The book of Psalms is one of the truly majestic pieces of biblical literature. It is a collection of 150 songs inspired by the Spirit of God. Some of these celebrate the history of the nation of Israel. Others pronounce severe judgments upon those who set themselves as enemies of Jehovah. There are psalms that are messianic in thrust, i.e., they point to the coming Messiah. Some psalms, though, simply lift up a chorus of praise to the Creator.
Psalms 103 may be the “Mt. Everest” of praise psalms. It exalts the soul to breath-taking heights.
According to the superscription — which is not a part of the inspired text, but is, nonetheless very ancient — it is a psalm of David. There is no reason to question David’s authorship of the composition. Moreover, the tone of the document appears to hint that it was penned in the latter years of the shepherd-king’s life — perhaps after he had passed through some great crisis from which he had been delivered. In this brief essay, we will examine only the first five verses of this masterpiece.
The Eruption of Praise
The psalmist begins with an exclamation of praise that issues from the depths of his devout soul. “Bless Jehovah, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless his holy name” (v. 1, ASV). A newer version renders it: “My soul, praise the LORD, and everything in me, praise His holy name” (Beck). The utterance reflects a burst of enthusiastic devotion in honor of the LORD (Yahweh) — the self-existing Being who has entered into a covenant relationship with Israel.
To bless the “holy name” of God is to praise the Lord for his intrinsic holiness (cf. Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8). He is an utterly pure being in whom resides no sin (Hab. 1:13; Jas. 1:13).
The writer strains his entire being — everything “that is within” him — to express his feelings. He loves the Creator intellectually, emotionally, and practically. There is some parallel in sentiment with the admonition to love God with the totality of one’s being — heart, soul, mind, and strength (cf. Dt. 6:5; Mt. 22:37; Mk. 12:29-30).
Have you ever been through a dark cloud of life, wherein your heart was wrenched with agony? Finally, then, arriving at “yonder” shore, you find yourself so overwhelmed with thanksgiving and joy that you virtually weep for the lack of ability to adequately thank your Sustainer? Such, apparently, was the emotion of the great king on this occasion.
The God of Benefits
Human beings are forgetful creatures, and the Bible is replete with admonitions to “remember,” or, in the reverse format, “forget not.” Some things are worthy of forgetting (cf. Phil. 3:13); one should ever hold mentally fresh, however, the fact of the kindness of God. And so David cautions that we should “forget not all his benefits” (v. 2). Elsewhere an inspired writer will ponder: “What shall I render unto Jehovah for all his benefits toward me?” (Psa. 116:12).
In today’s world, many are keenly conscious of those “benefits” associated with their employment. What sort of insurance do I have? What is my retirement package, etc.? How frequently do we contemplate, though, the “benefits” of our loving Father?
In Psalms 103:3-5, five marvelous “benefits” are listed. How invigorating to the soul it is to savor these blessings. They are expressed with the following verbs: forgives, heals, redeems, crowns, and satisfies. Let us reflect upon these promises.
God “forgives all [our] iniquities” exclaims the Psalmist. There are two points upon which we may focus here. The first is the inclusive term “all.” Then, we must comment upon the nature of the forgiveness.
First, David extols the fact that God will forgive “all” sins (v. 3a) — a sentiment echoed in the New Testament as well. The Lord has the power to cleanse from “all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). But how is this to be harmonized with certain passages which appear to suggest that some sins are beyond the pale of pardon? Jesus spoke of sinning against the Holy Spirit, which, he said, “shall not be forgiven” (Mt. 12:32). The writer of Hebrews described a “willful sin,” for which, he declares, there is “no sacrifice” (Heb. 10:26). And John writes of the uselessness of praying for the brother who sins “sin unto death” (1 Jn. 5:16).
Though this is not the place to do a study of these controversial passages, we can make this observation. The Bible does not contradict itself. There is, therefore, a harmony to be found between the assertion that Jehovah forgives “all” sin, and the seeming limitation implied in the verses to which we have alluded. The key to unlocking the mystery is this: a careful consideration of the three texts cited above will reveal that each has to do with a withheld pardon that results from man’s choice. He refuses it! Heaven’s beneficence is not in question.
It is thus refreshing to know that “all” sin, both from the quantitative and qualitative vantage points, may be remedied — for those who are burdened under its oppressive force (Mt. 11:28-30), and who will choose to seek Heaven’s offer of relief (Rev. 22:17). This brings us to our next point.
