Commentary on Psalm 103:[1-7] 8-13
What are the contours of praise for God?
How do we know it if we are actually engaged in it? Is it simply a matter of the emotions somehow reaching out to the creator of life in some message of thanksgiving? Is it more than emotions? Is the body involved in ways that transcend the mind to give forth something of gratitude to the God of all that is, ever was, and ever will be? If someone asked you to pick up a pencil and draw on paper a picture of praise, what would it look like and why? I think the very request to praise God invokes something deep within sinew and bone, molecule and atom that desires to express recognition for life caused by a power greater than what we can evoke or manufacture.
In Psalm 103, the writer contends that praise is something to be called forth from the people. It is an invitation to all who would listen to join with the writer in offering praise to the living God. But, what is praise? Of what does it consist? Is it something that only people can offer? Can animals and even plants offer praise? Do they have a capacity to render praise to God for life? Do we run the risk of anthropomorphizing everything if we even ask the question? Yet, there is something about the essence of praise that tugs at one’s skin, moves beneath the surface like blood through veins, and touches the sparks that travel along our brain’s axon and dendrite trails.
The question of an animal’s capacity to feel and think has long been debated. Carl Safina, in Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, contends that human beings are not the only living things that have emotions or think. Some would contend that animals dream and thereby share something in common with humans. Anyone who has owned a dog knows the capacity of a dog to dream, show affection, and exhibit fear or courage. This isn’t simply a matter of anthropomorphizing them to make them seem somehow more human. For Safina, the declaration that animals have emotions and think is based on scientific observation and evaluation. For him, humans and animals also share a capacity for empathy. Safina isn’t alone. There are scores of scholars who are exploring the layers of consciousness among animals and even considering animal spirituality. A few authors that are asking such questions include Richard Nelson, Dave Aftandilian, and Donovan Schaefer.
So what does this have to do with Psalm 103? I think it has everything and nothing to do with it. The psalms were written as poetic exhalations or inhalations that disclose something of the writer’s emotions and thinking at the time of their composition. They display something about the human capacity to reflect and imagine the greatness of God as one who is as intimate as breath and as distant as the farthest galaxy from human experience. God is both known and unknown at the same time. There is both an intimacy that transcends language and a distance that escapes human abilities to discern.
We share something with animals in this regard. Neither of us can determine the exact contours of God, nor can we discern the depth of God’s activity within and among us. Perhaps we can see glimpses, hear fleeting notes, or plumb the depths of imagination and critical reflection to discover something about God. However, all of human musings ought to be subject to careful examination and reflection. People also have a great capacity to believe what they want to believe regardless of what may be discernable or particularly evident in the facts spread before them. They choose at any moment to claim various degrees of certitude, but language breaks down quickly as it cannot carry the breadth nor depth of what draws forth praise from the living.
Psalm 103 inhales and exhales praise. It is a reflection on the contours of human capacities to know God and to exclaim that God has done and that God continues to do amazing things. Where is one’s inmost being? Is it lodged within sinew and bone or does it reside somewhere less material? Does it rest uneasily at some place in the mind where the past, present, and future are continually colliding to declare and dismiss at the same time the activity and presence of God?
Psalm 103 can be read like a reflecting pool that shows the clouds overhead and distant stars so that we might reach down and touch them. They are not the actual objects, but reflections of them. As such we are able to grasp something of their essence and as such they can push inward reflection on what they may mean. The Psalmist recounts the various activities of God and invites people to reflection about them. This reflection brings forth praise like the heat beneath the geysers of Wyoming.
God heals diseases, redeems people from pits, crowns people with love and compassion, gives good things for human desires, renews one’s youth like the eagles, and works righteousness and aims toward justice for all of the oppressed. This image of God is one that comprises a theology of hope in the midst of hardships. It is a perception of God that provides courage to face the trials of the day be they war, disease, despair, loneliness, unjust systems of oppression, or anything that would cause human life to be diminished in some way.
Human experience is something that is ever changing as one life event slips into another and those into yet another. Each one carries with it a range of possibilities and dangers. A capacity to chose right and wrong or something that exists between the two is ever possible. The missteps are as present as the correct ones. Yet, for the Psalmist, the God who is to be praised is more than an accountant keeping a tally of all the right and wrong steps. This God is an active loving presence that removes the impediments to full relationship with God and what might contribute to an abundant life.
The Psalmist in these verses provides a type of heat to the waters of personal experience and declares to those who would hear something about a God that is not only worthy of praise, but who can and does meet people in the contexts of life to provide solace, comfort, and strength. This recognition alone when coupled with personal experience draws forth from people something deep within and expels it outward into the sky as activities of praise.