Psalm 103:1-14, 22
This is one of a number of psalms that include a superscription concerning David. Readers through the centuries have interpreted “A Psalm by David” to mean “A Psalm written by David,” but a number of scholars question that interpretation today. There are a number of reasons for that, including the fact that “several Davidic psalms refer to the ‘temple’ (e.g., 5:7, 27:4; 65:4; 68:29” (Broyles, 28)—but the temple was built by David’s son, Solomon, and was not in existence during David’s lifetime.
The issue of Davidic authorship of the psalms is sufficiently complex that I can’t do it justice here. If you are interested in further study, look at Craig C. Broyles, New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms, pages 26-31 and A.A. Anderson, The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms (1-72), pages 43-45.
PSALM 103:1-5. PRAISE YAHWEH, MY SOUL!
1 Praise Yahweh, my soul!
All that is within me, praise his holy name!
2 Praise Yahweh, my soul,
and don’t forget all his benefits;
3 who forgives all your sins;
who heals all your diseases;
4 who redeems your life from destruction;
who crowns you with loving kindness and tender mercies;
5 who satisfies you with good things,
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
“Praise (Hebrew: barak––bless) Yahweh, my soul! (Hebrew: nepes)
All that is within me, praise (barak) his holy name!” (Hebrew qodes sem) (v. 1).
The word barak (praise) is closely related to berak (kneel) and berek (knee). Because of those associations, it is more often translated bless than praise. When the psalmist says that he will barak (praise) Yahweh, the word barak suggests that he will kneel in homage to Yahweh as a demonstration of reverence and an expression of praise.
The noun nepes (soul) means soul or life. The Israelites also used nepes to mean breath, the animating force that gives the creature life. The psalmist is calling himself to bless/praise the Lord from the depths of his being.
The word qodes (holy) means holy or sacred––set apart for holy purposes. Here it linked with the word sem (name), so it means holy name––Yahweh’s holy name.
That phrase, holy name, has deep meaning. Holy (qodes) means sacred or set apart for sacred purposes. Yahweh is the essence of holiness. Holiness begins and ends with Yahweh’s holiness, so all holiness (holy people, such as priests––objects, such as temple furnishings––buildings, such as the temple) is derived from Yahweh’s holiness.
Name (sem) is another word replete with meaning. In the psalmist’s culture, as today, a person’s name referred to the essential character of the person. The name stands for the person. To reverence Yahweh’s name is to reverence Yahweh.
So the psalmist begins this psalm by calling himself to bless (barak) Yahweh from the depths of the psalmist’s being––and to bless (barak) Yahweh’s holy name.
“Praise Yahweh, my soul,
and don’t forget all his benefits” (Hebrew: gemul) (v. 2).
The first half of this verse repeats the admonition to bless (barak) Yahweh. The second half is an admonition not to forget blessings (gemul) received from Yahweh.
“who forgives all your sins;
who heals all your diseases” (v. 3).
This verse spells out the first two of several blessings (gemul––benefits) received from Yahweh––forgiveness of sins and healing from diseases––blessings both spiritual and physical.
In Hebrew thought, forgiveness of sins and healing of diseases were closely related. In their minds, illness was a sign of God’s displeasure (the book of Job is an exception to this understanding), so they would have interpreted healing as a sign of forgiveness
“who redeems (Heb: ga’al) your life from destruction; (Hebrew: sahat––pit)
who crowns you with loving kindness (Hebrew: hesed) and tender mercies” (Hebrew: raham) (v. 4).
The word ga’al (redeems) means to redeem a person or to buy back the freedom of a person in bondage (Leviticus 25:45). Yahweh redeemed Israel from Egyptian slavery (Exodus 6:6).
The word sahat (destruction) means a pit or trap, and one of those words would be a better translation here.
