Matthew 5:7 in detail,  blessed are the merciful

1. The historical context

Mercy in the Hebrew Bible

Within the Hebrew Bible the majority of the references to mercy are linked to God himself. However, as a master always desires servants that reflect his character, mercy was to be the abiding characteristic of the leaders of his people. Indeed, the kings of Israel had such a reputation amongst the adjoining nations (1 Kgs 20:31).

Mercy was the domain of those with the power over others, hence leaders were frequently castigated for their lack of mercy (e.g. Isa 47:6, Jer 6:23). As the greatest of leaders God is repeatedly extolled for his mercy (e.g. Isa 49:10, 1 Chr 21:13, Ps 86:15).

Between the testaments

In Sirach we find a question which suggests that, well before the first century C.E., the principle of showing mercy if one expected mercy was already extant within Judaism.  This wisdom teacher, who wrote between 226–198 B.C.E. and was translated into Greek between 132 and 116 B.C.E. (Charles 2004, 1:293), asks “On a man like himself he hath no mercy; And doth he make supplication for his own sins?” (Sir 28:4 KJV), whilst clearly expecting the emphatic answer “no!”

In the prior account of the life of Christ

In the Magnificat, Mary recalls that God reserves mercy for those who serve him (Luke 1:50). , i.e. for those who follow the way of righteousness. 

Later Judaism

It is sometimes suggested, on the basis of the Talmud’s “He who is merciful toward his fellow creatures, shall receive mercy from heaven above” (Shabbath 151b [sic] [Einspruch]), that Jesus was plagiarising a Rabbinic source. However, the Talmud attributes this saying to one R. Gamaliel Beribbi, who taught in the third century C.E. (Einspruch 1920, 17) . The Rabbi was probably drawing upon the same biblical pronouncement available to Jesus, i.e. Ps 18:25.

R. Nathan b. Abba (brother of Rabbi Hiyya b. Abba who lived ca. 180-230 C.E.) told of the rejection that one Shabthai b. Marinus recieved when he came to Babylon to try and trade, notes that it is written “And [He will] show thee mercy and have compassion upon thee, [teaching that] whoever is merciful to his fellow-men is certainly of the children of our father Abraham, and whosoever is not merciful to his fellow-men is certainly not of the children of our father Abraham” (b.  Beṣah  32b [Epstein]).

2. The biblical precedent

The promise of this beatitude is found in Psalm 18, in which the psalmist anticipates God’s mercy, as follows -

18:21 “For I have kept the ways of the LORD, and have not wickedly departed from my God. 22 For all his ordinances were before me. I didn’t put away his statutes from me. 23 I was also blameless with him. I kept myself from my iniquity. 24 Therefore the LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his eyesight.
25 With the merciful you will show yourself merciful. With the perfect man, you will show yourself perfect.

(Ps 18:21-25 HNV)

As with the other beatitudes, this one is therefore intimately connected to a statement concerning the way of righteousness. 

The Hebrew Bible’s tendency, to focus on mercy in relation to leaders, reminds us that God’s dealings with Nebuchadnezzar also reflected the principle that God is merciful to those who show mercy. Daniel advised the King, in order to prolong his prosperity, to “break off your sins by righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor” (Dan 4:27 WEB). Yet Nebuchadnezzar ignored this advice, prompting God to send him away and humbled him. However, once the king came to accept the judgement of God and the justice of His ways, i.e. decided to accept Daniel’s advice and show mercy, then God mercifully restored him. Whereupon Nebuchadnezzar proclaimed of God, “all his works are truth, and his ways justice; and those who walk in pride he is able to abase” (Dan 4:37 WEB). Thus when the justice of God’s way is established, the merciful obtain mercy (Matt 5:7).

It is noteworthy that the same reciprocal arrangement occurs where there is a lack of mercy (cf. Pr 21:13).

3. Its place in the sequence

The recognition that Isaiah 49:8-11 lay behind the Matt 5:6 is interesting, for that passage introduces yet another aspect of the kingdom ushered in by restoring the way. Those within it will not hunger or thirst because “he who has mercy on them will lead them” (Isa 49:10 WEB). Isa 49:10 therefore provides a natural topical bridge from Matt 5:6 to Matt 5:7. 

4. Related New Testament texts

The same sort of reciprocal treatment is found later in the Sermon on the Mount in relation to forgiveness (Matt 6:12), but also elsewhere (Mark 11:25-26) and most notably in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:22), which was delivered in response to Peter’s question about forgiveness (Matt 18:21).

In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), the neighbour is said to be the one who showed mercy (Luke 10:37), i.e. the Samaritan who, because the man before him was a human in distress, waived any notion of recompense for the hostility his nation had exercised toward Samaritans.

5. Some church perspectives

Vermes (2004, 317) concludes that this statement may be attributed to Jesus, noting that similar ideas are found elsewhere in Jesus teaching.

Beyond noting that the reciprocal nature is stressed elsewhere in Matthew and its converse is found in the Hebrew Bible, France (1995, 110) has little to say on this beatitude.

For Lloyd-Jones (1962, 99) “mercy really means a sense of pity plus a desire to relieve the suffering”. He offers a test of whether one is merciful or not. “This person is in your power; is there a vindictive spirit, or is there a spirit of pity and sorrow, a spirit of kindness to your enemies in distress?” (Lloyd-Jones 1962, 99). He then likens the merciful attitude to that of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37).

Bishop Gore (1904, 38) equates mercy with pity and warns against indulging in latter without accompanying with action. “Powerful pity is pity which passes from emotion into practical and redemptive action” (Gore 1904, 38).