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This very beautiful psalm is entitled “A Psalm of David.” Nothing in the psalm forbids the supposition that he was its author, although nothing in the psalm or elsewhere enables us to ascertain the precise occasion on which it was written.
It seems to have been composed after some signal manifestation of the mercy of God, or some striking proof of his compassion and loving-kindness; after some danger which threatened life, and was regarded as evidence of the divine displeasure, but had now passed by; after God had interposed, and checked and arrested judgments which threatened ruin, and had manifested himself again as a loving Father. This merciful interposition filled the heart of the psalmist with emotions of gratitude and praise, and led him to call on his own soul Psalms 103:1-2, and all the angels Psalms 103:20, and the hosts of heaven Psalms 103:21, and all the works of God everywhere Psalms 103:22 to unite in celebrating his praise. The psalm is exceedingly regular in its structure and composition; beautiful in its language and conceptions; adapted to all times and ages; suited to express the feelings of gratitude to God for deliverance from trouble, and for the manifestation of his mercy; suited to elevate the soul, and to fill it with cheerful views. These circumstances have made it a favorite psalm as a vehicle of praise in all ages. It is, moreover, eminently suited to express the feelings of the soul in view of the redeeming love and mercy of God; the goodness of God in the forgiveness of sin through a Saviour; and his tender compassion for his people as a Father; and it is, therefore, one to which the Christian oftener turns than to almost any other of the psalms as expressive of the deep and grateful feelings of his heart.
Bless the Lord, O my soul - The word “bless,” as applied to God, means to praise, implying always a strong affection for him as well as a sense of gratitude. As used with reference to people, the word implies a “wish” that they may be blessed or happy, accompanied often with a prayer that they may be so. Such is the purport of the “blessing” addressed to a congregation of worshippers. Compare Numbers 6:23-27. The word “soul” here is equivalent to mind or heart: my mental and moral powers, as capable of understanding and appreciating his favors. The soul of man was “made” to praise and bless God; to enjoy his friendship; to delight in his favor; to contemplate his perfections. It can never be employed in a more appropriate or a more elevated act than when engaged in his praise.
And all that is within me ... - All my powers and faculties; all that can be employed in his praise: the heart, the will, the affections, the emotions. The idea is, that God is worthy of all the praise and adoration which the entire man can render. No one of his faculties or powers should be exempt from the duty and the privilege of praise.
Bless the Lord, O my soul - The repetition here denotes the intensity or earnestness of the wish or desire of the psalmist. It is an emphatic calling upon his soul, that is, himself, never to forget the many favors which God was continually conferring upon him.
And forget not all his benefits - Any of his favors. This refers not to those favors in the aggregate, but it is a call to remember them in particular. The word rendered “benefits” - גמול gemûl - means properly an act, work, doing, whether good or evil, Psalms 137:8; and then, “desert,” or what a man deserves “for” his act; “recompence.” It is rendered “deserving” in Judges 9:16; benefit, as here, in 2 Chronicles 32:25; “desert,” Psalms 28:4; “reward,” Psalms 94:2; Isaiah 3:11; Obadiah 1:15; “recompence,” Proverbs 12:14; Isaiah 35:4; Isaiah 59:18; Isaiah 66:6; Jeremiah 51:6; Lamentations 3:64; Joel 3:4, Joel 3:7. The proper reference here is to the divine “dealings,” - to what God had done - as a reason for blessing his name. His “dealings” with the psalmist had been such as to call for praise and gratitude. What those “dealings” particularly were he specifies in the following verses. The call here on his soul is not to forget these divine dealings, as laying the foundation for praise. We shall find, when we reach the end of life, that all which God has done, however dark and mysterious it may have appeared at the time, was so connected with our good as to make it a proper subject of praise and thanksgiving.
Who forgiveth all thine iniquities - Pardoning all thy sins. That is, It is a characteristic of God to pardon sin, and I have evidence that he has done it in my own case, and this is a ground for praise. It is observable that this is the first thing in view of the psalmist - the first of the “benefits” which he had received from God, or the first thing in importance among his acts or his dealings, which called for praise. Properly considered, this is the first thing which calls for praise. That God is a merciful God - that he has declared his willingness to pardon sin - that he has devised and revealed a way by which this can be done, and that he has actually done it in our own case, is the most important matter for which we should praise him. When we understand all the things which most affect our welfare, and which enter most deeply into our happiness here and hereafter, we shall find that this is a blessing compared with which all other favors are comparative trifles.
