3 : 5 May 2004

A Study of Psalm 103
Ryan J. Haase



Written by David, this is a devotional psalm in which he praises the Lord for His compassion towards Israel. It begins with David exhorting himself into worship ("Bless the Lord oh my soul") and ends with the same call.

In between we find an intense devotional psalm in which David remembers God's mercy and compassion and what He has done for them. He praises the Lord on a personal level first (vs. 3-5) and moves on towards remembering God's mercies towards Israel (vs. 6-19). The purpose of this paper is to study some of the sections of this psalm in detail, not to do a verse by verse exposť. Why? The Psalmist gives various reasons why we should praise God, and an understanding of these reasons can give an even greater appreciation for that which the Lord has done and his mercies toward us as a people living in this generation.


David starts out with an inward praise in verses 1-2. "Praise the Lord, oh my soul" is the call to worship that he gives himself. He calls upon his soul to worship the Lord, and then defines soul in the next line through parallelism. "All that is within me" (NASB) or "all my inmost being"(NIV) is to bless the Lord.

The idea is that we are to praise the Lord with all that we have, with our entire lives. The next verse repeats the call to praise and completes it with a call to remember what God has done for us. "Forget not all his benefits" (NIV), or, as the New Living Translation puts it, "never forget the good things he does for me." I believe that the reason this call to remember is included is because this is one of the best ways to praise God.

From personal experience I can say that when I reflect on all the ways God has blessed me in the past, I can't help but praise him. We shouldn't forget that which the Lord has done for us in the past. It can also serve as an encouragement when we're going through tough times, as a reminder that God is faithful. He proceeds to list some of the personal benefits that we receive from God, such as forgiveness of sins, healing, redemption, love, compassion, etc.


Just in verses 3-4 alone there is enough to write an entire paper on. God forgives our sins. It is written in the present tense. He still forgives us. He redeems our lives from the pit. This is also in the present tense. Another way of saying this is that he "ransoms me from death" (NLT).

What this says to me is that God is not a God only of the past. He is still active today, and the things he did back then in David's day, he still does today. We serve a living God who is the same today as he was yesterday and will be the same tomorrow and forever. That should be enough to praise him right there without going into anything else. But it gets better.


In verses 4-5 we find out that God does things for us simply because he loves us. He wants to do good things for us, and he does. He satisfies our desires with good things and renews us. This verse reminds me of Isaiah 40:31, which speaks to me incredibly of how we can rest in the Lord. Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. The promise of rest is amazing and emphasizes the love of God to me.

In the midst of all this we find that we are surrounded by love and compassion (v.4), two words that repeatedly refer to God throughout this psalm, in verses 8, 11, 13 and 17.


From this inward reflection he goes on to speak of all the wonderful things that God has done for Israel as a people. He puts Moses and Israel in parallel indicating, in my opinion, how he spoke to Israel through Moses, and then showed himself to them personally through his deeds.

The Lord made his ways known to Israel. He "opened up his plans" to them (The Message). He revealed himself to them in a unique way. Matthew Henry says that "divine revelation is one of the first and greatest of divine favors with which the church is blessed" , and we have evidence of his revelation today in His written Word that has been passed down over the centuries. God's revelation is His gift to us, and in this revelation we find out who He is and how He acts, that is, the way he deals with us. David explains some of this in the next verse, and bringing back the theme of love and compassion, declares God to be a gracious and compassionate God who is slow to anger and abounding in love.


This makes me praise the Lord every time I think about it. If I stop to think about all the times I've sinned against God, and all the times I've stepped out of line, I realize how compassionate God really is to accept me as his son even though I don't deserve it at all. We are not deserving of God's grace and compassion, but then again, that's what grace is: undeserved favor. We don't deserve it, but God gives it to us anyway because he loves us so much.

