A Bible Lesson on Psalm 103

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This is a Bible lesson on a passage outside the current ISSL schedule, Psalm 103.  This is a psalm of praise, of a mature man who has lived long, and deeply understands the depth of God’s grace towards us.  It begins with praise to God for His benefits enjoyed by an individual.  It turns to God’s mercy evidenced to all people, with Israel as chief example.  And it ends with a call for all creatures to praise God.

Psalm 103:1  Of David. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!

David begins talking to himself.  He tells himself, all that he is, his whole self, to praise God, the God of the Bible, Yahweh, the self-existent One, the great I AM.

The first, overarching, characteristic of God that David finds himself moved to recognize and mention is God’s holiness.  That’s where David begins, and that’s where we will begin if we have any sense.  The whole rest of this Psalm is most precious and deep, exactly because unlike us, God is absolutely perfectly righteous and holy, separate from us and the rest of His creation.

2 Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits,

David, and we, have adequate reason to thank God for undeserved benefits.  David sets the grateful praise of God up against forgetfulness as opposites.  Indifference and forgetfulness ARE ingratitude.  Gratitude will find a voice.  If we forget or are indifferent, we are ungrateful.

3 who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,

David says “your.” It’s David’s soul.  David is talking to himself.  When David begins listing what God has done for him (and equally what he has done for us), he begins with God’s provision for sin and sinfulness!

“Forgives all your iniquity” is clear.  “Who heals all your diseases” has double meaning.  It surely includes physical healing.  But, more importantly and completely, it addresses our sinful nature.  Verse 3 deals with His ultimate curing of our tendency to sin/our very nature.

4 who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

God redeems David’s life from the pit.  God does deliver us from the trials of this life, but ultimately and completely, He delivers us from the just punishment for our sin.  He forgives us, restoring/allowing relationship.  He ultimately delivers/changes us from our tendency to sin, and He spares us the just recompense for our sins.

The word “redeems” here is profound.  The Old Testament had the concept of a “kinsman redeemer.”  This was a next of kin that would step in and voluntarily assume the responsibilities of the helpless.  Boaz was such a person to Ruth and Naomi.  The LORD, although He is holy and we are not, makes us His kin, and steps in, shouldering the responsibility for our sin!!!  He crowns us with steadfast love and mercy.  He assures us of His constant fidelity and empathizes with our human frailty.

5 who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Notice that it is only in the context of understanding God’s primary work for him, the provision for his sin, that David mentions with gratitude “good things.”  If indeed these “good things” are meant to refer to material blessings, David has established that whatever He has given us is completely undeserved, and we ought then be thankful for God’s grace in providing it.

God provides that which gives David (and us) strength.

Now David begins to talk about that which God has provided to His people more generally (as opposed to himself specifically).

6 The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.

The LORD “works righteousness.”  This a general/universal statement about God’s sovereignty.  In the Psalms God’s “working righteousness” typically refers to the faithfulness and reliability with which He acts.  He works justice for all the oppressed.  This is true, whether or not we think so or see it come to pass in our time in this life.  Ultimately, God does not tolerate injustice in His world, and will right the wrongs.

7 He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.

The outstanding Old Testament example of God’s faithfulness and reliability in providing justice to an oppressed people is His deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt through the leadership of Moses.

8 The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

This is a quote from Exodus 34:6-7 and God’s revelation of Himself to Moses at the giving of the law and the second tablets of stone.  The people had blown it and worshiped the golden calf while Moses was on the mountain the first time.  Concrete evidence that this is true is the fact that any of them were still alive!  Concrete evidence that this is true is the fact that you and I are at this moment not receiving the just punishment for our rebellion towards God.  David knows (and we should too) that if God weren’t merciful, the fact that He is holy (see verse 1) would be our immediate and complete undoing.  Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (which, by the way, is a fabulous sermon) hammers this point.  It is only the great mercy of God that holds any sinner from immediate horrible total loss.

9 He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever.

These are not statements that God is going to somehow reform and quit behaving in an unappealing way.  The word rendered “chide” is more literally “contend” as in a court of law.  The point is that God could justly accuse us every moment for our sinfulness and selfishness.  But He doesn’t constantly do so!  His just anger towards our sin will not be held and remembered for all eternity.  God absolutely does have a white hot anger toward sin.  He couldn’t be holy and not have anger!  But it is not the mean-spirited, hateful kind of thing that we humans typically know as anger.  It is part of His complete perfect holiness.

10 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.

Again, the fact that we are all not in eternal punishment at this very moment is evidence of the truth of this.  We want (and get) mercy from God, not His (perfect, terrible) judgment.  He doesn’t deal with us according to our sins/our outward acts of wrong doing.  He doesn’t repay us according to our iniquities/the inner corruptions of our fallen nature.  How can that possibly be?  The next verse has the answer.

11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;

His steadfast love is toward those that fear (that is, honor, reverence, obey) Him.  The love of God is not indiscriminate.  It is available to all, but its most fundamental benefits, those of salvation, are for those who “fear” Him.  To those He acts in an unfathomably loving way.  Just how big is such a love?  The biggest distance that David or his contemporaries could imagine was the distance from earth to the heavenly bodies.  God’s love is of that magnitude.

12 as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

The fact is that David recognizes that the distance from earth to the heavenly bodies isn’t even big enough to correctly describe the size of God’s love and mercy.  It is infinite in size!  David says so!  How far is the east from the west?  As far as David knows, the earth is flat and east and west are infinitely far apart, and that’s how far God has moved our transgressions/our willful rebellions from us.

“our” is God’s people.  David is thinking of Israel as God’s chosen people.  We know it to mean all those that have put real trust in God through Jesus.

13 As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.

This verse begins another section that dwells on God’s compassion towards us because of our frailness as mortals.  God is the perfect Father, tender towards His children, showing compassion.  The word rendered “compassion” apparently has the same root as the word “womb,” so we have God the Father loving us with a mother’s love.

14 For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.

God knows who we are, so to speak what we are made of.  After all, He was there!  He knows that we are weak, frail created beings.

15 As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field;

16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.

Truly, we are mortal.  Our times are as brief as the life of the grass in Israel, that sprouts in the arid land with the spring rains, but has withered, died, and disappeared within a few weeks.

As if the shortness of our lives weren’t bad enough, most of us are going to be forgotten about very quickly after we are gone.  The image in verse 16 is of a field covered with flowers.  When one withers and dies, you can’t even see that it is gone/missing.  Another one grows and takes its place.  The original one is immediately forgotten.

17 But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children,

In contrast to our mortality, there is God’s immortality and the eternal nature of His mercy.  He is from everlasting to everlasting.  And His love, in contrast to our frailty, spans that eternity.  His mercy is ageless, ever fresh, always extended to those who keep His words and commands.  That love is with those who rightly fear/honor/reverence/obey Him.

Again, His righteousness refers (as in verse 6) to the faithfulness and reliability with which He acts.  That faithfulness and reliability is not only true for this generation, it is true for all generations.

18 to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.

That love and faithfulness can be counted on by those who, in recognizing God’s holiness, are moved to reverence Him and consequently obey Him.

19 The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.

The 3-word paraphrase is “God is sovereign!”

David, in the light of all this, quits talking to himself alone and quite appropriately turns to all of creation and invites it to join him in praising God.

20 Bless the LORD, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word!

21 Bless the LORD, all his hosts, his ministers, who do his will!

22 Bless the LORD, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the LORD, O my soul!

In the end, David comes back to speaking to himself.  All there is ought to praise God.  Frankly, the rest of creation is more reliable than we humans in this matter.  But David controls his own soul, and it is his own soul that he finally again calls on.  He ends where he began:  Bless the LORD, O my soul!

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

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