Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
A Psalm of David. Bless the LORD, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name.Psalm 103:1-6
We have here a succession of scenes: (1) We are introduced to the law court, and we have a graphic picture of the condemned sinner brought before the bar of God and forced to plead guilty. The great act of Justification—'Who forgiveth all thine iniquities'. (2) We are taken to the hospital ward—'Who healeth all thy diseases'. Sin as a disease dealt with by the Great Physician. (3) The slave market—'Who redeemeth thy life from destruction'. (4) The throne room—'Who crowneth thee with lovingkindness'. (5) The banqueting hall—'Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things'; and (6) the heavenward flight—'Thy youth is renewed like the eagle's'.
Bundles of Benefits
Psalm 103:2; Psalm 103:5
The Psalmist set himself one day to count up the benefits he had received from God. He had not proceeded far when he found himself engaged in an impossible task. He found he could not count the blessings he had received in a single day, so set himself to find a help to memory. He took those benefits which he desired not to forget, and he tied them up in bundles. He shaped the bundles into a song. Let us open the bundles and examine them. There are five of them; we see that they are divided into three and two. The first three are bound together by a common reference to sin, and the consequence of sin. The last two reveal how God would deal with His people if sin were taken out of the way.
I. Who Forgiveth All Thine Iniquities.—The forgiveness of sin is one of the greatest wonders of Christian experience. It tells us that a man may turn over a new leaf, that his future may not be a copy of his past. The forgiveness of sin is possible, for it is one of the surest facts of real experience.
II. Who Healeth All Thy Diseases.—Sin has its consequences and one of them is disease. Sin then makes disease, and God's relation to disease is described so fully that it gives a distinctive name for God—Jehovah the Healer.
III. Who Redeemeth Thy Life from Destruction.—On the one hand, the final outcome of sin is destruction; on the other hand, the culmination of God's action in relation to sin is redemption. Not a redemption of the soul, but of the body, it is the redemption of both, of the whole man.
IV. Who Crowneth Thee with Loving-kindness and Tender Mercies.—These words are about the most musical and poetic in the whole Bible. God crowns with lovingkindness and tender mercies, and these are the highest expression of the loving interest which God has in His people.
V. Satisfieth Thy Mouth with Food.—The note of Christianity is that no human needs are left unsatisfied. Satisfied with food, so that every need shall be met, this is the promise. Thus in this fifth bundle there are many things for which the Psalmist might well be grateful not only for what is expressed in it, but for the promise of large blessings yet in store for us in the days to coma
—J. Iverach, The Other Side of Greatness, p. 119.
References.—CIII. 3.—W. G. Horder, Christian World Pulpit, 1891, p. 374. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxv. No. 1492. CIII. 3, 4.—H. Drummond, The Ideal Life, p. 145.
The great lesson is that those whom God forgives, crowns with favour, and feeds with spiritual bounties, possess the secret of perpetual youth. The life that God nurtures will always rejuvenate itself and escape the weariness and humiliation of age.
I. We find the process of waste and repair going on in connexion with the common experience of life. Great troubles come to men in sad and obstinate succession, so that they break down utterly; hope exhausts itself, and they are unable to expect anything besides new troubles or the stated recurrence of the old. And then brighter days come. The cloud breaks and the tension is overpast. They are like the man who goes down into the troubled pool a wreck and comes back with the bloom of a child on his face. Youth has renewed itself.
II. Youth is a symbol of the flowing tide of life, and in the natural order of things, age stands for its ebb. If God renew our youth like the eagle's we shall face without a single hurt the storms and conflicts and testing times of our earthly pilgrimage. Religious life never ought to be old. He whom God thus revives and inspires is able to forget his sorrows and to disburden himself of cares.
III. Many experiences remind us that the attritions in our daily lot tend to wear out religious life itself, and if we neglect the superhuman sources of repair it must wane and perish as surely as an over-pressed physical life. The spirit of the world, which looks everywhere with the suspicious eye, and affirms that the only law observed by the individual and the race is the law of selfishness, has taken possession of us, and every early enthusiasm is black with frostbite. Perhaps it is better we should stand aside and make way for the young, for we are stale, hypercritical, fertile in doubts and misgivings, prone to unhappy forecasts; and the work of the hour can only be done by those whose hearts are warm and eager. But surely that need not be. Religion brings the promise of rejuvenation to the mind, and the temper that has mastered us indicates that we are in closer intimacy with the world than with the God who renews the youth of His servants like the eagle's.
