or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. Romans 12:8 NASB
Mercy/ cheerfulness – Paul completes his inventory of charismata with the phrase ho eleon en hilaroteti (“he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness”). But the typical English translation presents us with some significant problems. How do we explain the behavior patterns of a Zone 7 person under the banner of one who shows “mercy”? The Zone 7 individual is someone who comes alive when faced with an immediate need. This person loves to assist, to provide solutions to problems, to step in at a moment of crisis. This is an individual who shows up when things are going wrong but at other times lacks the natural ability of encouraging and supporting. This person is the consummate trouble-shooter, the first-responder, the breakdown genius. How can we recognize such a person in Paul’s use of the Greek word eleos (mercy)? The answer comes from understanding the difference between the use of eleos in Greek literature and its use in the LXX.
In classical Greek, eleos is one of the passions, that is, it is an emotion aroused by the awareness of the undeserved suffering of another. For the Greeks, this was a terrifying occurrence because it implied that anyone might be subject to unjustified suffering. The emotions, all of them, disturb the tranquility of a life in balance. Since emotions typically come unbidden, subjecting the person to their power, Stoic philosophy sought to eliminate these roller-coaster swings of life. Better to remain placidly detached than to have a life that could at any moment fall prey to an emotional attack. Consequently, the Stoics thought of emotions as signs of weakness, even sickness, and they supposed that truly wise men would be free of such disturbances. Even today our cultural consciousness of emotions reflects this Greek view. “Men don’t cry.” “Women are emotionally out of control.” “Don’t let your feelings get involved in business.” All of these cultural maxims stem from a Greek fear of emotional disturbance.
This Greek philosophical view is not found in the New Testament, principally because the background of the New Testament is the Greek of the LXX with its Hebraic point of view. So the God of the New Testament, just like the God of the Old Testament, is described as a fully emotional being – full of mercy, compassion, grace, anger and wrath. The God of Israel suffers with His people. He is not the transcendent wholly other divine entity of the Greek philosophers. He is the God of intimate involvement who experiences divine pathos over the rebellion of His creation.
Unfortunately, this shift doesn’t always come through in the translation of Greek and Hebrew into our English Bibles. Even more unfortunately, the rabbis of the LXX choose the Greek word eleos to translate the key Hebrew word hesed. As a result, much of the critical background of the Hebrew term hesed was lost because the Greek word eleos pushed the meaning in the direction of an emotion rather than an action. The domination of Greek philosophy in the West has resulted in reading eleos in Scripture as if it retains its Greek emotional base rather than recognizing that eleos is really the Hebrew concept of hesed.
When Paul writes ho eleon en hilaroteti, he is not thinking like a Greek philosopher. He is thinking like a Jewish rabbi. Therefore, we must substitute the Hebrew idea of hesed for the Greek meaning of eleos.
We have had plenty of opportunity to examine this crucial Hebrew word. It is sufficient to merely summarize here. Hesed has no exact English translation equivalent, and for good reason. Hesed entails four related concepts. First, hesed is unmerited benevolence toward another. That means there is no prior obligation for demonstrating this act of kindness. Hesed begins with pure compassion. Secondly, once I experience hesed, it creates reciprocity. When someone shows hesed toward me, I am then obligated to show it to him. Third, hesed requires extension. If I experience hesed, I am expected to pass it on to someone else. I am expected to extend this experience toward another, not just respond to the person who started the chain. Finally, it is obvious that hesed cannot be isolated to the individual. Everything about hesed is relational. Hesed does not exist without community.
This is the background to Paul’s use of eleos in Romans 12:8. What this means is that Paul is not describing feelings of sympathy, an experience of compassion or pity, soft-heartedness or magnanimity. He is describing someone who takes on obligation to provide needed benefit, not because of duty but because of hilaroteti (cheerfulness). In other words, the Zone 7 person is a person whose spiritual DNA compels action on behalf of another. But there is an additional qualification. “With cheerfulness” obscures the Hebrew background for precisely the same reasons that eleos is insufficient. As a term of emotion, eleos hides hesed. So hilaroteti hides the connection to the Hebrew kipper.
Hilaros means “cheerfulness” in classical Greek, but later usage was influenced by the similar Greek word hileos, especially in religious practice. Thus the Greek idea of cheerfulness became associated with divine benevolence. The LXX reflects this meaning when it uses hilaros as a description of favor with the king, and especially in the idiomatic expression of benevolence (cf. Sir. 35:8). The rabbis draw close connections between hilaros and generosity. Apparently hilaros is not so much an ebullient state of mind as it is favorable actions. Once again we see that translating the word within the Greek paradigm of emotion obscures the Hebraic practicality.
How does this affect our understanding of the Zone 7 individual? It is not so much that this individual approaches problem-solving with lighthearted exuberance. The Hebraic background implies that the Zone 7 individual assumes obligations as a display of generosity. And this leads us to make another connection. Hilaros and its association with hileos push us to consider the more theologically oriented word hilaskomai. Both hileos and hilaskomai are connected the Greek ideas of favor from royalty and the gods. While hilaros is never used to describe God in the LXX, hileos is only used as a predicate of God. Why is this the case? Because hileos is associated with the Hebrew word kipper.
In the 100 occurrences of the Greek root hilaskomai in the LXX, 85 are translations of the Hebrew kipper. Kipper has both cultic and non-cultic meanings. It is clearly recognized as a term for expiation and sacrificial substitution in its cultic usage. In non-cultic usage, kipper generally means repairing what is injured or reconciling what needs to be made good or whole.
Applied to our insights about Zone 7 people, we see that the emotional expression of “cheerfulness” does not adequately capture the Hebraic orientation toward action, and in particular, actions that bring about restoration. Zone 7 people fix things, whether those things happen to be dysfunctional parts or people. Zone 7 people restore the world to its proper order. They are motivated by voluntary obligation to repair, an obligation that carries reconciliation it its wings.
Topical Index: Zone 7, eleos, mercy, hilaros, cheerfulness, hesed, kipper, Romans 12:8