Psalm 118: What is the Quality of Mercy?

ladybug in rain

“The quality of mercy is not strained, it falleth like the gentle rain from heaven,” Shakespeare tells us in the Merchant of Venice. But what is the quality of mercy? Is it simply compassion shown to an offender or victim of misfortune as Webster tells us?

The word mercy occurs 134 times in the King James translation of the Bible. If you count other forms of the word such as mercies and merciful, the total references are 216. The majority of these, 151, are found in the Old Testament and 71 of these are in the book of Psalms. Clearly the concept of God as merciful is an important one in the Old Testament. But this mercy is more than forgiveness of wrong doing.

The Hebrew word for mercy, hesed, is translated as steadfast love in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Hesed implies more than mercy, it’s the covenant love of God for God’s people. It is God’s amazing grace, God’s crazy love for God’s people. Not because of any merit on our part or that we earned it. God gives it freely.

The writer of Psalm 118 knows his need for mercy. He was in desperate straits and was saved by God’s love. Thus he pours out his words of praise and thanksgiving beginning with a litany of praise: “O give thanks to the Lord for he is good; his mercy/steadfast love endures forever.” (1) The phrase, “his mercy/steadfast love endures forever,” is repeated four times at the beginning and concludes the psalm (verses 1-4 and 29).

The psalmist praises God for rescuing him, “Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me free.” (5) We don’t know what had caused his distress, just that he was rescued. In verses 10-14 he talks about being surrounded by enemies. Using beautiful imagery he states, “They surrounded me like bees, they blazed like a fire of thorns, in the name of the Lord I cut them off.” (12) God kept him safe and gave him victory in battle.

In verses 15-18, he sings a song of praise. Even though he suffered, he was saved from death. “The Lord has chastened me sorely, but he has not given me over to death.” (18)

Verses 22-24 are recited triumphantly on Easter as we celebrate God’s victory over death and how Jesus, who was rejected, is the cornerstone of God’s church. “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

The writer was rejected by others, one of the lowly, yet he was raised up by God’s love and made part of the very foundation of God’s people. Just as the Hebrew people were once rejected, a nation of shepherds with no status in the eyes of the world, God, in his mercy chose them to be his people, a holy nation. And so the psalmist rejoices, this is the day the Lord has made!

The psalm concludes with words of praise and thanksgiving: “You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever!” (28-29)

The psalm is the last of the Hallel. A hymn of thanksgiving, it was a favorite of Martin Luther who claimed it as “his” psalm. This psalm can easily be claimed by all. All of us have been rescued by God’s great mercy. God’s steadfast love is reason to rejoice. God’s mercy extends to those who have been rejected; God’s love is for those who are lowly and downcast.

God’s mercy, like God’s love in Corinthians, is patient and kind. It pours out upon a dry world like a gentle rain, satisfying those who thirst.

This year Pope Francis has declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy. Our world is thirsting. May God’s mercy pour down like rain!

Have you experienced God’s mercy in your life? I would love to hear from you!

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