Psalms Book 4: The Great Love of God

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on October 26, 2008

Psalms 103:1-22

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Amen. Please be seated. As you do so, I’d invite you to take your Bibles and turn with me to Psalm 103. Now if you were here at the eleven o’clock service, you may be saying, “What possibly could he still have to say about Psalm 103 that he didn’t already say this morning?” And, sadly, the answer is, “A lot, and I don’t have time to say that much tonight!”

Derek Kidner says of Psalm 103 that “admiring gratitude shines through every line of this hymn to the God of all grace.” I get jealous reading Derek Kidner. He just has such a way of turning a phrase, and he’s so right about this passage. He goes on to say that “in the galaxy of the Psalter, these Psalms…” [and he’s referring to Psalm 103 and its next-door neighbor, Psalm 104] “…in the galaxy of the Psalter, these are twin stars of the first magnitude.” And he’s right about that, as well.

Psalm 103 is a high point among the praise Psalms in the Psalter, in the Book of the Psalms, and it’s so exalted in its scope and language that it qualifies for being an ode. Now we have English professors here at First Presbyterian Church, and English teachers who will love to tell you what an ode is. I’ll just give you a very simple definition: an ode is the most exalted kind of lyric poem. It’s verse that deals with a dignified subject in an elevated style, and if you studied English in college or perhaps took AP English in high school, chances are you read odes by Edmund Spenser, or Andrew Marvell, or Coleridge, or Keats, or Shelley. All of them wrote very famous English odes. Well, this Psalm has such exalted language that it qualifies for being an ode.

Let me point some things out for you to look for as we just walk through the Psalm together. In verses 1 and 2, notice that what we have is a call to praise. I’m actually not outlining the Psalm for you yet; I’m just pointing out some things that we won’t even have time to look at tonight, so don’t start outlining yet. I’m just telling you some things to look for. Verses 1 and 2 is a call to praise. It’s directed inwardly to the poet himself. Remember when we studied this looking at the hymn [Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty]? It’s an exhortation to yourself to bless God, an exhortation to yourself to praise God. And so this call to praise is initially directed inwardly: “My soul…Soul, bless the Lord.” That’s what’s being said, and it consists (verses 1-2) of three calls to bless the Lord — a three-fold call to bless the Lord.

Well, look at verses 3-5. Here, just in those few verses you will see the psalmist catalogue six great acts of God, with the first five in strictly parallel form, being introduced — every one of them — with the words, “who…who…who…who.”

Then in verses 6-7, you will see respectively a list of God’s general acts and His acts in history of Israel.

In verse 8 you’ll see praise given because of four attributes of God; in verses 9-10, four corresponding acts of God, or acts that correspond to those attributes of God in verse 8.

In verses 11-13, you will see three parallel similes that praise God for His attributes, and so you see the literary styles and forms that are being used to express this praise to God.

In verses 17-18, you’ll see praise of the permanent love set over against the transience of people (vss. 14-16).

In verse 19, you’ll see God’s kingship — His universal kingship set forth. And then the Psalm will end (vss. 20-22) with four doxologies, four commands or exhortations for us to praise.

Now as I hinted this morning, and as I did not know until I started to study for this Psalm a number of weeks ago, the background to this Psalm is found in Exodus 32-34, so let me go ahead and ask you to flip there in your Bibles to Exodus 32-34. You can keep your finger in Psalm 103…we won’t be there long, but you can just keep your finger in Psalm 103 and then just look at what has happened in Exodus 32-34. The children of Israel had committed idolatry at Mount Sinai, just having been given The Ten Commandments. God has told Moses that He’s going to destroy them all. Moses, the mediator (because one of the great themes of this passage is why the people of God need a mediator, and boy, did they ever need a mediator this time!)…Moses the mediator has interceded for them and prayed that God would not destroy them. God has in fact responded to the prayer of Moses, but then in response to the prayer of Moses, God says ‘I’m going to reveal myself in a special way to you.’ And that is recorded in Exodus 34:5-7. Look at those verses, because I think you will see so much of the substance of what you find in the middle section of Psalm 103 right there in Exodus 34:5-7:

“The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there….”

[That’s an amazing phrase right there, isn’t it? I mean, if you had just come home from a political campaign and you had said, “You know, the President of the United States stood next to me for a few minutes,” that would cause some buzz with your buddies over coffee. Can you imagine Moses relaying this one? ‘Well, Joshua, you know, I was standing there, and then the Lord came and stood there with me for a little while.’ That’s what the Psalm says, the Lord came and stood with Moses.]

“…and proclaimed the name of the Lord.”

