Psalm 103. Bless the Lord, O My Soul

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (28:15)

J.H. Hartley (illustrator), 'Moses Praying' (1922)
J.H. Hartley (illustrator), 'Moses Praying' (1922) in James Bailie, The Bible Story: a connected narrative retold from Holy Scripture (A & C Black Ltd., London, 1923). Larger image.

"1  Praise the LORD, O my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2  Praise the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits --
3  who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
4  who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
5  who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.
6  The LORD works righteousness
and justice for all the oppressed.
7  He made known his ways to Moses,
his deeds to the people of Israel:
8  The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
9  He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
10  he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
11  For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
12  as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
13  As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
14  for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
15  As for man, his days are like grass,
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
16  the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
17  But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD's love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children's children --
18  with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts.
19  The LORD has established his throne in heaven,
and his kingdom rules over all.
20  Praise the LORD, you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his bidding,
who obey his word.
21  Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts,
you his servants who do his will.
22  Praise the LORD, all his works everywhere in his dominion.
Praise the LORD, O my soul." (Psalm 103:1-22, NIV)

Bless the Lord (Psalm 103:1)

Psalm 103 is a familiar one, a psalm that has spawned dozens of hymns and choruses. It is attributed to David: The first line introduces the psalm:

"Praise the LORD, O my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name." (Psalm 103:1)

More familiar may be the translation, "bless":

"Bless the LORD, O my soul:
and all that is within me, bless his holy name."

"Bless" (KJV, NRSV, ESV, NJB) or "praise" (NIV) is bārak, meaning "bless, praise, salute," here, "to declare God the origin of power for success, prosperity, fertility," that is, to "praise God."1 When Aaron the high priest blessed the people, he lifted his hands toward them as an act of conferring a blessing (Leviticus 9:22). When Jesus blessed his disciples at his ascension, he lifted his hands toward them (Luke 24:50). When we bless God, we often extend our hands to him in prayer and worship, following the pattern of both the Old Testament saints and the early church.2

But this blessing is no mere gesture. The psalmist prays with his whole heart; he pours out his heart before God in worship. "Within me" (KJV, NRSV, ESV), "inmost being" (NIV), "depths of my being" (NJB) is qereb, "midst, among, inner part," denoting the internal. It is often used as a parallel to "heart" and "soul."3 He blesses Yahweh's "holy name," that is his holy person, his sacred being.

The psalmist calls upon his soul, himself (nephesh), to bless God. Sometimes our body seems tired, our spirit dull, our attitude "bummed out," depressed. Sometimes we have to tell ourselves to praise. Friends, we don't praise because we feel like it, but because God is worthy! Usually, after we've offered praise for awhile, our spirit gets in tune with God's Spirit and we begin to feel like worshipping. By our will we command ourselves to worship.

Forget Not All His Benefits (Psalm 103:2-5)

"Praise the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits...." (Psalm 103:2)

Now David begins to enumerate all the benefits4 that the Lord brings to us:

"3... who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
4who redeems your life5 from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
5who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's." (Psalm 103:3-5)

A look at the verbs in this list tells the story, suggesting themes that are developed throughout the Bible:

  • Forgiveness and pardon6 from sin -- spiritual.
  • Healing7 and restoration from sickness8 -- physical.
  • Deliverance or redemption9 from the grave10-- physical.
  • God's love11 and compassion12 as a garland on the head -- physical, spiritual, emotional.
  • Sustenance13 for our bodies14 -- physical.

The result is:

"... so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's." (Psalm 103:5b)

The renewal15 to one's youthful state16 is compared to that of an eagle. References to a renewing of youth here and in Isaiah 40:31 may stem from the fact of the eagle's longevity or perhaps its fresh appearance in new plumage following moulting.17 Kidner notes that verse 5b

"... is not implying (as RSV's apostrophe suggests and as some ancient commentators believed) that eagles have the power of self-renewal; only that God renews us to be 'young and lusty as an eagle' (Prayer Book Version, 1662) -- the very picture of buoyant, tireless strength which Isaiah 40:30-31 takes up."18

You've tasted of God's forgiveness, his healing when you've been sick, rescue from life-threatening experiences. You've felt his love, sensed his compassion, found that he supplies your physical needs. All these, the psalmist affirms, are the benefits that Yahweh bestows on us, and for all these we bless him.

The God of Righteousness and Justice (Psalm 103:6)

He goes on to talk about Yahweh's moral standard of rightness and truth that stand out like a beacon of light against the backdrop of man's sleazy compromises and equivocations.

"The LORD works righteousness
and justice for all the oppressed." (Psalm 103:6)

If you and I are ever placed in positions of power, we dare not take advantage of the poor, for our God will be working against us. He is the one who stands up for and defends the cause of the poor, the fatherless, the prisoner, the foreigner in our midst (Deuteronomy 24:14-15; Psalm 72:4, 12; 109:31; 146:7; Proverbs 22:22-23; Isaiah 58:6-7; Jeremiah 7:6; Ezekiel 22:7). Our God is righteous and just and demands the same of his people.

