Praise the Lord, O My Soul
August 19, 2011 Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen
Scripture: Psalm 103:1–103:22
The Book of Psalms is filled with beautiful praise psalms. The one we read a few minutes ago (Psalm 103) is one of my favorites. Once again, David is identified as the writer. In the message on David’s life back in July, one of the qualities I identified which made him a “man after God’s own heart” was the fact that he had a “heart lifted in praise to God.” Psalm 103 is one example of David in full song to the God he loved.
The psalm opens with a kind of soliloquy as David talks to himself and instructs his soul to rise up and give praise to God.
Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits—
Last week, we looked at Psalm 13, which opens with David in anguish, accusing God of forgetting him. Of course, as we considered other Scripture, we realized that no matter what our feelings may tell us, it is impossible for God to forget one of his children, even for an instant. Psalm 103 opens with a statement that is not only possible but all too common; that we, as God’s children, may forget God and his faithfulness and goodness to us. To counteract that tendency, David commands his soul and “everything inside me” to bless the Lord and give thanks to him. “Don’t forget what he has done…” he commands his soul.
In the rest of the psalm he goes on to do exactly what he has commanded himself to do: recall the “benefits” or benevolent deeds that God has done for him.
As we look at this psalm I would like to compare it to a beautiful, hand-woven carpet. Most of us have had the experience of going into one of the carpet souks here in Abu Dhabi. If you haven’t, I hope you will – if not to buy, at least to look. It doesn’t take very long before the shop owner is rolling out carpet after beautiful carpet in front of you.
The beauty of the carpet I am describing comes from the intricate interweaving of the different colors of thread that make up the design. There are some very dark and somber threads. These threads alone would make a very dark, drab, depressing carpet. No one would buy such a carpet. But woven in among the dark threads are some threads of bright, beautiful, shining colors. It is in the intermingling of these bright threads with the dark ones that the beauty of the design and of the carpet itself emerges.
So it is with Psalm 103. There are some dominant themes of this psalm that are very dark and depressing. But they are intricately combined with the beautiful, shining themes and it is this intermingling which makes this a psalm of exquisite, beautiful praise.
The dark threads are those which describe the realities of the human condition. They are the verses which describe what we are like as human being. In this psalm, David refers repeatedly to two inescapable realities of the human condition. The first is Human Sinfulness.
Notice these repeated references to sin in the psalm in verse 3, verse 4 and again in verse 10 and verse 12. A couple weeks ago I preached on Psalm 32 and defined three synonyms which David used in that psalm for sin. One referred to sin as rebellion, one to sin as missing the mark and the other to sin as a deviation or crookedness of character and behavior. All three of these synonyms are once again used interchangeably in Psalm 103. Sin and sinfulness is a reality of the human condition; of your condition and mine. Without acknowledging this reality, we will never experience the heart-felt praise expressed in this psalm. We will never be moved to bow our knees to God in fervent praise. The inclusion of this dark thread is necessary to the beauty of this carpet. The early church theologian, Augustine said it this way: “God’s benefits will never be before our eyes unless our sins be also before our eyes.”
There is a second dark thread running through this psalm. It is another reality of the Human Condition; Human frailty or fragility. This reality is expressed in the psalm in different ways. There is a reference in verse 3 to “diseases”. If we were a super race; dominant creatures of might and durability, we would not be subject to the many illnesses that haunt us. But we are not super beings. We are weak. We get sick.
Verse 5 speaks of our youth being renewed. Now why would our youth need to be renewed unless it were being worn out and replaced by old age? Verse 6 expresses another part of this frailty, and that is the reality of the weak being oppressed by those who are more powerful.
This whole reality of our human weakness and vulnerability is summarized in a poetic description of the brevity and temporary nature of human life in verse 15-16:
As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field;
16 the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.
This all grows out of a reality captured in verse 14 which states that “we are dust.” Our bodies are composed out of the same elements that make up the dust of the earth. We are “made of dirt.” As such, these physical bodies in which we live will eventually die and return to dust. These bodies are frail and temporary things. That is the reality of the human condition.
It is a bleak picture so far, isn’t it? We are sinners and as such we deserve God’s wrath and punishment. We live in bodies made of dirt; weak, vulnerable, aging, temporary. How are we going to construct a praise psalm out of this? Well, so far we have only been looking at the dark threads in the carpet. Interwoven with the dark threads which describe the Realities of the Human Condition, we also have some incredibly bright and beautiful threads which describe the Revelation of the Divine Character. The dark threads describe what we are like. The bright threads describe what God is like.
