“Hymn of Blessing”

Text: Psalm 103

By: David D. McDonald

June 7, 2020

Psalm 117

1 Praise the LORD, all you nations!

Extol him, all you peoples!

2 For great is his steadfast love toward us,

and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever.

Praise the LORD!

Psalm 103

1 Bless the LORD, O my soul,

and all that is within me,

bless his holy name.

2 Bless the LORD, O my soul,

and do not forget all his benefits--

3 who forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases,

4 who redeems your life from the Pit,

who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

5 who satisfies you with good as long as you live

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.

6 The LORD works vindication

and justice for all who are oppressed.

7 He made known his ways to Moses,

his acts to the people of Israel.

8 The LORD is merciful and gracious,

slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

9 He will not always accuse,

nor will he keep his anger forever.

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

nor repay us according to our iniquities.

11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,

so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;

12 as far as the east is from the west,

so far he removes our transgressions from us.

13 As a father has compassion for his children,

so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him.

14 For he knows how we were made;

he remembers that we are dust.

15 As for mortals, their days are like grass;

they flourish like a flower of the field;

16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,

and its place knows it no more.

17 But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting

on those who fear him,

and his righteousness to children's children,

18 to those who keep his covenant

and remember to do his commandments.

19 The LORD has established his throne in the heavens,

and his kingdom rules over all.

20 Bless the LORD, O you his angels,

you mighty ones who do his bidding,

obedient to his spoken word.

21 Bless the LORD, all his hosts,

his ministers that do his will.

22 Bless the LORD, all his works,

in all places of his dominion.

Bless the LORD, O my soul.


As distressing economic news continues to mount, social unrest and rioting tears the fabric of our cities, the aftermath of the Coronavirus pandemic challenges our health care system, and natural disasters take their toll; it is sometimes very difficult to find good news. Many an average American’s confidence has been badly shaken and we may desperately find ourselves seeking for at least something to be learned from all these momentous events. Then again, there also seems to be a pervasive soul searching that looks at the last year and asks, “How could all the tell tale signs have been missed? Why is it that so many who should have been watching out for the welfare of the public appear to have been asleep at the switch? In times of great turmoil, uncertainty, and personal danger, what things are helpful to remember and useful in sustaining us in the present? Who or what gives us hope? How do we find or at least hold on to a modicum of hope we can embrace at present? These are the great questions of the present.

I have enjoyed using material from Duke Professor, Dr. Mickey Effird’s video study of the Psalms. He noted, as have other scholars, that the psalms were in many ways the first Hymn book of the Babylonian Exiles. They were faced with many challenges; in so many ways similar to ours.. How could a slave people, whose great religious buildings were torn down and burned, worship in a new day, in a homeland almost forgotten? How could the promises of God be embraced? In short, how could they sing the Lord’s songs without music scores? How could they remember the Lord’s words without a scroll or papyrus? How could they encourage one another to embrace the blessings of each day?

Psalm 103 was written in the face of such questions. In an age when there were no CD players, PDA’s, videotapes, lap top computers or Smart phones, or even TV or radio programs, how could religious education be done? Let us consider the wonder of scripture, especially the Psalms. In particular, consider this absolutely marvelous, piece of Hebrew poetry known by a number 103. Numbers are important for all kinds of reasons. You see Americans were neither the first nor the only people to remember numbers. Take the number 103. Few of us who were alive at the time, can ever forget PAN AM 103. It was an awful terrorist act which blew up a Boeing aircraft over Lockerbie, Scotland. So, it should come as no surprise that the events of recent years are branded into the American psyche by their numbers. We remember 911 as a terrible terrorist act that killed thousands immediately in the World Trade Center and many others have died since from all the dust and carcinogens unleashed by the explosions. I suppose 19 will forever be remembered as Covid 19, a pandemic virus in 2020. Even if 103 brings to mind a terrorist act over Scotland instead of barbaric treatment in Babylon; Psalm 103 is a declaration of hope and praise and blessing in dark times.

