Old Testament Word Studies
"Compassion, Tender Mercy"
The mercies of the LORD never fail; by them the LORD cares for his people with all the tenderness of a mother for her child. Such is the comfort of the Word of God to us--and at the heart of such words of comfort is the word rakham, a word that when applied to God comprises feelings of deep compassion and desire to aid the one in distress.
The dictionaries list the basic meaning of the verb rakham as "love, have compassion." If the verb is denominative as stated in BDB and KBL, then it would retain the idea of tender feelings of mercy associated with the noun rekhem, "womb." Most of the occurrences of the verb are in the piel system, so the idea of "have compassion, tender mercy" would have been directly related to the maternal instincts of a mother for the child from her womb, or the kind of feelings one has for that which is totally helpless.
As noted above, the verb is closely related to the common noun rekhem, "womb." As would be expected, this noun is used on occasion in reference to a woman's ability to have children (1 Sam. 1:5), as in God's opening the womb or blessing the womb. In Psalm 110:3 the word is used metaphorically in the expression "the womb of the dawn," referring to the earliest light that will give rise to the dawn. For this noun we have an alternate form rakham which occurs in Judges 5:30 where it is used figuratively as a coarse soldier's slang for a bed mate--instead of dividing up the women as spoils of war, Deborah imagines that they thought they were dividing up the wombs.
Another word that is related is rakhamim, "compassion, brotherly love"--the feeling one has for someone (as if) from the same womb. This word usually indicates the emotion of mercy, at first probably the locus of the emotion (the viscera). It is in the plural for emphasis.
Finally, the adjective rakhum is used largely of God (with lists of attributes) and has the meaning of "compassionate."
The root is well attested in the cognate languages. In Ugaritic r-kh-m has a more general meaning of "to be kind." In addition, it may be used for "girl" (although Cyrus Gordon [Ugaritic Textbook] lists this from a separate root).
The Akkadian word remu (a middle weak verb to correspond to the Hebrew word's second letter as a guttural) corresponds with Hebrew and means "pity, compassion."
Usage in Arabic parallels Hebrew with the relationship between the derivatives. The noun means "womb, place of origin" or "relationship, nearness of kin" or "a feeling of relationship or consanguinity." Another nominal derivative means "mercy, compassion, tenderness." As in Ugaritic, the word in Arabic as a noun may also be applied to a woman, or to any animal having a womb. As in Hebrew the idea of the verb is "to treat with mercy, pity, compassion." It also came to mean "become tender, pardon, forgive."
In Aramaic, to the basic idea of "love, have compassion" is added "befriend." Jastrow cites some interesting usages of the verb in later Rabbinic Aramaic: "to stimulate maternal instinct," and then "to give suck to"--used in reference to animals.
Thus the cognates demonstrate the continuity of the group of words related to the root, all bearing the basic idea of compassion.
The verb is used with both God and humans as subjects, but most occurrences are in reference to the compassion or tender mercy of God. The categories of meaning present the different levels of compassion involved, although there may be a good deal of overlap between some of them.
1. Deep Feelings of Familial Love (Literal)
The word is at home expressing feelings of attachment within intimate familial relationships, such as that of a mother and a child. For example, Isaiah 49:15 says, "Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb?" In this verse the emphasis seems to be on the intensity and spontaneity of feeling pointing to the mother's desire to protect and care for her child. From this the analogy is made for God's mercy. The verb is similarly used to express a father's compassionate love for his children in Psalm 103:4. Significantly, in the context of both passages God's tender compassion for his own is presented as being greater than that of either parent for the child.
The intensity of emotion is also present in the story of Joseph when he saw his brother Benjamin after years of separation. Rakhamim is used to express the feelings: "And Joseph hurried out for he was deeply stirred (his compassion grew warm and tender) over his brother, and he sought a place to weep" (Gen. 43:30). An intense, spontaneous feeling of love, a feeling for someone from the same womb, is the point of this usage.