IV. The temper of old age sometimes steals upon men in their corporate life and influence wanes till final eclipse is reached. It is the decay of faith which disintegrates and topples down dominant nations and conquering empires. The frictions of toil, the fever of overwrought civilizations, the burdens and responsibilities of empire will wear a nation down into weakness, decrepitude, weariness, and despair unless its life be continually revived at the everlasting springs.
V. The recovered youthfulness is in itself meetness for immortality. We need not be appalled at the thought of spending an endless existence in God's presence, if in the Divine fountain of life we receive renewed baptisms into virginal freshness and vigour. The nature whose youth is here renewed like the eagle's will be invigorated there for ever-ascending flights. The progress to which we are beckoned is towards an ideal of perpetual youth.
—T. G. Selby, The Unheeding God, p. 216.
References.—CIII. 5.—S. A. Brooke, Christ in Modern Life, p. 351. CIII. 9.—Spurgeon, Sermons. vol. xx. No. 1171.
Do Our Sins Always Find Us Out?
If there be any one truth which holds the modern mind with a more relentless grasp than any other, it is that sin is followed inevitably and inescapably by its due penalty.
This solemn assurance is bound upon our minds by quoting some of the most emphatic sentences of Scripture. 'The soul that sinneth it shall die.' 'They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.' 'The wages of sin is death.' 'Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.' 'Sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.' These teachers strike us with a silent dread as they summon up the conspicuous sinners and make them pass in a procession of shame. Esau finds his profane word fastened as a doom on his spirit. Jacob is driven by his sin into exile, and compelled to reap its reward many years after, both in his own anguish and in the sins of the children. Saul becomes a madman and a suicide. David walks in the streets of his city with men's eyes condemning him, and sees his iniquity blighting his home and undoing the work of his unstained manhood. Solomon's voluptuous day ends in a corruption whose penalty he himself begins to bear. And so name after name is summoned up, down to Judas rushing on death in his despair, to show that each man receives the full reward of his iniquity.
Now of the element of truth in this teaching no one need have any doubt, but it is a truth so much overstated, and sometimes set down so nakedly, and without relation to other truths, as to be almost a lie. It is not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It is not true that every sin is visited by its due penalty. It is not true that a man's sin always finds him out. It was true that if those Israelites to whom this sombre message was spoken had selfishly remained on the farther side of Jordan, and been content with their own portion, a severe penalty would have fallen upon them. Theirs would have been one of those modern sins for which a man suffers more surely than he knows. It is the sin of the man who selfishly and indulgently 'cultivates his garden'. But it is not true that a man always pays the uttermost farthing. The man who says so forgets that no single law is unlimited in its scope and power. He ignores the facts of life. He knows nothing of Christian experience. He forgets that law is not supreme and dominant. And he leaves out of account this imperial truth, that there is in the world and over the world a great will, a tender heart, and an infinite power. He forgets that this will uses and controls law. In a word, this grim and crude and unchastened teaching leaves out—God. The Psalmist saw the truth steadily, and he saw it whole when he wrote, 'He hath not dealt with us after our sins'.
Two boys were playing on a narrow ledge, worn smooth by adventurous feet, in the face of a seaside cliff. They had come along the path from the mill, which was set beside the neighbouring stream. Some twenty feet beneath the deep sea-green water lapped against the rock. One of the boys was the miller's son—a bold, lawless spirit. He had been warned again and again of the peril of the path. He had been caught and chastised. His defiant spirit loved the danger. This day a careless step to the edge paid its penalty, and he fell into the smooth deep water below. Death seemed to be his just fate. But his keen cry was heard in the mill, and his father ran out with anger on his face. But when he saw his son struggling with death the frown became a spasm of anguish, and at the risk of his own life he plunged in and rescued him. As that boy lay in his exhaustion, tended by loving care, he knew how far it was true that our sin finds us out. He understood this Psalmist's profounder word, 'He hath not dealt with us after our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities'. He knew that the world, which seems to be all law, is really all love, and that mercy rejoices against judgment.