And what did He do? The Lord proclaimed the name of the Lord. In other words, the Lord says, ‘Moses, let Me tell you what I’m like.’ And here it is.

“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord…’”

[That’s an emphatic way in Hebrew of speaking.]

“… ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generations.’”

Now there’s so much I want to say about that, but let me restrict myself to one comment, and then I want to take you to the description that’s given at the end of verse 6 and verse 7 and just walk you through it phrase by phrase. The one comment on it is that many commentators view this chapter as the most important chapter in all of the Old Testament about forgiveness — Exodus 34. And so it is no mistake that the psalmist, when he wants to talk about the essence of why he is grateful to God, will go back to Exodus 34 and make it the meat of what he says in the middle of Psalm 103. So there is the first thing I want to think with you about.

Now look at verses 6-7. At the end of verse 6, verse 7, look at the phrases: “The Lord…the Lord God.” That’s an emphatic type of invocation, and it serves to say ‘Listen up. This is what I am like. You are about to hear what the Almighty says about the Almighty.’ You know how we always say that when somebody says, ‘Yeah, I know that the Bible says … but I like to think,” that whatever comes after ‘what I like to think’ is heresy. “I know that the Bible says, but I like to think….” Well, here’s the Almighty saying, ‘I’m not telling you what you like to think about Me. I’m telling you what I think about Me. This is what I’m like.’

And what is it? Well, the first thing that He says is “I am compassionate and gracious.” In contrast to Exodus 20:5, 6, the magnanimous qualities of the Lord are emphasized here. God had emphatically asserted His determination to show compassion and grace to Israel in Exodus 33:19. Here we see that this is not because Moses talked Him into being compassionate and gracious. You may have heard somebody preach Exodus 32-34 as if Moses had to talk God into being nice. Well, this passage is there to prove that that interpretation of Exodus 32-34 is wrong. The reason God forgives is because He is compassionate and gracious. The reason that God forgives in response to Moses’ prayer is to teach the people of God that they need a mediator interceding for them, not to try and talk God into being merciful. So he says ‘The reason that I forgive flows from My own heart. It’s not reactive, it’s not responsive to anything in you. It flows from My own heart.’

Then He says, “I am slow to anger.” Now what’s glorious about this passage is literally, if you’re going to be woodenly literal and translate this idiom as it exists in the Hebrew — there may be a few Hebrew scholars here, maybe a few seminary students with their Hebrew text in front of them — literally it says that the Lord is “long in the nostrils.” Now what in the world does that idiom mean? Well, have you ever had somebody flare their nostrils at you? Well, the idiom means He’s not flaring His nostrils at you. Sarah Kennedy was for some reason talking about a statue the other day that she saw of a horse, and she said, “I like the statue of that horse because even though it’s a battle horse, he’s not flaring his nostrils. And I don’t like it when they have statues of horses flaring their nostrils!” For some reason she didn’t like that! Well, here’s a passage saying the Lord’s not flaring His nostrils. In other words, He’s patient. He’s not angry with you.

He’s slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth. There’s the next line. This means that God is beneficent, and He is faithful, and He is dependable, and He is kind, and He will keep His word, and His benefits can be counted on. And He keeps lovingkindness for thousands, and He forgives iniquity and transgression and sin. In other words, God’s mercy is relentless and indefatigable. He is bent to mercy, and this is revealed in that whereas His justice pursues four generations, His mercy pursues a thousand generations.

And yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. That is, God’s forgiveness doesn’t mean that He is unconcerned with justice and punishment, and He will visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the grandchildren to the third and fourth generation. That is, He will pursue sin.

So this is the background for Psalm 103. So with that background, let’s look at Psalm 103, the whole of it, together. As we do so, look for four parts: Verses 1-5, where we have the call to blessing; verses 6-14, where we have the reason for blessing; verses 15 -19, where we have our confidence in God’s blessing; and, verses 20-22, where we have our call for a larger chorus to help us bless God. Those four parts. Let’s pray before we read.

Heavenly Father, this is Your word. By Your Spirit, open our eyes to just how worthy of blessing You are, and thereby invoke our souls to bless Your holy name. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hear the word of God, Psalm 103:


“Bless the Lord, O my soul;

and all that is within me, bless His holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits;

Who forgives all your iniquities;

Who heals all your diseases;

Who redeems your life from the pit;

Who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy;

Who satisfies you with good,

So that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

“The Lord works righteousness and justice

For all who are oppressed.

He made known His ways to Moses,

His acts to the people of Israel.

The Lord is merciful and gracious,

Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

He will not always chide;

Nor will He keep His anger forever.

