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Greek Word Study - Compassion

“Bowels and mercies”? How did that phrase get into the Bible? (See Phil 2:1, KJV.) The story behind the word is more logical than you might think.

The King James translators chose “bowels” as the best translation for the Greek word splangchna (SPLAHNK nah), meaning the “inward parts.” Specifically, the Greeks had in mind the nobler viscera, such as the stomach, liver, lungs, etc. But what does this have to do with tender emotions such as mercy? Why does the Bible use this word?

Let's look at it this way: Imagine that you just received a tragic phone call. Or imagine that you happen to come suddenly upon some pathetic soul who is suffering horribly from an injury. You feel pity and compassion, of course. But where do you feel it? In your brain? In your hands? Or in the pit of your splangchna? For this reason the Greeks identified tender mercy and deep emotional longing with the area of the human anatomy called splangchna.

Thus, Paul could yearn for his Philippian friends “in the splangchna of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1 :8). To have Philemon receive Onesimus kindly would “refresh the splangchna”of Paul (Philemon 20). And John warns that if we “shut our splangchna” from our brother in need, we do not really have God's love in us (1 John 3:17).

The verb form of this same word is used 12 times in the N.T.--once with the Good Samaritan, once with the father of the Prodigal Son, once with the forgiving master of Matt 18:27, and all the other times with Jesus, who had the most tender splangchna of all.