“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 iniquity, 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 as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:1-5 RSV).
Psalm 103 is an individual thanksgiving Psalm presented by an individual who had much to praise for what he had received from God’s hands. The psalmist had faced a crisis in his life. He had been ill and his illness brought him closer to death. And yet, in his time of need, he prayed to God and God answered his prayer. God healed him and delivered his life.
Now, as an act of thanksgiving, he has come to the Temple to celebrate and to praise God, to worship the one who had delivered him. Together with the community of faith, the psalmist thanks God for His mighty act of deliverance. To him, worship was a celebration of the mighty acts of God. To him, worshiping was sharing with others the many blessings God had given to him.
He begins his song, his song of thanksgiving, blessing the Lord and inviting others to join him in praising God. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me.” The expression “all that is within me” expresses the psalmist’s desire to use his mind and heart, his will and faculty in remembering God’s goodness in the past and in the present.
When people read the Old Testament, they discover that the people of Israel were constantly forgetting what God had done for them. Over and over again, the prophets called the people to remember: “Remember this and consider, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me” (Isaiah 46:8-9).
When one reads the Old Testament, one discovers that as early as Moses and as late as the last prophet of the Old Testament, the warning, “Do not forget what God has done,” was sounded in Israel.
And yet, because the people forgot what God had done in their lives, they were chased out of the Promised Land. They had to go into exile in Babylon, and there, in a foreign land, they discovered that only God could bless them if they were only able and willing to remember the past. The act of salvation God had begun in Egypt with the Exodus, God would continue at the time he would visit his people again and bring them out of Babylon.
The Book of Isaiah presents the people’s return from exile as a second exodus–a new beginning, so that the people would remember what God had done in the past. What God had done in the past, God was going to do again in the present.
Moses, in the Book of Deuteronomy, warned the people of Israel not to forget the mighty acts of God. Moses said: “But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children” (Deuteronomy 4:9).
Over and over again, the book of Deuteronomy uses the expression, “Remember!” “Remember what God has done. Forget not the mighty acts of God.” Deuteronomy strongly exhorts the people not to forget the Lord: “ Be careful not to forget the LORD” (Deuteronomy 6:12). Moses also warned the people: “Be sure you do not feel self-important and forget the LORD your God who brought you from the land of Egypt, the place of slavery” (Deuteronomy 8:14).
The reason the Bible exhorts and urges the people of Israel to remember and to be thankful is because the human heart, by nature, tends to forget that God is the real source of blessings. God’s blessings are many and apparent everywhere. Moses knew that the people had to remember their past because memory can be very deceiving. People tend to remember the bad things in life. People tend to accumulate all the problems of life in their hearts, but tend to forget how wonderful God has been everyday and every moment of their existence.
The people of Israel, soon after they left the land of their oppression, forgot their miserable condition in Egypt and what God had done to redeem them. They forgot they were slaves in Egypt, that they had lived as an oppressed people. When the people were in need of food and water in the wilderness (Exodus 16:3), they became discouraged and in their desperation they wanted to go back to Egypt.
In their rebellion the people did not remember the mighty acts of God in bringing them out of the house of oppression. This is why the psalmist reminds himself, “Forget not all of His benefits.” The “benefits” were all of the blessings that he had received from the hands of the Almighty God. The psalmist had to remember every one of those blessings. He had to thank God for every blessing he had personally received.
I believe that each one of us today must remind ourselves to look back into the past and see what God has done for us. How soon we forget that God has been present and real in our lives. Whenever trouble comes, whenever illness comes, we tend to think that God is not present in our lives. We tend to forget that God has been there with us all along.
“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.”
Studies on Psalm 103
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary