The title is one of my absolutely favourite lines from the Psalms -Psalm 85 verse 10.
I love it: ‘Mercy and Truth are met together, Righteousness and Peace have kissed each other’… There is so much wisdom condensed into this short phrase.Mercy and Truth -why should this be such a very precious pairing, and why should it be unusual enough or rare enough to celebrate in psalmody?
Well Truth… can be a driving force, a motivation, behind many people’s actions, and it might seem at first thought a noble enough motivation to justify any behaviour -but it isn’t… you see none of us can know all the truth, all our knowledge, however advanced and however hard won or thoroughly checked, is partial -incomplete, and therefore, strictly speaking NOT perfectly true.
We human beings can never know all the truth about anything -we can know things very well, we can know more than anyone else -but there is so very much to be known that we simply can’t know the whole truth, and in many ways, unless you know the whole truth, you don’t know the truth at all!… There was an interesting article in New Scientist about a month ago, lamenting the fact that it looks like Physics is as far as ever from producing a ‘unified theory of everything’… glad to see that admission in print to dispell a few delusions.
Still, pursuit of the Truth, is a decent motivation, for starters… But it can also become an unhealthy and costly obsession or a blame game; or it can become a ruthless and selfish justification for any old behaviour… and that is why it is so precious and rare when combined with Mercy.
Mercy… that is perhaps one of the world’s most beautiful words… I’m always reminded of Portia’s line from the Merchant of Venice, ‘the quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven, it is twice blessed’… I’m not sure I agree with the over all thrust of her argument in context – Shylock gets rather a raw deal throughout, nor do I necessarily agree with her description of mercy -I think it can sometimes be quite costly and painful; but the line is beautiful.
‘Mercy and Truth are met together’… What might that mean?
Well lets imagine a child has produced a piece of artwork -it’s not in the same league as Rembrandt, indeed it may be hard to recognise the subject matter even after being told -and here, the ruthlessly ‘truthful’ parent might pride themselves on ‘telling it like it is’ -with no mercy… But the loving parent would temper Truthfulness with Mercy.
What if someone is asking a trusted friend about something they’ve done wrong… they are full of remorse and sorrow and they want to know if the effects of their behaviour can be undone, or if they are irretrievably ruined… ‘Truthfulness’ here, would actually be a combination of mere guesswork -(we are, after all talking about the future)… and personal opinion… So the ‘friend’ who tells the harsh ‘truth’, untempered by mercy, is not actually being particularly truthful OR loving.
You see we don’t know enough of the Truth to sit in judgement pronouncing it, and if we think we have to tell a difficult or painful ‘truth’ to someone… we should always bear in mind how little we know of that truth, and take it down a rank from ‘sacred weapon with which to club someone over the head’… to the more realistic -and indeed therefore more TRUTHFUL… ‘personal and considered opinion’… and at that point we should also remember to check our motivations for sharing that opinion… are they really out of love of the recipient, or are they to smooth out our own rankles and worries: or a murky combination of the two, which needs more thought.
Mercy puts the loving heart back into Truth… and sometimes stops an insistent and convincing lie in its tracks.
Righteousness and Peace have kissed each other…
A lot of Hebrew poetry, as the Psalms are, has couplets of repeated themes… reiterating an idea and building on it or varying it -offering, if you will, two differing but similar flavours from which to gain a third more intense sense of what is meant.
Righteousness… I suppose you could describe that as ‘knowing and doing what’s what’. Living uprightly, strictly even, according to what is right; here, what is right according to God’s holy law… It puts one firmly in the middle of the moral high ground, and offers the perfect, and only legitimate location from which to judge, and cast stones at all the less righteous neighbours around… But Righteousness and Peace have kissed each other… Peace is quite a different quality… there is no sense of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in PEACE… it simply IS.
Peace is a cessation of the argument about who’s right or wrong; peace is a laying down of arms, even if one has the ‘moral highground’… Peace is a gift, vulnerable rather than victorious, Peace may be sacrificial, may require more loss and suffering from one who already has done no wrong… peace is almost in counterpoint to justice, because it means stopping while someone still has an eye!
Righteousness -which has every right to demand justice, instead is met with Peace…
Truth -which demands to be told and may hurt, and is more elusive than we realise – is instead tempered with healing and loving quality of Mercy.
These qualities were all met together in Christ… who would not cast a stone at the woman caught in adultery though he had the legitimate right to. Christ who looked on the young rich man, trapped in his avarice, trapped by his possessions, and did not condemn him, but looked on him in love, rather than judgement and told him to sell what he had… knowing perhaps that he never would do as Christ said, but loving him nonetheless.
These qualities, which might seem contradictory to a society like ours which believes (falsely) that everything ought to operate on, and be explicable by, fixed rules, these qualities are simply deeply human; and also divine. They are qualities belonging to God…
Truth, yes, but not like a machine… Truth tempered with love, with mercy: ‘This is true, but will it help and heal them to know this? To know all of this? To know right now?’
Righteousness and Peace… we see this on the cross… where Christ did not retaliate but held his peace, and so allowed peace -rather than a war of attrition, to come from the cross… ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid’ It’s a very very hard example to follow.
The phrase also conjures up an image for me –are met together…. have kissed each other…
Again I have Shakespeare to thank in part for the image, ‘palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss’.This line from Romeo and Juliet links hands pressed together in prayer, and in dance; to lips pressed together in a kiss –
-Or simply lips held together by one who is not speaking, one who is ‘holding their peace’…
…Truth may demand to be spoken, but Mercy may forbear, watching and praying in silence and love to see when is the right time to speak out of love. Righteousness may have the chance to pass judgement against someone… but Peace may forbear.
So despite being prone to trying to ‘fix’ things, I try very hard to keep my mouth shut, (I sometimes succeed, and at other times fail), when someone is wrestling with a problem of their own, or when they are learning something and making the odd mistake as they persevere… Because 99 times out of 100, they do not need to hear from my lips, or by my pen, my version of the ‘truth’ about their life, they would learn better by my love and example, and will probably come and ask me when they are ready for my opinion.