Commentary on Psalm 103:[1-7] 8-13
Psalm 103, a masterful and well-loved composition, is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving, a psalm in which a single voice praises God for God’s 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.”
An Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving generally contains the following elements: (1) an Introduction, in which the psalmist declares the intention of giving thanks and praising God; (2) a Narrative, in which the psalmist tells what has happened that has prompted the words of praise; and (3) a Conclusion, in which the psalmist praises God for all that God has done on the psalmist’s behalf.
Verses 1 and 2 of Psalm 103 constitute the Introduction to the Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving. Here the psalm singer repeats the phrase “Bless the LORD, O my soul,” calling others to witness what God has done. The words “Bless the LORD” are repeated six times in the psalm, at its opening and closing (verses 1,2, and 20, 21, 22), thus forming an “envelope” structure for the psalm’s Narrative in verses 3-19. The words of verses 20-22 act as the Conclusion to the Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving.
The words of verses 3-19 detail the reasons why the psalm singer can call on other to “Bless the LORD.” Verses 3-7 state that God “forgives,” “heals,” “redeems,” “crowns,” “satisfies,” “works justice,” and “makes known his ways.”
In verse 8, the psalm singer states, “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” These words, which occur many times in the Psalter and the prophetic books, are the self-descriptive words of God to Moses. In the book of Exodus, we read that God has summoned Moses up to Mt. Sinai to receive the words of the Torah — the “law” (Exodus 24:15); when Moses was gone for some time, the people at the foot of the mountain became restless and they said to Aaron, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1).
And so Aaron fashioned an image that the people worshipped; God saw what was going on; and Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and smashed the tablets on which God has written the Torah (Exodus 32). Then Moses cut two new tablets, ascended Mt. Sinai and waited for God. God passed by him and God proclaimed: “The LORD, the LORD, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).
The singer of Psalm 103 calls on others to “Bless the LORD” because the words of Exodus 34:6, found numerous times in the book of Psalms and in the Prophets, are an integral part of the psalmist’s understanding of the nature of Yahweh God.
In verses 9-10 and 12, the psalm singer celebrates God’s mercy and graciousness toward our sins, iniquities, and transgressions, the same words used in Exodus 34:7 (“forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin”). God will not “accuse” or “keep his anger” and will not “deal with us nor repay us” according to our “sins” or “iniquities,” and God will “remove” our “transgressions.” The word translated in verse 10 as “sin,” is from the root word hata’, which literally means “to miss the mark.”
Sin may be likened to knowing what is expected of one, aiming for a particular outcome, but falling short. The word translated in verse 10 as “iniquity” is from the root word ‘avon, a sense of guilt by the party who has “fallen short.” Thus, verse 10 states that God will not deal with us according to our sins or according to the measure of the guilt we feel over our sins. “Transgression” in verse 12 is from the root pasha’ and generally indicates an offense against the instructions (the Torah) of the Lord.
The singer of Psalm 103 celebrates God’s steadfast love to us regardless of how we might have wronged the community or betrayed God, if, according to verses 11, 13, and 17, we “fear” the Lord. “Fear” comes from the Hebrew root yara’, and “fear” is perfectly good translation of the word. But in today’s culture, the idea of fear is usually connected with the basic human instincts to run, defend, or retaliate. The Hebrew word, though, encompasses a larger meaning of “awe, reverent respect, or honor.” It appears in the Old Testament as a synonym for “love” (Deuteronomy 10:12); “cling to” (Deuteronomy 10:20); and “serve” (Deuteronomy 6:13; Joshua 24:14). At its root, the word denotes obedience to the divine will.
Verse 13 celebrates another characteristic of God, God’s compassion. The word translated here as “compassion” comes from the same root word as the word translated “merciful” in verse 8. The root is raham and, in its noun form, means “womb.” God’s mercy and compassion for his children is likened to the love a mother feels for her yet-to-be-born child. What a marvelous image of our God, embracing us, caring for us, and nurturing us. Why does God care for and nurture us? Verse 14 opens with the word “because,” providing the answer to the question. God knows how we were made, that we are dust. After all, God created us and understands our fragile human nature.
The Narrative continues in verses 15-19, leading the singer into the closing words of Psalm 103, in which the angels (verse 20), the hosts (verse 21), and all of God works (verse 22) are called upon to “bless the LORD.” The Psalm ends with the same words with which it opens, “Bless the LORD, O my soul.”