Photo: Felix Carroll
The 12th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops has begun in Rome. The theme, "The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church," was chosen to respond to "a need for Catholics to live and breathe the richness of the Bible." To mark the synod, which runs from Oct. 5-26, we offer you an excerpt from Robert Stackpole's latest book, Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). This excerpt deals with the biblical story of Divine Mercy in the Old Testament.
by Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD
The theme of Divine Mercy echoes throughout the Psalter. First of all, there are Psalms devoted to the praise of Divine Mercy. Psalm 136, for example, recounts all the merciful deeds of the Lord both in creation and in rescuing Israel from slavery, bringing the Chosen People to the Promised Land. This Psalm bears the refrain: "His steadfast love (hesed = mercy) endures for ever." Psalms 105 and 106 are a summary of the proofs of the mercy of the Lord in leading Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Psalm 106 begins: "Praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord for he is good; for his steadfast love [hesed] endures forever." Psalm 107 gives thanks to the Lord for all of the many ways He delivers people from trouble and danger.
Secondly, several of the Psalms define the very nature of God chiefly in terms of His merciful love. Psalm 145, for example, repeats and elaborates upon God's self-designation as the merciful one from Exodus: "The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all his works" (verse 8). Psalm 103 is perhaps the most comprehensive exposition of the mercy of God: He forgives, He heals, and He is dependable, He provides for His people, and He is compassionate toward human weakness, patient and forbearing:
Bless the Lord O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits,
Who forgives all your iniquity, and heals all your diseases,
Who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
Who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.
The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him.
For he knows our frame; he remembers we are dust (Ps 103:1-14).
The Psalms also tell us how we can see the mercy of the Lord. Psalm 112:4 states: "Light rises in darkness for the upright; the Lord is gracious, merciful and just." In other words, we can only see God's mercy clearly when we are upright ourselves: a merciless and unjust heart cannot see or experience or understand the mercy of the Lord. Psalm 111 reminds us that it is through remembering His "wonderful works" that we can best appreciate the Divine Mercy, for His mercy is no mere philosophical abstraction: it is proven in His deeds.
Many of the Psalms focus on the boundless extent of God's mercy. Psalm 57, for example, tells us of the greatness of Divine Mercy: "For thy steadfast love [hesed] is great to the heavens, thy faithfulness to the clouds" (verse 11). Psalm 33:5 states: "the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord." Psalm 23 tells us that the tender care of the Lord is like that of a shepherd for his flock, and that He leads us to His eternal home: "Surely goodness and mercy
shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever" (verse 6).
Many of the Psalms also encourage us to place our trust in the Lord and to hope in Him. Psalm 32:10 promises: "Many are the pangs of the wicked, but steadfast love [hesed] surrounds him who trusts in the Lord." Psalm 33:18 makes a similar promise: "Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love [hesed]." Perhaps no Psalm says it better than Psalm 130, which is a cry for forgiveness and rescue from a soul cast deep into the darkness by trouble and sin:
Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord! Lord hear my voice!
Let thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
If thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love [hesed],
And with him is plenteous redemption.
And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.
It is no wonder, therefore, that one of the favorite verses of Pope John Paul II comes from the Psalms: "I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever, with my mouth I will proclaim thy faithfulness to all generations" (Ps 89:1). And generations of English speaking Christians of all denominations have adopted Psalm 100 as one of their favorites:
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, go into his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him, bless his name!
For the Lord is good; his steadfast love [hesed] endures forever,
And his faithfulness to all generations.
In the Psalms, the focus of God's mercy is still very much on the people of Israel — and understandably so, because the Psalms were the hymns and canticles used for worship in the Great Temple in Jerusalem. In the Prophets, on the other hand, the biblical concept of Divine Mercy is expanded. First, there is the promise that God's mercy will be showered not only upon the Israelites but one day upon all the Gentile nations as well. Second, the People of Israel are encouraged not only to believe in Divine Mercy and to call upon the Lord, but also to be merciful, that is, to live mercifully.
The prophet Isaiah, for example, continually encourages the Israelites to trust in God's mercy: "Then a throne will be established in steadfast love [hesed] and on it will sit in faithfulness in the tent of David one who judges and seeks justice and is swift to do righteousness." Isaiah teaches them that they must wait patiently for God's mercy to manifest itself, even as He has waited patiently for their conversion: "Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him" (38:10). When the Lord does pour out His mercy upon Israel, however, He will do so in abundance:
He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted.
But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.
They shall run and not be weary.
They shall walk and not faint (40:29-31).
