Root: רָחַם resh/chet/mem
Sounds like: raw-khawn
Compassion is one of those human qualities that we admire and celebrate. It’s a hugely emotional word. Our feelings are stirred by the tiniest bird with a broken wing, a child without a friend, a famished stray kitten, an elderly man who can’t remember his family. We may know what it’s like to be hungry, alone, and in pain, and so we compassionately feel the hunger, and pain, and loneliness in others.
One of the first instances where we read about compassion, in the Bible, is the story of Joseph reconnecting with his brothers. His brothers had abandoned him to slavery in Egypt. But years later they all, apart from Benjamin, came to Egypt to seek food during the famine. They did not recognize their brother Joseph, who had risen to high ranks in Egypt, but he recognized them. They were given grain, but Joseph (whom they still had not recognized) held back Simeon and told the brothers that they were to return, this time with the youngest son, Benjamin.
The brothers went home and told their father what had happened. He sent them back, this time with Benjamin, and said:
“Take your brother also, and arise, return to the man; and may God Almighty grant you compassion [rakhamim] in the sight of the man, so that he will release to you your other brother and Benjamin. And as for me, if I am bereaved of my sons, I am bereaved!” So the men took this gift, and they took double the money in their hand, and Benjamin; then they set out and went down to Egypt, and stood before Joseph.
When Joseph saw his brother Benjamin, his only full brother (they shared a mother, Rachel), he was overwhelmed with compassion:
And as he raised his eyes and saw his brother Benjamin, his mother’s son, he said, “Is this your youngest brother, of whom you spoke to me?” Then he said, “May God be gracious to you, my son.” Joseph then hurried out, for he was deeply stirred [stirred with compassion: nik’m’ru ra’khama] over his brother, and he looked for a place to weep; so he entered his chamber and wept there. Then he washed his face and came out; and he controlled himself and said, “Serve the meal.”
When we feel compassion our whole body responds to the emotion… it brings tears to our eyes… and it calls us to action.
YHWH: a Compassionate God
YHWH has always felt compassion for His creation. He sees our neediness, our self-inflicted depravity, and He is overwhelmed with sorrow and compassion:
[YHWH:] I am broken over the brokenness of the daughter of my people.
I mourn, dismay has taken hold of me.
YHWH mourns over our continual rebellion… but regardless of our behaviour He feels great compassion for us.
There was a communal prayer found in the Book of Nehemiah where the people recognized that, despite their hardened hearts, their God was a compassionate God:
Nehemiah 9:16-20, 26-31
“But they, our fathers, acted arrogantly; they became stubborn and would not listen to Your commandments.
They refused to listen, and did not remember Your wondrous deeds which You performed among them; so they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt.
But You are a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate [w-rakhum], slow to anger and abounding in mercy; and You did not abandon them.
Even when they made for themselves a calf of cast metal and said, ‘This is your god who brought you up from Egypt,’ and committed great blasphemies, You, in Your great compassion [b-ra’khameka], did not abandon them in the wilderness; the pillar of cloud did not leave them by day, to guide them on their way, nor the pillar of fire by night, to light for them the way in which they were to go.
Instead, You gave Your good Spirit to instruct them, You did not withhold Your manna from their mouth, and You gave them water for their thirst…
…But they became rebellious and revolted against You, and threw Your Law behind their backs and killed Your prophets who had admonished them in order to bring them back to You, and they committed great blasphemies.
Therefore You handed them over to their enemies who oppressed them, but when they cried out to You in the time of their distress, You heard from heaven, and according to Your great compassion [u-k-ra’khameka] You gave them people who saved them from the hand of their enemies.
But as soon as they had rest, they did evil again before You; therefore You abandoned them to the hand of their enemies, so that they ruled over them.
When they cried out again to You, You heard from heaven, and many times You rescued them according to Your compassion [k-ra’khameka], and admonished them in order to turn them back to Your Law.
