Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

48. The Beatitudes - Blessed are the Merciful (Matthew 5:7; Luke 6:36)*

It is useful to sum up at this point the fundamental spiritual truths which the Beatitudes have outlined to the disciple of Christ.

The first necessary virtue is for him to recognize that he has no virtue--in this sense he is “poor in spirit”. This inner sense of worthlessness (held, be it emphasized, in sheer honesty before God, and not merely as a formal doctrine) expressed itself outwardly in a spirit of meekness towards others. Further, there is a dejection of spirit because neither in the world nor in one’s own inner life is God honoured as He should be. Especially regarding self is there a great hunger for heavenly qualities, a thirst insatiable in this life that the righteousness of Christ express itself more truly in changed character.

Two of the Beatitudes, concerning the merciful and the peacemakers, now illustrate essential aspects of this New Man of Christian Blessedness in his attitude towards others.


Concerning the former of these virtues, it is important to be clear in one’s mind as to just what this Christ “mercy” is not. If is not soft-heartedness. It is not forbearance or leniency. It is not even compassion. It is a forgiving spirit. This is the basic Old Testament idea behind the word “mercy”. Indeed all through the Bible this word is only rarely used to describe men. It is essentially a divine attribute, and the chief field of its expression is in the forgiveness of sins extended to men who have nothing to offer except their repentance.

Psalms and Prophets teem with expressions such as these:

“The Lord is slow to anger, and of great mercy” (Ps. 145:8).

“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness” (Ps. 51:1).

“In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting

kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer” (ls. 54:8).
The suggestion has been made of a distinction between mercy and grace-thatgrace expresses the divine attitude to men in their sin, and mercy His reaction to their misery. The distinction, if correct, is a fine one. Certainly the two run together inasmuch as men’s miseries stem from their sinfulness.

Mercy and Truth

It is specially to be noted that the familiar phrase “mercy and truth” is earmarked in the Old Testament to describe God’s Covenants of Promise: “Thou wilt perform the truth to Jacob and the mercy to Abraham, which thou hast sworn unto our fathers since the days of old” (Mic. 7:20). “Blessed be the Lord God of my master Abraham, who hath not left destitute my master of his mercy and truth” (Gen. 24:27). “My mercy will I keep for him (the promised Son of David) for evermore, and my covenant shall stand fast with him” (Ps. 89:28).

The reasons for the use of this expression are not difficult to sort out. The Promises are God’s “Truth” because of their certainty; they cannot fail. They are His “Mercy” because they are His unearned offer of heavenly forgiveness. This is how Peter and Paul expound the Blessing of Abraham in the greatest Promise of all (Gen. 22:18; Acts. 3;25; Gal. 3:8, 9).

Mercy in Action

The merciful man emulates this characteristic of his God. As he has experienced the forgiveness of sins so also he extends the like forgiveness to others. So necessary and vital is this that the Lord was at pains to emphasize it both positively and negatively in the only comment which he added to the pattern prayer he framed for his disciples: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt. 6:14, 15; 18:33 RV; Jas. 2:13; Ps. 18:25, 26).

It is a simple basic divine principle which, according to personal experience, has received nothing like the emphasis it deserves. People store up criticism and cherish resentment of others in flat denial of the Lord’s simple truth that it is the merciful, the forgiving, who are happy; it is they, and no others, who obtain mercy, enjoying the assurance of sins forgiven.

The Answer to a Difficult Problem

Yet, for many who grope after the ideals of Christian discipleship, this is one of the major problems of life - how to be understanding, tolerant, forgiving, merciful towards those who themselves are small-minded, spiteful, bitter, uncharitable. “An eye for eye and a tooth for a tooth”, in spirit if not literally, seems to be the inevitable and almost proper reaction of offended human nature. How can any different attitude be possible?

The simple solution is: instead of resentment, pity! Those who behave badly and cause grievous offence to others are not to be given hatred for hatred, nor even contempt or despising, but pity. For such show all too plainly that they have failed to learn even the most elementary lesson in the school of Christ. Their lack of spiritual progress is not to be denounced from the superiority of a higher spiritual plane, but is to be pitied - with the gentleness which comes only from the man who has miserably known himself in need of a right disposition.

And why pity? Because they not only store up much unhappiness for themselves here and now, there is also a Day of Reckoning.

So the man of mercy, who can extirpate hard feelings from his mind and in all his mental attitudes think sympathetically regarding the undeserving, ensures for himself now a peace of mind and a happiness unknown to the other, and in the Day to come he will himself find mercy.

Luke’s version of this Beatitude is a straight imperative: “Be ye therefore merciful (to your enemies; v.35), as your Father also is merciful” (6:36). But in Matthew these words (with “perfect” for “merciful”) come as the spiritual climax to a chapter of impossible idealism! Is this because the man who can come near to a true imitation of his Heavenly Father in this field of forgiveness is not far from the summit of spiritual achievement?

This truth is delightfully emphasized in the designed parallel between the gracious characteristics of the Lord God, catalogued in Psalm 111, and the imitation of God by “the man that feareth the Lord” (Psalm 112). Phrase for phrase, from beginning to end, the two psalms correspond. In particular, “the Lord is gracious and full of compassion” is matched by: “he (the imitator of God) is gracious and full of compassion (the pity for the unmerciful already commented on).” The psalm continues: “and (thus) he is righteous.” Indeed, he is!

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