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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 103

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-22

Psalms 103:1-22

THERE are no clouds in the horizon, nor notes of sadness in the music, of this psalm. No purer outburst of thankfulness enriches the Church. It is well that, amid the many psalms which give voice to mingled pain and trust, there should be one of unalloyed gladness, as untouched by sorrow as if sung by spirits in heaven. Because it is thus purely an outburst of thankful joy, it is the more fit to be pondered in times of sorrow.

The psalmist’s praise flows in one unbroken stream. There are no clear marks of division, but the river broadens as it runs, and personal benefits and individual praise open out into gifts which are seen to fill the universe, and thanksgiving which is heard from every extremity of His wide dominion of lovingkindness.

In Psalms 103:1-5 the psalmist sings of his own experience. His spirit, or ruling sell calls on his "soul," the weaker and more feminine part, which may be cast down {Psalms 42:1-11 and Psalms 43:1-5} by sorrow, and needs stimulus and control, to contemplate God’s gifts and to praise Him. A good man will rouse himself to such exercise, and coerce his more sensuous and sluggish faculties to their noblest use. Especially must memory be directed, for it keeps woefully short-lived records of mercies, especially of continuous ones. God’s gifts are all "benefits," whether they are bright or dark. The catalogue of blessings lavished on the singer’s soul begins with forgiveness and ends with immortal youth. The profound consciousness of sin, which it was one aim of the Law to evoke, underlies the psalmist’s praise; and he who does not feel that no blessings could come from heaven, unless forgiveness cleared the way for them, has yet to learn the deepest music of thankfulness. It is followed by "healing" of "all thy diseases," which is no cure of merely bodily ailments, any more than redeeming of life "from the pit" is simply preservation of physical existence. In both there is at least included, even if we do not say that it only is in view, the operation of the pardoning God in delivering from the sicknesses and death of the spirit.

The soul thus forgiven and healed is crowned with "lovingkindness and compassions," wreathed into a garland for a festive brow, and its adornment is not only a result of these Divine attributes, but the very things themselves, so that an effluence from God beautifies the soul. Nor is even this all, for the same gifts which are beauty are also sustenance, and God satisfies the soul with good, especially with the only real good, Himself. The word rendered above "mouth" is extremely difficult. It is found in Psalms 32:9, where it seems best taken in the meaning of trappings or harness. That meaning is inappropriate here, though Hupfeld tries to retain it. The LXX renders "desire," which fits well, but can scarcely be established. Other renderings, such as "age" or "duration"-i.e., the whole extent of life-have been suggested. Hengstenberg and others regard the word as a designation of the soul, somewhat resembling the other term applied to it, "glory"; but the fact that it is the soul which is addressed negatives that explanation. Graetz and others resort to a slight textual alteration, resulting in the reading "thy misery." Delitzsch, in his latest editions, adopts this emendation doubtingly, and supposes that with the word misery or affliction there is associated the idea "of beseeching and therefore of longing," whence the LXX rendering would originate. "Mouth" is the most natural word in such connection, and its retention here is sanctioned by "the interpretation of the older versions in Psalms 32:9 and the Arabic cognate" (Perowne). It is therefore retained above, though with some reluctance.

How should a man thus dealt with grow old? The body may, but not the soul. Rather it will drop powers that can decay, and for each thus lost will gain a stronger-moulting, and not being stripped of its wings, though it changes their feathers. There is no need to make the psalmist responsible for the fables of the eagle’s renewal of its youth. The comparison with the monarch of the air does not refer to the process by which the soul’s wings are made strong, but to the result in wings that never tire, but bear their possessor far up in the blue and towards the throne.