It must not be assumed that simply because God is willing to forgive “all” sin, that this redemptive benevolence is extended unconditionally. The “unconditional election” of Calvinism’s doctrinal platform finds no support in the Scriptures. Almighty God, through Christ, will forgive all past sins, for the one who submits to the will of his Son in obedience (Rom. 6:17; Heb. 5:8-9). Pardon does hinge upon yielding to the terms of the divine plan of salvation (Acts 2:38; 22:16).
David affirms that God “heals all [our] diseases” (v. 3b). In order to correctly understand the blessing here promised, several things must be placed in perspective. First, the passage is not intended to suggest that God’s child can expect perpetual healing from every illness, so that he will never die. Physical death is a punishment which results from humanity’s involvement in sin (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 5:12); it is a divine appointment (Heb. 9:27).
Second, the passage is not a promise that Christians, throughout history, will be able to tap into the divine power of miraculous healing, as such existed in the era of Jesus’ personal ministry, and in the apostolic period just beyond that time. The supernatural phenomena of those days were temporary by design (1 Cor. 13:8ff). For further study of this theme, see: “Archives”, “Miracles”, (October 18, 1998).
What the passage does suggest is this: The God who created the human body (Gen. 2:7; Psa. 139:14) is able, consistent with his own purposes, to mend his own creation. None of us would survive infancy were it not for the amazing providential healing process that has been divinely designed and incorporated into the fabric of the human system. The immune system, the phenomenon of antibodies, the mending process, etc., are all remarkable beyond our ability to express. We have discussed this in considerable detail in our book, The Human Body — Accident or Design?.
Beyond this, however, is the ultimate promise of our glorified state. It has been noted that the “diseases” of this text are not confined to bodily sicknesses necessarily, but “may include all suffering” (A.F. Kirkpatrick, The Psalms, Cambridge: University Press, 1906, p. 601). Some scholars think that “diseases” is but a metaphor for life’s “adversities or setbacks” (W.A. VanGemeren, “Psalms,” NIV Bible Commentary, Barker & Kohlenberger, Eds., 1994, I, p. 898).
After the body is deposited back into the bowels of the earth, to return to its dusty origin (Gen. 3:19; Eccl. 12:7), it awaits the day of resurrection (Jn. 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; 1 Cor. 15). When it emerges from the grave, it will enter a new state wherein pain and death exist “no more” (Rev. 21:4), and where the “leaves” of the “tree of life” provide abiding “healing,” i.e., everlasting association with God (Rev. 22:2; cf. Gen. 3:22).
The poet declares that Jehovah “redeems [our] life from destruction” (v. 4a). The term “destruction” (see ASV fn — “the pit”) is likely a reference to death. Perhaps David had been at the very brink of death’s door and the Lord had delivered him. Certainly there were numerous episodes of that nature in his history. In the light of New Testament revelation, the phrase has a much greater application for us.
The verb “redeems” is related to the Hebrew noun goel, literally “a kinsman with the right to buy back.” That concept would be fulfilled ultimately in Christ, our “kinsman” (cf. Jn. 1:14; Heb. 2:11ff), who paid the price of redemption by the shedding of his blood (Lk. 1:68; Eph. 1:7). There are two senses in which we, as children of God, partake of the benefit of redemption.
First, we are redeemed from the guilt of our transgressions. As noted just above, this Jesus accomplished as the perfect sacrifice for sin. As the lamb (Jn. 1:29; 1 Cor. 5:7) that was without blemish or spot (1 Pet. 1:18-19), Christ, by his death, satisfied the justice of God (Isa. 53:11; Rom. 3:24-26), thus becoming an efficacious Redeemer (see Job 19:25). We access this blessing, of course, when we submit to the terms of the sacred plan of pardon (Mt. 28:19-20; Mk. 16:15-16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:26-27, etc.).
But there is another way in which we shall be redeemed. In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul affirmed that “we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for our adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23). This, of course, is an allusion to the resurrection of the human body, in an immortal form, at the time of Christ’s return (1 Cor. 15; cf. 1 Thes. 4:13ff).
It is significant that Christianity stands aloof from the philosophies of paganism that so disdained the human form that they contemplated the bliss of eternity only in terms of a spirit. Such ideas occasionally infiltrated the early church (see 1 Cor. 15:12), as it has the modern church. (The dogma of “realized eschatology” denies the future resurrection of the body.) It is a thrilling concept to note that the redeemed body of the post-resurrection experience will be one “fashioned anew;” indeed, it will “conform” to the body of Jesus’ glorified state by the exercise of the Savior’s awesome power (Phil. 3:20-21).
The benefits thus described are like a glorious “crown” that bedecks the brow. The term becomes a metaphor for the qualities of God’s nature (e.g., his “lovingkindness”) and the extension of that benevolence to sinful man by his “tender mercies,” a term which hints of the destitute nature of one needing pity.
