My hubby sometimes uses a word that is close, but not exactly what he intended to say. Since I’m one of those “word” people, I often misunderstand him based on the definition of that word.
My studies tell me to be careful of this when interpreting Scripture for the words used can be interchangeable and should be understood in their context. That means reading at all that is said in the passage around it before assuming anything.
Psalm 52:1–9 offers a good example. Today’s devotional writer used the King James Bible. It translates the underlined word as “mercy” while my ESV says “steadfast love.” Is there a difference? Because of implications of the context, I think there is.
Why do you boast of evil, O mighty man? The steadfast love of God endures all the day.Your tongue plots destruction, like a sharp razor, you worker of deceit.You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking what is right. SelahYou love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue.But God will break you down forever; he will snatch and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living. SelahThe righteous shall see and fear, and shall laugh at him, saying,“See the man who would not make God his refuge, but trusted in the abundance of his riches and sought refuge in (the works of) his own destruction!”But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.I will thank you forever, because you have done it. I will wait for your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly.
From the context, verse 8 looks a bit like, “You are an evil person, but I’m in a different category because instead of trusting in money and my good deeds, I trust in the lasting love of God.” It looks like the psalmist is putting himself on a different plane than the evil person he writes about. Yet God does not promote spiritual pride.
I looked up the word used for “steadfast love” used also in verse 1. It could also be translated as “mercy” and mercy has a different meaning. Mercy is God not giving us what we deserve.
Charles Finney writes that mercy should not be confused with God’s grace, nor with any appeal on our part based on goodness. That is, if I have done nothing wrong, I could ask for justice, but mercy is about doing wrong and asking that justice be set aside. I do not want to get what I deserve. I want mercy that pardons my guilt. In other words, mercy is exercised only where there is guilt.
Already I see the implications. Trusting God’s love is a broad statement, but trusting His mercy gets down to business. Trusting in mercy means I am guilty and conscious of needing God to hold back what I deserve. If I were innocent, I might appeal to His justice, but because I have sinned and deserve to be punished, I appeal to mercy.
Not only that, appealing to mercy means that I have no right to look down my nose at other sinners. The only reason for scorning a wicked person is because of their foolishness. Why continue in sin when they could be recipients of mercy? Yet no one earns or deserves mercy either.
Finney says trusting mercy means I should not confuse mercy with grace. Grace is favor to the undeserving, but it can be shown where there is no mercy. For instance, “God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the unrighteous as well as on the righteous.” This general favor is getting what we do not deserve, a general sort of grace. Mercy is the opposite. It is pardon for sin and not getting what we do deserve.
Trust in God’s mercy implies a belief that he is merciful. We could not trust him if we had no such belief. This belief must lie at the foundation of trust. Faith, or belief, includes a committal of the soul to God and a trust in him.
Trusting in God’s mercy forever implies a conviction that I deserve endless punishment. So does the wicked man. We are both in need of God’s mercy. The difference is that the moment anyone asks for mercy, all excuses must be dropped. I cannot appeal to God on the basis of anything but the blood Christ shed for me. If I were innocent and my excuses were valid, I could appeal to justice, but that is not going to warrant God’s favor. He knows that I am not innocent.
Sometimes I try to justify myself by pointing to someone worse (in my opinion) than I am. I don’t think this is what the psalmist is doing. Instead, he is trusting in mercy forever, not making excuses but making an appeal to that wicked man to do the same. He is saying that in the end, he will have the last laugh, not because he is a better person, but because he acknowledged his need for mercy.
Anyone can appeal to God, but to receive forgiveness and grace, there must be recognition that none of that is deserved. Instead, all of us deserve punishment for our sin. But God, in great mercy and for our sake, made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Mercy put the wrath I deserve on Christ so that I could receive the imputed and totally undeserved righteousness of Jesus Christ. I will thank Him forever, because He has done it.