“God is actually depicted as a nursing mother. The image is really powerful—a mother holds her nursing baby eight inches from her face and looks into their big baby eyes and sustains them with her own life. This is what God says he is like, but even better.”
How does God view us when we fail or suffer? And how does this change how we view others?
In part one (0:00–8:00), Tim, Jon, and Carissa begin to discuss the first of five attributes God uses to describe his own character. In the previous two episodes, the team looked at the context around Exodus 34:6-7, the most referenced passage in the Old Testament.
Yahweh, Yahweh, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loyal love and faithfulness...
Tim says that we all have an idea in our mind about what God is like, but these verses give us a baseline to describe God’s character.
The Hebrew word used first to describe compassion is rakhum, which we translate as “compassionate.” The noun, verb, and adjective form of this word are all related to the Hebrew word for womb, rekhem. This image, in context, draws out the nurturing nature of God.
In part two (8:00–15:00), Carissa says rakhum is a deeply emotional word. An example appears in the book of 1 Kings when King Solomon rules that two women quarrelling over a child should cut the child in half.
1 Kings 3:26
Then the woman whose child was the living one spoke to the king, for she was deeply stirred over her son and said, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means kill him.”
This picture shows the deep compassion of a mother for the child of her womb.
Carissa and Jon talk about the similarities of the words “compassion” and “empathy.” At their roots, Tim says, both compassion and empathy share commonalities. When we show compassion toward someone else, we’re close to our modern idea of empathy.
Of all the references in the Bible to compassion, 80 percent refer to God's compassion to us, and only 20 percent refer to human compassion. Put another way, this word used to describe a feeling of deep emotion is most commonly used to describe God.
In part three (15:00–21:30), Carissa walks Tim and Jon through the word rakhum and how it’s used in context.
In poetic structure, compassion is used as a parallel to phrases like “stirrings of the inner being,” “pity,” and in contrast with anger. Compassion is commonly used to describe God’s response when his people cry out to him. We find an example in the book of Nehemiah.
Therefore you delivered them into the hand of their oppressors who oppressed them, But when they cried to you in the time of their distress, You heard from heaven, and according to your great compassion (rakhamim) You gave them deliverers who delivered them from the hand of their oppressors. But as soon as they had rest, they did evil again before you; Therefore you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies, so that they ruled over them. When they cried again to you, you heard from heaven, And many times you rescued them according to your compassion (rakhamim).
Carissa points out that Israel is depicted as constantly turning their backs on God, but God continually has compassion for them when they cry out to him. The moral quality of the people doesn’t seem to matter—God always listens when people cry out to him. Carissa says, “This is an amazing characteristic of God to depend on, that we can know what his disposition is when we cry out to him.”
God is even described in the Old Testament as a nursing mother, an intimate picture of caring for and nurturing his people with his own life.
In part four (21:30–31:30), Carissa looks at an Old Testament depiction of God as a nursing mother. In this example, Israel accuses God of forgetting them and abandoning them, but God responds with an image of compassion.
Can a woman forget her nursing child And have no compassion (rakhamim) on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; Your walls are continually before me.
Jon reflects how interesting it is that the God of the universe, in response to his people’s rebellion, describes himself first with the deep emotion of compassion. Both man and woman reflect God’s image and likeness, so we shouldn’t be surprised when these feminine depictions are used to describe the character of God.
Carissa says an even more powerful image is seeing God as a parent to a vulnerable child.
“Is Ephraim My dear son? Is he a delightful child? Indeed, as often as I have spoken against him, I certainly still remember him; Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have compassion on him,” declares the Lord.
Tim shares another parenting image that uses the image of a father from the book of Psalms.
Just as a father has compassion on his children, So the Lord has compassion on those who fear him. For he himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.
These verses show the character of God, as well as the vulnerable nature of humanity. In all these examples, Tim says, compassion is expressed toward someone who is vulnerable or enduring hardship from someone in a more favorable position. When we remember that every person shares the same vulnerabilities, it helps us to have compassion for one another.
In part five (31:30–46:15), Carissa talks about how compassion isn’t just a feeling; it’s an action. Often, this word is used in the Bible parallel to forgiveness or deliverance.
Be gracious to me, O God, according to your lovingkindness; According to the greatness of your compassion blot out my transgressions.
In his heartfelt plea for forgiveness, David uses three of the five characteristics of God from Exodus 34. In other words, David has learned to apply the golden calf story as an expression of his own sinfulness and as an expression of God’s consistent character. In David’s mind, God’s forgiveness was a direct result of his compassion.
Let the wicked forsake his way And the unrighteous man his thoughts; And let him return to the Lord, And he will have compassion on him, And to our God, For he will abundantly pardon.
This verse again shows the link between compassion and pardon, but this time it’s in reference to the wicked. God’s compassion isn’t just for the morally upright—he meets anyone who cries out to him with compassion.
Jon says that some people view compassion or empathy as dangerous when it drives action exclusively tied to our feelings, leading us to care for people like us and ignoring those who are not. But Jon says that this verse in Isaiah shows that God doesn’t struggle with this. Tim says that God does let people experience the consequences of their actions, but he is always inclined to welcome them.
[If] you return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and soul according to all that I command you today, you and your sons, then the Lord your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.
God’s compassion is always connected to deliverance. His compassion is what brings his people back from exile. God is deeply emotionally invested in people, and he’s responsive.
Tim says that the idea of God as deeply feeling has been a challenge throughout Jewish and Christian history, largely because emotions are so changeable in human beings. This makes it difficult to talk about God in philosophical terms—is he unchanging and unmoved, or is he genuinely moved by emotion?
Jon says this is tied to the tension in Exodus 34:6-7, where God says he is both compassionate and forgiving but also that he will not clear the guilty. Understanding compassion helps us to see God’s nature toward all who turn toward him. His compassion is deeply moved yet consistent—never left up to question.
In part six (46:15–end), the team talks about how the virtue of compassion is most clearly seen as God enters our suffering in the person of Jesus. The New Testament uses two Greek words to describe compassion: oiktirmos and splagchnon. The first refers to actions of compassion or pity, and the second refers to your guts and is tied into the idea of the womb.
We see Jesus experiencing deep emotion at the death of Lazarus in John 11. Jesus weeps with others. We see something similar in Matthew 9, when Jesus sees the crowds “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). The people were vulnerable and without a leader. Jesus is “God with us” and embodies the compassion of God.
God’s compassion is a heartfelt response to the needs of his people, and our compassion is in response to having experienced the compassion of God. We see this in the book of Ephesians.
Ephesians 4:32 (NIV)
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
The ultimate example of forgiveness and rescue that comes through an act of compassion is found at the cross. Hoping in God’s compassion is to trust his consistent character as one who responds to those who turn to him.
Our empathy toward one another is the practice of seeing others as people in need of compassion, no matter who they are. We are most enabled to show compassion to one another when we understand the depth of God’s compassion toward us.
Show produced by Dan Gummel and Camden McAfee.
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