And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.-Luke 1:46-56, ESV
What is mercy? What does it mean for God to be merciful? Mercy might be understood as heart misery. You could have mercy, or heart misery, for another person in their struggle and so you are moved to help them. That is a simple way to describe mercy from one creature to another but is this the best way to think of God’s mercy toward us?
God is the creator of all things, and He created for His own good pleasure (Rev 4:11). No lack in God motivated Him to create (Acts 17:25) and His motivation to act simply comes from within Himself. This is an important starting point as we begin to think about God’s character. He certainly is the Merciful God, and He seems to delight in this very title as He describes Himself to Moses in the cleft of the rock (Ex 34:6). God is merciful, but not in the same sense that we are merciful toward one another.
God is merciful in a way that is absolutely unique. This should not be surprising because God is in a category all to Himself. There is no true comparison between God and His creatures (Isa 40:18-25). The Scriptures often compare God to His creatures, but always metaphorically. For example, in Mary’s Magnificat, she refers to God’s “strength with his arm”. Does God have an arm like a creature? Certainly not. This use of language is called anthropomorphism. The scripture is peppered with anthropomorphic (metaphorical) language describing God. The simplest reason for the consistent use of technically inaccurate language to describe God is due to our natural limitations as creatures. God is beyond our capacity to understand, but He has truly revealed Himself through His creation and most clearly through His written revelation. It has been said that trying to comprehend God is like trying to capture the Pacific Ocean in a thimble. So then, the Holy Spirit moved holy men to write the Scriptures so we could know God truly, but we are simply incapable of fully comprehending the Infinite God.
If God is merciful in a way that is unique from His creatures, and we are merciful when we feel heart misery that motivates us to act for the benefit of another, how should we be thinking about the Merciful God? God is not motivated to act for the benefit of His creatures by reacting to their moment by moment ups and downs. God is motivated to act mercifully toward His creatures because of His own nature. God is eternally happy (Rom 1:25) in Himself and therefore He does not have the kind of creaturely emotions that constantly change and are easily manipulated. God’s cause of mercy is not from outside Himself, but His cause of mercy is from within Himself. This is part of the reason that God is free to have mercy on all whom He chooses to give mercy. In Exodus 33:19, God told Moses, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” The context of this statement is important. The Israelites had recently built a golden calf to worship. This egregious act was rejecting Jehovah who destroyed their enemies in Egypt, protected them through the Red Sea, fed them in the desert, and loved them for no merits of themselves. These idolaters deserved God’s wrath, but instead of a second scene like Sodom and Gomorrah, God decided to give mercy to some.
Some? Why wouldn’t God give mercy to all equally? These are legitimate questions that we don’t have enough time to even begin scratching the surface of an answer. However, mercy isn’t a thing that is owed by God to His creatures. God is merciful, but He perfectly chooses who He will give mercy to and who He will withhold mercy from. In the example of the idolatrous Israelites of Exodus 33, God will give mercy to some and justice to others. Jehovah is not unjust. Justice would be destruction for all idolaters, but God chooses to grant undeserved mercy to some. I realize that this offends our modern sensibilities, but God isn’t asking His immoral, unwise, and unjust creatures for advice on how to govern His created universe. God’s mercy should create grateful hearts that eagerly respond in worship to Him. Why should God’s merciful nature cause us to worship? Because God will never cast out a sinner who comes to Him for His mercy. Some receive God’s mercy and love Him for it. So come the Lord for mercy and come often.
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.-John 6:37, ESV