The Object of our Prayer

| Psalm 103:1-22 | October 7, 2018

Week of October 14, 2018

The Point:  A right view of God fuels how we pray.

Bless the Lord:  Psalm 103:1-22.

[1] Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! [2] Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, [3] who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, [4] who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, [5] who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. [6] The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. [7] He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel. [8] The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. [9] He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. [10] He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. [11] For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; [12] as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. [13] As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. [14] For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. [15] As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; [16] for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. [17] But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, [18] to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. [19] The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all. [20] Bless the LORD, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word! [21] Bless the LORD, all his hosts, his ministers, who do his will! [22] Bless the LORD, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the LORD, O my soul!   [ESV]

“A Psalm of Praise for God’s Mercies.  In Psalm 103, David extols God’s kindness, hinging his praises on God’s declaration to Moses in Exodus 34:5-7. He calls himself and all things to praise the Lord for His compassion and grace. David’s focus progresses, as if in ever-larger circles, from himself [1-5], to Israel and all nations, especially seen as oppressed and delivered by God [6-19], to the angels of heaven [20-21], and then to the whole creation [22]. His vision of the praise that should be rendered to God starts with himself but rapidly swells to encompass all things. And suddenly, at just that moment, his thoughts collapse back in on himself [22], as if he were either exhausted by the strain of such great imagination or afraid that in his longing for others to praise God he might forget to do it himself. The psalm works like a great symphony, starting quietly, swelling to a dramatic climax, and resolving into quiet again. Because of its clear declaration of man’s sinfulness and God’s forgiving grace, Charles Spurgeon called Psalm 103 “one of those all-comprehending Scriptures which is a Bible in itself,” adding that “it might alone almost suffice for the hymnbook of the church.”

Forget Not All His Benefits [1-5]  As David first calls on himself to praise God, so he first thinks of God’s benefits specifically on himself. And it is not accident that the first of these is forgiveness of sin [3]. So long as sin remains unforgiven, God and man are enemies [Rom. 5:9-11]. The barrier of sin must be removed before the great blessings of God can come upon us, or rather – since some of God’s blessings come on the just and the unjust alike [Mt. 5:45] – before we can recognize them and praise Him for them. But once sins are forgiven, the way is clear for God to rain on us many more blessings, including healing [3], preservation of life [4], and making us loving and compassionate [4] – in short, all godly desires [5]. The clause, who heals all your diseases [3] is puzzling. Does it mean that God is obliged to heal all the diseases of the faithful? I don’t think so. Rather than implying that every disease the believer ever has God heals, here and now, there is a different sense here. First, every healing we experience comes from God – God is our ultimate Physician, and no healing, regardless what means He uses to do it, comes apart from His blessing. Second, there will come a time when every disease will be healed, even though it will not be in this life. Just as one day our souls will be perfected, our sanctification will be complete, but not in this life, so also one day our bodies will be perfected, but again, not in this life. In response to these benefits David calls on himself to bless, or praise, the Lord. Here David gives us a practical example to follow, a pattern to imitate. First, he talks to himself. Rather than depending on habit or chance to occasion his praising God, he reminds himself consciously of his duty. Second, he is careful to praise the Giver, not the gifts: Bless the Lord, o my soul, he writes, not “praise forgiveness” or “praise healing.” Third, he demands sincerity in his praise. Otherwise it is empty and worthless. Praise must come from his soul, his “inmost being,” not as a mere outward show like the condemned worship of the formalists [Ps. 50:7-13]. Fourth, his praise must be wholehearted: all that is within me, bless his holy name. He permits no division in his heart, no reservations. Everything must be praise. There is no room for complaint. As God forgives all his sins, will ultimately heal all his diseases, redeems his whole life, and satisfies all his desires, so all his inmost being must praise Him. And what is it to praise God? Quite simply, it is to speak well of Him, to laud Him, to boast of Him before others. And that is precisely what David does throughout this whole psalm, all of which is dedicated to reciting God’s praiseworthy nature and works. All the benefits God grants to David, to Israel, and to anyone – but especially God’s very nature as merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love [8] – are grounds for praise.

