Word Study #106 — Compassion

“Compassion” was one of the words that appeared several times on the “search” lists. This topic was addressed in Word Studies #59 – “mercy”, and #60 – “grace”, and the present study should be viewed as a supplement to those, to which I would encourage you to refer. There, you may recall, we (tentatively) concluded that “mercy” generally assumed some sort of merciful act or behavior, whereas “grace” appears more as a description of the character trait or motivation that results in generous action, although there is overlap in their use. “Compassion” probably falls somewhere between these two, bearing some of the “flavor” of each. All have their utmost manifestation in the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus, and all are expected to be replicated in the lives of his followers.

Splanchnizomai, the primary word translated “compassion”, seems at first glance a rather odd choice. Its primary classical use was in reference to the entrails of a sacrificed animal, or the powers of those individuals who were thought to be able to “read” future events by examining or consuming them! I suppose that its later reference to all of one’s inner organs as the seat of one’s emotions is no more repulsive than the modern English usage of “heart” or “guts” in a similar way. That might seem just as strange to folks unacquainted with our culture.

In the New Testament, splanchnizomai, which appears only a dozen times, is traditionally rendered “moved with compassion” 5 times, and “have compassion” 7 times. It is used only in the synoptic gospels, preceding accounts of Jesus’ healing (Mt.14:14, 20:34; Mk.1:41, 9:22), the raising of a young dead man (Lk.7:13), feeding people (Mt.15:32, Mk.8:2), and teaching crowds (Mt.9:36, Mk.6:34). It describes the attitude on the part of the protagonist in three parables: the master’s release of a debtor (Mt.18:27), the “good Samaritan” (Lk.10:33), and the prodigal son (Lk.15:20). Every occurrence of the word is immediately followed by an act expressing the compassion felt by the individual in question.

A few other words are also translated “compassion”.
Eleeo, treated in detail in #59, usually translated “mercy”, was rendered “compassion” three times: in Mt.18:33 regarding the debt noted above, Mk.5:19 – Jesus’ instructions to a healed man to tell the folks at home of God’s “compassion”/mercy to him, and Jude 22 regarding a disciple’s responsibility to rescue an errant fellow-disciple from self-destruction.
Oikteiro, of which the only New Testament use is Rom.9:15, is related to the noun and adjective forms universally translated “mercy” (also see #59).
Metriopatheo also used only once (Heb.5:2), refers to Jesus’ sympathetic understanding of our plight as a result of having shared our humanity. In this, it closely parallels
sumpatheo, also used only in Hebrews – 4:15 where it also refers to Jesus’ being able, in his function as high priest, to “sympathize” with our “infirmities”, and 10:34, where the readers are commended for their sharing in the sufferings of those imprisoned or otherwise persecuted for their faithfulness.
L/S defines sumpatheo, and its adjective form, sumpathes, as “a feeling of sympathy” (our English cognate is “sympathy”). Its etymological make-up, however, is more specific, combining sum- (a form of the preposition “with”), and pathe (“suffering,or misfortune”). This parallels the Latin “com-” (also “with, or together”), and passio, (suffering), which is the etymological source of “compassion”.
These seem to lean heavily toward a deeper involvement that simply “feeling sorry” for someone. They require sharing his distress to the point of strong motivation toward action to alleviate his suffering.

Only Peter uses the adjective form, sumpatheis – and he piles on four other descriptive terms to make sure we get the point. Addressing attitudes and behavior in the brotherhood (I Pet.3:8), he admonishes his readers: “Finally, all of you, be like-minded (homophrones), sympathetic (sumpatheis), loving the brethren (philadelphoi), compassionate (eusplanchnai), unassuming (tapeinophrones).

Peter is talking about a deep level of involvement here, far more than a pleasant Sunday morning handshake! Of the descriptive words he chooses, not only sumpatheis, but also homophrones – “of the same mind” (see #96), philadelphoi “familial love”(#12, #87), and tapeinophrones “humble-minded” (#14), are used only here in the New Testament, although related words are referenced in the word studies noted. Please refer to these for more detailed discussion, as all are important, if a “colony of the Kingdom” is to function as intended.
Only eusplanchnai appears anywhere else. You can easily see its relation to our primary word, splanchnizomai. The prefix, eu- denotes “good” or “well”. L/S says “good-hearted”. The single other use is in Eph.4:32, where Paul combines it with chrestoi (kind) and charizomai (gracious -#60, forgiving-#7) in describing interactions in the brotherhood.

So perhaps we should characterize “sympathy / compassion” as “grace / mercy” with shoe-leather under it. They appear to be coming at the same general idea from slightly different directions: a gracious character trait, of which the Lord Jesus provides the prime example, that motivates both sharing a deep understanding and concern for another’s condition, and action – doing whatever is possible to alleviate his difficulty, disability, or distress.
The aggregate represents an essential element of the brotherhood shared by Kingdom citizens – and an assignment guaranteed to keep us VERY busy!

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