Old Testament Word Studies
"Pity, Have Compassion, Spare"
One of the major words in the Bible for compassion or pity is the word khus (pronounced khoos). For example, it forms the main message of the Book of Jonah: God said to Jonah, "You have had pity (khasta) on the tree . . . and should I not have pity ('akhus) on Nineveh . . . ?" In its semantic field this word is unique.
The dictionaries define the verb as "pity, look upon with compassion, be sorry for" something. The word occurs in Aramaic and Syriac with the same meanings, although Jastrow adds "spare" in his definitions. Arabic also has a cognate word khassa, which means "to feel sorry or compassion for, sympathize." Attempts to connect the Hebrew word to Arabic sakha, "to flow, run" (as of the eyes in compassion) are not compelling. Metathesis of letters in these languages is not a problem (so the order kh - s could reverse), but the fact that Arabic has a true cognate for the Hebrew word makes this suggestion unlikely. The Semitic root also occurs in Akkadian, but in a proper name and so that is not helpful. A cognate appears in the Canaanite texts of Ugaritic, but there is little to go on in the definition. In summary, the word seems to have been a stable word across the Semitic languages.
The word has a consistent meaning, and so the categories of meaning for it do not differ greatly. However, if they are arranged according to use in positive and negative sentences, the intended meaning can be seen more clearly. One of the most interesting features of this verb is that most often (16 out of its 24 uses) the "eye" is the subject of the verb, whether the eye of God or of a human. The point intended by this construction is a heightened feeling of concern as if one actually were looking on the pitiful object--it is difficult to withhold compassion and pity when one is looking at the sufferer. But these verses should not make a category of meaning. Placing in one category (as the dictionary by Brown, Drive, and Briggs does) all the passages in which the eye is the subject does not help in distinguishing categories of meaning. I shall arrange the categories according to the results of the compassion.
1. Compassion that leads to helping the oppressed
The first category covers those passages where khus describes showing pity or compassion in order to do something for people in need. One good example is
Psalm 72:13 speaks of the Messianic king as one who will have compassion (yakhos) on the poor and needy and deliver them when they cry for help.
Ezekiel describes the nativity of Jerusalem in the land of Canaan; his parable says, "in the day when you were born your navel was not cut, neither were you washed in water . . . no eye pitied (lo' khasa) you to do any of these things" (16:4, 5). No one had any pity on the nation of Israel in its early struggle for survival.
2. Compassion that spares life
Closely related to the first category is the usage of the word to express compassion that prevents death, or that spares the life.
1 Samuel 24:10 tells how David confronted Saul after having had the opportunity to kill him in the cave: "My eye spared you; I would not kill Yahweh's anointed." David's seeing Saul asleep prompted a compassion that spared his life.
Ezekiel 20:17 records the declaration of Yahweh that although Israel was disobedient His eye spared (wattakhas) them from destruction.
Jonah 4:10 and 11, of course, have this meaning. Jonah had compassion on the tree that gave him shade--he was displeased when it died. God then reasoned that if the prophet wanted to spare a tree just for its shade, should not He have compassion on the people of the city who were much more important?
So the word indicates a compassion that leads to the sparing of a life, or saving of an item that otherwise might perish. The eye sees it, and the person is moved with a compassion to spare it. This may be illustrated with a homey illustration. You decide to clean out your attic once and for all. As you are throwing things out, your eye sees something that moves you, something that has intrinsic meaning to you, and you say, "Save that." That is our word khus. In the Bible, of course, the meaning is on a much higher level, such as in prayers for divine deliverance. For example, Joel called for national repentance with weeping and praying that God would spare His people (2:17). The same idea may be found in Nehemiah 13:22.
3. Withholding compassion so that life is not spared
The verb occurs in many passages about God's judgment on the wicked. In these passages when our word is used, it is simply negated. Not showing pity means not sparing life or things, or more simply, discarding or destroying it (without pity). Many of these passages are divine commands for justice that warn the leaders of Israel against letting pity get in the way of carrying out divine judgment.
Genesis 45:20 offers us a good illustration of this category, not unlike the homey illustration offered above. Joseph sent word that his father was not to regard ("let not your eye spare") his moveable property, because all of Egypt was theirs. Jacob was moving to Egypt; rather than save all his goods, he was to discard them.
Deuteronomy 7:16 uses the word in the instructions for Israel's holy war against the Canaanite tribes, a means of divine judgment on the wicked people of the land. God said, "Your eye shall not pity" (Deut. 7:16). It would be hard for Israel to carry these instructions; so God instructed them to "harden" themselves for the task.
Deuteronomy 19:13 also uses the word in the instruction to punish lawbreakers. The nations was to put to death the murderer without pity--"your eye shall not pity him." Likewise the false witness was to be shown no pity (Deut. 19:21); and idolatry was to be punished without pity as well (Deut. 13:8). These were serious crimes. The point was not that the people should be heartless or have no compassion, but that they should not let their feelings lead them to spare the guilty criminal of judgment.
Ezekiel uses this expression in a number of passages concerning God's judgment on Israel for its idolatry. For example, God says, "Because you have defiled my sanctuary . . . I will diminish you, neither shall my eye pity." The verb is also used this way in Ezekiel 7:9; in Ezekiel 8:18 not only will God not pity them, but he will also ignore their cries. In Ezekiel 9:10 God declares that He will not pity them when He repays their evil ways.
The use of the verb in reference to the destruction at the captivity is rather common (10 out of the 24 uses). Jeremiah also records God's firm decision to destroy the disobedient nation: AI will not pity (here the word is khamal), nor spare (khus), nor have mercy (here the word is rakham)." God was bringing the king of Babylon against them, Nebuchadnezzar, and he would not pity them (Jer. 2:17).
The announcement of doom on the nation was far more forceful when God said that His eye would not pity them, or when God instructed people not to take compassion. It meant judgment was certain.
As indicated above, there are several other words in this semantic field. The word rakham expresses compassion and tender mercy for that which is helpless and dependent. It is related to the noun rakham, "womb," stressing the strong maternal feelings of compassion. The verb khamal is a little closer in meaning to khus, for it has the similar meanings of "spare, have compassion." But it does not stress the emotional aspect as strongly as khus with the eye as the subject.
The Greek Old Testament consistently used pheidomai to translate khus. LSJ defines this word as "spare persons and things (as in war), use sparingly, have consideration, draw back," or "have mercy upon." Pheidomai is a good translation, for it contains the idea of mercy but essentially means "spare."
Usage shows that "to pity" meant to help or save alive, and "not to pity" meant to execute divine justice." Our English word "spare" means "to treat mercifully, to refrain from harming or destroying, to be merciful or lenient" (AHD). The English word "pity" is not as close to the Hebrew word as "spare" is. To pity someone means to feel grief or compassion for someone suffering or less fortunate. It emphasizes the compassion, but not the sparing. Pity implies a disposition to help but little emotional sharing of the distress; compassion connotes profound feelings for those in need, but says nothing of the effect (which may be implied in a context). So while "pity" and "compassion" and "spare" all work as translations for the verb, for the verb includes all these meanings, the idea of "spare" is essential to the understanding of this word.