Yet they acted arrogantly and did not listen to Your commandments but sinned against Your ordinances, which, if a person follows them, then he will live by them. And they turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck, and would not listen.
However, You remained patient with them for many years, and admonished them by Your Spirit through Your prophets, yet they would not listen. Therefore You handed them over to the peoples of the lands.
Nevertheless, in Your great compassion [u-v-ra’khameka] You did not make an end of them or abandon them, for You are a gracious and compassionate [w-rakhum] God.”
It was like a broken record: the people abandoned their God; they got in trouble and called out to YHWH; He had compassion on them and guided them back; the people abandoned their God again; they got in trouble and turned to Him; He showed compassion again… and on and on it went.
YHWH, over and over, had compassion on those He had a relationship with:
Psalm 103:1-6, 13-14
Bless YHWH, my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name.
Bless YHWH, my soul, and do not forget any of His benefits; Who pardons all your guilt, Who heals all your diseases; Who redeems your life from the pit, Who crowns you with favour and compassion [w-ra’khamim]; Who satisfies your years with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle.
YHWH performs righteous deeds and judgments for all who are oppressed…
..Just as a father has compassion [k-rakhem] on his children, so YHWH has compassion [rikham] on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.
Bearing God’s Compassionate Image
We are dust… formed from the earth and we were created to be YHWH’s imagers. We are to bear and reflect the image of YHWH, and that means we are to be compassionate like Him:
“Thus has YHWH of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice and practice lovingkindness and compassion [wa-r’khamim] each to his brother; and do not oppress the widower, the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”
If we are not compassionate then we are not bearing YHWH’s name or reflecting His image to the world around us. We have been given an incredible responsibility and we frequently fail in our duties. We have a hard time living up to what we were created to be and YHWH knows it. We need saving!
Compassion to Save
As we have seen, YHWH dealt out compassion regardless of whether we deserved it or not. And many of the prayers in the Tanakh asked for YHWH’s compassion:
Do not hold us responsible for he guilty deeds of our forefathers; let Your compassion [ra’khameka] come quickly to meet us, for we have become very low.
Help us, God of our salvation, for the glory of Your name; and save us and forgive our sins for the sake of Your name.
YHWH would help them, and with great compassion He would save them:
Who is a God like You, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in lovingkindness. He will again have compassion [y-r’ch’mehnu] on us; He will tread our iniquities under foot. Yes, You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.
YHWH felt so strongly for us that He wanted to eliminate all our sin and throw them into the deepest depths. And He made a plan to do just that!
Compassion and a Saviour
Sin and salvation, death and life… YHWH would fix our mistakes:
Isaiah 49:8-10, 13-15
This is what YHWH says:
“At a favourable time I answered You, and on a day of salvation I helped You; and I will watch over You and make You a covenant of the people, to restore the land, to give as inheritances the deserted hereditary lands; saying to those who are bound, ‘Go free,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’
They will feed along the roads, and their pasture will be on all bare heights. They will not hunger or thirst, nor will the scorching heat or sun strike them down; for He who has compassion [ki m-ra’khamam] on them will lead them, and He will guide them to springs of water…
…Shout for joy, you heavens! And rejoice, you earth! Break forth into joyful shouting, mountains! For YHWH has comforted His people and will have compassion [y-rakhem] on His afflicted.
But Zion said, ‘YHWH has abandoned me, and the Lord has forgotten me.’
[YHWH:] Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion [meh-rakhem] on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.”
Regardless of all our suffering, and our issues, and our insolence, YHWH would not forget us and He would not abandon us forever. He had a plan to save us!
“For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion [u-v-ra’khamim g’dolim] I will gather you. In an outburst of anger I hid My face from you for a moment, but with everlasting favour I will have compassion on you [rikham’tik],” says YHWH your Redeemer.
“For this is like the days of Noah to Me, when I swore that the waters of Noah would not flood the earth again; so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you nor rebuke you.