Who healeth all thy diseases - Perhaps, in the case of the psalmist, referring to some particular instance in which he had been recovered from dangerous sickness. The word rendered “diseases” - תחלואים tachălû'iym - occurs only in the plural form. It is translated “sicknesses,” in Deuteronomy 29:22; “diseases,” as here, in 2 Chronicles 21:19; “them that are sick,” in Jeremiah 14:18; and “grievous (deaths)” in Jeremiah 16:4. It does not elsewhere occur. It is applicable to all forms of sickness; or in this place it may refer to some particular diseases with which David had been afflicted. We have several allusions in the Psalms to times when the authors of the psalms were afflicted with sickness. So in the Psalms of David. Compare Psalms 6:2; Psalms 38:7; Psalms 41:8. The thought here is, that it is a proper ground of praise to God that he has the power of healing disease. All instances of restoration to health are illustrations of this, for whatever may be the skill of physicians, or the wise adaptation of means, healing virtue comes from God alone.
Who redeemeth thy life from destruction - That is, who saves it from death when exposed to danger, or when attacked by disease. The word “destruction” or “corruption” here is equivalent to the grave, since it is there that the body returns to corruption. Compare the notes at Psalms 16:10.
Who crowneth thee - The idea here is not merely that God is the source of these blessings, but that there is something of beauty, of dignity, of honor, as in the conferring of a crown or garland on anyone. Compare the notes at Psalms 65:11.
With loving-kindness and tender mercies - mercy and compassions. God showed mercy to him - evinced compassion - and these were so abundant that they might be said to be the crown or ornament of his life.
Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things - The word translated “thy mouth” here is rendered in the Chaldee “thy age;” in the Arabic, the Septuagint, and the Latin Vulgate, “thy desire;” in the Syriac, “thy body;” DeWette renders it, “thy age.” So also Tholuck. The Hebrew word - עדי ‛ădı̂y - is rendered “ornaments” in Exodus 33:4-6; 2 Samuel 1:24; Isaiah 49:18; Jeremiah 2:32; Jeremiah 4:30; Ezekiel 7:20; Ezekiel 16:11, Ezekiel 16:17 (margin,); Ezekiel 23:40; and “mouth” in Psalms 32:9, as here. These are the only places in which it occurs. Gesenius renders it here “age,” and supposes that it stands in contrast with the word “youth” in the other part of the verse. The connection would seem to demand this, though it is difficult to make it out from any usage of the Hebrew word. Professor Alexander renders it “thy soul” - from the supposition that the Hebrew word “ornament” is used as if in reference to the idea that the “soul” is the chief glory or ornament of man. This seems, however, to be a very forced explanation. I confess myself unable to determine the meaning.
So that thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s - Compare Isaiah 40:31. The allusion, to which there is supposed to be a reference here, is explained in the notes at that passage. Whatever may be true in regard to the supposed fact pertaining to the eagle, about its renewing its strength and vigor in old age, the meaning here is simply that the strength of the psalmist in old age became like the strength of the eagle. Sustained by the bounty of God in his old age he became, as it were, young again.
The Lord executeth righteousness and judgment - That is, “justice.” He sees that justice is done to the oppressed. He is on their side. His law, his commands, his judicial decisions, his providential interpositions, are in their favor. This does not mean that it will he done at once; or that there will never be any delay; or that they may not suffer even for a long time - for this occurs in fact; but the meaning is, that God has their true interest at heart; that at proper times, and whenever and whereever there are any dealings of his in the case, his acts are in favor of those that are oppressed; and that there will be sooner or later such interpositions in their behalf as shall entirely vindicate their cause.
For all that are oppressed - By harsh laws; by unjust governments; by slavery; by unrighteous decisions in courts; by the pride and power of wicked people. Compare the notes at Isaiah 1:17, notes at Isaiah 1:23-27.
