousness and experience of their contemporaries. The Greek terminology in the Septuagint translation does not show as great a wealth as the Hebrew: therefore it does not offer all the semantic nuances proper to the original text. At any rate, the New Testament builds upon the wealth and depth that already marked the Old.

            In this way, we have inherited from the Old Testament – as it were in a special synthesis – not only the wealth of expressions used by those books in order to define God’s mercy, but also a specific and obviously anthropomorphic “psychology” of God: the image of His anxious love, which in contact with evil, and in particular with the sin of the individual and of the people, is manifested as mercy. This image is made up not only of the rather general content of the verb hanan but also of the content of hesed and rahamim. The term hanan expresses a wider concept: it means in fact the manifestation of grace, which involves, so to speak, a constant predisposition to be generous, benevolent and merciful.

            In addition to these basic semantic elements, the Old Testament concept of mercy is also made up of what is included in the verb hamal, which literally means “to  spare” (a defeated enemy) but also “to show mercy and compassion,” in consequence  forgiveness and remission of guilt. There is also the term hus, which expresses pity and compassion, but especially in the affective sense. These terms appear more rarely in the biblical texts to denote mercy. In addition, on must note the word ‘emet, already mentioned: it means primarily “solidity, security” (in the Greek of the Septuagint: “truth”) and then “fidelity,” and in this way it seems to link up with the semantic content proper to the term hesed.

Copyright © 2002 by Rev. George W. Kosicki, C.S.B.

Version: 6th July 2013

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