In the Bible, God’s compassion is consistently shown as both an emotional and active reality. What does God do when he feels compassionate? How does he respond when his people return to him in order to follow him? (See Deuteronomy 4:29-31, Micah 7:19, Isaiah 14:1, Isaiah 49:10, and Jeremiah 30:18.)
God’s ancient people fail to return to his ways and end up in exile. Read Isaiah 49:15-16, where God assures his people of his compassion during a dark chapter in Israel’s history. What comes to mind when you consider God’s compassion for his people being related to a mother’s care for her infant?
God’s compassion compels him to rescue his people from their self-destructive ways. Learn how God does this by entering into humanity and all of its suffering (see Isaiah 53). Discuss your observations.
Jesus entered into the suffering of humanity to bring restoration (see Matthew 9:35-36, Luke 13:34). What are some of the ways Jesus embodies the compassion of God?
Describe the ways followers of Jesus are called to live out the same self-giving compassion of God (see Luke 6:35-36; 2 Corinthians 1:3-4; Colossians 3:12-13). What is one specific example of how this could be practiced in the life of the Church today?
If you tried to describe what God is like, it could be difficult or daunting. But when the people who wrote the Bible pondered the mystery of God, they consistently described God’s character in this way: compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, overflowing with loyal love and faithfulness.1
The first word used in this description of God is compassionate, or in Hebrew, rakhum. This word also appears as a noun, rakhamim, or compassion. And what’s really fascinating is that both of these words are related to the Hebrew word for womb, rekhem.
A Human Example [0:37-1:23]
So compassion in the Hebrew Bible is centered in a person’s core, and the word invites us to imagine a mother’s tender feelings for her vulnerable infant. So rakhum is a word that conveys intense emotion. Sometimes it’s even translated as “deeply moved,” like in the story of King Solomon who meets two women who have just given birth.2
One of their babies sadly dies, but then both women claim that the baby still living is theirs. So as a test, Solomon says to cut the baby in two and give each mother a half. And the baby’s real mother is deeply moved. She would rather the other woman take her baby than see her child die. And it’s her compassion that reveals that she’s the true mother.
The Compassion of Yahweh [1:24-3:08]
But rakhum isn’t just an emotional word. It also involves action. And, surprisingly, the word is used most often to describe God’s actions motivated by his emotions. Like when the Israelites are suffering and oppressed in Egypt, God “hears their cries,” and he’s compelled by his compassion, his rakhamim, to rescue them.3
Then as the Israelites travel through the dangerous wilderness, they’re hungry and thirsty, and God is rakhum—caring for them as his own child. He provides everything they need—food, water, and clothing—as he personally guides them.4 So it’s no surprise that when God reveals his character to the Israelites in the wilderness, he begins by saying he’s compassionate.5
But despite Yahweh’s continual rakhamim, the Israelites turn away from him time and again. They reject Yahweh’s compassion and instead give their allegiance to other gods.6 And rather than showing compassion to each other, they do violence.7 And their rebellion results in exile, and they’re scattered among the nations.8
And it’s in this really dark moment in Israel’s story that we come to the book of Isaiah, where Yahweh compares himself to a mother full of rakhamim toward her baby. He says, “can a mother forget her nursing child, or have no compassion, or rakhamim, on the child of her womb? Even if she forgets, I will not forget you.”9 God is full of motherly compassion, and he will rescue his people. And as you read on further in Isaiah, you realize God is going to do this by entering into the suffering of humanity.10
The Compassion of Jesus [3:09-3:50]
This all points forward to a time when Jesus comes on the scene. He is Yahweh’s deep compassion become human.11 In Greek, the word compassion is oiktirmos (οἰκτίρμος), and as Jesus embraces the sick and cares for the outcast, he is deeply moved by human suffering.12 Jesus compares himself to a mother hen, who uses her wings to shield her chicks from danger, as he gathers people into his embrace.13 And in the ultimate expression of oiktirmos, Jesus is moved by compassion to enter into humanity’s suffering, into death itself, to rescue and bring us near to God.14
And it is this same life of compassion that Jesus calls his followers to imitate, allowing ourselves to be moved by the pain of others, to embrace the hurting, and to participate in relieving suffering in the world. In this way, we too can embody the compassion of Yahweh, or in Jesus’ words, “be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.”15
So now you can see how fitting it is that compassionate is the first word God uses to describe himself. And so when we’re in pain or see others suffering, we can be certain that God is deeply moved and that he is there to meet us with his deep compassion.
1. Exodus 34:6
2. 1 Kings 3:16-28
3. Exodus 3:7, Nehemiah 9:9
4. Exodus 15:22-17:7, 40:36-38, Deuteronomy 29:5
5. Exodus 34:6
6. Exodus 32, 2 Kings 17, Nehemiah 9
7. Isaiah 1:21-23
8. 2 Kings 17, 25
9. Isaiah 49:15
10. Isaiah 53-54
11. John 1:1-4, 14
12. Matthew 14:13-14, Mark 1:40-41, Luke 7:12-14, John 11:33
13. Luke 13:34
14. 1 Peter 2:24, Ephesians 2:13, Colossians 1:19-20
15. Luke 6:36, 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, Ephesians 4:32