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Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, O My Soul”
by David R. Sincerbox

February 14, Sunday, Lent 1  – Psalms 63:1–8(9–11), 98, 103; Dan. 9:3–10; Heb. 2:10–18; John 12:44–50 (BCP Readings for today)

It might seem peculiar to have a Lenten devotional be a psalm of praise. Lent is a solemn season of prayer, penance, repentance and self-denial. But on reflection Psalm 103 is an entirely appropriate psalm for this time of year in the church calendar. The purpose of repentance is to remind us of the great acts of our God and Savior on our behalf and to turn our attention from our self-centered needs to the One who selflessly fulfills our needs, especially our need for mercy. Mercy turns misery into joy; it turns our attention away from ourselves and places it where it belongs, on God. Praising God is thus a form of self-denial, self-denial being one of the primary disciplines of Lent.

David begins Psalm 103 with, “Bless the LORD, O my soul…” David uses this phrase six times in this psalm beginning here, as well as in verses 2, 20, 21 and twice in 22. “Blessing” primarily means a benefit bestowed upon a lesser by a greater. In the strictest sense, God blesses us. But when we bless God, we are praising him, extolling him, magnifying his holy name. In the “English Standard Version,” LORD appears in all capitals. This all capital LORD is the customary English way of rendering God’s holy, covenant, and intimate name revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:15. When “Lord” is use, capital L and lower case o, r, d, this word refers to God’s holy title, while LORD refers to God’s holy name. David is on intimate terms with his creator and redeemer. He is thus praising God using God’s holy name.

Two Hebrew words are generally translated as “soul” in English Bibles. The Hebrew word used here is one that appears in a variety of contexts in the Old Testament, but basically means that which gives us life, that which distinguishes us from inanimate objects. It is also that which defines who we are. David is thus praising God from his innermost being, from everything that comprises who he is.

David, as well as we, should praise the LORD because by doing so we do not “forget his benefits” (v. 20). The “New English Translation” renders “benefits” as “kind deeds,” a phrase that captures the idea that a benefit promotes wellbeing for its recipients. David then lists nine benefits we have received from the LORD worthy of our praise:

  1. The LORD forgives all our iniquities (v. 3, 10);
  2. The LORD heals our diseases (v. 3);
  3. The LORD redeems our lives from Sheol, from eternal death (v. 4);
  4. The LORD satisfies us with his good, which renews us (v. 5);
  5. The LORD works “righteousness and justice” for the “oppressed” (v. 6);
  6. The LORD has revealed himself to us through Moses, and, by extension, his prophets, and supremely in his Son Jesus (v. 7);
  7. The LORD manifests his patience towards us (v. 10);
  8. The LORD expresses his compassion towards us (v. 13);
  9. The LORD knows that we are frail and are mortal (vss. 14-16).

He bestows his benefits upon us because of his “steadfast love and mercy,” the phrase “steadfast love” appearing four times in this psalm (vss. 4, 8, 11, 17). The Hebrew word, ḥesed, translated as “steadfast love” (in the “New American Standard Bible” as “loving kindness”) appears in the Old Testament 245 times in 239 verses always in reference to God’s love for His covenant people. Unlike the other Hebrew word commonly translated “love,” this word always refers specifically to you and me. This Hebrew word is so rich that is almost impossible to translate. It contains within it the concepts of favor, mercy, kindness, gentleness, loyalty, faithfulness, goodness, warm affection, and grace.

One of the benefits of God’s steadfast love is that “as far as the east is from the west,/so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (v. 12). At the time David wrote this, his understanding of the spherical nature of our planet was not the same as ours is today. We know that if we travel north, we will eventually come to the North Pole. If we continue to travel south from the North Pole, we come to the South Pole. But if we go west on our planet, we will continue to go west. We will not stop going west. The distance between east and west is infinite, non-terminating. The same is true with going east. This is how far God has removed our transgressions from us when we receive Jesus as Lord and Savior.

These nine specific benefits (as well as many that are not listed in this psalm) should humble us while also eliciting joy. We should therefore join our voices with the those of all of the “angels heaven, the mighty ones” (v.20), with his “hosts, his ministers” (v.20), and with “all his works,/in all places of his dominion” (v.22) in praise. Let us all “bless the LORD, all ours souls…” Let us all practice self-denial through exalting the name of our Triune God.

Image by Celestial Meeker (used by permission via Creative Commons).