Compassion is a rich emotional word in English and not surprisingly it is the rendering of a number of different emotive words expressed in both Hebrew and Greek. It is also a relatively rare word occurring in 39 verses divided almost equally between the Testaments. It total it renders ten different words, four Hebrew and six Greek. The aim of this brief paper is to dig a little into the emotional variety that this word can conjure.
The first occurrence of compassion in the Bible is in Exodus 2:6 as a rendering of châmal (H2550) which means 'to spare' or to 'have pity'. This word is rendered compassion five times, more commonly it is rendered pity(18) or spare(18). In context châmal rendered compassion refers to an instance where someone has the option of doing harm but chooses not to.
A more specialized but common Hebrew word that yields compassion as a translation is râcham (H7355). On eight occasions this word is rendered compassion and on seven of those it describes God having compassion upon his people; on the eighth it describes a woman's relationship to her son as an illustration of God's relationship to his people. The word in Qal form literally means to love deeply in can then be extended to mean 'show mercy'. In the KJV the commonest rendering is mercy(33) with compassion as a distant second(8).
The noun derived from râcham is racham (H7356) and it is rendered compassion on three occasions. The noun in the singular literally refers to a womb; in the plural it extends to mean compassion. On two of those occasions it describes the feelings of God for His people on the third the favor that the exiles found in the eyes of their captors (2Ch 30:9). As with the word from which it is derived the commonest translation of racham is 'mercies'(30). The are seven usages in the sense of womb and then compassion renders the remaining.
The final Hebrew word rendered compassion is rachûm (H7349) which is the adjective derivation of râcham. It means to be compassionate. On the five occasions it is rendered compassion, all of which occur in Psalms, it is referring to God. The other eight occasions it occurs it is rendered merciful and still refers to God.
The largest ingredient to the Biblical word compassion is the Greek word splagchnizomai (G4697). It is first encountered in Mat 9:36 and it is the Lord Jesus feeling the emotion. Thayer tells us that the word literally means to 'be moved in the bowel' and thus means compassion by extension. The word occurs seventeen times in the New Testament and when it is not rendered compassion it is rendered moved(5). Looking at the usage in scripture of the word it is notable that this is a feeling that produces movement or action. Thus it sits half way between the more drastic châmal and abstract râcham.
Another Greek word that suggests compassion enacted is eleeō (G1653). It means to have mercy upon or to help the afflicted or to receive that aid. It differs from splagchnizomai in that it does not particularly stress the feeling of the one performing the action. Most generally it is rendered mercy(27) or obtain mercy(6). It yields the word compassion on three occasions.
There is a third Greek word rendered compassion oikteirō (G3627) which means 'to have pity, a feeling of distress through the ills of others.' Interestingly the word only occurs in one place (Rom 9:15) where it is contrasted to eleeō which is rendered 'mercy' on that occasion. It would therefore appear that the Greeks had separated out emotion that produces action (splagchnizomai), from benevolent action (eleeō), from the emotion uncoupled from action (oikteirō).
Another Greek word occurring only once to describe the compassion of God is metriopatheō (G3356). It is best illustrated by reading it:
Heb 5:2 Who can1410 have compassion3356 on the3588 ignorant,50 and2532 on them that are out of the way;4105 for that1893 he846 himself also2532 is compassed with4029 infirmity.769
The word means to be affected moderately or in due measure. The implication here is that the compassion of Christ has actually moderated the degree of (negative) emotion that would otherwise be felt.
There are two other Greek words rendered compassion sumpatheō (verb) G4834 and sumpathēs (adjective) G4835. As the transliteration suggests the basic meaning of these words is sympathy: the ability to enter into and share the feelings of others. They are both rendered compassion exactly once and refer to feelings that exist, or should exist, between believers in adverse circumstances. Beautifully there is actually a third occasion one of the words occurs Heb 4:15 where we are told that Christ is 'touched with the feeling of' [our infirmities].
We thus see that compassion has a broad definition. The Hebrew effectively draws two distant lines in the sand: at one end sparing someone's life and at the other end a relatively abstract definition of lovingness that is intricately interwoven with the character of God. The Greek then fleshes out the middle ground in five different directions: emotion that produces action, benevolent action possibly devoid of emotion, emotion potentially devoid of action, the quelling of an emotion which might otherwise arise and finally an identification with the emotion of others.