This word, pit, brings to mind Joseph, who was thrown into a pit by his jealous brothers, who would have killed him if Reuben had not intervene with the suggestion that they throw Joseph into a pit. That might have constituted a death sentence if travelers had not intervened to rescue Joseph from the pit and take him to Egypt as a slave (Genesis 37).
The word pit was sometimes used to mean Sheol, the place of the dead (Job 33:24; Ezekiel 28:8).
The word hesed (loving kindness) has a rich variety of meanings––kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, or love. Each of these meanings indicate a generous attitude toward the beloved.
Raham (tender mercies), when singular, means womb. When plural, it means compassion or mercy. The connection of this word with the womb suggests a mother’s tender affection for her child––her willingness to show mercy––her willingness to help her errant child back to the right path.
“who satisfies (Hebrew: saba) you with good things” (Hebrew: tob) (v. 5a).
The verb saba (satisfies) means to satisfy or to fill, and suggests filling to the brim so the person being filled needs nothing more.
The first time we encountered the word tob (good) was in the creation account. “God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (tob) (Genesis 1:31). “Good” in that account meant pleasing, proper, and as it should be. That Eden is long gone, compromised by sin, but the God who forgives sins (v. 3) nevertheless continues to shower people with good things.
“so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (v. 5b).
Someone said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Young people tend to take their health and vitality for granted, as if those constitute their natural inheritance. Later, they will learn what it means to hear and see less well––to be more subject to illness––to find the better jobs closed to them because of their age. Only then will they fully appreciate the blessings of a youth long past.
But the psalmist lists as one of the blessings received from Yahweh that he renews our youth like the eagles. In the Bible, the eagle is a symbol of power and independence. It acts, not like an old person, but a young one. The psalmist says that Yahweh renews our strength so that we can function with vitality.
PSALM 103:6-10. MERCIFUL, GRACIOUS, SLOW TO ANGER
6 Yahweh executes righteous acts,
and justice for all who are oppressed.
7 He made known his ways to Moses,
his deeds to the children of Israel.
8 Yahweh is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness.
9 He will not always accuse;
neither will he stay angry forever.
10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
nor repaid us for our iniquities.
“Yahweh executes (Hebrew: ‘asah) righteous acts, (Hebrew: sedaqah)
and justice (Hebrew: mispat) for all who are oppressed” (Hebrew: ‘asaq) (v. 6).
The verb ‘asah (executes) notes action with a purpose––action that drives toward the accomplishment of a goal or the fulfillment of an obligation. Here Yahweh moves with that kind of intensity to execute righteousness and justice for the oppressed.
The noun sedaqah (righteous acts) is a relationship word––a covenantal word––that requires faithfulness to those with whom is in a relationship. Righteousness is life lived in accord with ethical principles –– life lived in accord with God’s law and God’s will.
Righteousness (sedaqah) and justice (mispat) are closely related. Without justice, there can be no righteousness. Without righteousness, there can be no justice.
While both righteousness and justice involve right behavior, this right behavior is an outgrown of a right relationship with God, who is the ultimate righteous one.
In this verse, righteousness and justice are both plural nouns. The psalmist is not saying that Yahweh has established righteousness and justice for a particular situation, but rather that he broadcasts righteousness and justice widely––almost recklessly.
The verb ‘asaq (oppressed) means to oppress, defraud, or exploit. It is the opposite of acting righteously. Vulnerable people (widows, orphans, the poor) are particularly susceptible to exploitation––and the prophets harshly denounced such exploitation (Amos 4:1; Micah 2:2; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5).
“He made known his ways (Hebrew: derek) to Moses,
his deeds (Hebrew: ‘aliylah ) to the children of Israel” (v. 7).
The word derek (ways) means path, journey, or way. The word ‘aliylah (deeds) means deeds or actions. In this verse, these words (ways and deeds) reinforce each other, but each brings its particular emphasis.
• Yahweh’s pathway (derek) is the direction Yahweh would have us to go. Following Yahweh’s pathway requires confining ourselves to its boundaries––not straying to either side––not succumbing to temptation to take a different pathway. Yahweh outlined his pathway in great detail in the Law and the Prophets.