There are many facets to the character of God. He has many attributes. The one that David has chosen to focus on in this psalm is that of God’s great love. David uses two words to express this attribute of God and he uses them repeatedly in the psalm. One word occurs four times and the other is used three times.
The first is the Hebrew word chesed. To pronounce it properly requires a sound we don’t have in the English language, but it is common in other languages like Arabic and Hebrew. It starts out by sounding like you are about to clear your throat and spit. Say it with me: “Chesed!” This word is used 241 times in the Old Testament. 127 of those occurrences are in the Book of Psalms. It is a word that is difficult to capture fully and precisely in English. The NIV usually translates it “love.” The KJV and the New American Standard translate it “lovingkindness.” The English Standard Version uses “steadfast love.” My Hebrew professor in seminary liked the phrases “loyal love.” It is a word that combines elements of commitment in a relationship along with love, kindness and mercy – all expressed in action. This particular word occurs in Psalm 103 in verses 4, 8, 11 and 17.
The second word is the Hebrew word “racham”. This word expresses a deep love, usually of a superior for an inferior, or a stronger person for a weaker. NIV translates this word “compassion.” KJV uses “tender mercies.” This word occurs in verse 4, 8 and 13.
Listen now to these golden threads in the carpet that makes up Psalm 103.
He crowns you with love and compassion. (v.4)
The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. (v. 8)
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him. (v. 11)
Now we are ready to look at the carpet and see how these threads are woven together; to see how the bright threads of God character are interwoven with the dark threads of the human condition. Let us consider first how God’s character interacts and responds to the dark fact of human sinfulness:
Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits— 3 who forgives all your sins (verse 2-3).
The very first “benefit” that David calls to memory is that of God’s forgiveness for sins. The Hebrew dictionary defines the term this way: “forgive, release, pardon, i.e., remove guilt associated with a moral sin or wrongdoing.” Do you like that definition? “Remove guilt.” By the way, this particular Hebrew word is used exclusively to describe something God does. It is never used of people.
There is a metaphor that describes the human dilemma and God’s deliverance in verse 4: who redeems your life from the pit. The word is used literally in several ways: a “slime pit” filled with some putrid, organic matter; a dungeon below ground where prisoners were kept; a man-made hole with steep sides for capturing animals or holding captives. The ancient Greek translation of this verse actually translates it as “Gehenna” or the place of the dead. Whatever the image, it is a dark and ominous place. But the good news is that God has “redeemed” us out of it. He has paid the price to set the captives free.
In verses 8-12, the psalmist’s words take wings as he elaborates on what God has done for us:
8 The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.
9 He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever;
10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
This is how God, in his loyal love and deep compassion, has chosen to respond to us in our sinfulness. There is no indication that David had any particular act of sin or failure in mind as he wrote. It is the character of God as a forgiving God that occupies his thoughts and minds and inspires his praise.
In the New Testament, we discover how God did that and what it cost him, in the sacrifice of his own Son. This psalm only announces that he does it because of his great love and then revels in that sense of forgiveness. “Gone, gone, gone, gone! Yes, my sins are gone. Now my soul is free and in my heart’s a song. Buried in the deepest sea, yes, that’s good enough for me. I shall live eternally. Praise God! My sins are gone!”
As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
This is love; not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (I John 4:10)
Tell me, is that worth praising God for? No wonder David cries out: Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. 2 Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits— …who forgives all your sins.
But we are not done yet. There is a second dark thread in the carpet. It is the thread of human frailty and weakness, and the brevity of human life – all the realities that go with living in bodies made of dirt. How does the love and compassion of God respond to that reality?
Look at the second half of first 3: Who heals all your diseases. We have someone we can go to when we are sick. Our God is a healer. Now, I am not going to stand here and promise you instant healing for every human illness. I wish I could. But for reasons of his own, God has not chosen to always work that way. But he does heal. Sometimes it is instantly and supernaturally and miraculously. Sometimes it is gradual and by natural means with medicine and by giving natural processes and the God-designed capacity of the human body to heal itself time to work. And sometimes it is by the final and ultimate healing that comes when we depart this body and receive our new bodies. We cannot dictate to God how and when he should work. But we can go to God with our physical illnesses and seek his will remembering that he is the God of the body as well as of the soul.
What about our needs and that which is necessary to sustain life, whether physical or emotional? Verse 5 tells us: who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. God cares about your needs and your desires. Once again, this verse does not mean that God will give us everything we ask for. But we can make our requests known. We can tell him our desires. And he will satisfy us with “good things.” The result will be that our strength, our youth will be renewed so that we can once again soar like an eagle.
