Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Mercy-ing: why isn’t mercy a verb (in English)?

In Romans 9:15 Paul quotes the Greek translation of Exodus 33:19 (LXX). “I [God] will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (ESV)

“I will have mercy on” is a translation of the Greek verb ἐλεέω (ele-eo). But in English, we don’t have a verb form of mercy. English only has a noun form of mercy. It is a thing. We have to speak of mercy as a thing that is possessed or imparted.

What is the difference between the English idiom “to have mercy on” and the Greek ἐλεέω (to mercy)?

Treating mercy as a verb sidesteps talking about it as a character trait and instead shows it as an act. It looks at what you do rather than who you are. Now, to be fair, Greek has both forms. They can speak about it both ways. However, in English, we are cut off from speaking of mercy as an act itself. Instead, we are relegated to talking about mercy as a thing we posses and occasionally chose to show, or as a thing that we only “have” at certain times. It is thus easy for us in English to associate “showing mercy” with a mental state or an attitude. However, when we think about it as an act, “to mercy”, we are forced to think about what kinds of actions are merciful.

Like all character traits extolled in the Scriptures, they are ways of living our lives, not simply dispositions of the soul.

I challenge you to do acts of mercy today. If you’re not sure what that looks like, let’s talk about it in the comments below.