The following verse brings this out even more. "He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities" (NIV). If we were to receive what we deserved, it would be death, because we know that the wages of sin is death. But God loved us enough to offer us exactly the opposite: eternal life! Thinking back to the life of Israel, the only reason they are still on the planet today is by the grace of God. God raised them up and blessed them, yet they continually went astray and sinned against him.


But God not only loved them enough to spare them and work with them, he sent his only Son to their midst to bring to them the good news and then die on the cross in order to take away their sins. Jesus was God's ultimate gift to the world. We can now approach God where we couldn't before, because our sins have been removed by the blood of the Lamb. "As far as the east is from the west" (NIV), that's how far our sins have been removed from us. The picture here is obvious.

All we have to do is look at a map and realize that east and west go on infinitely in either direction. Charles Spurgeon says that the "distance is incalculable." What David does in this verse is show us practically that God has not only removed our sins, but has removed so far away that they will no longer be remembered.

"As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him." (NIV) The Hebrew word r‚cham, which the NIV translates as compassionate, means having compassion, showing mercy and pity, loving people. This is a powerful picture of how God treats us as his children. He shows mercy, pity, compassion and love to those who fear him. This brings up another question: what does it mean to fear God?

Once again, the Hebrew word y‚rÍ, translated fear, means to be morally reverent. "To those who truly reverence his holy name, the Lord is a father and acts as such." (Spurgeon) Why does God have compassion on us? We have already seen that he loves us dearly, as evidenced in verse 11. However, David continues to explain in verse 14 that God knows who we are. He has compassion on us for (connecting word) he knows that we are but dust and knows how we function.


What David appears to be saying is that God knows how much we can take and will not give us anything too difficult for us to handle. This brings us back to what is written in Ps. 78:39: "He remembered that they were but flesh." God knows us, and we don't have to worry about God not being able to take care of us, because he created us! The word flesh or dust here could also be translated as rubbish or ashes, literally indicating our human frailty. Yet God has compassion on those who fear him, and "has perpetuated his covenant-mercy and thereby provided relief for our frailty." (Henry)


Verses 15-18 provide us with a contrast between God and man. Man is like grass and flowers. They flourish for a while, and even have a certain amount of beauty, but they will wither and die. Man is born, lives and dies, and his lifespan is incredibly short in comparison with eternity. Man will wither and die, the things we have accumulated will wither and die, and the only thing we have that will last is that which we have invested in eternal things.

The realization of the brevity of our life should lead us to want to make our lives worthy of living. We are called to live godly lives, to be God's image-bearers, and we have a short time to do it. Let's make the most out of it. Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) once said, "Be such a man, and live such a life, that if every man were such as you, and every life a life like yours, this earth would be God's Paradise." We don't have much time, because we will wither away like the flowers of the field but let's use every minute of our time for the furthering of the kingdom. "Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that's the stuff life is made of." (Benjamin Franklin)


Then we come to what Spurgeon calls the "blessed but." We have a picture of man, but, "from everlasting to everlasting the Lord's love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children's children." (NIV)

Man is a mess, which is why we can be so thankful that God loved us enough to bail us out by sending Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. So we have the infinite contrast between a withering flower (man) and the eternity of God. From everlasting to everlasting.... in other words, from eternity before the world began, to eternity future, God loves those who fear him. He never changes, and in this we can draw great comfort. His mercy is "without end as well as without beginning" (Spurgeon) to those who fear him.


Once again, who are those who fear him? Matthew Henry defines it as those who have faith in him, and then demonstrate that faith by a life of obedience. In a nutshell, this is what it means to be morally reverent (y‚rÍ). This description of faith plus obedience is gathered from the following verse (18). There seems to be a parallel between the end of verse 17 and verse 18.

Verse 17 says that the Lord's righteousness and love is with those who fear him and with their children's children. Some would take this out of context and say that the children of a believer will automatically be believers. I believe this possibility is refuted by verse 18, which parallels verse 17.