He does not deal with us according to our sins,

Nor repay us according to our iniquities.

For high as the heavens are above the earth,

So great is His steadfast love towards those who fear Him.

As far as the east is from the west,

So far does He remove our transgressions from us.

As a father shows compassion to his children,

So the Lord shows compassion to those who fear Him.

For He knows our frame;

He remembers that we are dust.

“As for man, his days are like grass;

He flourishes like a flower of the field.

For the wind passes over it, and it is gone;

And its place knows it no more.

But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting

To everlasting on those who fear Him,

And His righteousness to children’s children,

To those who keep His covenant,

And who remember to do His commandments.

“The Lord has established His throne in the heavens;

And His kingdom rules over all.

Bless the Lord, O you His angels,

You mighty ones, who do His word,

Obeying the voice of His word!

Bless the Lord, all His hosts,

His ministers who do His will.

Bless the Lord, all His works,

In all places of His dominion;

Bless the Lord, O my soul!”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Let’s walk through this Psalm together tonight, considering the call that the psalmist gives to himself and to you and me to bless the Lord.

I. The call to praise and blessing.

The first thing I want you to see are blessings from within because of benefits that come from without. Here’s the call to bless the Lord, and in verses 1-5, the psalmist basically tells us this: we are to bless God with all that we have and are, and we are to bless Him and remember Him for all His benefits. And then he lists six benefits: forgiveness; help; redemption; covenant love; satisfaction; and, renewal of strength.

In other words, the psalmist says I want to bless God because I have experienced His benefits. I know God, and I know Him in His benefits to me; and, therefore, it would be ungrateful for me not to bless Him for those benefits. And so he begins to rattle them off.

Verse 3 — “who forgives all your iniquity.” There’s God’s pardon. God pardons you, forgives you. There is remission of sin with God. He “heals your diseases.” This speaks of God’s healing hand. What help we have comes from God.

God “redeems us.” This passage (verse 4, “…who redeems your life from the pit”) looks forward to the resurrection. What’s the pit that he’s talking about? Well, it’s about six feet deep, and it’s about yea wide, and they put you down in it when you die. And here’s David saying “He redeems your life from the pit.” It’s not just that He spares you from harrowing circumstances, but when you’re laid in that grave, by the work of Jesus Christ He will give you resurrection from the dead.

He praises God and blesses His name because of His love. Look at the end of verse 4: “…who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.” And not only that, because God provides your heart the deepest satisfaction that a human being can experience. “Who satisfies you with good.” And he praises God for God’s strengthening–God’s pardon, God’s healing, God’s redemption, God’s love, God’s satisfaction, and God’s strengthening “so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

For all these blessings that come from without, the psalmist issues a call within to bless the Lord with all we have and are. That’s the first part of the Psalm.

II. The reason for blessing.

The reasons for this blessing of the Lord are further explored in the second part of the Psalm, in verses 6-14, and the point of this section is that we bless God because of who He is and because of what He’s done for us. I love the way that Derek Kidner describes this portion of the Psalm — two little phrases: “Wayward Family, Gentle Father.” Now it’s this section of the Psalm that has Exodus 32-34 behind it. Wayward family; gentle, compassionate, forgiving Father.

And notice the things that are said as we walk through verses 6-14 together: “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.” What’s David thinking about? Well, who was oppressing the children of Israel? The Egyptians. He’s thinking about God’s having dealt with the Egyptians, and he’s remembering and he’s blessing the Lord. Now what’s interesting about that is having rehearsed God’s benefits to him, he now begins to think about God’s benefits to all God’s people. This hymn invokes individuals to praise God, but it’s not individualistic. The individual doesn’t forget that he’s part of a larger community — the people of God — and his story is their story, and their story is his story. So here he goes back to the greatest picture of redemption in the Old Testament, the exodus, and he thanks God for taking care of the oppression of His people.

Then if you look at verse 7, he says He revealed himself to Moses and to Israel. This is an act of tremendous grace, that God would reveal himself to His people, that He would show His people what He is like, that He would tell His people what He is like. And this is done in that striking way that God comes and stands next to Moses. And then you remember the language from the passage that He “passes by” Moses. God reveals himself to Moses and Israel.

Third, look at verse 8. He declares that God is gracious and forgiving.

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,

slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

This too looks back to Exodus 34, where God had every right to end the existence of Israel in the wilderness, but He didn’t. God is gracious and forgiving.

Verse 9:

“He will not always chide, nor will He keep His anger forever.”

In other words, God does not nurse His grievances.

Then verse 10:

“He does not deal with us according to our sins,

Nor repay us according to our iniquities.”