The Lord is Compassionate and Gracious [6-19].  Verses 6 and 19 frame this section. They declare, first, that God works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed [6], and second, that there is no place where He has no jurisdiction, for from His throne in heaven He rules over all [19]. As an example of this justice for all who are oppressed David immediately thinks of God’s delivering Israel from oppression in Egypt [7]. But rather than tracing the miraculous works God did during the Exodus, David drives to the heart of the matter when he traces those works to their Source. For it is not, as we noted before, the deeds that David praises, but the God who does them. Hence after the briefest reference to God’s miraculous works, he tells what those works spoke about God Himself, which, summarized, is that God is merciful and gracious [8]. The Greatness of God’s Compassion.  God shows His compassion in that He feels for people who suffer, knowing their frailty [14-16]. Thus He is slow to anger [8], and when He does become angry He doesn’t nurse His anger forever [9] but sets it aside when sinners learn to fear Him and so keep His covenant [11,14,17,18]. And He shows His grace in that He does not always chide [9] or deal with us according to our iniquities [10]. Rather, in his Great love He removes our transgressions from us [12]. David chooses three images to depict the greatness of God’s love, compassion, and grace toward us. His love is as great as the heavens are high above the earth [11] – that is, infinitely great. He removes our sins from us as far as the east is from the west [12] – that is, infinitely far. And His compassion on us is like a father’s for his children [13] – that is, tender and kind, patient and gentle. The Greatness of Man’s Need.  The benefits of God’s grace and compassion stem not only from God’s nature, but also from man’s – but not from anything meritorious in man. Not at all. Rather, it is because God knows man’s frame – we are dust [14] – that He is compassionate toward us. What brings God’s compassion to us is nothing noble in us, but solely and purely God’s grace. God’s holiness [1] meets our sinfulness and forgiveness [10]. God’s eternity [17] meets our mortality [15-16] with life-giving redemption [4]. God’s heavenly throne [19] answers our earthly essence [14] with the promise of youthful strength [5]. Paul similarly contrasts our absolute need with God’s absolute sufficiency and finds in it cause for praise in Ephesians 2:1-7. God’s Love Is for Those Who Fear Him.  But – and this is essential if we are not to misunderstand totally what this psalm is about – while man can never deserve God’s grace, neither may he take grace for granted by neglecting the conditions of the covenant. For God’s grace and compassion triumph over judgment precisely in those who fear him … who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments [11,13,17-18]. Grace leads to repentance, and where there is no repentance, judgment must ensue. We cannot lay claim to God’s forgiveness if we insist on living in rebellion against Him. Paul gave a similar warning to hypocrites who presume on God’s grace in Romans 2:4-6. What is the Fear of God?  Some Christians, aiming to preserve pure the doctrine of God’s grace, think of the fear of God solely as reverence or awe – something akin to what we feel on seeing a majestic mountain or a towering redwood tree. The fear of God involves that, but there is more. Keeping in mind that God consistently reveals His grace and His justice together, or as Paul put it, His kindness and severity [Rom. 11:22], it seems appropriate to think of the fear of God as comprising both reverence and actual fear, or trembling at the prospect of danger. John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, captured well the combination of these two attitudes when he explained the fear of God: “God has in his own right the reverence of a father and of a lord. Therefore, he who would duly worship him will try to show himself both an obedient son to him and a dutiful servant. The Lord, through the prophet, calls “honor” that obedience which is rendered to him as Father. He calls “fear” the service that is done to him as Lord. A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? Says the Lord of Hosts [Mal. 1:6]. However he may distinguish them, you see how he fuses together the two terms. Therefore, let the fear of the Lord be for us a reverence compounded of honor and fear. No wonder if the same mind embraces both dispositions! For he who ponders within himself what God the Father is like toward us has cause enough, even if there be no hell, to dread offending him more gravely than any death. But also – such is the wanton desire of our flesh to sin without restraint – in order to check it by every means we must at once seize upon this thought: that the Lord, under whose power we live, abhors all iniquity. And they who, by living wickedly, provoke his wrath against themselves will not escape his vengeance” (3.2.26). It was believers, not unbelievers, whom Paul urged to set their minds on things that are above and to mortify what is earthly in you, adding, On account of these the wrath of God is coming [Col. 3:2-6]. Shortly thereafter he made the fear of God a motive for sincere service [Col. 3:22], adding: Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality [Col. 3:23-25]. This leads to another element in fearing God. There are times when one says of his best friend: “I’m afraid I really hurt him! I didn’t mean to, and I could kick myself for it. But I think what I said really cut deeply.” There is in this fear no expectation of angry retaliation, no apprehension of punishment. Instead there is the deep, wounding sorrow of recognizing that we have disappointed someone we love. In this fear it is as if we have punished ourselves rather than being punished by another. One who deeply loves God and knows how great God’s love is for him fears God in this way. He not only stands in awe of Him as great and fears punishment for sin, but also sincerely fears offending His holiness. He longs so intensely to please Him that he is loathe to displease Him. But doesn’t John write that perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment [1 John 4:18]? Yes. But note the particular punishment of which John writes. It is that of the day of judgment [17], for which believers are perfectly prepared in Christ. That fear of ultimate rejection by God is driven out by the entrance of God’s love into the heart of the believer. But these other fears – reverence of God’s greatness, fear of temporal punishment for violation of God’s Law, and loving fear of displeasing the Beloved – these are not driven out but intensified by our growing love for God. The Fear of God and Covenant Keeping.  Thus it is that David, after thrice referring to those who fear him as those who alone enjoy the benefits of God’s grace and compassion [11,13,17], finally explains the sort of life God-fearers display. They are those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments [18]. Reverence for His majesty, fear of chastisement, and loathing of displeasing Him – all of these should motivate the faithful to honor the covenant by complying wholeheartedly, even if never perfectly, with its conditions. Loving God and fearing God are inextricably intertwined [see Deut. 6:1-15]. To those who fear God, who keep His covenant and obey His commandments, the Lord’s love is from everlasting to everlasting, and so is His righteousness – here apparently denoting His faithfulness to His own side of the covenant, His promise to bless those who love, fear, and obey Him [17]. There is a firmness, a sureness, a permanency in believers’ relationship with God that can be had in nothing else. The God who established His throne in Heaven and rules over all [19] is the God who forgives our sins, heals our diseases, redeems us from the pit, crowns us with love and compassion, renews our youth like the eagle’s, and works righteousness and justice for us when oppressed [3-6]. The Lord Jehovah, God of the covenant, is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love [8] toward all who fear Him. How truly, then, does this love cast out fear of final condemnation [1 John 4:17-18] in those who have received not the spirit of bondage to fear but the Spirit of Sonship that entitles us to cry, Abba, Father [Rom. 8:15].