He made known his ways unto Moses - This is another ground of praise - that God had “revealed his will;” that this had been done in an indubitable manner to Moses; and that these revelations had been recorded by him for the instruction and guidance of his people. The word “ways” here means his laws; his methods of administration; the principles on which he governs mankind, and the conditions on which he will save people. There is no higher ground of gratitude to God than the fact that he has given a revelation to mankind.
His acts unto the children of Israel - His methods of doing things have been made known to them; and his acts - his interpositions - have been in their favor.
The Lord is merciful and gracious - See the notes at Psalms 78:38. The idea here is derived evidently from Exodus 34:6-7 - that great and glorious statement of God himself in regard to his own character. Our world is a different world under that statement from what it would be if that and kindred declarations had not been made. There is here a “progression” of thought; an “advance” on the previous statements. At first the psalmist referred to his own individual experience Psalms 103:3-5; then he referred to the dealings of God toward the Hebrew people Psalms 103:6-7; and now he rises to the general contemplation of his character as it relates to all mankind. It was a characteristic of God in respect to all, that he was kind, compassionate, and forbearing.
Slow to anger - That is, patient; not soon excited; bearing much, and bearing it long. See James 5:11; compare Exodus 34:6-7.
And plenteous in mercy - Margin, “great of mercy.” The Hebrew word means “much,” or great;” and the idea is, that mercy is not manifested by him in small or stinted measure. It is rich; full; abundant; overflowing; free.
He will not always chide - Rebuke; contend; strive; for so the Hebrew word means. He will not always contend with people, or manifest his displeasure. See the notes at Isaiah 57:16; notes at Psalms 78:38-39. This implies that he may chide or rebuke his people, but that this will not be forever. He will punish them; he will manifest his displeasure at their sins; he will show that he does not approve of their course, but he will show that he “loves them,” and does not seek their ruin.
Neither will he keep his anger for ever - The words “his anger” are supplied by the translators, but not improperly. The meaning is the same as in the former member of the sentence. He will not cherish hatred when the object of the chastisement is accomplished. It is not his character to retain anger for its own sake, or for any personal gratification.
He hath not dealt with us after our sins - All may say this, and this “is” a ground of thanksgiving and praise. It is a matter for which we should render unceasing praise that God has not done to us as our sins deserved. Who of us can fail to stand in awe and to tremble when we think what God “might” have justly done to us; what sufferings he “might” have brought upon us, which would have been no more than we have deserved; what pain of body, what distress of mind, what anguish of bereavement - what sorrow, danger, sickness, losses - we “might” have suffered before the point would be reached at which it could be said that we were suffering more than a holy and just God might properly inflict on us.
Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities - That is, he has not inflicted suffering on us that could be regarded in any proper sense as a just retribution for what we have done; or, so that it could properly be said that the one fairly “measured” the other.
For as the heaven is high above the earth - See the notes at Psalms 57:10. Compare the notes at Isaiah 55:9. The literal translation of the phrase here would be, “For like the height of the heavens above the earth.” The heavens - the starry heavens - are the highest objects of which we have any knowledge; and hence, the comparison is used to denote the great mercy of God - meaning that it is as great as can be conceived; that there is nothing beyond it; that we cannot imagine that it could be greater - as we can imagine nothing higher than the heavens.
So great is his mercy toward them that fear him - To those who reverence and serve him. That is, His mercy is thus great in forgiving their offences; in imparting grace; in giving them support and consolation.
As far as the east is from the west - As far as possible; as far as we can imagine. These are the points in our apprehension most distant from each other, and as we can conceive nothing beyond them, so the meaning is, that we cannot imagine our sins could be more effectually removed than they are. The literal meaning of the Hebrew is, “like the distance of the east from the west” or, “like its being far.”
So far hath he removed our transgressions from us - That is, he has put them entirely away. They are so removed that they cannot affect us any more. We are safe from all condemnation for our sins, as if they had not been committed at all. Compare the notes at Isaiah 43:25; notes at Isaiah 44:22.
Like as a father pitieth his children - Hebrew, “Like the compassion of a father for his children.” See the notes at Matthew 7:7-11. God often compares himself with a father, and it is by carrying out our ideas of what enters into the parental character that we get our best conceptions of the character of God. See the notes at Matthew 6:9. That which is referred to here, is the natural affection of the parent for the child; the tender love which is borne by the parent for his offspring; the disposition to care for its needs; the readiness to forgive when an offence has been committed. Compare Luke 15:22-24. Such, in an infinitely higher degree, is the compassion - the kindness - which God has for those that love him.
