Open hands denoting mercy

What Can We Learn About Mercy in the Psalms

 July 11, 2023

God’s mercy is vast and deep, surpassing our human capacity to understand. One need only read the Psalms to recognize this. What else can we learn about mercy in the Psalms?

Mercy in Scripture

The word mercy and forms of the word such as mercies and merciful, occurs over 200 times in Scripture. The majority of these, around 150, are found in the Old Testament and over 70 of these are in the book of Psalms. Clearly the concept of God as merciful is an important one in the Old Testament, though its meaning varies. Applied to God it can mean affection like that of a parent for a child; a feeling of sympathy or love expressed in a helping action; or forgiveness. Human mercy is usually expressed in some action, the forgiveness of a debt or a kindness.

In the Old Testament, God’s mercy is part of the covenant God has made with God’s people. God’s mercy is not granted to those who are outside the covenant relationship. Mercy may take the form of forgiveness where an individual or nation are restored to relationship with God; in deliverance of his chosen people from their enemies; by the fulfillment of God’s promise; in gathering his exiled people and restoring them to their land; by providing for God’s people in the wilderness; and restoring God’s people to communion with God.

God, who chose Israel and made a covenant with her, continued to love and provide for her and protect her from harm. This mercy fulfils his covenant obligations to love. Israel could therefore appeal to God for help in any situation because of this covenant, something we see over and over again in the Psalms.

In the New Testament, these aspects of God’s mercy remain, however it was manifest in the gift of salvation/redemption through Jesus, an extension of God’s covenant.

Mercy and Steadfast Love

It is challenging to count the references to mercy because different words are used to express mercy in the original Hebrew and Greek including: to have compassion, to spare, to pity, to be gracious to. They are also translated differently. The Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates the Hebrew word for mercy, hesed, as steadfast love. You can forgive someone a debt they owe you while harboring hatred in your heart, but true mercy, true forgiveness, stems from love, not just a feeling of love, but steadfast love, a love that endures, that withstands the test of time.

Mercy and steadfast love are closely related in the Bible as we see in the Psalms. In Psalm 51:1, David prays, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” David requests mercy in light of God’s steadfast love. God will have mercy on him, forgive him, because of God’s steadfast love.  David also prays: “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.” Ps. 25:6; “Do not, O Lord, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.” Ps. 40:11

Such is the covenantal love God has for God’s people. A crazy love that never ends, no matter how many times the people stray, and stray they did as we hear constantly from the prophets.

Human mercy, like God’s mercy, is relational. Mercy was a duty among family and tribe. To truly love God, one must love one’s neighbors. It was particularly owed to children, aged, poor, fatherless and widows. One of the characteristics of the armed conqueror was the lack of consideration (mercy) for those who are poor and needy.

Mercy in the Psalms

In the Psalms we see many examples of this mercy.

God’s mercy is trustworthy: “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for my soul has trusted in you.” Ps. 57:1a.

It endures forever:

  • For his mercy endures forever.” 136, repeated 26 times
  • I declare that your mercy is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.” 89:2
  • For the Lord is good; his mercy endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” 100:5
  • O give thanks unto the LORD, for he is good: for his mercy endures forever.” 107:1
  • For great is his mercy toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.” 117
  • O give thanks to the Lord for he is good; his mercy endures forever! Let Israel say, ‘His mercy endures forever.” Let the house of Aaron say, ‘his mercy endures forever.’ Let those who fear the Lord say, ‘his mercy endures forever.’” 118:1-4, 29

It reaches to the heavens: “Your mercy, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.” Psalms 36:5; 57:11; 108:4

Mercy Is Worthy of Praise and Prayer

Mercy deserves praise:

  • I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your mercy and your faithfulness from the great congregation.” 40:10
  • Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his mercy from me. 66:20
  • I will sing of your mercy, O Lord, forever, with my mouth will I proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.” 89:1
  • I will sing of mercy and judgment: unto you, O Lord, will I sing.” 101:1
  • Praise the Lord, all you nations! Extol him, all you peoples! For great is his mercy toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.” 117:1-2

The Hebrew nation is confident in asking for God’s mercy because of God’s covenant love for Israel.

  • Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your mercy.” 44:26
  • Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.” 69:16
  • Is your mercy declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon?” 88:11
  • For their sake he remembered his covenant, and showed mercy according to the abundance of his steadfast love. He caused them to be pitied by all who held them captive.” 106:45-46 (In this case to be pitied means they had mercy on them)
  • As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he has mercy upon us. Have mercy upon us, O lord, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt.” 123:3

Mercy is Relational

Mercy takes place in relationship, whether with God or God’s People. God is full of mercy:

  • The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.” 103:8
  • He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful.” 111:4
  • Great is your mercy, O Lord; give me life according to your justice.” 119:156
  • For with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.” 130:7
  • The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” 145:8

The vast majority of the references are about God and God’s relationship with God’s people. The king, as God’s representative on this earth, was to also show mercy on the weak and needy. “He (the king) has pity (mercy) on the weak and the needy, from oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.” 72:13-14

What Do We Learn about Mercy in the Psalms?

So, what do we learn about mercy in the Psalms? That God’s mercy, like God’s love, is vast, beyond the heaven and without end. We don’t need to be afraid to ask God for mercy. All we need do is open our hands and our God will pour out his mercy into them.

What has been your experience of God’s mercy?

This post is part of a series of blog posts on the Psalms. Sign up to follow this blog and and receive a free copy of  Still Dancingthe second book in my Dancing through Life Series.      click here to sign up

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