The phrase "with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts" refers directly back to the previous verse, indicating that the blessing of the Lord is based on certain stipulations. We have to do our part. I am not automatically a Christian because my parents are. It is a relationship, and in order to have a relationship, each individual has to make the choice to serve God.


Verse 19 brings to a closure the section of this psalm were David sings of what God has done for Israel. He ends by remembering that God indeed rules forever, and he rules over this entire earth. He is the ruler of the universe, and his throne has been established in the heavens. It is immovable and will not be shaken. God does not change. His throne is in the heavens and we can't see it, but his kingdom "rules over all" (NIV), and the results of this we can see. God's "jurisdiction" (Henry) extends over the entire earth and we are all under him. If people would bow down to earthly kings just to show them respect, how much more should we show God respect and bow down to him and worship him, since he is the one King that actually loves us and truly wants the best for us.


So far David has talked to himself and to Israel. Now he turns toward creation and the heavenly hosts to finish off the psalm. This is a call to praise directed towards all creatures, the entirety of creation. He calls on the angels to praise the Lord. The angels, who do as God commands, who don't disobey, who are holy, offer up their praises to God. He calls upon the heavenly hosts and the servants of the Lord who do His will.

What is he talking about? Who are the heavenly hosts? In the Hebrew, we get a picture of a large mass of people, a throng of individuals, but more importantly, a group of people organized for war. We are set up for battle in the heavenlies, and this mighty throng of troops is praising the Lord. In this world the angels do the Lord's work and fight the Lord's battles, yet in the heavenlies they continually praise him, as John shows us so powerfully in the fourth chapter of Revelation.

"Praise the Lord, all his works everywhere in his dominion." (NIV) God made us, the earth, and all that is in it, therefore, we should praise him. David calls on the whole of creation to praise the holy name of God. Everything that has breath is to praise the Lord! Notice how this whole psalm builds up in God's praise. It begins simply, with David praising the Lord, then it moves up to the nation of Israel, then to the angels, and then David tops it off with calling all of creation to praise God.

It's like he is building up to a climatic ending, where the whole earth is praising the name of God. But yet he draws back and closes on what Spurgeon calls his "key-note." Though the whole earth is praising the Lord, David doesn't retreat, but returns to praising the Lord himself. "He cannot be content to call on others without taking his own part, nor because others sing more loudly and perfectly, will he be content to step aside." (Spurgeon) Praising the Lord is a work that never ends, for when we get to heaven we will be doing what angels are doing: praising Him constantly.


What is the relevance for this psalm in our lives today? I have already talked about a lot of things that this does to us, but one of things is that simply by reading this psalm my heart fills with gratitude. The visual picture that David paints of the goodness of God and his love and compassion towards us, topped off by the ultimate sacrifice of Christ on the cross so that we could live eternally, is enough to fill my heart with thankfulness.

I believe there is a two-fold purpose to this psalm: one is to remind us of who God is and what he has done for us, and the other is that, through this, we would be led to praise and worship the Lord Almighty. "From David, learn to give thanks for everything. Every furrow in the book of Psalms is sown with the seeds of thanksgiving." (Jeremy Taylor - 1613-1667).


To end this reflection on Psalm 103, I would like to sum up the message of thanksgiving and praise by quoting a Chinese Proverb. "When you drink from the stream, remember the spring." I believe too often we forget the spring, and forget that we wouldn't have a stream without the spring. What David is calling us to do is to remember the spring (v.3), and turn that memory and thankfulness into joyful praise, because God is truly worthy of all praise!

Works Cited

Spurgeon, Charles H. The Treasury of David, Psalms 58-110. Electronic Edition. STEP Files. Copyright © 1997, Parsons Technology, Inc.: Hiawatha, Iowa

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Old Testament. Electronic Edition. STEP Files. Copyright © 2000,, Inc.: Omaha, Nebraska

Other Resources Used

Draper. Edythe Draper's Book of Quotations for the Christian World. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.: Wheaton, Illinois, 1992