It is difficult to carve up Psalm 103, though the Lectionary does its best to try doing so anyway. There really is no reason to not preach on the entire Psalm, and that is pretty much the direction my commentary will go as well.
What impresses you most of all about this well-known and lyric poem is how broad and capacious it is. Here is a psalm with true SIZE to it. The whole song dances on the border of hyperbole. Actually, it crosses over into the Land of Hyperbole quite often. This is one of those psalms that has to be understood as being true only in the longest possible run. Because for now and taken literally, we know that not every life is redeemed from the pit. Not every life or every time. Not every disease is healed. Some are but many for now are not healed. No doubt in the end God will work justice for ALL the oppressed as verse 6 says but for now, there are plenty of oppressed people who will never live to see justice this side of eternity.
We could spend this entire sermon commentary deconstructing this psalm and seeking to hedge in its enthusiastic speech with a long string of caveats and “Yeah but . . .” statements. But let’s not do that. Yes, let’s duly note that a touch of realism needs to qualify this poem for the here and now. But let’s not tear down its lyricism on account of that. That would be like taking a Shakespeare sonnet like “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate” by noting that in most relationships there are times when we are tempted to compare our lover to a winter’s day, more chilling and more cold! By why do that? Sometimes you just need to be swept up into the lyricism of a sonnet or a poem. Getting caught up in the romance of it all is the point.
So also with Psalm 103: here is a song designed to sweep us off our feet, to impress us and wow us with the enormity of our God and of this God’s compassion, grace, and love. Again, the sheer scale of this poem is what is as impressive as anything. When it comes to describing God’s love, ordinary speech just fails this psalmist. So he has to reach for impossible speech, hyperbolic speech.
How big is God’s love? As high as the heavens are above the earth. How high is that? Who knows. Infinite maybe. When God takes our sins away from us in God’s gracious forgiveness, how far away from us does he throw our sins? As far as the east is from the west. How far is that? Who knows. I guess they never meet. Maybe that’s infinite too. How long does God’s love stay with us? From everlasting to everlasting. How long is that? Who knows. It’s indescribable. Probably infinite. But for sure a good, long while!
A friend of mine once noted that when it comes to the communicable attributes of God—that is, those traits of God that we can share like love, goodness, faithfulness—our tendency is to take what we know of goodness, for instance, on the human level and then when we apply it to God we just make it BIGGER. Goodness squared. Goodness cubed. Goodness raised to a power of 10. But what if it’s not like that? What if God’s goodness is not just like our goodness magnified a bit but what if it is qualifies as a different kind of thing altogether? What if the goodness of God—while perhaps spilling over a bit into human goodness—is finally just such a different animal than on the human plane of existence that it finally defies our ability to describe it or even fully to grasp it?
The poet of Psalm 103 understood that I think. And thus if it seems that at times this psalm’s promises seem a bit too sunny to be true on this side of the kingdom of God, we can understand the reason. Here is a believer who is gob smacked by the enormity of God and of God’s compassionate love, of God’s grace and mercy.
And in being swept off his feet by this vision of God, the psalmist is certain that all the things that for now make life miserable will not have the last word. Even as for now there are many times when diseases are healed and afflictions are lifted, so in the end they all will be. Yes, we are mortals. We are finite. We are that proverbial morning grass that springs to life but then before you know it we also wither and die. But the brevity of this current life is not all there is either. At least that will be true for all of us who can be caught up in the divine love that this psalm demonstrates is finally beyond ordinary description.
In some traditions Psalm 103 is recited as a responsive reading following a celebration of the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. I have experienced this psalm many times in that context. And without fail on those Sunday mornings when we as a congregation recited the lines “he heals all your diseases,” we had the names of some members of the congregation in the church bulletin whose diseases were not getting healed at all. Indeed, we recited those words about healed diseases and lives redeemed from the pit sometimes in the shadow of a recent funeral or two where we had to bid an earthly farewell to a dear brother or sister.
Yet we recited those words in the wake of having just taken the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus to ourselves once more. We had just gotten caught up in the grand drama of redemption that played out on the cross and through to the empty tomb. We had just re-witnessed a divine love for us that defies description, a love that once inspired a hymnwriter to pen the well-known stanza “Were the whole realm of glory mine, that were a present far too small” to express gratitude back to God for what Jesus did on the cross.
There are times in the Christian walk of discipleship when engaging with a bit of hyperbole is exactly what we need to boost us along. On the face of it, hyperbole expresses something that isn’t really true. Then again, when it comes to the Gospel, hyperbole expresses something too good not to be true. Psalm 103 knows that. So what else can we say but “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and all my inmost being praise God’s holy name.”
The late Rev. Fred Craddock preached a sermon once on “The Gospel as Hyperbole.” In that case he took off from the end of John 21 where John claims that if everything Jesus ever said and did were written down, “the world could not contain the books that would be written.” A ridiculous statement on the face of it but that’s the Gospel for you: it defies description. As we have noted, Psalm 103 is good at hyperbole too.
In his sermon at one point Craddock noted that preachers used to be better at using hyperbolic speech in their sermons than a lot of modern preachers seem to be. We’re far too tame. We downsize everything to keep it manageable. By way of illustration of how it used to go in sermons, Craddock mentioned a one-time frontier preacher who in one of his sermons tried to do the impossible; namely, describe eternity. But he tried when he said, “Imagine a giant granite mountain towering 15,000 feet. And then imagine that once every 100 years a bird flies past that mountain and ticks against it with one of his wings. When that bird has managed to whittle that mountain down to the ground, in eternity that would be before breakfast.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 13, 2020
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13 Commentary