In the dog days of August, in the heart of Ordinary Time, Psalm 103 is an immensely helpful self-initiated reminder not to forget all that God does for us, which is, simply, everything. That’s probably why my teachers back at Denver Christian Elementary School made me memorize these very verses at the ripe old age of ten. They are, in the words of one scholar, “stunningly comprehensive.” Psalm 103 is the definitive answer to the question, “Why should I praise the Lord?”
The actual wording of our abbreviated reading from the Psalm answers that question clearly, but there are some more technical issues that help to make the point. For one thing, Psalm 103 is part of a mini-Psalter within the Psalter, Psalm 101-110: Psalms 101 and 110 bracket the collection with Psalms about the King; Psalm 102 and 109 are individual prayers; Psalm 103 and 108 praise God for his great love; Psalm 104 and 107 praise God for his deeds in creation; and Psalms 105 and 106 cover the history of Israel from opposite perspectives. In other words, Psalm 103 seems to be carefully placed in a “collection [that] bears a distinctive redemption history stamp and evokes recollection of all the salient features of the Old Testament message.” (NIV textual notes to Psalm 101) In other words, there is a sense in which this Psalm is at the pinnacle of not only the Psalter, but also the entire Old Testament.
Further evidence of its comprehensive character is found in what one scholar calls “the ever widening circles” of those who are called to praise the Lord: the self (vs. 1 and 2), other individuals (vs. 3-5, though I think the Psalmist is addressing himself here), Israel (vs. 7), those who “fear the Lord,” (vs. 11-13), mortals (vs. 14-16), angels and heavenly hosts (vs. 20-21), and the whole creation (vs.22).
Again, note how the Psalmist uses the word “all” 5 times in the first 6 verses and 4 times in the last 4. And he evokes vast distances with his “earth and heaven” and “east to west” imagery, showing the magnitude of divine graciousness. And finally, its 22 verses correspond to the 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet, though it is not an acrostic. It’s as though the Psalmist is saying, “This is the definitive word, everything from A to Z, about praising the Lord.” This very personal Psalm is cosmic in its scope.
But it is very personal. It opens with a three-fold address to the self. “Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, O my soul….” That is remarkable. This “stunningly comprehensive” Psalm is addressed not to the Lord, but to the Psalmist himself (and then to the angels at the end). Here is the self calling the self to praise the Lord, because we so often forget to do that in our self-absorption.
Indeed, the whole Psalm is about “not forgetting,” about remembering and being reminded and recollecting. Another Psalm in this mini-Psalter (106) identifies forgetting as the quintessential sin of Israel, the root cause of their frequent wandering and grumbling and rebellion. Isn’t that the truth about us as well? We know God, his works and his ways and his will. It’s not usually ignorance that lies behind our sin. It is simple forgetting. So in this great Psalm the self calls on the self to “forget not all his benefits.”
Those benefits are many, and magnificent. Indeed, the language David uses to describe “all his benefits” is lush, lavish, almost hyperbolic. He forgives “all your sins.” Does that include even future sins, and un-repented sins, and high-handed, intentional sins, and the sin against the Holy Spirit? He “heals all your diseases.” But, wait, how about those chronic ailments or those fatal diseases? He “satisfies your desires with good things—“all my desires, even the sinful ones, without limit or reservation? How can we responsibly preach such lavish praise?
A couple of observations might be helpful. First, there is a progression in the verbs in verses 3-6: forgives, heals, redeems, crowns, satisfies, renews, and works. Perhaps the Psalmist is thinking of God’s blessings as moving from sin to health, from frailty to majestic flight (“like the eagle’s”). He praises God for the great redemptive process that lifts us from being a sin-sick soul to being a vibrant soaring child of God. Thus, maybe we shouldn’t press the details of these verses. Rather, we should praise God for the great work of God that raises sinners from death to eternal life.
Second, as we do that, we should note two great themes in this listing of blessings. One is forgiveness and the other is the pairing of love and compassion. All of God’s blessings begin with the forgiveness of sin. That is the heart of the new covenant God has made with his sinful people. We have not kept our end of the partnership. We have not walked with the Lord blamelessly (Genesis 17:1). So God could have broken off the covenant he made with Abraham and all his descendants.
Instead, God promised a new covenant in which sins would be remembered no more (Jeremiah 31:33,34). Hebrews 8:10-12 says that the new covenant has been established in the blood of Christ. Through him all the blessings of God can and do come to God’s children. Without forgiveness, we remain weak and sick unto death. The forgiveness of sins heals our sin-sick souls. And we are on the way to eternal youth as God “crowns us with love and compassion.”
That’s the second theme that deserves special attention in our treatment of verses 3-6—“love and compassion.” In the Hebrew those are pregnant words, particularly the second one. “Love” is chesed, that ubiquitous covenant word, describing God’s steadfast determination to bless his sinful people. And “compassion” is racham/rechem, a word that referred originally to the womb. It is a reminder that Yahweh loves his children as a mother loves the child in her womb.