Isaiah also prophesies the coming of the Suffering Servant of the Lord, the Messiah, who will obtain mercy for all by His sufferings:
He was despised and rejected by men;
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And as one from whom men hide their faces.
He was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
Upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
And with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Is 53:3-6).
The theme of Divine Mercy recurs throughout the prophets. Through the Prophet Jeremiah, for example, the Lord promised the joyful return of Israel from exile: "I have loved you with an everlasting love, therefore I have continued my faithfulness [hesed] to you" (31:3). In other words, God's love is the root of His mercy; because He loves, He is merciful to Israel.
The prophet Joel repeats the refrain about the Lord's mercy that we have already seen so often, stemming from Mount Sinai:
Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart,
With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
And rend your hearts and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
For he is gracious and merciful,
Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Joel 2:12-13).
In the book of the prophet Hosea, however, God shows that His merciful love for His people is not just a gracious condescension on His part. It is also a passionate desire for their recovery of an intimate friendship with Himself, for their own good, like a lover longing for reunion with his beloved:
How can I give you up, O Ephraim!
How can I hand you over, O Israel! ...
My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim;
For I am God and not man,
The Holy One in your midst,
And I will not come to destroy (Hos 11:8-9).
THE STORY OF JONAH: A SUMMARY OF DIVINE MERCY IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Symbolically, the story of Jonah captures the entire message of mercy in the Old Testament. Perhaps, most importantly, it points to God's desire to show mercy to all peoples, not only the Jews — a theme that will be more fully developed in the New Testament. The biblical scholar John L. Mckenzie, S.J., singles out the main features of this summary of mercy when he writes:
This story has several elements that mark it as a summary of the Old Testament message of Divine Mercy. First of all, God shows His mercy to a disobedient and rebellious Jewish prophet, Jonah, by rescuing him from the belly of a whale. On one level, this symbolizes the experience of the whole People of Israel, whom God brought to repentance and forgiveness after a time of trial and darkness in captivity and exile. Second, God calls us all to be merciful, as He was merciful to the repentant Assyrians. Third, God's mercy extends even to their most hated enemies (the Assyrians, in this story) — and even to their animals (See John L. McKenzie, S.J., The Two Edged Sword: An Interpretation of the Old Testament. Milwaukee: the Bruce Publishing Co., 1955, p. 202-203).
That is why Jonah said to God:
I pray thee, Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country. That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (Jon 4:2).
God's reply to Jonah was a crystallization of the revelation of His merciful love for all people:
The Lord said, "You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left [that is, children], and also much cattle?" (Jon 4:10-11).
Throughout the entire history of Israel, and especially in the era of the prophets, at every major event or crisis point, it was the mercy of the Lord that the Israelites remembered, and on the basis of that mercy they made their prayerful appeals. For example, here is the opening line of the prayer of King Solomon at the moment of the dedication of the Great Temple in Jerusalem: "O Lord God of Israel, there is no God like thee, in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love [hesed] to thy servants who walk before thee with all their heart" (I Kgs 8:23). Here is the cry of the Jews for mercy when they were languishing in exile in Babylon: "Hear, O Lord, and have mercy, for we have sinned before thee. For thou art enthroned forever, and we are perishing forever" (Bar 2:11-3:8). The elderly Tobit also exalted God's mercy, in expectation of His blessings upon His scattered people:
Make his greatness known there [before all nations], and exalt him in the presence of all the living; because he is our Lord and God, he is our Father forever. He will afflict us for our iniquities; and again he will show mercy, and will gather us from all the nations among whom you have been scattered (Tob 13:4-5).
Here are the words of the renewal of Israel's covenant with God after the return of the Jews from exile to the Holy Land: "Nevertheless, in thy great mercies thou didst not make an end of them nor forsake them; for thou art a gracious and merciful God" (Neh 9:31).
Finally, the prophets promised that through the work of the Suffering Servant, the Messiah, Israel would fulfill the full scope of her vocation: to bring the salvation of the Lord to all the Gentile nations. In Isaiah 49:6, the Lord says: "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
We can sum up the message of Divine Mercy in the Old Testament with the words of Pope John Paul II from his encyclical Dives in Misericordia:
Thus, in deeds and in words the Lord revealed His mercy from the beginnings of the people which He chose for Himself; and in the course of its history, this people continually entrusted itself, both when stricken with misfortune and when it became aware of its sin, to the God of mercies. ...
The Old Testament encourages people suffering from misfortune, especially those weighed down by sin — as also the whole of Israel, which had entered into 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. Subsequently, 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. ... 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 (no. 4).