The God Who Revealed Himself to Israel in the Exodus (Psalm 103:7)

"He made known his ways to Moses,
his deeds to the people of Israel." (Psalm 103:7)

What we know about God is not merely deduced from nature (though we can learn something about God from his creation; Romans 1:19-20; Psalm 19:1-4). The Judeo-Christian faith is a revealed faith, God speaking to and through men his truth as well as demonstrating his faithfulness in his actions.

The Gracious and Merciful God (Psalm 103:8-9)

The next verses, based on God's revelation to Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness, encourage us when we struggle with sin:

"8 The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever...." (Psalm 103:8-9)

The "God of the Old Testament" is sometimes caricatured by unbelievers as an angry, spiteful, unforgiving God, but that is the opposite of how he actually revealed himself to his people. The definitive revelation of God's nature is found at the second giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai in Exodus, when Yahweh reveals himself to Moses with the words:

"The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation." (Exodus 34:6-7)19

This passage is referred to as a summary of God's character often in both the Psalms (86:15; 103:8; 111:4; 112:4; 116:5; and 145:8) and the rest of the Old Testament (Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:7; 2 Chronicles 30:9).

Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God is known as the merciful and compassionate God. "Compassionate" is raḥûm, from reḥem/raḥam, "womb" as the seat of one's emotions.20 "Gracious" is ḥannûn, "gracious," from ḥānan, which depicts "a heartfelt response by someone who has something to give to someone who has a need."21 Aren't you glad that love lies at the basic character and value system of our God?

The God Who Forgives Us Completely (Psalm 103:10-13)

Now come some of the most refreshing words to the repentant sinner that one can imagine:

"10 He does not treat us as our sins22 deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.23
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us." (Psalm 103:10-12)

 David employs two similes to illustrate the completeness of God's forgiveness:

  • Height -- "for as high as the heavens are above the earth...."
  • Distance -- "as far as the east is from the west...."

It's interesting how the graphic nature of these comparisons can help us grasp the abstract and take hold of it!

The Lord Has Compassion on Us as Children (Psalm 103:13-14)

The psalmist's next simile is one of a father and his children:

"13 As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
14 for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust." (Psalm 103:13-14)

"Has compassion" (NIV, ESV), "pitieth" (KJV) is rāḥam, "love deeply, have mercy, be compassionate," formed from rehem, "womb," thought of as the seat of the emotions, the verb form of the adjective we saw in verse 4b above.

God has deep, heartfelt compassion because he is our Father as well as our Creator, who formed us from "the dust of the ground" (Genesis 2:7). We don't have value based on the mineral and biological content of our bodies. We have value because the Lord breathed his own breath into us, gave us life, and values us as his children, created in his own image.

The Transitory and the Eternal (Psalm 103:15-18)

Now David contrasts man's tenuous, transitory existence to eternity:

"15 As for man, his days are like grass,
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
16 the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.

17 But from everlasting to everlasting24
the LORD's love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children's children --
18 with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts." (Psalm 103:15-18)

 Our time-bounded life may define us -- unless we can see beyond this life to the never-ending nature of God's love for us. His love lasts beyond the grave and so do we. Yes, love is the chief of his "benefits" for which we praise him. 

The Lord Is King over All (Psalm 103:19)

Again and again in the Psalms we see an affirmation that Yahweh reigns! He is a "great King" above all gods (Psalm 95:3) and over all the earth (Psalm 47:2; 48:2).

"The LORD has established his throne in heaven,
and his kingdom rules over all." (Psalm 103:19)

Jesus' proclamation that the Kingdom of God is "at hand" in his own person (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; 10:7; Luke 21:31; 17:21) follows this same theme.

Let Angels, Creation, and My Own Soul Bless the Lord (Psalm 103:20-22)

The King is served by angels, heavenly hosts (armies), and servants of all kinds. They and all his works are to offer him praise.

"20Praise the LORD, you his angels,25
you mighty ones who do his bidding,
who obey his word.
21Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts,
you his servants who do his will.
22Praise the LORD, all his works
everywhere in his dominion."26 (Psalm 103:20-22)

All creation praises Yahweh the revealed God, the compassionate God, the Creator, and the King. The psalmist ends where he began -- with his own need to praise. And so he calls his own soul -- whether he feels like praising or not -- to join with the chorus of heaven and earth in fulsome praise:

"Praise the LORD, O my soul." (Psalm 103:22)

 Q1. (Psalm 103) Which one or two aspects of God's character mentioned in this Psalm stand out to you? Why do you think the Exodus was so foundational in Israel's understanding of God? According to Psalm 103:10-12, what are the limits to God's forgiveness?
http://www.joyfulheart.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=689

Endnotes

Note: This exposition is taken from Ralph F. Wilson, Experiencing the Psalms (JesusWalk Publications, 2007, 2010).