Let me illustrate this truth to you, looking at it along the broad lines of God's dealings with us.
I. Look, in the first place, along the line of God's providence. When a man's sin should find him out God's providence often interferes to avert the penalty and to hide the shame. A man has bowed his head for the stroke, but all that he has felt has been the touch of God's hand in mercy. Paul taught that 'whatsoever' a man soweth, that, and nothing different from that, shall he reap. If a man sow oats, he shall reap oats and not barley. If he sow figs, he shall not reap thistles. 'He that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.' But between the sowing and the reaping there come in other laws. There lies the whole providence of God. A man may sow and never reap at all. A man may reap where he has not sown, and gather where he has not strawed. And so between a man's sin and his finding out there comes in the providence of God. It is written in many a scripture, 'He hath not dealt with us after our sins'.
II. Look, in the second place, along the line of God's law. Men sometimes speak as though this law of penalty were the one dominant and overruling ordinance. They speak as though the consequences of a man's sin must sweep on like a grim and unresting fate, must pursue him as a Nemesis with the steady foot of inescapable vengeance. It is a terrifying truth that our sin sets in motion blind forces of retribution. Every man is aghast when he realizes how wide and far-reaching is the range of a single evil deed. But God uses His law to conquer law. God enlists the higher law of mercy to repel the lower law of judgment. God counterworks the law of retribution by the law of repair.
III. Look, in the third place, along the line of God's grace. Clearly God deals with infinite mercy in His providence and in His law. But there is an inner world where, at first sight, a man's sins find him out ruthlessly. God's providence may prevent the direst consequences. God's law may renew the life and bring out the fair blossom of many an outward grace. But there are what Newman calls, in the noble title of his overdrawn sermon, 'The moral consequences of single sins'. There are those moral and spiritual issues and effects which are the curse of the soul. The profligate may sit 'a sober man among his boys,' but he cannot undo the past. He cannot cleanse his memory, he cannot be wholesome in thought. The events of a man's wilful years may be left behind him, but in the disability of his conscience, the defects of his character, the torture of old desires, and the indelible hues of sin and error with which his mind is dyed, he shows that his sin is finding him out. And deepest of all there is the sense of things done which cannot be undone, the unanswerable accusation of the past, the breach between the soul and God. We need something more than sweet providence, and something more than correcting law. We need grace. We need that forgiveness and renewal which are proclaimed in the Gospel and wrought out in the Cross of Christ. We need something more than the working of a providence which may interpose between us and our due reward. We need something more than laws which may order and direct new forces. We need to have the breach closed between God and the soul. We need the guilty conscience cleansed. We need the most awful and most desolating consequence of all removed from us, our fearfulness of God and our alienation to Him. These are given us by the Cross.
—W. M. Clow, The Gross in Christian Experience, p. 167.
The Infinite Forgiveness
The writer of this Psalm groups his thoughts under three clearly defined heads. He speaks in the opening verses of personal forgiveness and the blessings which cluster round it. He next dwells upon the forgiveness which God has extended to His people in their covenant life, as illustrated in past history and the present outlook. And he fittingly closes his meditations with a tribute of praise to the power and sovereign dominion of the God whose mercy reaches to all generations. Our text belongs to the second division, and in terms of inspired rhapsody extols God's pardoning compassion to the race He had called into His covenant.
I. The average Jew acquired his sense of the Divine forgiveness by remembering that he was an organic part of a redeeming community. God had pitied and pardoned, in significant ways, the race to which he and his forefathers belonged; and whilst affirming from time to time by the prescribed forms his covenant birthright, he was under little or no temptation to regard himself as an outcast.
II. The hope of salvation which some men in modern days entertain because of their affiliation to the Church is a part of the same idea, and is a doubtful survival from Jewish times. God deals with men in racial and confederated aggregates, and is it not well to be identified with an accredited body to which His mercy is pledged? But another idea was emphasized in the ministry of Jesus Christ. His message was a message of condemnation to the body politic but of absolution to the separate penitent. He taught that the Divine Father dealt with the individual, that responsibility was first personal and afterwards corporate, and that men must be saved apart before they are gathered into elect communities.