I grew up on the edge of Kenya’s Rift Valley. I used to enjoy watching the birds. There was one particular kind of bird that was very common. Its official name is the black kite, but it is really brown in color. They are a kind of raptor, or bird of prey. The escarpment where we lived had lots of thermals, updrafts of warm air from the valley below. I loved to watch the kites, because they could stay aloft for hours, with very little effort, riding the thermals, with just a twitch of a wing now and then to give direction. This is what God promises to do for us – renew our strength, provide the warm air to provide the lift beneath our wings to keep us aloft.
What about the unfairness of life, when we are victims of others oppression? Verse 6 tells us that the Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed. Once again, it may not be instantaneous. It may not even be in this life. I have been reading the Book of Revelation in my devotions this week, and was struck again by the picture of the thousands of those who died for their faith in Christ. They are portrayed as crying out “How long, Sovereign Lord, until you…avenge our blood? They are told to “wait a little longer.” But justice will come. The books will be balanced, if not now, in eternity.
As I meditated on the character of God and of his response to our human frailty, the image that speaks most powerfully to me is found in verses 13-14:
As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; 14 for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
That is the word we discussed earlier, of a love of the strong for the weak. Only in this verse it is applied to a specific relationship; that of a father for his children. That is the kind of compassion the Lord has for those who have chosen to follow him. He not only cares about us, but he knows us. After all, he made us. He knows what we are made of. Our frailty and fragility are not surprises to him.
I have a brother, named Shel. He is five years younger than I am. Shel has many great qualities, but one trait stands out to me. That is his capacity to walk slowly. I am not recalling our growing up years, but rather his adult years as a father of four children. Shel had the ability to adapt his walking pace to that of his children. I felt like I was too often in a hurry. It seemed that my boys were always a step or two behind and I was trying to speed them up. But Shel seemed to have the knack of slowing his own pace to that of the smallest child in the procession. As a father, he had a way of knowing just how far and fast the little legs could move. And of course, if speed was essential or the distance too far, he was quick to scoop up the little one and carry him. That is the kind of father God is. He has a deep and compassionate love for us. He knows what we are made of and is well aware of our frailties and limitations. He knows how short our legs are and how tired we get, and when necessary, he carries us.
Finally, what about the temporariness of human life? We have already read the image of human life being compared to a flower. One day it is flourishing and full of life and color, and the next day it is gone, as though it had never been. What is God’s response to that earthly reality?
But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children— 20 with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.
God’s love is eternal, as he is eternal. And he has given us the gift of eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16) One of my favorite verses in the New Testament ends with the words “and so we will be with the Lord forever.” (I Thessalonians 4:17)
The forgiveness of sins. A father’s tender care through the struggles of life. And the promise of eternal life with God when our earthly journey is over. Tell me are these things worth praising God for?
At this point, it is as if David is overwhelmed with the magnitude of praise that is called for and he enlists help, calling on the angels in heaven and all of creation to join him in praise in verse 19-22:
The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.
20 Praise the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word.
21 Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will.
22 Praise the Lord, all his works everywhere in his dominion.
He ends where he began, exhorting his own soul to praise: Praise the Lord, O my soul.
Let me ask you a question. Do you know this God David is talking about? There is a very important little phrase in this psalm. While the Scripture tells us that one day every created being will bow the knee and acknowledge Christ as Lord to the glory of God the Father, the blessings of this psalm are reserved for a particular group. It is repeated three times, in verses 11, 13 and 17. In each of those verses, the love and compassion of God is applied specifically as being for “those who fear him.” Verse 18 gives a little more definition to that phrase, defining those who fear him as those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating a works-based salvation. I am not saying that you and I have to “be good” in order to earn God’s love. If we were “good”, why would we need God’s forgiveness? This whole psalm is a psalm of praise to God for his grace and mercy. But it is a family psalm. God’s grace is free and it is offered to all, but it is applied only to those who receive it and enter into his covenant family and are willing, not only to come under his protection, but to come under his authority. And so I repeat my question. Do you know this God David is describing? Have you entered into his grace by putting your faith in him?
If you have, then the only possible response is to join David in praise. Praise the Lord, O my soul, all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- In this message, Pastor Cam refers to the “dark threads of the human condition.” What are they and where are they found in this psalm?
- Why are the “dark threads” a necessary component of this praise psalm?
- Together, make a list of the Lord’s benefits that you have experienced. This list can be as general or as specific as you want to make it – but the challenge is to move from the general to the specific and from the past to the present (or recent past).
- Spend time together in prayer, giving praise to God. Keep your Bibles open to Psalm 103 and use the words of the psalm in your prayers (sometimes it’s OK to pray with your eyes open!).