George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 4

Psalm 103

1. Structure

1, 2.
Bless the Lord
His blessings to me
His blessings to us (Israel, and the New Israel)
Bless the Lord, all who serve Him

No petition, not a single supplication, mitigates the total praise of God in this psalm.

2. Title

The ascription to David clashes with what are undeniably close links with Isaiah. Either the first few verses are David’s, and the rest added by Isaiah or Hezekiah; or “David” is to be read as a reference to the des-cendant of David who sits on his throne (as in Ezek. 34:23,24 and 37:24), and in that case the psalm is Hezekiah’s throughout.

An alternative interpretation of the psalm is to see it as David’s throughout, which is frequently quoted by Isaiah, who then follows with his own psalm — 104 — on the Glory of God.

3. A psalm of David

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: who forgiveth all thine iniquities. There were several such periods in David’s life; and in at least two of these God punished him with grievous sickness (Psalms 6, 88, 30, 41, etc.). Hence, who healeth all thy diseases (cp. Exod. 15:26; Deut. 7:12-15).

To what extent is it true (in the general sense) that iniquities and diseases are related? Often, no doubt, but certainly not always! — which is why, absent a divine pronouncement (such as John 5:14), we must never assume such a connection in any specific case. (For a general discussion of the relationship between sickness and sin, see N. Smart, The Epistle of James, pp. 179-200.)
Who redeemeth thy life from destruction (Psa. 49:7-9,13-15), as in the Goliath, Achish, Saul, and Absalom episodes. How many such instances there were!

Who crowneth thee, in a figurative sense; but also literally when his kingdom was restored to him after the death of Absalom.
Who satisfieth (or, filleth) thy mouth with good. “Things” is italicized. David has in mind, not food, but psalms of thanksgiving and praise.

So that thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s. This does not mean that in some miraculous way the eagle does actually renew its youth. (The writings of the rabbis and early church “fathers” overflow with fables and myths about the supernatural recuperative powers of the eagle.) But rather, the idea is: ‘renewed so as to be like the eagle’; that is, to have a buoyant, tireless strength, as exemplified in the eagle-based Cherubim of Glory (Isa. 6:2).

4. A psalm of Hezekiah

Verses 3-5 are just as fitting when spoken of Hezekiah. Hence they are adopted into a psalm about this great son of David.

The Lord executeth righteousness and judgment for all that are oppressed. This is very fitting to the dangerous days of the Assyr-ian invasion.
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. Here is the reason for God’s ready forgiveness of Hezekiah’s lapse (Isa. 39:8).
He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. The nation as a whole hardly deserved the salvation which was given for Hezekiah’s sake.
As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth: Isa. 37:27; 40:6-8.
For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. The wind = ruach, which also signifies the Spirit of God. This verse describes the sudden fate of the Assyrians. The word “blast” in Isa. 37:7 is the same Hebrew word.

5. Isaiah connections

“His holy Name”; cp. in Isaiah “the Holy One of Israel” 30 times. This phrase is almost exclusively the property of Isaiah.

Isa. 63:1,7.
Isa. 33:24; 53:5.
has the same unusual figure as Isa. 40:31.
Isa. 58:6,7.
is a favorite theme in Isaiah (e.g., Isa 51:9,10; 63:11,12).
Isa. 55:7.
Isa. 57:16.
Isa. 55:9.
Isa. 43:25.
Isa. 63:15,16.
Isa. 40:6-8 very closely (also cp. Isa. 28:1,4; 51:12).
Isa. 46:13.
Isa. 66:1.
Isa. 42:10-12; 43:20; 44:23; 49:13.

6. Links with Israel in the wilderness

Verse 5a: The manna in the wilderness (Exod. 16).
Verse 7 is so different from all the rest of the psalm, yet this is one of God’s greatest benefits (Exod. 33:13; 34:6,7).
Verse 8, in every phrase, either quotes or suggests Exodus 34:6,7:

“The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.”
Verse 9: In Hebrew, “chide” echoes “Meribah” (Exod. 17:7; Num. 20:13).
Verse 17 continues the allusion to Exodus 34: In v. 7 there, “for thousands” means “to a thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9). But note that whereas Exodus 34 has “visiting iniquity... unto children’s children”, Psalm 103 says “his righteousness unto children’s children”! — and this even though they “keep his covenant——and remember his commandments to do them” (v. 18). They still need God’s righteousness!
Verse 18: “Covenant” and “commandments” suggests Exodus 24:3,7.
Verse 19a is reminiscent of the vision of the great throne in Exodus 24:10.

It has been noted above that, frequently in Isaiah, the deliverance of Israel from Egypt and in the wilderness is alluded to as comparable to the great deliverance now being celebrated.

7. A psalm of Messiah

The only difficulty here (as in such psalms as 40, 41, and 69) is v. 3: Who forgiveth all thine iniquities. Verses 9, 10 suggest identification here with those whom he saves. (See comments in previous psalms, about the Messiah and his connection with “sin” — especially Psalms Studies, , Psa. 6, Par. 3; Psa. 38, Par. 5; Psa. 40, Par. 3; Psa. 51, Par. 4; Psa. 69, Par. 7.)