A Crescendo of Praise [20-22].  No wonder, then, that David, having recited God’s benefits to himself and to all who fear Him, now finds himself driven to invite everything to praise Him. Here David senses deeply and even painfully his own inadequacy for the task of rendering to God the praise due to Him. And so he calls on angels, who are so far from being dust and grass and flowers that they are themselves winds and flaming fires [Ps. 104:4]. Far greater than the faltering praise of the lips of sinful men is the praise of these majestic creatures, mighty ones because they do his word, obeying the voice of his word [20], who are better fitted by far to render the uninterrupted praise God deserves. But even that is not enough. Not enough that men should praise God! Not enough that angels should join in that praise! No, the One who rules over all deserves praise from all, and so David reaches the climax of this symphony of praise when he cries out, Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion [22]! And then, remembering again his own duty, he almost whispers to himself: Bless the Lord, O my soul!”   [Beisner, pp. 199-210].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Define bless. How can you bless God with your whole being? For what personal reasons does David bless God? What further aspects of God’s character shown toward all men make Him blessed? How has He dealt with our sin? Why? Who are God’s subjects? How will you join the call for universal praise?
  2. Note the first and last sentences. How does this bracketing affect your understanding of the psalm’s contents? Salvation is more richly complex than we sometimes think. What five actions of God add up to salvation [3-5]? How did God make His ways known to Moses and Israel [7]? What astounding statements about God does the psalmist make in verses 8-14? Carefully observe the contrast between us [15-16] and God [17-19]. Does this make you feel better or worse about yourself?
  3. What does the psalmist mean by fearing God [11,13,17]? What three types of fearing God does Beisner mention? List the blessings that come to those who fear God. How do you fear God?

References:

Psalms of Promise, E. Calvin Beisner, P & R Publishing.

Psalms, vol. 2, James Boice, Baker.

Psalms, vol. 2, Allan Harman, Mentor.

A Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 3, Allen Ross, Kregel.