Both words occur over and over in Psalm 103, perhaps as a way of emphasizing that God’s love is strong like a father’s love and tender like a mother’s. A father might get angry at a disobedient child, but a mother’s caring prevails over anger. It is that combination of tough and tender love that ensures the final blessing of God’s children through all their sins and sicknesses. Finally, God redeems them from the pit of death and sets them free on eagle’s wings.
But there is one more verb in the Psalmist’s opening litany of praise to Yahweh. God does all those things for the individual, but his blessing doesn’t stop there. He also “works righteousness and justice for the oppressed.” Here the Psalmist steps over into the history of Israel, the nation that was oppressed by Egypt. That’s the reference when the Psalmist says that Yahweh “made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel” by delivering them. In his righteousness and justice, he established his kingdom on earth. Further, “his righteousness [is] with their children’s children (verse 17).” In other words, we should praise the Lord for the way his righteousness and justice continue to preserve and promote his kingdom, his gathered people, the Body of Christ through the generations.
Our reading for today ends with verse 8, which harks back to that old story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. In particular, verse 8 is a reminder of God’s grace in response to Israel’s most infamous sin. After God had lead Israel out of Egypt through the Red Sea to the foot of Mt. Sinai, Israel committed an unthinkable sin. As Moses was up on the mountain receiving God’s rules for redeemed living, the redeemed of the Lord invented and bowed down to the Golden Calf. Yahweh was so furious at that egregious sin that he threatened to wipe out the entire nation and start over with Moses.
But Moses pleaded with God, and God relented. He promised to be with Moses as he led Israel to the border of the Promised Land. When a hesitant and cheeky Moses asked to see all of God’s glory as a proof and guarantee of that promise, God instead hid Moses in the cleft of a rock, covered him with his hand, and allowed Moses to see his “back.” As he passed by, God spoke the words that would become a central part of Israel’s creed. “Yahweh, Yahweh, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin.” (Exodus 34:6, 7)
That’s how our reading ends for today. That’s too bad, because what follows is a profoundly eloquent exploration of that great creed of Exodus 34. What does the forgiveness of sins amount to? How do Yahweh’s chesed and racham play out or cash out when it comes to our sins? I use the term “cash out” on purpose because the word “repay” in verse 10 is a variant on the word “benefits” in verse 2. In Hebrew that word usually has the sense of what we receive for what we do, almost like payments for services rendered, or like benefits given in addition to a salary (e,g., health insurance benefits).
That suggests the idea of merit or deserving, but the use of that same word in verse 10 directly contradicts any notions of earning the benefits we receive from God’s hand. In fact, he does not give us what we deserve, because what we sinners deserve is wrath. But he “does not treat as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” His justly deserved anger, while slow to come is quick to leave. “He does not harbor it forever….”
At the heart of God’s forgiveness is his chesed and racham: “so great is his love for those who fear him… so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him….” That combination of steadfast love and deep compassion precedes our faith and love; it initiated and maintains the covenant; it freely forgives sins; it will carry us through to the end. It is the source and the ground and the conclusion of the entire life and history of God’s people. We depend completely on it. It is the “Amazing Grace” that saved a wretch like me.
But, as Psalm 103 clearly says, God displays his love and compassion to those “who fear him” (verse 11, 13, 17). That does not refer to being terrified at Yahweh’s anger. It refers, says verse 18, to ”those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.” Does that suggest that we must earn our forgiveness by being good? Of course not! That would be the very opposite of the message of the Psalm.
As verse 18 clearly says, that phrase is a reference to the covenant. When we break covenant by sinning, we must remember to obey his precepts, the first and most important of which is, according to the preaching of Jesus, “Repent and believe the Good News.” (Mark 1:15) Then as repentant and trusting children, we must still fear the Lord. That means that God’s children must seek to make God in Christ the decisive center of our lives. We “are not forgiven because [we] fear the Lord; [we] fear the Lord because [we] are forgiven.‘‘ (Mays)
One more very important word about this Psalm, a word that connects it firmly to God’s saving work in Christ. “The chesed of Yahweh is not a hazy benevolence.” (Patrick Henry Reardon) It has a definite history that centered on specific acts of salvation, beginning with God making covenant with Abraham and coming to a shocking climax in Christ’s death. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.” (I Peter 3:18) “By this we know love, because [Christ] laid down his life for us.” (I John 3:16)
Let us preach the rich benefits that come to us from the love and compassion of God, but let us not forget that they come at the price of Christ’s blood. And they are received by those who extend the open, empty hand of faith to receive the riches of Christ.
In Charles Dickens’ second novel, Oliver Twist, there is a famous scene that provides a dark and negative backdrop for this Psalm about the bounty of God. Oliver Twist, a slender, pale lad, famished because of hard child labor and meager meals, approaches Mr. Bumble, holds out his empty bowl, and says, “Please, sir, may I have some more.” Mr. Bumble cannot believe Oliver’s temerity and reports it to the overseers of the orphanage, whereupon they explode with rage. “He asked for more?” Psalm 103 pictures a God who fills our empty bowls to overflowing if we but have faith. John Calvin described faith as the mouth of the soul, open wide to receive all of God’s benefits in Christ.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 21, 2016
Psalm 103:1-8 Commentary