Psalm 103: Limitless Mercy for Fragile Humans

 Psalm 103 (and its twin 104) contain the famous call to “bless Yahweh, O my soul.” It clearly presents a theology of God’s grace and mercy, well before the Christ came to atone for our sin. The descriptive imagery surrounding God’s limitless mercy and the fragility of the human condition act as the backdrop for the famous self-directed call to worship God. They present a powerful case for why we should keep God’s love for us always on our hearts.  

Bless the Blesser

Psalm 103 begins and ends with a self-invocation to “bless Yahweh my soul”, one of the most famous lines from this psalm. This establishes from the beginning that the poem is chiefly about God. As the psalmist rouses himself (and the congregation reading the psalm) to bless Yahweh twice, he also “commands” himself not to forget God’s benefits. God is to be blessed because he blesses. Then the psalm turns to a list of ways that God benefits his people: forgiveness of sin, healing diseases, protection from destruction, bestowal of steadfast love and compassion (alludes to Exo. 34:6) and satisfaction. 


This last benevolent behavior of God has an adjoining simile, “so that your youth is renewed like the eagles.”The satisfaction here may be referring to hunger1, but regardless of if the satisfaction is simply spiritual or also physical, this satisfaction has a transformative effect. God’s goodness (perhaps encapsulating all the previous blessings), gives its recipients eagle-like strength and vigor.

The excitement here is about all the ways God has done good for his people, all the reasons why one should not, nor should they be able to forget what he has done and neglect his praise.

God's Limitless Mercy

Extending from God’s positive behaviors, the psalm turns to the ways God withholds punishment for people’s evil behaviors. 

"He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel." - V. 7

 This verse is referring to Moses’ prayer where he asked God to reveal his character (Exo. 33:13)2. Referring back to The Exodus, the central salvation event of Israel’s history, is a common motif in the Psalms. Here, the poet is not concerned about the actual events, but the character that was revealed.

“Yahweh is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.” – v. 8 (cf. Exo 34:6)

Verse 8 is a verbatim quote of God's self-revelation of his own character in Exodus 34:6 3 and contains the main “ways” that were revealed to Moses and Israel in the past. This psalm does not touch on God’s judgment, the second part of God’s self-revelation (Exo 36:7), but focuses only on his goodwill towards those who revere him. Verses 9-13 elaborate the depth of God’s mercy—he does not hold onto anger and he does not treat his people in the way they deserve. Using several similes, the poet explains how profound God’s mercy is,

“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; for as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”– v. 11

This is not speaking about precise measurements, because such measurements were unavailable in those days. Rather, this is saying “as far as the eye can see”—that far, that is the degree to which God separates our sin from us, that is the length of his covenant love. God’s forgiveness of sin is infinite. His compassion is like a father who cares about his child’s well being when they stumble—he doesn’t enjoy seeing sin’s consequences in his children’s lives. 

Humanity's Temporary Fragility 

God’s compassion towards his devotees is rooted in our fragility, 

For he knows our frame, he remembers that we are dust.” – v. 14
The idea that humans “are dust” is a common one throughout the Bible, as the first human (Adam) was made from dust and every person’s destiny is dust. Each person is valuable, but also nothing in the grand sense.

The particle “for” (כִּי ki) qualifies why God has compassion in the preceding verses. This idea is furthered in verses 15 and 16,
“As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.” – v. 15

 Plants can die off as quickly as the spring up, because it is their nature. Humans are the same way. The Lord knows we are fragile, so he cares for us; he doesn’t treat us harshly as if we were thick-barked trees. 

These verses not only showcase the fragility of humanity, but also our transience; we are fragile and only last for a short term. 

“But the steadfast love of Yahweh is from forever to forever on those who fear him, and his righteousness to the children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.” – vs.17-18 

 There is a great contrast between the short-lived life of men against God’s forever love. Our lives have no guarantee of prosperity, but his loving-kindness lasts forever. This verse is an allusion to the Ten Commandments (Exo 20:5-6) and to God’s self-revelation4. Since God rules in heaven (v. 19), there is hope in God’s unfailing mercy amidst our own progressive decay.

The psalm winds down with a command for the spiritual beings to bless God. It is not simply enough that humanity praises him, but that all the armies of heaven and even “his works” (creation) bless him as well. These call-outs build up the dramatic effect leading to the psalms ending, a verbatim quote of the opening, “Bless Yahweh, my soul.”
  1. The Hebrew literally reads “who satisfies your mouth with good.”
  2. Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms p. 738
  3. Except the subject Yahweh is in between וְחַנּוּן and אֶרֶךְ
  4. In both verses, “children’s children” refers to those who receive the punishment, here the psalmist changes this to be the subject of God’s forever love!

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