In Psalms 103:6-18 the psalmist sweeps a greater circle, and deals with God’s blessings to mankind. He has Israel specifically in view in the earlier verses. but passes beyond Israel to all "who fear Him." It is very instructive that he begins with the definite fact of God’s revelation through Moses. He is not spinning a filmy idea of a God out of his own consciousness, but he has learned all that he knows of Him from His historical self-revelation. A hymn of praise which has not revelation for its basis will have many a quaver of doubt. The God of men’s imaginations, consciences, or yearnings is a dim shadow. The God to whom love turns undoubting and praise rises without one note of discord is the God who has spoken His own name by deeds which have entered into the history of the world. And what has He revealed Himself to be? The psalmist answers almost in the words of the proclamation made to Moses (Psalms 103:8-9). The lawgiver had prayed, "I beseech Thee show me now Thy ways, that I may know Thee"; and the prayer had been granted, when "the Lord passed by before him," and proclaimed His name as "full of compassion and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy and truth." That proclamation fills the singer’s heart, and his whole soul leaps up in him, as he meditates on its depth and sweetness. Now, after so many centuries of experience, Israel can repeat with full assurance the ancient self-revelation, which has been proved true by many "mighty deeds."

The psalmist’s thoughts are still circling round the idea of forgiveness, with which he began his contemplations. He and his people equally need it; and all that revelation of God’s character bears directly on His relation to sin. Jehovah is "long of anger"-i.e., slow to allow it to flash out in punishment-and as lavish of lovingkindness as sparing of wrath. That character is disclosed by deeds. Jehovah’s graciousness forces Him to "contend" against a man’s sins for the man’s sake. But it forbids Him to be perpetually chastising and condemning, like a harsh taskmaster. Nor does He keep His anger ever burning, though He does keep His lovingkindness aflame for a thousand generations. Lightning is transitory: sunshine, constant. Whatever His chastisements, they have been less than our sins. The heaviest is "light," and "for a moment," when compared with the "exceeding weight of" our guilt.

The glorious metaphors in Psalms 103:11-12 traverse heaven to the zenith, and from sunrise to sunset, to find distances distant enough to express the towering height of God’s mercy and the completeness of His removal from us of our sins. That pure arch, the top stone of which nor wings nor thoughts can reach, sheds down all light and heat which make growth and cherish life. It is high above us, but it pours blessings on us and it bends down all round the horizon to kiss the low, dark earth. The lovingkindness of Jehovah is similarly lofty, boundless, all-fructifying. In Psalms 103:11 b the parallelism would be more complete if a small textual alteration were adopted, which would give "high" instead of "great"; but the slight departure which the existing text makes from precise correspondence with a-is of little moment, and the thought is sufficiently intelligible as the words stand. Between East and West all distances lie. To the eye they bound the world. So far does God’s mercy bear away our sins. Forgiveness and cleansing are inseparably united.

But the song drops-or shall we say rises?-from these magnificent measures of the immeasurable to the homely image of a father’s pity. We may lose ourselves amid the amplitudes of the lofty, wide-stretching sky, but this emblem of paternal love goes straight to our hearts. A pitying God! What can be added to that? But that fatherly pity is decisively limited to "them that fear Him." It is possible, then, to put oneself outside the range of that abundant dew, and the universality of God’s blessings does not hinder self-exclusion from them.

In Psalms 103:14-16 man’s brief life is brought in, not as a sorrow or as a cloud darkening the sunny joy of the song, but as one reason for the Divine compassion. "He, He knows our frame." The word rendered "frame" is literally. "formation" or "fashioning," and comes from the same root as the verb employed in Genesis 2:7 to describe man’s creation. "The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground." It is also used for the potter’s action in moulding earthen vessels. {Isaiah 29:16, etc.} So, in the next clause, "dust" carries on the allusion to Genesis, and the general idea conveyed is that of frailty. Made from dust and fragile as an earthen vessel, man by his weakness appeals to Jehovah’s compassion. A blow, delivered with the full force of that almighty hand, would "break him as a potter’s vessel is broken." Therefore God handles us tenderly, as mindful of the brittle material with which He has to deal. The familiar figure of fading vegetation, so dear to the psalmists, recurs here; but it is touched with peculiar delicacy, and there is something very sweet and uncomplaining in the singer’s tone. The image of the fading flower, burned up by the simoom, and leaving one little soot in the desert robbed" of its beauty, veils much of the terror of death, and expresses no shrinking, though great pathos. Psalms 103:16 may either describe the withering of the flower, or the passing away of frail man. In the former case, the pronouns would be rendered by "it" and "its"; in the latter, by "he," "him," and "his." The latter seems the preferable explanation. Psalms 103:16 b is verbally the same as Job 7:10. The contemplation of mortality tinges the song with a momentary sadness, which melts into the pensive, yet cheerful, assurance that mortality has an accompanying blessing, in that it makes a plea for pity from a Father’s heart.