2. Kind Treatment (Metaphorical)
In this group of passages the emotional element is less evident. The focus is more upon kind dealings (or lack of them) with people who are in a subordinate or less fortunate position. A frequent use involves a conquering army's treatment of their captives, which was usually cruel and so compassion would not be shown. For example, Isaiah prophesies, "Behold, I am going to stir up the Medes against them, . . . and their bows will strike down the young men; they will have no mercy (yerakhemu) on the fruit of the womb, nor will they take pity ('khus) on the children" (Isa. 13:17, 18). The Medes, not being moved by feelings of compassion for the conquered, were cruel in their campaigns. Jeremiah 21:7 conveys a similar idea in reference to Nebuchadnezzar's wars against Judah.
A positive sample in this category occurs in Daniel 1:9. The text says, "Now God granted Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the commander of the officials." Daniel, a captive in Babylon, received "kind treatment" from the official in that he listened to Daniel's request concerning the alternate diet which would not defile him and permitted him to proceed as requested. The commander's kind treatment is the point, not an intense feeling of familial compassion.
3. Moving Compassion (Metaphorical)
This category describes the deep seated emotional feelings as the drive to aid and comfort those who are helpless and in distress. This is not the literal use of the word, for the objects of the compassion are not family members. And the uses in this category are more heightened emotionally than in the previous category of kind treatment. The classic example is found in Yahweh's feelings for and activities on behalf of his people Israel as expressed by Hosea. Hosea named his little girl Lo Rukhamah, "No Mercy," because God was going to have no mercy on the nation that turned away from him (Hos. 1:6). The result would be the utter destruction of the northern kingdom. But the prophecy of Hosea moves to the future to predict that the LORD will show mercy to a generation who will be re-gathered to the land (Hos. 2:23).
Pardon or forgiveness and restoration are often associated with God's compassion. Ezekiel records the word of the LORD, saying: "Now I shall restore the fortunes of Jacob, and have mercy on the whole house of Israel; and I shall be jealous for my holy name" (Ezek. 39:25). God's compassion, seen in the restoration of his people to their land, is a theme in many of the prophets (see Isa. 60:10; Jer. 33:26; Zech. 10:6).
God's forgiveness is based on his compassionate nature. Micah says, "Who is a God like you, who pardons iniquity . . . . He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. Yes, you will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea" (Mic. 7:18-19).
David understood the depth of God's tender feelings for the contrite sinner who was a member of the covenant, God's own child as it were, for he based his appeal for forgiveness in part on this attribute of God: "Have mercy on me, O God . . . according to your abundant compassion" (Ps. 51:1).
There are a number of synonyms for rakham in the Old Testament, some of which we have included in these word studies. The four most important synonyms are khesed, "loyal love," khen, "grace, favor," khus, "pity, have compassion," and khamal, "to pity, have compassion." The first synonym listed here is the covenant word "loyal love." It describes the relationships between the members as faithful or steadfast love. But it carries more the sense of loyalty than moving compassion. "Grace" and its related verbal forms, carry the idea of undeserved favor or grace, as well as the idea of social graces; but it does not have the emphasis on the inner yearning. The word khus is probably the closest synonym with the emphasis on the emotional aspect (the subject most often being the "eye" that pities). But it expresses the idea of sparing the object of pity, without any note of familial relationships. The word khamal, "to have compassion," is another fairly close word, often found in parallelism with our word.
The Old Greek generally used oiktirein or eleein for the word rakham and related terms. Probably the expression in Greek en splanchnois, which the old KJV tried to render with "bowels of compassion," is based on the Hebrew rakhamim.
When the word rakham is used, therefore, the emphasis is on the feelings of compassion or tender mercy that lie behind the act of mercy. The use of the feminine noun "womb" in this verbal formation underscores the fact that human traits and characteristics, in this case the woman's, are representations of the greater qualities and characteristics that belong to God. For more information, see Nelson's Glueck's book, Hesed, which he concludes with a comparison between this word and the more common khesed.