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How Old Testament Believers Understood God’s Mercy

Many Bible Teachers have a misunderstanding of how the believers in the Old Testament responded to God. You will read and hear many say that the New Testament idea of grace or mercy was not understood by the Jews. Instead, it is said, the Old Testament believers felt they were justified by their good works and so did not understand the grace of God as revealed by Jesus and the New Testament writers. Unfortunately, this idea is widespread among Bible Teachers and Preachers. I believe one of the reasons for this is many Bible Teachers spend most of their time in the New Testament and so only have a limited understanding of the Old Testament concepts. It is true that believers in the Old Testament were under the law while believers after Christ’s resurrection are under grace. But there are many examples of Old Testament believers who understood that fulfilling the rituals of the law was not the same thing as receiving the mercy of God. Here are some examples:

1 Samuel 15:22, "Then Samuel said: ‘Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.’ "

Proverbs 21:3, "To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice."

Amos 5:21-24, "I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Ecclesiastes 5:1, "Walk prudently when you go to the house of God; and draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they do evil."

Hosea 6:6, "For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings."

Psalm 40:5-8, "Many, O Lord my God, are Your wonderful works which You have done; and Your thoughts toward us cannot be recounted to You in order; if I would declare and speak of them, they are more than can be numbered. Sacrifice and offering You did not desire; my ears You have opened; burnt offering and sin offering You did not require. Then I said, ‘Behold, I come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do Your will, O my God, and Your law is within my heart.’ "

Psalm 103:10-17, "He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children's children."

Psalm 51:16-17, "For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; you do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart – these, O God, You will not despise."

To further examine the Old Testament concept of mercy, I would like to quote from the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. The writer is explaining how the Old Testament Jew understood God’s mercy.

"...on God’s side ‘mercy’ particularly comes to denote grace. God’s ‘mercy’ too, rests on the ‘covenant’ by which He has freely bound himself to the people, so that the righteous can appeal to God’s ‘mercy.’ ...God’s ‘mercy’ always means His faithful and merciful help.... We must always remember, however, that it is the ‘mercy’ which God has promised, so that although one cannot claim it, one may certainly expect it. In other words, the thought of ‘mercy’ and the thought of the covenant belong together. Yet to the degree that man is unfaithful, the ‘mercy’ for which he hopes takes on the character of pardoning grace."

After reading this explanation and all the quotes from the Old Testament scriptures given above, we see a real understanding of mercy. To me this sounds like a New Testament view of God’s grace, and we find the Old Testament Jews held this same view!

Footnotes:

This study on How Old Testament Believers Understood God’s Mercy 1998 by David Humpal. All Rights Reserved.

All scriptures unless otherwise noted are from the New King James Version 1984, Thomas Nelson Publishers

Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 2, pg. 479-480 1964, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

The Hebrew words for ‘mercy’ and ‘covenant’ were used in the text, but I have substituted the English word with quotes around it.

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