III. It is the prerogative of a personal God to forgive, and where the Divine personality is either denied or relegated to an obscure background, no place can be found for this cardinal doctrine of the evangelical creed.
IV. The Psalmist's rhapsody is in no sense exaggerated and the disabilities of our sin do not follow us a day longer than we need their lessons. God's mercy brings a sweet oblivion of the shame and selfishness of misspent years. In the check put upon our natural ana spiritual strength by the errors of the past, in the shrunken opportunities of which our half-maimed lives are made up, in the less splendid honours that beckon us forward, there may be plain marks of a disability entailed by early unfaithfulness and transgression; and yet God in His love has come so near to us that His immeasurable Being is interposed between our souls and past sin.
V. But the Psalmist implies in his magnificent metaphor that human transgression is dealt with by an act of superhuman grace and power. 'As far as the east is from the west.' The terms were of unknown range and unlimited elasticity. These figures of the firmament meant for him just as much as they mean for us with our larger knowledge. All the dimensions of space are used to illustrate this hymn of the Divine mercy through every line of which there murmurs the exhilarating breath of a spiritual springtide. No term can be put to the compassions of Almighty God.
VI. Although the Psalmist speaks in such bold and uncompromising terms of God's forgiveness, we must not assume that there is any strain of indifference to moral distinctions in the magnanimous act he celebrates. To pardon implies a vast constraint of pity, an indescribable sacrifice, the cost of which men only began to learn centuries later, and the immensity of which is still a mystery to us.
—T. G. Selby, The God of the Frail, p. 39.
Reference.—CIII. 12.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xix. No. 1108.
The Father and His Children
The life of each man may be looked at from two very different points of view. He may be regarded as an individual or as a member of society. Each of these two aspects brings into sight its own particular gifts and opportunities and obligations and advantages.
Our Lord's parables are divided into two classes according as they treat of this social general aspect of man's life or of his particular and individual life. Some of those which begin to tell us about the kingdom of God deal with social aspects of human life. Others, such as that of the Prodigal Son, are altogether occupied with the life of each individual. All these individualistic parables start with the great assumption that each man is related to God in a particular manner.
I. God is Your Father, and Because He is so, you have a Claim Upon God.—He wishes us to understand that the obligations of Fatherhood are distinctly upon Him. He draws a parallel: 'If ye, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask Him?' He not only acknowledges that the claims of Fatherhood are upon Him but He acknowledges it in a way with which we are familiar and on grounds which we can thoroughly understand. God cannot neglect you nor forget you, nor refuse to hear your prayer. He asks you to believe that. This is the great primary act of trusting God which your heavenly Father asks of every heart of man.
(a) We learn it not from Nature.—If this demand upon our faith were made simply in the face of what we call the common course of Nature it would be practically impossible for us to respond to it.
(b) But from Redemption.—As we look out into the world and its history we see One hanging on Calvary. He claims to be God Himself, and if He is then, of course, the sight of Jesus of Nazareth, God Himself, hanging on the cross of pain and shame does not relieve all our doubts and all our difficulties, it does not tell us how this sad state of things came about or why it is allowed to go on, but it does tell us how God cares.
And this leads us to a further consideration.
II. Fatherhood Means that God has a Claim on Us.—He has a claim on our life and our obedience, and a claim on our service. It is always the service of sons. If you find yourselves engaged in anxious and strenuous work, you are there because God has said, 'Son, go and work today'.
A poor lady found in her son's coat when he came back from school three of the letters which she had written to him unopened. Poor lady! She said, 'My boy had the first claims on me, and I put everything aside to write to him every week,' and this was the result, and you can gather how she felt.
So God feels today over your unopened Bible and your unsaid prayers. Remember that we are not neglecting a tyrant but wounding the God Who loves us and Whose heart cries out for us all the time.