But another, more triumphant thought springs up. A devout soul, full charged with thankfulness based on faith in God’s name and ways, cannot but be led by remembering man’s brief life to think of God’s eternal years. So, the key changes at Psalms 103:17 from plaintive minors to jubilant notes. The psalmist pulls out all the stops of his organ, and rolls along his music in a great crescendo to the close. The contrast of God’s eternity with man’s transitoriness is like the similar trend of thought in Psalms 90:1-17 and Psalms 102:1-28. The extension of His lovingkindness to children’s children and its limitation to those who fear Him and keep His covenant in obedience, rest upon Exodus 20:6; Exodus 34:7; and Deuteronomy 7:9. That limitation has been laid down twice already (Psalms 103:11-13). All men share in that lovingkindness and receive the best gifts from it of which they are capable; but those who cling to God in loving reverence, and who are moved by that blissful "fear" which has no torment, to yield their wills to Him in inward submission and outward obedience, do enter into the inner recesses of that lovingkindness, and are replenished with good, of which others are incapable.

If God’s lovingkindness is "from everlasting to everlasting," will not His children share in it for as long? The psalm has no articulate doctrine of a future life; but is there not in that thought of an eternal outgoing of God’s heart to its objects some (perhaps half-conscious) implication that these will continue to exist? May not the psalmist have felt that, though the flower of earthly life "passed in the passing of an hour," the root would be somehow transplanted to the higher "house of the Lord," and "flourish in the courts of our God," as long as His everlasting mercy poured its sunshine? We, at all events, know that His eternity is the pledge of ours. "Because I live, ye shall live also."

From Psalms 103:19 to the end, the psalm takes a still wider sweep. It now embraces the universe. But it is noticeable that there is no more about "lovingkindness" in these verses. Man’s sin and frailty make him a fit recipient of it, but we do not know that in all creation another being, capable of and needing it, is found. Amid starry distances, amid heights and depths, far beyond sunrise and sunset, God’s all-including kingdom stretches and blesses all. Therefore, all creatures are called on to Bless Him, since all are blessed by Him, each according to its nature and need. If they have consciousness, they owe Him praise. If they have not, they praise Him by being. The angels, "heroes of strength," as the words literally read, are "His," and they not only execute His behests, but stand attent before Him, listening to catch the first whispered indication of His will. "His hosts" are by some taken to mean the stars; but surely it is more congruous to suppose that beings who are His "ministers" and perform His "will" are intelligent beings. Their praise consists in hearkening to and doing His word. But obedience is not all their praise; for they too, bring Him tribute of conscious adoration in more melodious music than ever sounded on earth. That "choir invisible" praises the King of heaven; but later revelation has taught us that men shall teach a new song to "principalities and powers in heavenly places," because men only can praise Him whose lovingkindness to them, sinful and dying, redeemed them by His blood.

Therefore, it is no drop from these heavenly anthems, when the psalm circles round at last to its beginning, and the singer calls on his soul to add its "little human praise" to the thunderous chorus. The rest of the universe praises the mighty Ruler; he blesses the forgiving, pitying Jehovah. Nature and angels, stars and suns, seas and forests, magnify their Maker and Sustainer; we can bless the God who pardons iniquities and heals diseases which our fellow choristers never knew.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 103". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-103.html.
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