For the mountains may be removed and the hills may shake, but My favour will not be removed from you, nor will My covenant of peace be shaken,” says YHWH who has compassion on you [m-ra’khamek YHWH].”
YHWH would save us by sending an Anointed One (a Messiah) to redeem us:
I will make mention of the mercies of YHWH, and the praises of YHWH, according to all that YHWH has granted us, and the great goodness toward the house of Israel, which He has granted them according to His compassion [k-ra’khamaw] and according to the abundance of His mercies.
For He said, “Certainly they are My people, sons who will not deal falsely.”
So He became their Saviour.
In all their distress He was distressed, and the Angel of His Presence saved them; in His love and in His mercy He redeemed them, and He lifted them and carried them all the days of old.
Yeshua & Compassion
Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah became the living compassion that the world needed.
It is easy to have mercy on lost puppies and cherub faced children from struggling countries, but the real test comes in having compassion on the “undesirables” of society: the homeless, prostitutes, drug addicts, criminals… or those who look or behave differently from what we deem as “normal”: the severely mentally challenged, the disfigured, the suicidal, the depressed, those suffering with PTSD.
Yeshua was the epitome of a truly compassionate person; he comforted lepers, he dined with prostitutes, he protected the downtrodden, he took the time to speak with beggars, he preserved hope to the hopeless, he sought out and touched the mentally afflicted.
Even Yeshua pointed out that we sometimes have more compassion for animals than we do for humans:
One Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman there had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was hunched over and could not stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, He called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then He laid His hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and began to glorify God.
But the synagogue leader was indignant that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath. “There are six days for work,” he told the crowd. “So come and be healed on those days and not on the Sabbath.”
“You hypocrites!” the Lord replied, “Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it to water? Then should not this daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, be released from her bondage on the Sabbath day?”
When Jesus said this, all His adversaries were humiliated.
Notice, though, that Yeshua didn’t just feel compassionate, he acted on it. And His action almost always included human touch. There was a mental connection and a physical connection. How easy is it for us to have compassion with thoughts and prayers. How much better would it be to hold a hand and help.
Yeshua never made those who asked for mercy prove their worth. When the blind called out to Yeshua, “Have mercy on us”, He never asked “Why should I?” or “What have you done to deserve it?” Instead Yeshua asked something completely different:
As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed Him. And there were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy (compassion) on us!”
The crowd chided them to be silent, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy (compassion) on us!”
Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want Me to do for you?” He asked.
“Lord,” they answered, “let our eyes be opened.”
Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes, and at once they received their sight and followed Him.
Their simple request, “let our eyes be opened,” moved Yeshua with compassion. He felt deeply and He voluntarily acted on His compassion with touch. Yeshua was merely following YHWH’s example:
And He [YHWH] said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of YHWH before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion [w-richam’ti] on whom I will show compassion [a-rakhem].”
Regardless of rules or regulations, “I will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” said YHWH. That was why Yeshua changed lives, even on the Sabbath! He was a healer, not just from illness, but from death itself:
I love YHWH, because He hears my voice and my pleas. Because He has inclined His ear to me, therefore I will call upon Him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me and the terrors of Sheol came upon me; I found distress and sorrow.
Then I called upon the name of YHWH: “Please, YHWH, save my life!”
Gracious is YHWH, and righteous; yes, our God is compassionate [m-rakhem].
YHWH watches over the simple; I was brought low, and He saved me.
Return to your rest, my soul, for YHWH has dealt generously with you. For You have rescued my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.
I shall walk before YHWH in the land of the living.
Compassion is a strong emotion that should draw you to action: to heal, surround, help, nurture, protect and preserve something that has a heartbeat! How interesting is it, that the Hebrew root for compassion (רָחַם) shares the same root as the word for womb (רָ֫חֶם)! Life and compassion are symbiotic. You can’t truly experience one without the other. If we’re going to walk tall in the land of the living we ought to be ready to show compassion and the true meaning of life to all who walk on this gentle earth. Let us reflect the compassion that God has so generously shared with us.
Next week: Womb