What the psalmist does with words and images in the poetry of Psalm 103 can be described as nothing less then inspired. Notice that the first two verses begin with the word Bless. Moreover, that word also appears four times in the last three verses. The English word, Bless, is our translator’s best effort at rendering the Hebrew word Hesed. Other translators would render Hesed as steadfast love. If there is one characteristic that weaves its way through all of the psalms as an ascription to God it is this word, Hesed. God is sure, certain, dependable, - steadfast. Moreover, the characteristic of that ever present, certain divine presence is love. Evil may have its day in the world, but God’s love will conquer that evil and one day restore the world to that image in which God created it.

Without all the sophisticated technology to which we have become accustomed that allows us to play, replay, and digitally codify any reading or speech, the Psalmist chooses a pneumonic device to help the Hebrew listener remember. Psalm 103 is known as an Acrostic. There are twenty-two lines in this psalm. There are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Each line of this poem begins with a different letter from the Hebrew alphabet. So, the psalmist teaches by bringing the listening congregation to remember its abc’s. Thus, we have in Psalm 103 an alphabet of faith. Thereby, the language of theology becomes the language of communication. Numbers and letters are the basic building blocks in the language of any community. The way they are used gives vision and shape to the things the community believes to be important.

Psalm 103 is intended to be read repeatedly and used as part of worship. Read in the Hebrew there is a rhythm, a beat to it. It verily sings. That movement depicts good and evil; sin and grace. Moreover, note that human evil is not glossed over in this psalm or in the Book of Psalms. There are three Hebrew words that are used almost interchangeably to describe human evil - iniquity, sin, and transgression. All three are found in this psalm. The effect of this is to focus on the breadth, depth, and pervasiveness of human evil. God’s steadfast love stands as a stark contrast and a counter to human evil. The psalmist tells a bit of Israel’s history to illustrate the desire and willingness of God to intervene in the morass of human oppression and injustice as he did in the days of their captivity in Egypt and their liberation from that evil by the obedience of God’s chosen servant, Moses.

So, it is with great poetic dexterity that the psalmist moves to the expression and expansion of this theme of God’s steadfast love. That theme is painted as a portrait of God’s mercy. Notice verses 13 and 14:

13 As a father has compassion for his children,

so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him.

14 For he knows how we were made;

he remembers that we are dust.

The great German theologian Claus Westermann in his masterpiece, Elements of Old Testament Theology, writes:

“One; might even say that the entire Psalm deals with the incomprehensible excess of God’s goodness.”

Another commentator writes:

As Weiser puts it, the poet “has been granted an insight into the heart of the majesty of God, and what he has found there is grace.”

So, the New Interpreter’s Bible concludes in its reflections on this passage:

The Mystery and the miracle do not mean that grace is cheap, as Psalm 103 also recognizes. On the contrary, the cross indicates the great cost to God, and the cross demands our whole lives (see Mark 8:34-35; see also Ps. 103:1, 11, 13, 17, 22). Yet for us self-centered, sinful people who know that even our very best is not enough our hope is finally not in our ability to measure up but in the immeasurable, incomprehensible excess of God’s goodness. We dare to confess that the ruling power in the universe (v. 19) is One who treats us like a loving father, a compassionate mother (see Isa 49:15). Such love demands our soul, our life, our all. Isn’t that something worthy singing about? Shouting about? Developing calluses on hands and feet! Our health and well-being depend on it!

Consider the wisdom of observation from the work of the noted psychiatrist, Carl Jung, who spent his life helping his patients make sense of theirs. "During the past 30 years, people from all the civilized countries of the earth have consulted me. I've treated many hundreds of patients, but among all my patients in the second half of life, that is to say, those who are over 35, there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that everyone of them fell ill because he (she) had lost that which the living religions of every age have given to their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain (t)his religious outlook on life." Atwood, p.38.

Finding a faith worth singing about may just be the most important thing we will ever do for ourselves and as a witness to others. Sing the hymns of faith and listen to voice of scripture! Thereby, you will be renewed by God’s grace.