All of my life I’ve heard people use that proverbial phrase “Lord, have mercy.” So many times we use phrases like this, and many others, but we have no idea what we’re really saying. It is just an automated response that we give when something unusual happens in our life. The reality is we really do need the Lord to have mercy upon us.
In the days of the Roman Empire and of the valiant gladiators, the idea of “Lord, have mercy” was one that had great meaning. The fights between gladiators in ancient Rome were brutal. It was not like a football game (American or otherwise) where it would be assumed that both sides would go home with just a couple of bruises. Death was a common occurrence at a gladiatorial game, but that doesn’t mean it was inevitable. One gladiator might be lying prone in the blood-absorbing sand of the arena, with the other gladiator holding a sword (or whichever weapon he was assigned) at his throat. Instead of simply plunging in the weapon and consigning his opponent to death, the winning gladiator would look for a signal to tell him what to do.
There were three different responses that would or could occur. First, the defeated gladiator would give a sign to his opponent and to the Emperor, or whoever was in the seat of authority, that he desired mercy instead of death. He would raise his left hand and his index finger which would declare to the Emperor, “Lord, have mercy.” Second, the victor would look to the Emperor for a sign to either give mercy or bring death. Third, the Emperor, often a politician to some degree, would look to the crowd who would either chant some type of phrase such as “mercy” or “death.”
If the Emperor would give a gesture such as something similar to a “thumbs down” the defeated gladiator would be executed immediately. If the defeated gladiator received something similar to a “thumbs up”, mercy would be given, but he was left wounded and disgraced, and marked as a loser for a lifetime. He was shamed and ostracized because of his loss and lived the rest of his life with the identity of a loser.
The most basic definition of mercy is when we deserve death, someone gives us life. The Bible teaches us that we have all been defeated when it says that everyone has sinned (Romans 3:23), that there are none righteous (Romans 3:10).
Like those in the Roman coliseum, in life when we are defeated, sometimes those around us who represent the crowd offer us mercy, yet sometimes others kick us while we are down, and show no mercy.
God is a God of Mercy (2 Corinthians 1:3) and as we read in the scriptures over and over that “His Mercy endures forever.” Psalm 136 has 26 verses and that phrase is found in every verse. Psalm 86 reminds us that the mercy of the Lord is plenteous. The phrase, “Lord have mercy” did not begin with the gladiators, it is one of the great themes found throughout the Bible.
When we find ourselves in the position of needing the mercy of God, there’s one thing that you can always count on and that is that He loves to give Mercy. Charles Spurgeon once said that when it comes to judgement, God walks very, very slowly but when it comes to giving mercy, He runs to our rescue.
Unlike the days of the Gladiators where a person was shamed and labeled a loser for a lifetime, when God gives us mercy, not only does he give us a life, but he picks us up out of the dust, heals our wounds, and forgives us completely. He then takes us in as one of his own children and labels us a child of God, a victor, one who is not a loser but one who is more than a conqueror. Then for the rest of our lives we can say as David in Psalm 23, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
Next time you mindlessly utter the phrase Lord have mercy I hope that you will be reminded that we all need his mercy and that we will pray the same prayer found in Psalm 30:10, “Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me: Lord, be thou my helper.”
The writer is the pastor of Northtowne Church of God in Sidney.