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The Mercy of God

Scripture Reading:  Psalm 103
Text:  Psalm 103:8

Sermon by Rev. James Reaves
Orthodox Christian Reformed Church of Kelowna, British Columbia
© Burlington United Reformed Church; The Preacher, Vol. 19, No. 8

This sermon may be used in worship services for free; please state the author and church above.

Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ,

According to my dictionary, mercy is “compassionate treatment of those who are in distress.” The hymn we just sang, “O My Soul, Bless Thou Jehovah,” speaks of compassion for distress in the third verse and confirms the dictionary’s definition.

There is probably no better human illustration of this kind of mercy than the one that is found in the story Jesus told of the good Samaritan. You are familiar with the story of how the man who went down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was set upon by thieves who stripped him, wounded him and left him half dead. The priest and Levite passed him by on the other side of the road, but the Samaritan had compassion on him bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

When Jesus asked, “Which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”, He was answered, “He who showed mercy on him.”

From this story we understand immediately that mercy is giving compassionate treatment to those in distress. We admire such acts of mercy. We say that mercy is a very wonderful thing. Mercy is good and we take heart when the Bible tells us that God is merciful.

I want to talk to you about the mercy of God in:

I. Its nature;
II. Its manifestations; and
III. Its reflection.

My text is Psalm 103:8, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in mercy.”

I. The nature of God’s mercy

When the psalmist says the Lord is merciful, he is drawing from the 34th chapter of Exodus, where God revealed Himself to Moses on Mount Sinai. We have already had occasion to refer to this chapter in dealing with the attributes of God. On that occasion, God passed by Moses on the mountain, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands.” The Psalmist is simply repeating what was revealed then. “The Lord is merciful and gracious.” There is no question that God is merciful.

That raises some rather interesting questions. If we use the definition of mercy as “compassionate treatment of those who are in distress,” what is so distressful about us? Why is God’s mercy so often spoken of in connection with his slowness to anger? Why would God be angry with those in distress?

Let me take a moment to show you how Scripture couples God’s mercy with slowness to anger. We have it here in Psalm 103:8. “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger.” We have it again in Jeremiah 3:12, “‘I am merciful,’ says the Lord; ‘I will not remain angry forever.’” And in Joel 2:13, “The Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger.”

Our questions are answered in Hebrews 8:12 where God says “I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” Our sin is what puts us in distress. God has declared it to be worthy of death. The sinner must perish; he is lost. God gets angry with sin because it is disobedience to His will and a denial of His goodness. Sin causes great distress for us; it angers God, and our only hope is found in God’s mercy and readiness to treat sinners compassionately. That is the nature of God’s mercy.

But there is more that can be said about God’s mercy. We might wonder to what sinners God is merciful. He is not merciful to all sinners; some perish and spend eternity in hell. God is merciful to some and not to others. To whom is He merciful? Who decides?

Romans 9:18 answers, “He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.” It sounds very much as if God decides within Himself and pleases Himself on the matter. It also sounds very much like what He told Moses way back in Exodus 33, “I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” God distributes His mercy as He wills.

Before questioning why God should leave anybody out, we need to remember that He owes mercy to no one and He has willed to grant His mercy to a great company of people which no man can number.

Let God be praised for His great mercy! Let us not attempt to tell Him how He should distribute it. We should rather rejoice that it flows so widely and so deep.

Another thing about God’s mercy is that it is everlasting. Psalm 103:17 assures us that “The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him.” Those who receive God’s mercy in this world will have it forever. God’s mercy is not only wide and deep, it is long lasting also. What a marvelous blessing it is! Indeed, let God be praised for His great mercy.

II. The manifestations of God’s mercy

The best way to understand and appreciate God’s mercy is to observe it in action. The first reference to the mercy of God in the Bible is in connection with the rescue of Lot and his family from Sodom and Gomorrah. Whether they realized it or not, the family of Lot was in great distress because fire and brimstone from the heavens were about to rain down upon the two cities to destroy them and all of their inhabitants. Their very lives were at stake. Even though God had warned them of what was coming, they were lingering behind in the cities. Then in Genesis 19:16 we read, “While he lingered, the men took hold of his hand, his wife’s hand, and the hands of his two daughters, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and set him outside the city.”

In mercy God sent messengers to rescue Lot and his family. God had compassion on them and rescued them from their distress. Unhappily, Lot’s wife lagged behind and kept looking back and she perished, but Lot and his daughters escaped because of God’s mercy. That was compassionate treatment of those who were in distress!