So the Lord pitieth them that fear him - He has compassion on them. He exercises toward them the paternal feeling.
For he knoweth our frame - Our formation; of what we are made; how we are made. That is, he knows that we are made of dust; that we are frail; that we are subject to decay; that we soon sink under a heavy load. This is given as a reason why he pities us - that we are so frail and feeble, and that we are so easily broken down by a pressure of trial.
He remembereth that we are dust - Made of the earth. Genesis 2:7; Genesis 3:19. In his dealings with us he does not forget of what frail materials he made us, and how little our frames can bear. He tempers his dealings to the weakness and frailty of our nature, and his compassion interposes when the weight of sorrows would crush us. Remembering, too, our weakness, he interposes by his power to sustain us, and to enable us to bear what our frame could not otherwise endure. Compare the notes at Isaiah 57:16.
As for man - literally, “Man; like the grass are his days!” The thought is fixed on man: man so frail and weak; man, not only made originally of earth, but man delicate, feeble, soon to pass away like the springing grass, or like the fading flower.
His days are as grass - See the notes at Psalms 90:5-6; compare Isaiah 40:6-8, notes; 1 Peter 1:24, note.
As a flower of the field - As a blossom. It opens with beauty and fragrance, but soon fades and perishes.
So he flourisheth - Rather, “So he blossoms.” That is, he is like a flower that is fresh and beautiful, and that soon withers away.
For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone - Margin, as in Hebrew, “it is not.” The reference is either to a hot and burning wind, that dries up the flower; or to a furious wind that tears it from its stem; or to a gentle breeze that takes off its petals as they loosen their hold, and are ready to fall. So man falls - as if a breath - a breeze - came over him, and he is gone. How easily is man swept off! How little force, apparently, does it require to remove the most beautiful and blooming youth of either sex from the earth! How speedily does beauty vanish; how soon, like a fading flower, does such a one pass away!
And the place thereof shall know it no more - That is, It shall no more appear in the place where it was seen and known. The “place” is here personified as if capable of recognizing the objects which are present, and as if it missed the things which were once there. They are gone. So it will soon be in all the places where we have been; where we have been seen; where we have been known. In our dwellings; at our tables; in our places of business; in our offices, counting-rooms, studies, laboratories; in the streets where we have walked from day to day; in the pulpit, the court-room, the legislation-hall; in the place of revelry or festivity; in the prayer-room, the Sabbath-school, the sanctuary - we shall be seen no longer. We shall be gone: and the impression on those who are there, and with whom we have been associated, will be best expressed by the language, “he is gone!” Gone; - where? No one that survives can tell. All that they whom we leave will know will be that we are absent - that we are “gone.” But to us now, how momentous the inquiry, “Where shall we be, when we are gone from among the living?” Other places will “know” us; will it be in heaven, or hell?
But the mercy of the Lord - The favor of the Lord; or, his loving-kindness.
Is from everlasting to everlasting - Is from the eternity past to the eternity to come. It had its foundation in the eternal decrees of God; it has its security in his purpose that where it is conferred, it shall not be withdrawn. It had no beginning; it will have no end. There never was a period in the past when it was not the purpose of God to save his people; there never will be a period in the future when it will be said that his saving mercy has ceased. It would be difficult to think of a statement which would at the same time, in so few words, confirm at once the doctrine of the divine decrees, and the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. If either of these doctrines is denied, then what is here stated by the psalmist is not true: if the doctrine of the divine decrees is denied, then his purpose of mercy had a beginning, and is not “from everlasting;” if the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is denied, then his mercy has an end, and is not “to everlasting.”
Upon them that fear him - In respect to those who are his true worshippers, or his true people.
And his righteousness - His righteous purpose; or, his purpose in regard to their “becoming” righteous.
Unto children’s children - literally, “sons of sons.” That is, his purposes embrace the children and children’s children of the righteous; or, they are included in the covenant of mercy. See the notes at Acts 2:39. Compare Exodus 20:6.