Who redeemeth thy life from destruction. This is the Lord’s resurrection. “Redeemeth” = the Hebrew ga’al, implying close kinship.

Who crowneth thee with lovingkindness. This last word is commonly used for God’s covenant, especially 2 Sam. 7:12-16.
So that thy youth is renewed. Again, the idea of resurrection.

Like the eagle’s. Meaning: so as to be like the Cherubim, sharing the divine nature (cp. Luke 20:36).
For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. This is wonderfully appropriate to Christ’s priesthood — exercised now in heaven, yet founded on God’s condescension and mercy to man upon earth.
As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us. The offerer stood with his sacrifice near the east gate of the sanctuary, and the blood was then brought into the Holy of Holies at its west end. Or is this perhaps an allusion to the scapegoat, removing the sins of the congregation far away from their midst? (There are quite a number of Day of Atonement implications in this psalm.)

Compare other ways of describing God’s forgiveness:

“blotted out” (Psa. 51:1) — that is, ‘anointed out’, as with blood on the mercy seat (Acts 3:19);

“Thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back” (Isa. 38:17);

“Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Mic. 7:19).

Such a wonderful divine blessing simply cannot be expressed in too many ways!
Mercy (= forgiveness) always needs to be followed, as here, with (imputed, not earned) righteousness.
To such as keep his covenant. In this case, the New Covenant (Jer. 31:34; Matt. 26:28). The Old Covenant offered material blessing after a man showed himself obedient. But the New Covenant begins with the free unmerited blessing of forgiveness of sins (v. 14)!
Hearkening unto the voice of his word. And also of his Word (John 1:1,14; 1 John 1:1; Rev. 19:13).
Bless the Lord, all his works. This is not referring to inanimate, unthinking, or unfeeling objects, but instead to men and women new-made (Psa. 145:9,10), as in Psa. 102:18 (see references there).

In all places of his dominion. The worldwide kingdom is established.

8. Other details

All that is within me. That is, all my mental faculties: Psa. 51:10; 94:19; contrast 36:1; 49:11. Compare Christ’s words:

“And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” (Mark 12:30).

Bless his holy name. The title “Holy One of Israel” is very common in Isaiah, springing from Isa. 6:3.
Forget not all his benefits. There is first-rate psychology here, for nothing is so readily forgotten (cp. Deut. 4:6-8,29-31; 6:12; 8:12-14; etc.).
These five outstanding blessings from God should be numbered in every Bible.
Who forgiveth all thine iniquities, the black ones as well as the “light gray” and “off-white”! Here contrast Acts 5:1-6: there are certain sins that just cannot be forgiven!

Iniquities and diseases are joined also in Mark 2:5,10,11. And alluded to in James 5:11,14,15? (See the corresponding note in Par. 3.)
Who redeemeth thy life from destruction. We are also redeemed from all iniquity (Tit. 2:14), from transgressions (Heb. 9:15), from the curse of the Law (Gal. 3:13), and from the Law itself (Gal. 4:5), from among men (Rev. 14:3,4), and from all nations (Rev. 5:9). We are redeemed by Christ (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; Heb. 9:12; 1 Tim. 2:6) and by God (Luke 1:68; 1 Cor. 1:30); we are redeemed through Christ’s life (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45), through his blood (1 Pet. 1:18,19; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14), and through his death (Heb. 9:15). We are redeemed for ever (Heb. 9:12), but only fully and truly “redeemed” when Christ comes (Rom. 8:23). (See G. Booker, “Redemption”, The Testimony, Vol. 56, No. 663 — March 1986 — pp. 94-96.)
Who satisfieth thy mouth with good. Food? Or psalms, anthems, prayers? The worldly man satisfies his mouth with bad things (alcohol, drugs, gluttony, cursing, foul talk). The worldly man is the most unattractive when he is using his mouth — unfortunately, this is almost all the time!

The word rendered “mouth” here is elsewhere translated “ornament” in all eleven other occurrences. It could mean ‘mouth’ in the sense that devout speech is man’s greatest “ornament” in God’s sight. Or it may mean something altogether different: The RSV renders this phrase: “Who satisfies you with good as long as you live” — adding in the footnote that the Hebrew is uncertain. The NEB has: “He contents me with all good in the prime [i.e., ornament] of life.” And the NIV has: “Who satisfies your desires with good things”.

So that thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The eagle is swift (2 Sam. 1:23; Deut. 28:49; Job 9:26; Jer. 4:13), strong (Exod. 19:4; Rev. 12:14), tender (Deut. 32:11), and high-soaring (Prov. 30:19; Isa. 40:31).
The Lord executeth righteousness and judgment for all that are oppressed. Not “all” without exception, but “all” without distinction.
He made known his ways unto Moses, his acts unto the children of Israel. “Ways” is a much deeper and more comprehensive term than “acts”. “Acts” tells us what, but “ways” tells us why! God’s covenant was made known to Moses, and His plagues and His providence were made known to Israel. Note the qualitative difference between the revelation to Moses in Sinai (Exod. 33:21-33; 34:4-8) and the revelation to Israel (Exod. 19:16).
He will not always chide. “Chide” is a technical term for bringing a suit before a judge, and is translated “accuse” in NIV.