Psalm 136 sings of God’s mercy like no other Psalm, and refers to repeated demonstrations of God’s mercy to the children of Israel. Israel had been in great distress in Egypt, forced into slavery by the Egyptians. But God treated them compassionately, delivering them from Egypt and bringing them through the wilderness and settling them in the land of promise. Listen to the psalmist as he sings about it:

“To Him who struck Egypt in their firstborn,
        For His mercy endures forever;
And brought out Israel from among them,
        For His mercy endures forever;
With a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm,
        For His mercy endures forever;
To Him who divided the Red Sea in two,
        For His mercy endures forever;
And made Israel pass through the midst of it,
        For His mercy endures forever;
But overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea,
        For His mercy endures forever;
To Him who led His people through the wilderness,
        For His mercy endures forever;
To Him who struck down great kings,
        For His mercy endures forever;
And gave their land as a heritage,
        For His mercy endures forever;
A heritage to Israel His servant,
        For His mercy endures forever.”

God in His mercy brought His people all the way through from Egypt to their own homeland, and it was a work of His mercy all the way. Even when they resisted God and rebelled against Him in the way, God in mercy still did not give up on them. Nehemiah comments on this in Nehemiah 9:16 & 17, “But…our fathers acted proudly, hardened their necks, and did not heed Your commandments. They refused to obey, and they were not mindful of Your wonders that You did among them. But they hardened their necks, and in their rebellion they appointed a leader to return to their bondage. But You are God, ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abundant in kindness, and did not forsake them.” That demonstrates again the reach of God’s mercy and the distance He will go to be merciful to His people.

Later on in their history, God’s people rebelled against Him to the point where God finally let His anger go and the Babylonians came, over-ran the country, taking many of the people off into captivity in Babylon. After their years in exile, God came to His people again and allowed many to return to Jerusalem and restore the temple there.

Ezra writes about this in Ezra 3:10 & 11. “When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals to praise the Lord, according to the ordinance of David, king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord: ‘For He is good, For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.’” God was always coming to His distressed people with mercy and compassionate treatment of those in distress.

When the Lord Jesus was here among us, He repeatedly showed compassionate treatment to the distressed. One story that sticks in my mind that particularly demonstrates His mercy is the story of the blind man in Luke 18. Listen to it. “Then it happened, as He (that is Jesus) was coming near Jericho, that a certain blind man sat by the road begging. And hearing a multitude passing by, he asked what it meant. So they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he cried out, saying, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Then those who went before warned him that he should be quiet; but he cried out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be brought to Him. And when he had come near, He asked him, saying, ‘What do you want Me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, that I may receive my sight.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.’ And immediately he received his sight, and followed Him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.”

Again we see compassionate treatment of those in distress. That’s mercy, and God is merciful. What we need to do now is to remember the distress we are all brought to because of our sins, for we are all sinners who come short of the glory of God. Sin brings condemnation, death and eternal judgment, which would be the lot of everyone of us had not the mercy of God come to expression again.

God, seeing us in our sin and misery, seeing us in our condemnation, acted mercifully by sending His only Son to rescue us. Jesus came and fulfilled all righteousness in our behalf and, exchanging His righteousness for our sins, He accepted the condemnation and death that we deserved. He took our place and died on the cross, that we might not come into condemnation, but have eternal life.

If you want to see God’s greatest act of mercy, stand before the cross of Jesus and see Him offering up His only Son to deliver sinners from their distress. It is at the cross, as Psalm 85:10 expresses it, “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed.” And now because of the death of Jesus on the cross, God can be merciful to us and deliver us from our sins, giving us new life. Listen to how the Bible speaks to us about this. Ephesians 2:4 & 5 says, “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” Titus 3:4-6 reads, “But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” I Peter 1:3 says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

Do you know this mercy? Have you experienced this mercy? Has God forgiven you and given you new life?

If you have not, listen to Isaiah as he tells you how to receive it, in Isaiah 55:6 & 7. “Seek the Lord while He may be found. Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.”

Seek the Lord! Call upon Him. Forsake your sinful ways and return to the Lord. He will have mercy.

III. The reflection of God’s mercy

I move on now to the reflection of God’s mercy, reminding you again of our need to bear God’s image in a darkened world. In Luke 6:36, our Lord tells us straightforwardly, “Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” That makes very clear our need to be merciful. To this we can add a few more verses. Proverbs 3:3 says, “Let not mercy and truth forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.” Micah 6:8 asks, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Let me not leave out the closing words of the parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus asked the inquiring lawyer, “which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” The lawyer rightly replied, “He who showed mercy on him.” “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”

As Christians we simply must be merciful if at all possible. May God grant us the grace to do so. In addition it can be said that mercy is one of those things we can do for the good of ourselves. Proverbs 11:17 states, “The merciful man does good for his own soul.” And Matthew 5:7 says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

I am reminded of the lines from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice that I had to memorize in public school, “The quality of mercy is not strained. It falleth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed. It blesses him who gives and him who takes.” Whatever else might be said for or against Shakespeare, he had the truth about mercy straight

May we have it straight in our minds! May we not forget to love mercy and practice it.


Mercy is the compassionate treatment of those who are in distress. We sinners need mercy from God, and Isaiah tells us how to seek it by seeking God, calling upon Him, forsaking our sinful ways and turning to the Lord. May it be granted to each of us, and then may we in turn learn to be merciful to others. Amen.



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