Chapter 2

Compassion in the Bible

Most humans believe in a power greater than themselves. If they don’t know the true God, they are apt to create a god or gods to help them explain the mysteries of life. The god of human speculation is a god without a heart, who has no emotions, since emotion involves a change from one state of feeling to another. This kind of emotionless god is like an icicle that never melts. By contrast, the true God of the universe is not merely a mind. He is not just thought or eternally thinking thoughts. The God of the Bible, while unchanging in his nature and purpose, is genuinely personal. We know this to be true because the Bible uses personal pronouns to talk about the true and loving God.

Because we are made in his image (see genesis 1:27), we can begin to grasp what God is like by using our own personhood as a clue to God’s divine personhood. If we eliminate anything imperfect about ourselves and magnify everything we know about God to an infinite degree, we may begin to understand God’s flawless personhood. The Bible also tells us that

the one true and living God actually feels. He experiences a whole range of emotional reactions that are similar to our own. He laughs (psalm 2:4), he grieves (genesis 6:6), he hates (psalm 5:5), he is patient (nehemiah 9:30), and he is compassionate (psalm 103:8).

Scripture tells us God is eternal, holy, just, all‑good, wise, powerful, and loving. And because he is loving, he is compassionate. That adjective points to a divine attribute that is like the trait we have in mind when we characterize a human as compassionate. Eliminate God’s compassion, and he is no longer God—the personal God who interacted with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Eliminate compassion, and God is no longer the God who has experiences similar to our own states of joy, regret, grief, and merciful kindness. Eliminate compassion from God’s nature, and Scripture must be rewritten, our understanding of the divine nature must be radically revised, and theology must be turned inside out. But compassion can’t be eliminated. It must be given its proper place among God’s attributes. He is the caring God. It follows, therefore, that if Jesus is the self-revelation of the God of the Old Testament, then compassion will be embodied in him.

Old Testament believers were taught to be compassionate by God’s deeds and declarations. And we certainly see God’s compassion highlighted by the inspired authors of the Old Testament. King David included in a prayer, “But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (psalm 86:15). Isaiah, the prophet, wrote: “‘For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,’ says the Lord your Redeemer. . . . ‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you” (isaiah 54:7–10). And the prophet Micah wrote, “You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (micah 7:19). Texts like these give God’s people an in-depth perception of God’s heart.

Living in Shalom

In the beginning, God established a world of wholeness and peace. Once that world was shattered by Adam and Eve’s disobedience, God chose to reestablish the state of shalom through his chosen nation, Israel. If Israel had obeyed God’s law of compassion, life in Israel for both women and men would have been the happiest place possible in our fallen world.

The Hebrew word for “peace,” shalom, is so rich that it’s almost untranslatable. Thus the society envisioned by the psalmist in Psalm 85:10, as a society of shalom, is an order of life characterized by joy and justice, piety and plenty, kindness and caring. But God’s people failed to achieve God’s loving ideal. Isaiah graphically depicted the moral and spiritual sickness of that disobedient nation (isaiah 1:5–7). Divine punishment, administered in sorrowful grace, again and again overwhelmed Israel.

Although the nation lasted more than 450 years, eventually Israel was overtaken by invading empires. Thousands of God’s people were taken captive and carried to another land. But God in his mercy allowed a remnant of Israelites to return from exile. They fiercely resolved not to repeat their ancestors’ sinful failure. So began a long period of legalism that extended from roughly 400 bc to ad 400. Well-meaning rabbis, many of them devout and learned, developed a restrictive system of rules and regulations. At first these teachings circulated orally, but gradually their interpretations were written down. Life-giving laws that were once a delight and joy as well as the source of soul-enlightening guidance and blessing (see psalm 119) changed into a rigid system of religious ritualism that Jesus denounced (matthew 23:13–14).

To be sure, there were teachers of the law, rabbis, priests, and scribes who, as spiritual servants of God, proclaimed and practiced Micah 6:8, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Likewise, many ordinary Israelites were models of virtue and piety, loving God and doing good to their neighbors. The Jewish people as a whole found life a heavy burden under the oppression of their Roman conquerors and the rigid rules and structure of the Pharisees. Economically impoverished and spiritually ignorant, they were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (matthew 9:36).

Yet into this turbulent situation Jesus came as compassion incarnate. He made caring central in his ministry, sweeping aside any legalistic distortions and ethnic limitations, and focusing on the all-inclusive grace of God. A Jew by birth and a devout Jew by practice, Christ knew that his heavenly Father, the God of the Old Testament, is the God of compassion. Our Savior and Master modeled perfectly the compassionate neighbor-love that Paul later wrote about to the church in Corinth (1 corinthians 13), declaring it to be the greatest of all virtues.