The Hebrew verb רחם (rḥm) is used over 40 times in the Old Testament and is translated in the Authorized Version as “compassion,” “pity,” or “mercy.” In its basic sense, רחם may mean (1) to feel affectionate love based upon a relational bond, or (2) to show kindness to the inferior or needy. The English term “mercy” best translates the second meaning, whereas the term “compassion” brings out the affective element in the first meaning. The underlying relational bond is underscored by those passages which associate רחם with “covenant” [בְּרִית; bərît] and “covenant love” [חֶסֶד; ḥesed] (Isa. 54:8, 10; Lam. 3:32). Below we highlight the main components in the idea of רחם and apply our observations to theology proper.
The Main Components of Compassion
In the Old Testament, God and man are the subjects of רחם, and the objects are usually inferiors or individuals in need (but see Psa. 18:1). The term is also used in parallel with חנן [ḥnn; “to be gracious”], חוס [ḥws; “to pity”] and חמל [ḥml; “to forgive”] (Exo. 33:19; Isa. 13:8; Jer. 13:14; 21:7). The Scriptures underscore the affective and relational elements of רחם by using it to refer to maternal affection: “Can a woman forget the baby she nurses? Can she feel no kindness for the child to which she gave birth?” (Isa. 49:15, NCV). In light of this, it is not surprising that the verb רחם is related to the noun for “womb,” (רֶחֶם; reḥem), which was viewed as the locus of loving affection. But רחם may also describe paternal affection, which in turn is an image of God’s covenant-affection for His people: “The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him” (Psa. 103:13, NLT; cf. Hos. 1:6, 7; 2:6, 23). In addition the Old Testament also highlights the demonstrative element of רחם by using it to refer to the act of showing kindness (1 Kings. 8:50; Isa. 13:18; Jer. 6:23; 21:7; 42:12; 50:42), the bestowal of forgiveness (Prov. 28:13; Isa. 55:7; Mic. 7:19), or the restoration of favor (Deut. 30:3; Lam. 3:32; Ezek. 39:25; Hab. 3:2; Zech. 10:6). Although God’s רחם to Israel is immediately motivated by His relational bond (2 Kings 13:23; Jer. 31:20; cf. Hos. 11:1-9) and conditioned on Israel’s repentance (Prov. 28:13; Isa. 55:7), yet it’s ultimately rooted in His sovereign, electing grace (Exo. 33:19; cf. Rom. 9:15-23).
Toward a Theology of Divine Compassion
A proper appreciation for both the demonstrative and also the affective-relational elements of רחם is important for biblical theology. Sometimes the accent falls on the demonstrative element. Thus, when Solomon prays that God may cause Israel’s captors to “have compassion on them” (1 Kings 8:50, ESV), he’s not thinking of relational affection but of demonstrative kindness. When the writer of Lamentations reminds himself that “though [God] causes grief, yet he will have compassion” (Lam. 3:32, AV), he’s thinking primarily of demonstrative kindness (cf. Deut. 30:3; 2 Kings 13:23). Sometimes, however, the accent falls on the relational affection, which is often the source or motive of demonstrative kindness. When the LORD declares, “I will strengthen the house of Judah, and I will save the house of Joseph. I will bring them back because I have compassion on them” (Zech. 10:6, ESV), he’s not tautologizing (i.e., ‘I will be kind to them because I am kind to them’). Rather, God is promising future kindness on the basis of His covenant affection. In this case, the Greek Septuagint translation of the OT (LXX) correctly renders רחם with the verb ἀγαπάω: “for I have loved them” [ὅτι ἠγάπησα αὐτούς; hoti ēgapēsa autous] (cf. YLT). When David makes the Lord the object of his רחם in Psalm 18:1, “mercy” or “compassion” would be an inappropriate translation. Instead, David is expressing a warm, heart-felt affection that is based upon a relational bond. In this case, English versions correctly follow the LXX and translate the phrase, “I love you [אֶרְחָמְךָ], O Lord, my strength” (ESV).
It is common especially for scholastic theologians to deny that God feels compassion and to insist that God only does compassion.1 However, our study has shown that the OT prophets understood God’s compassion not only in terms of kind actions but also in terms of tender affections. The God of Israel doesn’t just show compassion; he feels compassion. To be sure, God’s affections are not beset with the weaknesses and limitations of human affections. Nevertheless, we may and should maintain that the Impassible is, in some real albeit analogical sense, impassioned.2 In other words, the Transcendent is equally Tenderhearted!3
1 Anselm, for example, speaks of God this way: “Truly, you are so in terms of our experience, but you are not so in terms of your own. For, when you behold us in our wretchedness, we experience the effect of compassion, but you do not experience the feeling. Therefore, you are both compassionate, because you do save the wretched, and spare those who sin against you; and not compassionate because you are affected by no sympathy for wretchedness.” Proslogion, VIII.
2 As Paul Helm, an ardent defender of divine impassibility, expresses it, “A person may be so passionate about truth telling that he takes extreme care to speak the truth himself. A detective may be so passionate about solving a crime that he is utterly careful and scrupulous about assembling and weighing the evidence. If God in himself is said to be passionate, then this is how it must be with him. We must think of him as essentially impassioned, full of feeling, utterly engaged in the most clear-eyed way possible. In other words, we must not define passion in terms of irrationality, as a misunderstanding or miscalculation of good and evil, as Stoicism is inclined to do” (emphasis mine). “B. B. Warfield on Divine Passion,” Westminster Theological Journal 69 (2007): 102.
3 For a defense of both demonstrative and affective elements in divine compassion from a classic theist perspective, see Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology, Vol 1: Revelation and God (Crossway, 2019), 861–75; see also C. H. Spurgeon’s treatment of Psalm 103:13, which I highlight here.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.