Neither will he keep his anger for ever. God is ever responsive to intercessions such as Moses’ (Exod. 32:11; Num. 14:13-19). Verses 9 and 13 = Jer. 3:12,13a, 19c.
As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us. It is a fact, given the latitudinal and longitudinal arrangement of our globe, that (a) one may go either east or west for ever — and never reach a point beyond which he cannot continue in the same direction, but (b) one may go either north or south, and finally reach the limit (the pole!), beyond which — if he continues along the same line — he will then be traveling in the opposite direction!
Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. The parable of the Prodigal Son? This verse is probably the Old Testament passage closest in spirit to the personal and paternal relationship of God with believers which is so commonly expressed in the New Testament. While God is described elsewhere in the Old Testament as a Father to the nation of Israel (Exod. 4:22,23; Hos. 11:1-4; Deut. 32:6; Isa. 29:16; 63:16; 64:8; etc.), it is only here that the paternal relationship takes on a specially personal quality. (The Bible describes the quality of God’s love for mankind as being maternal as well: Isa. 66:13.)

“The father pitieth his children that are weak in knowledge, and instructs them; pities them when they are froward, and bears with them; pities them when they are sick, and comforts them; when they are fallen, and helps them up again; when they have offended, and upon their submission, forgives them; when they are wronged, and rights them. Thus ‘the Lord pitieth them that fear him’ ” (M. Henry).
For he knoweth our frame (s.w. “formed” in Gen. 2:7); he remembereth that we are dust. Of course He does! He is the One who made us that way (Gen. 2:7; 3:19; cp. also 18:27; Job 4 :19; 10:9; 14:2-10; Eccl. 12:7).
As for man (Hebrew ish: this is true even of the man of distinction!), his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more:

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Matt. 6:28-30).

The hot wind from the desert is the “oven” referred to. (See also Psa. 37:2; 92:7; Isa. 51:12; 1 Pet. 1:24; James 1:10,11.)
But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting. Unless this is describing divine foreknowledge and intention (e.g., Eph. 1:4-6), these words are absurd, for otherwise “mercy... from everlasting” would require the objects of that mercy to have existed from eternity!

Alternatively, here olam means an age. There are only a few certain examples of this meaning, and the idea is far too overworked by Christadelphians. But apparently Mary read this verse in this way, when she said, in Luke 1:50, that God’s mercy is “from generation to generation”.
To those that remember his commandments to do them. Since it is indisputable that none achieve this perfectly, this surely must mean: ‘those who remember them with a set purpose to do them’.
Bless the Lord, as in Psa. 69:34; 148:2.

Ye his angels that excel (gibbor) in strength. This probably means the archangels like Gabriel ( = “the Strong One of God”), in contrast to the hosts of other, ordinary angels in v. 21. (Is “ordinary” ever a proper word to describe angels?) It was surely the extraordinary Gabriel (the Strong One) who strengthened Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:43).

Angels may “excel” (that is, ‘to be mighty’) in strength, but — in contrast to the Almighty Himself — their strength (and knowledge) may be limited. Consider the implications of Gen. 22:12; 32:24-26; Exod. 31:17 (cp. 23:12); Dan. 8:13; 10:13; Matt. 24:36; Mark 13:32; and 1 Pet. 1:12 (see D. Kingston, Angels, pp. 45-48).
Ye ministers of his = Heb. 1:14.
In all places of his dominion. “Places” = maqomoth, which normally means ‘holy places’. Wherever the New Israel serve God in spirit and in truth, that is a holy place (John 4:24).

Bless the Lord, O my soul. The psalm ends in the same way as it began. The praise of God, which rushed outward to the bounds of the universe, seeking to include everything in its scope, now at the end completes the circle by turning inward and rushing back into the soul of the writer. Where else, after all, can praise be better expressed than in the single human mind? All other “praise” is pointless unless it originates here and is echoed here.

9. Postscript

“Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him” (v. 13).

“How strong is a father’s love for his children. How real and deep is his concern for their happiness and well-being. How he contrives to dispel their little fears and misgivings. How willing and how eager he is to overlook their weaknesses and shortcomings. Just so is it with God and ourselves. ‘Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.’

“Let not the invisibility of God dull our senses to the truth and preciousness of this beautiful scripture. Neither let us squeeze all sweetness out of it by interpreting wrongly any evil which God has suffered to enter into the experience of His beloved ones. God,as a Father, chastens us, but He has not always the rod in hand. He punishes sometimes, but only when we are exceedingly perverse. But a good Father He always is, and His blessings are infinitely more than we deserve. He tells us that His eyes are never off us, and that He is ever ready to listen to any cry of distress (1 Pet. 3:12,13; Heb. 13:5).

“Let us repose in Him. Let us appreciate and appropriate the comfort contained in His many promises — not merely in those which relate to the future, but in those also which apply to the present. Let us not anticipate evil. Let us not weep before we hurt. Let us study the Psalms more, and try to attune our minds to the trustful, grateful, uncomplaining spirit they breathe”

                                (A.T. Jannaway).
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