• Yahweh’s deeds (‘aliylah) began with the creation and extended throughout Hebrew history: The establishment of a covenant with Abraham––the uplifting of Joseph to a position of authority––the Exodus––the Babylonian Exile and the return of a remnant to Jerusalem. The list goes on and on.
The marriage of ways (derek) and deeds (‘aliylah) in this verse shows the powerful ways that Yahweh reveals himself to his people.
“Yahweh is merciful (Heb: rahum) and gracious” (Heb: hannun) (v. 8a).
The word rahum (merciful) means compassionate or merciful or forgiving. The word hannun (gracious) means gracious or merciful.
These two words are roughly synonymous, and are often used together to describe God (2 Chronicles 30:9; Nehemiah 9:17, 31; Psalm 111:4; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2).
“slow (Hebrew: ‘arek) to anger” (Hebrew: ‘ap) (v. 8b).
The word ‘ap means nose, nostril, or anger. That seems peculiar. What do noses have to do with anger? Two common phrases come to mind that might provide a clue. The first is “flared nostrils,” which can be a sign of intense anger––the kind of anger that could lead to violence. The second is “his nose is out of joint,” which means that he is disturbed or angry or holding a grudge.
The psalmist doesn’t describe Yahweh as angry, but instead says that he is “slow (Hebrew: ‘arek) to anger.” The word ‘arek is often used with regard to feelings, and suggests patience and what we might call “a slow fuse.”
In times past, “a slow fuse” would have allowed the person lighting the fuse time to escape before the explosion. Today, electricians use “a slow fuse” for a fuse engineered to survive a quick power surge without breaking the circuit. In both cases, “a slow fuse” suggests a grace period.
Yahweh is patient. He has a slow fuse. People give him plenty of cause to impose punishment, but he often withholds his judgment to give them opportunity to repent––to turn––to return––to change. The prophet Joel pictures that clearly, saying that Yahweh pleads:
“Turn to me with all your heart….
Turn to Yahweh, your God;
for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger,
and abundant in loving kindness,
and relents from sending calamity” (Joel 2:12-13).
“and abundant (Hebrew: rab) in loving kindness” (Hebrew: hesed) (v. 8c).
Rab (abundant) is a cup-runneth-over kind of word. Abundant is a good translation.
The word hesed (loving kindness) means loving, kind, and merciful. One of the chief characteristics of God is that his love is enduring. He established a covenant with Abram and Abram’s descendants, and remained Israel’s covenant God through thick and thin. When they sinned he punished them––not to destroy them but to redeem them.
“He will not always accuse; (Hebrew: riyb)
neither will he stay angry forever” (v. 9).
The word riyb (accuse) means to bring a lawsuit. Accuse is a good translation.
Yahweh will not ALWAYS accuse, but that implies that he will SOMETIMES accuse. He won’t stay angry forever, but is nevertheless capable of being angry at our iniquities.
“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, (Hebrew: hete)
nor repaid us for our iniquities” (Hebrew: ‘awon) (v. 10).
The word hete means sins or offenses, and is related to a series of words based on the same stem and having similar meanings.
The word ‘awon means evil or guilt and the resultant punishment. It suggests a conscious decision to sin, and has to do with especially grievous sins.
But regardless of the grievous quality of our sins––and the depth of our guilt––Yahweh has not responded with the punishment warranted by our sins. He has not paid us the full wages of our sins, which is death (see Romans 6:23), but has instead allowed us to live.
PSALM 103:11-14. A CHIASMUS
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his loving kindness toward those who fear him.
12 As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
13 Like (as) a father has compassion on his children,
so Yahweh has compassion on those who fear him.
14 For he knows how we are made.
He remembers that we are dust.