In other words, He tempers His justice with mercy.

III. Our confidence in God.

And then come these four glorious declarations in verses 11-14:

“For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

So great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him.”

You remember the little ones who were in here singing a little while ago? My guess is that sometimes, at least with some of them and with their parents, a game is played:

“How much do you love me?”

“Oh, I love you this much.”

“Oh, well, I love you this much!”

“Oh, well, I love you this much!”

“Oh, well, I love you this much!”

And Mom and Dad always win because they’ve got a bigger wingspan!

Well, listen to what the Lord says here:

“As high as the heavens are above the earth,

So great is His steadfast love towards those who fear Him.”

You see, this is the Lord saying, “How much do I love you? I love you this much.”

Now some of you were along with the Scouts on Friday night, the Cub Scouts, at the Rainwater Observatory, looking at the stars up at French Camp. We were told that the furthest thing that you can see from planet Earth with the naked eye is the galaxy of Andromeda, and it is two million light years from earth. That is, if you traveled for two million years at the speed of light, you’d reach it. That’s a long way away. But if we were to travel to the edge of the known universe it would take us fourteen billion light years. “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is the Lord’s steadfast love” for you. You cannot even comprehend it, and yet what does Paul pray for you? I would pray, he says in Ephesians 3, “that you would know the height and depth and width and breadth of the love of God for you in Christ Jesus.” Here’s the psalmist talking about that right here.

And He not only is forgiving, He forgives! Look at the language of verse 12:

“As far as the east is from the west,

So far does He remove our transgressions from us.”

Did you notice how over and over in this Psalm attributes of God (He is forgiving) are matched with actions of God (He forgives)? You know, I know people who are by nature forgiving people who have a hard time in certain circumstances forgiving, and this Psalm says the Lord is not just forgiving, not just gracious; He forgives, and He shows grace. And that’s good news for us.

Verse 13 does the same thing:

“As the father shows compassion to his children,

So the Lord shows compassion to those who fear Him.”

In other words, He shows gentleness and sympathy.

And He knows our weakness, He knows our frame, we’re told in verse 14. We’re to bless God because of who He is and what He does, and in verses 6-14 the psalmist just catalogues those things.

And then the psalmist, thirdly, in verses 15-19, tells us that we bless God even in this fallen world filled with sickness and sorrow and death. Why? Because of two things. Because His love is eternal, and He is sovereign. Listen to the language of verses 15-19;

“As for man, his days are like grass;

He flourishes like a flower of the field.

For the wind passes over it, and it is gone;

And its place knows it no more.

But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting

To everlasting on those who fear Him….”

And so what’s contrasted? The ephemeral nature of man and the permanent nature of God’s love. Again, I love the way that Derek Kidner titles this section of this Psalm. He calls it “Fading Life, Eternal Love.” And so our transience is contrasted with the permanence of God’s covenant love for us.

But there’s another reason that’s given for us to bless God in this fallen world filled with sickness and sorrow and death. Not only because of His eternal love, but (verse 19)

“The Lord has established His throne in the heavens,

And His kingdom rules over all.”

So His love is eternal and He is sovereign. His love lasts forever, and He can do something about it because He’s in control of everything.

IV. The doxology.

And this evokes the final doxology, but it’s not one doxology, it’s four doxologies! Our praise, you see, is to be a part of a larger chorus of praise. Here God is blessed both from our inmost being and from the uttermost. Listen to the four doxologies:

“Bless the Lord, O you His angels….”

The angels of heaven are called to join in this chorus of praise and blessing.

“Bless the Lord, all His hosts….” (Verse 21.)

David knew that the hosts of Israel, the armies of Israel were called the hosts of God, but David knew that there were heavenly hosts, heavenly armies. You mean there are other armies other than the angels in heaven? David calls them here to bless God’s holy name.

“Bless the Lord, all His works….” (Verse 22.)

Everything that God has made, bless Him. You remember when Jesus said as He went into the City of David to the cries of “Hosanna” and met the resistance of those who had hard hearts toward Him? Do you remember what He said? ‘If these children don’t praise Me, I want to tell you that even these rocks will cry out.’ All His works, bless His holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul!” When the uttermost is bringing praise to God, it’s the least we can do who have tasted His grace and mercy in Jesus Christ to “Bless the Lord, O my soul.”

Let’s pray.

Our heavenly Father, teach us to bless You from our inmost being, in gratitude for who You are and what You have done for us. In Christ we pray. Amen.

Would you stand for the Lord’s benediction.

Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day break and the shadows flee away. Amen.


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