Abbreviations and References

[1] John N. Oswalt, bārak, TWOT #285; Holladay 49-50.

[2] For all the scripture references in the Bible on lifting hands, see my article, "Lifting Hands in Worship," Paraclete, Winter 1986, pp. 4-8. www.joyfulheart.com/scholar/hands.htm

[3] Leonard J. Coppes, qrb, TWOT #2066a.

[4] "Benefits" is gemûl, "recompense, reward, benefit" (Jack P. Lewis, gāmal, TWOT #360a).

[5] "Life" is ḥay, used in the plural as a noun, "life," from ḥāyā, "to live, have life" (BDB 1092),

[6] "Forgives" is sālaḥ, "forgive, pardon," always used of God's offer of pardon and forgiveness to the sinner, never of people forgiving each other (Walter C. Kaiser, sālaḥ, TWOT #1505).

[7] "Heals" is rāpā', "heal, make healthful." It is used a number of places in the Old Testament including Isaiah 53:5 ("with his stripes we are healed") and Exodus 15:26 ("I am the LORD who heals you") (William White, rāpā', TWOT #2196). The basic idea of the word is physical healing, but it is also occasionally used in figurative sense, depending upon the context (1 Kings 18:30; 2 Kings 2:22).

[8] "Diseases" is taḥalu'îm, used of physical ailments of one kind or another (Edwin Yamauchi, ḥālā', TWOT #648a).

[9] "Redeems" is gā'al, "redeem, ransom, do the part of a kinsman," to rescue or help a relative who is in need (R. Laird Harris, gā'al, TWOT #300).

[10] "Pit" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "destruction" (KJV) is shaḥat, "pit, destruction, grave, corruption." There is a dispute about the derivation of shaḥat, either from shûaḥ "dig a pit" or perhaps "sink down" or from shāḥat "to go to ruin." The translation "grave" or "decay of the grave" fits very well in most of the passages (R. Laird Harris, shūaḥ, TWOT #2343, 1c).

[11] "Love" (NIV), "lovingkindness" (KJV), "steadfast love" (NRSV, ESV) is ḥesed, which we've seen several times before. In our passage it appears in verse 4b, 11b, and 17b.

[12] "Compassion" (NIV), "mercy" (NRSV, ESV), "tender mercies" (KJV) is raḥămîm, from reḥem/raḥam, "womb" as the seat of one's emotions (Leonard J. Coppes, rāḥam, TWOT #2146b).

[13] "Satisfies" is śābēa', basically "to be satisfied by nourishment" (Bruce K. Waltke, śābēa', TWOT #2231).

[14] "Mouth" (KJV), "desires" (NIV), "as long as you live" (NRSV), ESV untranslated, is uncertain. The Masoretic Hebrew text reads 'edyêk, "your ornament" which is taken to mean "your mouth" by the KJV. The NRSV has emended this to 'ôdekā, "your continuing," which they translate "as long as you live" (Kidner, Psalms 73-150, p. 365, footnote 1).

[15] "Renewed" is ḥādash, "renew, repair, rebuild" (Carl Philip Weber, ḥādash, TWOT #613).

[16] "Youth" is ne'ûrîm, "youth, early life ... with a stress on the early, immature but vigorous, trainable stage of life." (Milton C. Fisher, n'r, TWOT #1389d).

[17] Milton C. Fisher, nesher, TWOT #1437.

[18] Kidner, Psalms 73-150, p. 365.

[19] You can find a detailed exposition of this passage in my study on The Names and Titles of God (JesusWalk Publications, 1010), chapter 10, "The God of All Grace."

[20] Leonard J. Coppes, rāḥam, TWOT #2146c.

[21] Ḥānan is cognate with Akkadian enēnu, hanānu "to grant a favor," Ugaritic ḥnn "to be gracious, to favor" (Edwin Yamauchi, ḥānan, TWOT #694d).

[22] Ḥēṭ', "sin ... the failure to hit a mark, a turning away from obedience, a lack of wholeness or of acceptance before God" (G. Herbert Livingston, ḥāṭā', TWOT #638a).

[23] 'Āwōn, "infraction, crooked behavior, perversion, iniquity, etc." (Carl Schultz, 'āwā, TWOT #1577a).

[24] "Everlasting to everlasting" uses the term 'ôlām, a word to indicate indefinite continuance into the very distant future (Allan A. MacRae, 'lm, TWOT #1631a).

[25] "Angel" is malʾāk, "Messenger, representative, courtier, angel" (Andrew Bowling, TWOT #1068a).

[26] "Dominion" is memshālā, "rule, realm, dominion, sovereignty" (Robert D. Culver, māshal, TWOT #1259c).

Copyright © 2021, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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