Commentary on Psalm 103:1-8
All Those Bagpipes
Of the texts that the lectionary pitches for this Sunday (Luke 13, Hebrews 12, Isaiah 58, Psalm 103), I suggest letting the first three go by and taking a cut at the fourth. For the preacher or teacher, Psalm 103 (considered as a whole) is the equivalent of a fat pitch, right down the middle, right over the plate.
Psalm 103: Structure and Genre
Psalm 103 is based on the two elements of the hymn of praise (see Psalm 113 for an example) with calls to praise in verses 1-2a and 20-22 supported by reasons for praise in 2b-4, 6-10, 11-14, 15-18, and 19. We begin by tracing the movement of the psalm as a whole.
Don’t Forget What God has Done for You! (103:1-5)
The expression “Bless the LORD, O my soul” that frames Psalms 103 and 104 has the sense of a charge to oneself: “Now praise the LORD!” Instead of saying “remember the good things God has done” (Psalms 104 and 105) this psalm says “Don’t forget what God has done.” It is one thing for a busy husband or wife to forget a birthday or an anniversary. It may be that it is even easier for an over-stressed citizen of the 21st century to forget about God! Moses preached: “take care that you do not forget the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 6:12) or…”you forgot the God who gave you birth” (Deuteronomy 32:18; see also 4:9, 23).
The psalmist reminds us of the everyday benefits God gives: forgiveness, healing, saving from hell (“the Pit”), capping it all off with steadfast love (Hebrew, hesed) and mercy. There is more: “Don’t forget that God satisfies you with a lifetime of good things and even provides you with those times of renewal, when you feel strong and vigorous and once again young. The imagery here is heroic: “so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” (verse 5)
Amazing Grace (103:6-18)
This section falls into three parts, each of which contains the word hesed, translated in the NRSV as “steadfast love” (verses 8, 11, 17) and equivalent to “Amazing Grace” in Christian hymnody. This section of the psalm offers a short course on what hesed means:
1. Verses 6-10 speak of the inclusive nature of the Lord’s steadfast love which works justice for “all who are oppressed.” Verse 7 recalls the exodus event, the central act of God’s deliverance in the Old Testament and a working out of God’s hesed. Verses 8-10 speak of God’s steadfast love as a forgiving love. The assertion in verse 8 is like a creed that stands at the center of the entire psalm (see also Exodus 34:6). The Hebrew root behind the words translated “mercy” in verse 4, “merciful” in verse 8, and “compassion” (twice) in verse 13 is rechem which means “womb.” Thus the picture behind these words is the kind of affection a mother has for the child of her own womb.
Verse 10 indicates that God’s steadfast love is undeserved. The Lord does not deal with us according to the readout of a cosmic computer keeping track of our acts, but with the kind of love that a mother has for her own child.
2. Verses 11-14 offer three pictures illustrating the nature of God’s hesed. That love is high as the sky and wide as the distance from east to west! Another picture: that love is like the love of a father for his children; the story of God as “waiting Father” in Luke 15 expands upon this notion. Finally, that hesed loves us knowing that we are weak and insignificant; after all, dust was our beginning and is our destiny (Genesis 2:7; 3:19; Psalm 104:29).
3. Verses 15-18 provide yet another angle on the Lord’s hesed. God’s steadfast love is everlasting, in contrast to our lives which are temporary. We mortals are like grass that is here one day and blown away the next. The old hymn has it right:
we blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree,
and wither and perish, but naught changeth thee.
(Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise)
Praise the Heavenly King! (103:19-22)
The psalm concludes with yet another picture of God, this time as heavenly king, ruling over all that exists. Note the repeated all here: God rules over all that exists (19), all the angels of heaven (“his hosts”) are called to praise God. Then the psalm comes back down to earth with the call to all his works to praise (verse 22) and ends as it began, with the psalmist telling himself to praise the Lord.
Psalms 103 and 104 in the Book of Psalms and Christian Theology and Life
Psalms 103-106 are a quartet of four hymns that wind up Book IV of the psalter. The two are closely linked, as the “Bless the Lord” frames of each indicate. The themes of these two psalms are complementary and offer a summary of what the Bible says about God. Psalm 103 tells of God who delivers the nation from bondage (7) and the individual from sin (10-13). God is portrayed as loving with motherly affection (4, 13) as well as with fatherly compassion (13). Psalm 104 speaks of God who creates and sustains all life. Taken together these two psalms express the themes of the Christian creed, speaking of God the Creator and Sustainer (104), God the Saver or Deliverer (103), and God the Spirit (104:27-30).
This is one of the most popular of the psalms, appropriate especially for times of gratitude or of repentance. It occurs frequently in the lectionary and has inspired hymns such as “Praise to the Lord.” Especially attractive is the setting, “Bless the Lord,” in the still-popular 1972 musical, Godspell.
And who can forget the sounds of all those bagpipes at public funerals in our day, sending out the central theme of this psalm, “Amazing Grace!”