Dr. Dale says on this text: 'Years ago when death came to me first and took a child, the anguish was great. Watching her while she lay dying, I learnt for the first time what is meant by the words, "Like as a father pitieth his children". Only so could I be taught the pity of God. And I learnt, too, at the same time, what God must feel at the loss of His children. What are all these passionate affections but parables of Divine things. Shall God suffer and not we?'
References.—CIII. 13.—J. Vaughan, Fifty Sermons (9th Series), p. 186. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxviii. No. 1660.
The God of the Frail
Our text directly asserts that God pities us because of the pains and vicissitudes to which this fragile framework of our passing lives condemns us. It also indirectly suggests that He blends mercy with His judgment because of the limitations under which we have to pass our probation upon earth, and because also of the obstructions presented by the flesh to our best thought and service, as well as to the great destiny which is already asserting its promise within us.
I. These words remind us that the pathos of our mortality enlists the pity of the Eternal. God's survey takes in the final picture of our weakness and all the scenes of pain and humiliation which lead up to the last, sad, tear-bathed page of our earthly history. Is not His scrutiny mollified by the remembrance of everything we may have to endure? That principle is the clue to many enigmas in God's dealings with the children of men. But for the infirmities of the flesh we might never taste the sweetest springs of God's tenderness. It is not without a far-reaching reason that God has fashioned us of a weak, sensitive, perishable material. It is the children of the dust who are destined to know at last the deepest secret of His heart.
II. These words imply that this brief life man spends in the flesh enlists the Divine compassion, because great spiritual issues turn upon a right use of its opportunities. The issues of a stern probation intertwine themselves with the textures of our earthly lives.
(a) This probation is not only limited in its appointed term, but hampered by the desires engendered within the bodily framework. But in His merciful judgment God penetrates through what is apparent and avoids our pitiable confusions between moral and physical causes.
(b) These words seem to imply that we are the objects of pity because the flesh puts a drag upon our holiest aspiration and service. The Divine Father remembers that we are compassed with frailty and hemmed in by disqualifications. Whilst waywardness must be corrected and moral deformity in all its aspects must be removed, He has taught us that infirmity is distinguished from sin, and, through the mission of One who was tempted like unto His brethren, has assured us of exhaustless compassion.
(c) The flesh obscures the vision of spiritual things, and these words imply that the Father of light looks graciously upon those who are peering through the imprisoning gloom of the senses in the hope that they will yet see His face. The splendour in which God dwells is filtered of its overpowering brightness by the dullness of the flesh, and we may strain our spiritual senses in vain to see it as it is. God ordained this when He made man of the dust of the ground, and for our constitutional limitations has ready an apologetic, tender, magnanimous final—'He remembereth that we are flesh'.
—T. G. Selby, The God of the Frail, p. 1.
References.—CIII. 13,14.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xvi. No. 941. CIII. 15, 16.—J. Aspinall, Parish Sermons (1st Series), p. 55. CIII. International Critical Commentary, vol. ii. p. 323. CIV. 1.—J. Vaughan, Fifty Sermons (9th Series), p. 257. CIV. 13, 14.—T. Barker, Plain Sermons, p. 98. CIV. 16.—T. Sadler, Sermons for Children, p. 141. CIV. 19.—E. A. Askew, Sermons Preached in Greystoke Church, p. 132. CIV. 19-23.—H. M. Butler, Harrow School Sermons, p. 176.
This Psalm was read once a day in the family of John Angell James, of Birmingham. When his wife died he was asked if it should be read. 'Yes,' he said, 'it is as full of comfort as of thanksgiving.'
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits:
Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases;
Who redeemeth thy life from destruction; who crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies;
Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things; so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle's.
The LORD executeth righteousness and judgment for all that are oppressed.
He made known his ways unto Moses, his acts unto the children of Israel.
The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.
He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever.
He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.
As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.
Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him.
For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.
As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.
For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.
But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children's children;
To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them.
The LORD hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all.
Bless the LORD, ye his angels, that excel in strength, that do his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word.
Bless ye the LORD, all ye his hosts; ye ministers of his, that do his pleasure.
Bless the LORD, all his works in all places of his dominion: bless the LORD, O my soul.