As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust. — Psalm 103:13-14 (NRSV)
Psalm 103 is one of the most enthusiastic celebrations of the love of God is all of the Psalter. Many psalms pair the Hebrew word for “steadfast love” or “lovingkindness” (hesed) with the word “faithfulness” (emeth). But in Psalm 103, God’s hesed is partnered instead with racham, a word that can be translated as either “mercy” or “compassion.” For these attributes of God we are to bless him; six times in 22 verses, the psalmist calls himself and all of creation to “bless the LORD.”
But what does it mean for God to be a compassionate father? As suggested in the previous post, not all of us have experienced tenderness from our own earthly fathers, leaving our imaginations somewhat impoverished when it comes to grasping how God cares for us. And then there are a couple of phrases in the quote above that may seem a bit jarring next to the word “compassion”: we are to “fear” God, who knows “we are dust.” What do all these things mean, and how do we hold them together?
I will deal with the issue of the fear of God in a later post. First, let’s consider the word translated as “compassion.” Racham stems from the Hebrew rechem, which means “womb.”
Um, excuse me?
I’m reminded here of a Greek word that is typically translated as either “to have compassion” or “to take pity” in the New Testament: the verb splagchnizomai. The word is only used either by Jesus or about Jesus, as in Matthew 9:36: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Splagchnizomai stems from the noun splagchna (don’t you just love Greek?), which means “bowels” or “innards.” I think of it as having a “gut reaction” to someone else’s plight. Jesus, God in the flesh, was physically and emotionally moved by what he saw.
And lest we forget, the root meaning of “compassion,” from the Latin, is “to suffer with.” Whether in Hebrew, Greek, or Latin, therefore, the ancients were describing a strong visceral reaction to the suffering of others.
Can we imagine, with the psalmist, that this is how God responds to us?
. . .
But what about the declaration that God remembers that we are “dust”? At first blush, this sounds shaming. God is high and mighty, and we are nothing, little more than the dust someone wipes from the soles of their shoes. That hardly sounds tender or compassionate.
The psalmist, however, seems to be pointing back to the creation story: “then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7). It was God who chose to make humanity out of dust; it was God who chose to breathe life into what was lifeless. On the one hand, to say that God remembers that we are dust is a way of pointing to our mortality, as the subsequent verses will suggest. But on the other hand, I hear an echo here of the grace behind the very act of creation itself. The Father knows how we are made, because he chose to make us to be in relationship with him.
. . .
Our earthly fathers, of course, didn’t form us from dust. But compassionate dads understand the vulnerability and immaturity of children. They know their kids have a lot to learn, and are more patient teachers. That’s not to say they never get angry, but compassion softens that anger. They are moved to pity by their children’s tears, a gut reaction that makes dads want to do something to make things better.
I didn’t experience that in relationship to my dad. But I remember my protectiveness toward my own kids when they were small. I hope I was more compassionate toward them than my own father was toward me.
Could it really be that this is but the smallest inkling of God’s fatherly compassion toward me, toward us?