Commentary on Psalm 103:1-8
Psalm 103 is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving, a psalm in which a single voice praises God for goodness to or on behalf of that individual, usually for deliverance from some trying situation.
Hermann Gunkel, one of the great fathers of psalm studies, describes hymns of thanksgiving in this way: “A person is saved out of great distress … and now with grateful heart he [sic] brings a thank offering to Yahweh; it was customary that at a certain point in the sacred ceremony he would offer a song in which he expresses his thanks.”
The psalmist begins the words of thanksgiving by addressing the nephesh, usually translated as “soul,” but better understood as “inmost being” — the all of who a person is. (See the parallel “all that is within me” in the second half of verse 1.) The opening and closing words of the psalm (verses 1 and 22) bring to mind the popular praise song by Andrae Crouch, “Bless the Lord, O my soul … He has done great things.”
While Crouch’s song leaves the “great things” undefined, Psalm 103 outlines in detail just what God does for the psalmist’s nephesh. God forgives iniquity, heals diseases, redeems from the Pit (a reference to death), crowns with steadfast love and mercy, satisfies with good, and works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed (verses 3-6).
Verses 7 and 8 recall the time of the Wilderness Wanderings, when Israel repeatedly grumbled against and rejected God’s goodness, but God continued to provide for and guide them. Verse 8 brings to the mind of the hearer the golden calf incident in Exodus 32-34, which culminated in God’s self-declaration in Exodus 34:5-7: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
The word translated “merciful” in Exodus 34:6 and Psalm 103:4 and 8 is particularly interesting. It is derived from the Hebrew verbal root raham, whose noun form rehem means “womb.” God’s compassion is tied closely to the concept of “womb love,” the love a mother feels for her yet-to-be-born child. Over and over, the psalmists remember and call upon God’s mercy, God’s “womb love.” “Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love” (25:6); “Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me” (69:16); “The LORD is good to all, and his compassion (another word used by the NRSV to translate raham) is over all that he has made” (145:9). References to God’s mercy (or compassion) occur no less than twenty-two times in the book of Psalms.
Psalm 22 takes the metaphor a step further and actually connects God’s identification with “womb-love” to the physical referent for the metaphor. In verse 10 the psalmist cries to God, “Upon you I was cast from the rehem (in the NRSV, “from my birth”). Here God is intimately tied to the life-giving womb and is further pictured as midwife. Phyllis Trible, in God and Rhetoric of Sexuality, describes the image in this verse as a “semantic movement from a physical organ of the female body to a psychic mode of being.” In Ps 77:9 the psalmist asks “Has God in anger shut up his compassion?” The verb translated “shut up” (qapats) is used most often in the Hebrew text in reference to “shutting the mouth,” but one does not have to travel far metaphorically to connect “mouth” with “womb opening” in this poetic construction.
Another word in verses 4 and 8 of Psalm 103 is also found in God’s self-descriptive words in Exod 34:6 — hesed. It is translated in the NRSV as “steadfast love.” Hesed is a difficult word to render into English; it has to do with the relationship between two parties of an agreement, a covenant in the context of the Old Testament. God made a covenant with Abraham in Gen 15:18, stating “To your descendants I give the land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” In Exodus 19:4-5, God and the people of Israel entered into a covenant relationship at Mt. Sinai. God said to them, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.”
God promised that the Israelites would be a treasured possession; they had only to keep God’s covenant stipulations. We might say that hesed is about covenant relationship or covenant promises. It has to do with the sacred agreement, the sacred relationship, between God and God’s people. Thus, Exodus 34 and Psalm 103 remind us that our God is a God of womb-love and a God of covenant promise.
The thanksgiving words of Psalm 103 stand in stark contrast to the lamenting words of Psalms 42 and 43, in which the psalm singer admonishes the nephesh, who is “cast down” and “disquieted,” to “hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God” (42:5, 11; 43:5). Words of quiet despair are transformed into words of thankful praise as the singer of Psalm 103 brings to mind all of God’s “benefits” (verse 2). The word translated “benefits” (gemul), though, actually has to do with receiving in return what one has earned — what one should receive in return for one’s actions, words, and thoughts. The psalmist recognizes that, while God is not a God of retribution (note I said should above), we are called upon to respond to and embrace the mercy, the “womb-love,” of God and to uphold our human responsibilities of the steadfast love, the hesed, relationship.