The kindly mercy of our Maker has been revealed in a host of ways.
- Jehovah’s kindness has been manifested in the wonders revealed to us in the amazing architecture of the created universe (Psa.19:1ff; Rom. 1:20).
- The Lord has evidenced his merciful kindness in the providential activities he has exerted among us (Acts 17:25).
- God has manifested his kindness in the sending of a Savior (Tit. 3:4ff).
For a further study of this theme, see “Reflections On The Goodness of God”.
The eventual crowning of God will find fulfillment in the glories of that realm he has prepared for the obedient (Jn. 14:1ff). In that day, there will be bestowed the “crown of righteousness” (2 Tim. 4:8), which is also the “crown of life” (Jas. 1:12; Rev. 2:10), and the “crown of glory” (1 Pet. 5:4). This will be the ultimate expression of the kindness and compassion of the Lord God. The Christian should be diligent to retain this expectation, for it is possible to lose the hope of one’s crown (Rev. 3:11).
Does not this promise make you feel like a king? (cf. Rev. 3:21).
Finally, David declares that Jehovah “satisfies [our] desire with good things” (v. 5a). This clause is difficult because of the possible meanings associated with the word “desire” (ASV). The diversity of views is reflected in the different translations. Albert Barnes exasperatingly confessed that he had no idea as to the meaning of this passage.
In the Hebrew text of the Old Testament the verb is edyek. The word literally signifies “ornament,” but is rendered “desire” in the ASV (from the LXX). Based upon some conjecture regarding the possible root of the term, some scholars emend the form to odeka (see Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1975, p. 365). This yields the sense of “years” or “prime” (ASV fn; NASB) or “as long as you live” (RSV). The NEB renders it as “prime of life,” while “old age” is the form it takes in the Masoretic Text from the Jewish Publication Society. William Beck has it: “as long as I live.” The Hebrew Targum interpreted the expression to mean “the days of old age” (Kirkpatrick, p. 601). Most scholars believe that the KJV rendition, “mouth,” is not correct.
If the prevailing view — that of maturity of age — is correct, then the sense of the first portion of 5a would be this: “Even in your advanced age, you will be satisfied, because of the good things with which God supplies you.”
The second portion of verse 5 appears to lend support to this concept. It speaks of one’s “youth” being renewed, like the eagle. The eagle is a bird that enjoys an unusually vigorous longevity. On average, this large bird lives from twenty or thirty to fifty years. G.S. Cansdale, in his authoritative work, All The Animals of the Bible Lands (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970, p. 143), cites a case of a captive eagle in Vienna that lived to the age of 104. The meaning of the phrase thus may be: “Your disposition will be that of a youth, indeed, you will continue to soar as the majestic eagle.”
If, then, we combine these thoughts, the passage may be suggesting this idea. Those who walk with the Lord, and who are recipients of his gracious benefits, even though they advance in years, will nonetheless, possess a spirit of delightful vigor, savoring their lives and praising God for his beneficence. The thought may be somewhat analogous to Paul’s declaration in a letter to the Corinthians. “Wherefore we faint not; but though our outward man is decaying, yet our inward man is renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16).
The psalmist’s sentiment would encourage us not to be “grumpy old men” (and women) as we ease beyond our prime, even though this time of life is fraught with difficulties. Rather, with great joy, we ought to realize that “the best is yet to be.”
There is a chasm — a universe wide — between David’s radiant disposition, and that commonly evinced by skepticism. One could hardly find a better example of the dismal outlook regarding old age than that expressed in Matthew Arnold’s (1822-88) dreary poem, “Growing Old.” Therein, Arnold, a bitter critic of the Bible, spoke of losing “the glory of the form” and “the lustre of the eye.” He described the decay strength. He spoke of stiff joints and frayed nerves. He lamented the “hot prison” of agedness, with its month-after-month of “weary pain.” He groaned that he was but a “phantom” of his former self — just a “hollow ghost.”
In his commentary on the Psalms, John Phillips reminds us of the strange and sad case of Howard Hughes. At the time of his death, Hughes was worth two and one-half billion dollars. Yet he sulked as a recluse in a Las Vegas hotel. He was wholly unkept, with matted, shaggy hair and long, claw-like nails. At his death he weighed but ninety pounds (see: Exploring the Psalms, Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux, 1988, p. 126). Two words described him: “Most miserable.” What a vivid contrast to the exalted and thrilling view of age expressed by the venerable king of Israel.
What rich truths lie buried in Psalms 103:1-5. Surely the balance of the song would warrant an equally keen interest. Why not give it some consideration?