Commentary on Psalm 103:1-8
Verse one of Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name” has inspired musical arrangements for generations.
Psalm 103 is an individual song or hymn of praise. Specifically, the object of the praise is the Lord and the individual rather than the community adjures her or himself to praise the Lord. Support of this classification includes the use of the imperative singular form of the Hebrew verb barak, “bless” four times by the psalmist in verses 1-2 and 20-22.
The imperative form evokes intense feelings of immediacy and importance. It is a command to do or say something. Another characteristic of the song of praise is a description of the reasons why the Lord should be praised. One doesn’t need a reason to praise the Lord, but the psalmist nonetheless includes such justifications as the Lord’s majesty, steadfast love, mercy, and justice, on one hand, and rescue, deliverance, and healing on the other hand.
Psalm 103 has the superscription “Of David.” This psalm is one among 73 psalms attributed to David in the Old Testament hymn book. There is a tradition of ascribing the authorship of most psalms to David. However, most scholars agree that the superscriptions are later redactions. This view should not be regarded as dismissive of David’s role in the composition of the psaltery. Rather, it is more helpful to consider the importance for the ancient community of associating David and the monarchy with the divine-human relationship expressed in the psalms.
Still, the presence of the feminine voice in Psalm 103 should not be disregarded either. Despite the use of masculine pronouns by many commentators to refer to the psalmist, perhaps due to the Davidic attribution, Hebrew nouns and verbs are gendered, and the psalmist speaks in the feminine voice when exhorting oneself to barak the Lord.
I will bless the Lord with my whole being
The closely related Hebrew noun berek for “kneel” suggests that to bless the Lord involves kneeling before or lying prostrate before the Lord. It is not then enough in Psalm 103:1 for the song writer to just bless the Lord but to also do so with his or her soul. The Hebrew noun nephesh translated in English as “soul” also means “life,” “being,” or “inmost being.” The psalmist expresses the same sentiment in different words in the next line: “all that is within me.” We are offered a glimpse into the mindset of the psalmist who understands that to bless the Lord is to utter a full-throated, bodily response in recollection of the Lord’s benefits (Psalm 103:2).
Speaking in the second person the psalmist reckons all of the benefits that God has bestowed on him or her in verses 3-5. God forgives your sins (Psalm 103:3). There is a semantic range of meanings for the term of “sin” in the Hebrew Bible lexicon. The Hebrew noun for “sin” in verse three is ’aon, which means “guilt,” “iniquity,” “a mistake,” or “unjust” act.
The psalmist can be confident that God does not cause her or him to suffer the guilt or consequences of their iniquities because God forgives. God heals your diseases. God is the divine healer who makes the psalmist whole. God redeems your life (Psalm 103:4). To redeem (ga’al) is a legal term in Hebrew, which refers to one person buying back another person or possession from the bondage of debt. Here it is God who has rescued the psalmist from the snare of the Pit or trap, an expression meaning to rescue from the grave. Not only has God saved the psalmist from life threatening illness and injury, but God also bestows good things upon the psalmist. God crowns you with steadfast love (hesed) and mercy (Psalm 103:4). Both terms have the covenantal relationship between God and Israel in the background. Finally, God satisfies you. The psalmist is supplied with a lifetime of good things, which in turn rejuvenate the psalmist as in his or her youth (Psalm 103:5).
God is on the side of the oppressed
The hymn shifts in verse 6 from the individual to the communal in singing of the Lord’s righteousness (“vindication”) and justice on behalf of those who are oppressed. James H. Cone, regarded as the father of Black liberation theology, wrote God of the Oppressed to grapple with the socio-historical situation of blacks in the U.S. and the response found within the gospel of Jesus Christ. Fundamental to Cone’s theological construct was that God was on the side of the poor and oppressed. For Cone and the psalmist, the oppressed are the politically or socially downtrodden.
In Psalm 103:6 the inference is that the oppressed are the people of Israel, who God sided with. As evidence, the psalmist points to God’s self-revelation to Moses through God’s salvific acts towards the people of Israel in the wilderness (Psalm 103:7). It was to Moses in Exodus 34:6 that God showed an abundance of restraint after the golden calf incident, declaring that the Lord is a God who is “merciful and gracious,” “slow to anger,” and “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” The psalmist finds that these words bear repeating in verse 8, although faithfulness is omitted here. The Lord’s steadfast love (hesed) for Israel is mentioned for the second time in this passage (see also Psalm 103:11), underscoring its significance for the relationship between God and Israel. In the context of the Babylonian exile, Psalm 103 offers hope that despite Israel’s iniquities, God’s loyalty to the covenant is expressed as God’s forgiveness.
Just as important as it is to bless God, we should also not forget the psalmist’s message that since God is quick to forget our iniquities, we should be swift to recount the benefits that God has bestowed on us. In the words of gospel singer and songwriter Andre Crouch, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. He has done great things. Bless his holy name.”