People often wonder why God appears to be punishing and unmerciful in the Old Testament and merciful in the New. But this question fails to take the whole Bible into account. It not only ignores the severity of Jesus’ words, but also God’s saving plan and the numerous passages that attest to his loving mercy in the Old Testament, especially in response to the constant offenses of his people.
God’s loving mercy becomes evident from the very beginning, from the very first sin. In response to Adam and Eve’s fall, God does not abandon humanity. Instead, he announces his saving plan by which he will reverse the outcome of their transgression. His prophecy that the seed of the woman will crush the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15) is fulfilled in Mary and Jesus.
But what moves God to be so merciful? The answer is not complicated — it is his love for us. Scripture tells us that God made all things good. He had no need of man, but in his infinite mercy, he created man so that we could share in the immeasurable love and bliss of the Holy Trinity. This desire for the eternal happiness of man is at the root of all God’s commandments, rebukes and mercy throughout salvation history, culminating in the coming of Christ.
Old Testament: A faithful and loving God
After Adam and Eve’s fall, God did not leave man to his own devices. He chose a people to reveal himself to the world and bound himself to them through a covenant.
The Old Testament shows us that the mercy of God is bound to his faithfulness and love: He is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex 34:6).
A thorough reading of the Old Testament shows the unfaithfulness of God’s chosen people to the covenant and the way in which God constantly brings them back to himself and promises to restore them out of pure love.
Two types of mercy
St. John Paul II explained that the Old Testament makes use of two different terms that can be translated as “mercy” or “love”: hesed and rahamim. Hesed refers to the loving mercy of God in the context of a relationship. More concretely, it is used in reference to God’s covenant with his chosen people. Whenever the people of Israel broke the covenant and its conditions, God was no longer obliged to keep his side of the “contract.” Nonetheless, it was then that divine mercy displayed its more profound meaning: “as love that gives, love more powerful than betrayal, grace stronger than sin” (Dives in Misericordia, footnote 52).
For this reason, Israel could not demand mercy from God: the Lord gave it whenever Israel violated the corresponding conditions. Israel could only hope that God would grant it.
The second term, St. John Paul II tells us, refers to the type of mercy a mother shows her children. It’s not love that can be earned; it is given freely. God shows this type of love for his people in many ways. For example, he says: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even if these may forget, yet I will never forget you” (Is 49:15).
These are the two types of mercy with which God loves his people in the Old Testament. Even when Israel repeatedly deviates from God’s plan, God sooner or later frees them from their enemies and promises them salvation.
Christ: “Mercy incarnate”
God fully manifests his loving mercy in the coming of his son Jesus. As St. John Paul II states, “Not only does [Jesus] speak of [mercy] and explain it by the use of comparisons and parables, but above all he Himself makes it incarnate and personifies it. He himself, in a certain sense, is mercy” (Dives in misericordia, 2).
God’s loving mercy is so superior to the evil and sin of man that he decided to take on the cost of our unfaithfulness himself by becoming man so that we may still partake in the bliss he created us for.
St. Paul explains it thus: “He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy… through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7).
Yet in revealing the depths of God’s mercy, Jesus encounters the opposition of a false sense of mercy held by the pharisees and scribes. His teaching was a source of scandal because it contradicted their views — he didn’t only eat with sinners and tax collectors, he also forgave sins, something only God had the power to do.
Today: Church, Eucharist and Confession
St. John Paul II also states that mercy “constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ and the constitutive power of his mission” (DM, 6). Thus, Christ wanted the Church to give testimony of God’s mercy from generation to generation.
The Church professes and proclaims this mercy in a unique way through the Eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation. The Eucharist, by being the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus, is a testament to the loving mercy of God, who “desires always to be united with us, and present in our midst, coming to meet every human heart” (DM, 13).
On the other hand, through the sacrament of confession, “each person can experience mercy in a unique way, that is, the love which is more powerful than sin.”
The Pope tells us that no human can prevail over this power of mercy. The only thing that can limit it is our own lack of readiness to be converted and repent. If a person does not accept the evil he has done, then he also does not think he is in need of mercy. It is only possible to receive mercy if one acknowledges that he has acted unjustly and desires to act otherwise.
What so often keeps us from receiving his mercy is precisely our own ideas of what constitutes good and evil. This Lent, let us strive to let God’s Word form our minds, so that, having been transformed by his inexhaustible mercy in the sacrament of confession and the Eucharist, we may obtain the glory he created us for.