To such as keep his covenant - To such as adhere to the arrangements of his covenant, or who are faithful on their part. God will be faithful to his part of the covenant; and where there is fidelity on the part of his people, the blessings implied in the covenant will be conferred on them and on their children. The promise is ample, and the fidelity of God is certain, but still it is true that in those promises, and in that fidelity, it is implied that his people on their part must be faithful also, or the blessings will not be bestowed. There are no promises of blessings to the unfaithful, nor have those who are unfaithful any reason to hope that they or theirs will be partakers of the blessings of the covenant of mercy. Our only hope that we or our children will be partakers of the blessings of the covenant is to be found in the fact that we ourselves are faithful to God.
And to those that remember his commandments to do them - Who do not “forget” his law. If they do forget it, they have no right to expect the blessing. Obedience and fidelity are our only reasonable grounds of expectation of the blessing of God.
The Lord hath prepared his throne in the heavens - He has “fixed” his throne there. This is the ground of the security that his blessing will be imparted to those who fear him, and to their children’s children, or that it will be transmitted to coming generations. God is a Sovereign. His throne is fixed and firm. His dominion is not vacillating and changing. His reign is not, like the reign of earthly monarchs, dependent on the capriciousness of a changeable will, or on passion; nor is it liable to be altered by death, by revolution, or a new dynasty. The throne of God is ever the same, and nothing can shake or overthrow it. Compare the notes at Psalms 11:4.
And his kingdom ruleth over all - He reigns over all the universe - the heavens and the earth; and he can, therefore, execute all his purposes. Compare Psalms 47:2.
Bless the Lord - The psalm began Psalms 103:1-2 with an exhortation to “bless the Lord.” That exhortation was, however, then addressed by the psalmist to his own soul, and was especially founded on the benefits which he had himself received. The psalm closes also with an exhortation to “bless the Lord,” yet on a much wider scale. The psalmist feels that there is not only occasion for him to do it, but that the reason for it extends to the whole universe. The meaning is, that God is worthy of universal praise; and all ranks of beings - all worlds - should join in that praise. Man, feeble, frail, dying, could not come up to the fullness of the praise required. Praise such as was appropriate to God - such as his perfections and works deserved - demanded loftier powers than those of man; the loftiest powers in the universe.
Ye his angels - All beings higher than man; beings around and before his throne.
That excel in strength - Margin, as in Hebrew, “mighty in strength,” and therefore more “able” to offer adequate praise.
That do his commandments - Who perfectly obey his law, and who, therefore, can render more acceptable praise than can ever come from human lips.
Hearkening unto the voice of his word - Who always listen to his voice; who never are disobedient; and who can, therefore, approach him as holy beings, and more appropriately worship him.
Bless ye the Lord, all ye his hosts - His armies; the vast multitudes of holy beings, arranged and marshalled as hosts for battle, in all parts of the universe. Compare the notes at Isaiah 1:9; notes at Ephesians 1:21.
Ye ministers of his - The same beings referred to by the word “hosts,” and all others who may be employed in executing his will. The “hosts” or armies of the Lord are thus marshalled that they may “do his pleasure,” or that they may execute his purposes.
That do his pleasure - What is agreeable to him; that is, who perform his will. Employed in his service, and appointed to execute his will, they are called on to bless his name. The fact of being employed in his service is a sufficient reason for praise. It is implied here that those “ministers of his” actually do his will. They are obedient to his commands; they regard themselves as employed for him.
Bless the Lord, all his works - All that he has made, animate and inanimate, intelligent and brute. It is not uncommon to call on the inanimate creation to join with intelligent beings in praising God. Compare Psalms 148:1-14. The same thing is often found in the “Paradise Lost,” and in fact occurs in all poetry.
In all places of his dominion - Wherever he reigns, on earth, or in heaven; here or in distant worlds.
Bless the Lord, O my soul - Ending the psalm as it began, and with the additional reason derived from the fact that the “universe” is called on to do it. As one of the creatures of God; as a part of that vast universe, the psalmist now calls on his own soul to unite with all others - to be one of them - in praising and blessing the Creator. He “desired” thus to unite with all others. His heart was full; and in a universe thus joyous - thus vocal with praise - he wished to be one among the immense multitudes that lifted their voices in adoration of the great Yahweh.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 103". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16