Waltner (p. 498) characterizes verses 11-14 as a for-as, as-for chiasmus––with each of the four verses beginning with a k sound. That is sufficiently technical to be of little interest to most readers––but I mention it because that artistic detail is an example of the psalmist’s poetic skill. It would have sounded poetic to the original readers of this psalm.
“For (Hebrew: ki) as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his loving kindness (Hebrew: hesed) toward those who fear him” (v. 11).
This is the first of three examples in which the psalmist cites an over-the-top image to illustrate Yahweh’s love, kindness, forgiveness, and compassion.
For us today, the high heavens have shrunk by virtue of space travel. We have been to the high heavens, at least through photographs. Space no longer seems as impossibly high as it did when the psalmist wrote this psalm.
But for the original readers of this psalm––feet firmly anchored on terra firma––the highest point they could conceivably reach would be the top of a mountain. The heavens/skies above the mountains were replete with mystery. When the psalmist spoke of the heavens high above the earth, he brought his readers to the edge of infinity. He then links that infinity to the infinity of Yahweh’s hesed––his loving kindness.
“As (Hebrew: ki) far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (v. 12).
This is the second of three over-the-top images that illustrate Yahweh’s love. In this case, the psalmist is celebrating Yahweh’s forgiveness.
“As far as the east is from the west.” How far is that? Does it stretch from my left hand to my right hand? Does it stretch from the distance I can see on one side to the distance I can see on the other? Does it stretch from Israel’s eastern border to its western border?
The Israelites were familiar with a host of regional nations––and many Israelites had sailed the Mediterranean Sea. Perhaps the boundlessness of east and west had begun to occur to them. It certainly seems that it had appeared to this psalmist.
So he uses this east-west metaphor to speak of the impossibly wide distance that Yahweh has placed between us and our sins.
“Like (Hebrew: ke) a father has compassion (Hebrew: raham) on his children,
so Yahweh has compassion on those who fear him” (v. 13).
This is the third over-the-top image that illustrates Yahweh’s love. Yahweh’s compassion is like a father’s compassion for his children.
The word raham (compassion) suggests a visceral kind of compassion––a compassion that wells up from deep inside the person––a compassion deeply felt. The father of the prodigal son provides an excellent portrayal of God’s compassion for his children.
We need to be careful here. Many people have not experienced a compassionate earthly father. Today, many children grow up in a fatherless home––or a home where the man in the home shifts from week to week. Also, many fathers are abusive to their children––so we should be careful when we compare Yahweh’s compassion to that of an earthly father.
“For (Hebrew: ki) he knows how we are made.
He remembers that we are dust” (v. 14).
There are surely many reasons why Yahweh is compassionate, but the psalmist points out a particular reason. Yahweh created us. He is intimately familiar with our strengths and weaknesses, and knows our potential for good and evil. If he were not compassionate, we would have no hope.
The comment about dust alludes to the following verse from the creation account:
“Yahweh God formed man from the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life;
and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7).
PSALM 103:22. PRAISE YAHWEH, MY SOUL!
22 Praise Yahweh, all you works of his,
in all places of his dominion.
Praise Yahweh, my soul!
“Praise Yahweh, all you works of his,
in all places of his dominion.
Praise Yahweh, my soul!” (v. 22).
This verse echoes verse 1, but adds two pieces: “All you works of his” and “In all places of his dominion.” Those are two ways of saying: Everyone and everywhere.
Whether the psalmist really meant to expand this invitation to Gentiles is open to question. Probably not. But in many places in the Hebrew scriptures, the author widened the horizons further than he understood (see Genesis 12:3; 22:18; Psalm 22:27; 72:17; 86:9; Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:9; 49:6b; 60:3; Jeremiah 3:17; Daniel 7:13-14; Joel 2:28-32; Zechariah 2:11; Malachi 1:11). This is probably one of those.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Allen, Leslie C., Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 101-150 (Waco: Word Books, 1983)
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150, Vol. 14b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 90-150, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2016)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
Copyright 2019 Richard Niell Donovan