Notes for a recent prayer meeting I led based on Psalm 103:
David begins and ends with the same words: “Bless the LORD, O my soul”. To begin with (v1-2) he’s stirring himself up to bless the LORD, and at the end (v20-22) he’s calling on the rest of creation to join him in blessing the LORD. And in between he provides a load of reasons to bless the LORD. In v3-5 he looks at specific benefits that he himself has received from God. In v6-14 he looks at God’s character and how he’s dealt with his people through history. Then in v15-19 he contrasts man’s frailty with God’s everlasting grace.
So firstly, what does it mean to “bless” the LORD? Another of David’s Psalms (Psalm 34) begins with the words “I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth.” So to bless the LORD seems to be very similar to praising him with our mouths. It could be defined as “to speak well of” him.
Then, to point out the really obvious: who or what is David to speak well of? Answer: The LORD. The thing is, we don’t tend to have much difficulty speaking well of many other things we appreciate (our favourite films, music, sports, books…), but David calls on himself to bless the LORD.
“Bless his holy name” – Holy – i.e. set apart – Those other things we speak well of may well be worthy of praise in some ways, but the LORD is holy, set apart – he’s in a different league of praiseworthiness, far above anything or anyone else.
“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me” – David doesn’t want to just be offering God lip-service. “Come on soul, join my lips in praising God” – don’t be a hypocrite who praises God with his lips but whose heart is far from him.
I find it encouraging that David has to stir himself up to bless the LORD, because it doesn’t come naturally. Well, sometimes it seems to come naturally and other times not so much, and also some people seem to be wired in such a way that praising God comes easily while others of us have to work at it. David offers an exercise here for stirring ourselves up to praise in those times where it doesn’t just flow forth automatically: “forget not all his benefits”.
v3 He “forgives all your iniquity” – We need this first to enjoy all the other benefits that follow. The LORD “forgives” (present tense) “all” your iniquity – he didn’t just forgive our past iniquities, providing us with a clean slate that it’s up to us to keep clean – he keeps on forgiving all our iniquity.
He “heals all your diseases” – Another way to put this would be that he “restores you to health”, and since it’s paired with forgiveness, David was probably referring to spiritual health more than physical health. We were spiritually dead, but God made us alive so that we’re now able to enjoy a relationship with him.
v4 He “redeems your life from the pit (or from destruction)” and “crowns you with steadfast love and mercy” – Because of our sin we deserved to be in the pit – we deserved destruction – but God bought us out of that. And not only that, but he goes to the other extreme; from out of the pit, now we receive crowns. To put a crown on someone is to honour them. We don’t deserve honour for our behaviour, but God is the King of kings, and we’re his adopted sons and daughters, which makes us princes and princesses.
And he crowns us “with steadfast love and mercy”. He puts steadfast love and mercy onto us. He shows steadfast love and mercy towards us, and also puts those characteristics onto us, so that we become like him; we start to become steadfastly loving and merciful towards others.
v7-8 See Exodus 34:5-7 – God proclaimed his name, and it included these characteristics. He doesn’t just act mercifully and graciously when he’s in a good mood or towards people he likes; merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love is who God is.
v10 “He does not deal with us according to our sins” – When we’re aware that we’ve sinned, we feel like we can’t come to God in prayer – and in a sense that’s not a bad instinct, because God is holy and pure, and based on our sinful record it would be true that we couldn’t approach him, but he doesn’t deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. The repayment that was due for our iniquities went on Christ at the cross instead of us, and rather than dealing with us according to our sins, he deals with us according to Christ’s righteousness.
Then in v11-13 there’s a series of similes to illustrate three aspects of God’s grace towards us; how abundant it is, how decisive it is, and how compassionate it is.
v11 “As far as the heavens are above the earth” – That’s pretty high. I’m a bad sinner. My sin is great (as in large), but God’s steadfast love is greater. His grace is abundant.
v12 “As far as the east is from the west” – You can’t go east and west at the same time. As soon as you start travelling east, you’re travelling away from the west. So if our sin is removed from us as far as the east is from the west, that means it’s impossible for our sin to be reunited with us. We’re travelling in opposite directions. We’re going one way, while our sin is going the other way. Although we might remember it, as far as God is concerned, it’s removed and never coming back. His grace is decisive.
v13 “As a father shows compassion to his children” – When we see someone being a good father, that’s a picture of how God is towards those who fear him. Our salvation is not just a legal mechanism where God sees that we fear him and ticks the box to acknowledge that we’re entitled to salvation from the punishment our sin deserves. He feels for us in the way a father feels for his children. I haven’t had firsthand experience of what it feels like to be a father (and I expect it’s similar for mothers), but some of that compassion is visible. Obviously I’ve seen it in my own parents, and I also see other fathers’ love for their children. To think that God loves us like that is powerful. His grace is compassionate.
v14 “He knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” – We’re weak, and we fail. I’m thankful to be reminded that God is not surprised by that. He knows our weaknesses better than we know them ourselves, but still he’s compassionate towards us and his love toward us is as high as the heavens are above the earth; he’s removed our sins from us as far as the east is from the west.
v15-16 “As for man, his days are like grass… like a flower of the field… the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” – It seems that David wrote this towards the end of his life, when he was particularly conscious of how short life is. Soon he would be gone, and within a hundred years or so there would be no one left who remembered him.
But by contrast, v17 “the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting”. It’s great to see a father’s compassion to his children over a lifetime, but God’s steadfast love goes way beyond that. When the wind has passed over the flower of our lives and we enter eternity, that will just be the start. We’ll just be beginning to discover that the steadfast love of the LORD goes on and on and on and on.
Who does this apply to? v18 “those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments” – After all the encouraging things we’ve heard about God so far, this seems to ruin it for us, because we keep failing to do his commandments; we haven’t kept his covenant.
Thankfully v18 isn’t talking about doing God’s commandments perfectly. It’s talking about you might call the “trajectory” of our lives – yes we keep falling, but we are heading in the direction of obedience to God’s law.
And regarding keeping his covenant, Christ kept it on our behalf, so if we’re in Christ, we’re counted as having kept his covenant.
So there is reason to pause here. All these benefits don’t apply to everyone. Am I in Christ? Is my life on a trajectory of obedience to God’s commandments? But it also reveals more of the gospel as we’re driven back to Christ to trust in his covenant keeping and commandment obeying on our behalf, and then we receive all these benefits that God graciously pours out.
v19 “The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” – If this LORD is for us, who can be against us? His kingdom rules over all. If we’re part of that kingdom, what harm can anyone do to us? If we fear him, we have nothing else to fear.
Then David concludes by calling on angels, mighty ones, ministers, all of God’s works, to join him in blessing the LORD. C.S. Lewis pointed out that we do this naturally with things we find praiseworthy; we want others to see the same beauty and awesomeness that we see. Our enjoyment isn’t complete until we share it with others. So I hope we’ve seen something of God in this Psalm that will do that in us, so that praise will overflow from our hearts and out of our mouths.
I hope you’ve picked up something that that will help you to bless the LORD with all that is within you.