“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget 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).
The writer of Psalm 103 was a person whose adversity and suffering allowed him to experience the grace of God in a more personal way, and that experience led him to compose his song of praise. In my previous studies of this beautiful psalm (see the links below), I described one of the reasons the psalmist called himself and the community of faith to praise God.
Today, I want to emphasize the second reason the psalmist is praising God with his psalm. The second reason for the psalmist’s praise was because he had experienced God as a God who heals. He said, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits–who heals all your diseases.”
In the Old Testament, God reveals himself as the healer of his people. When the people came out of Egypt, after seeing all the plagues that God had brought upon the people of Egypt, and after seeing all the illness and all the sickness and death incurred by the Egyptians, the people marched through the wilderness, on their way to Mount Sinai, and eventually to their Promised Land.
However, after traveling three days in the wilderness of Shur, the people began to suffer because they could not find any water. When they arrived at Marah, they found water there but they could not drink it because the water was bitter. In their desperation, the people complained to Moses about their predicament. Moses prayed to God. In answer to Moses’ prayer, God showed him a tree. Moses threw the wood into the water and immediately the water became sweet. It was through that adversity and suffering that the people learned one important aspect of God’s nature: that Yahweh, the God of Israel, was their healer. God told the people of Israel: “I am the LORD who heals you (Exodus 15:26).
The word רָפָא (rāpā’) appears more than sixty times in the Hebrew Bible. The word rāpā’ means to heal, to make healthful. The verb is used in the Hebrew Bible for human healing. As a noun, the word is translated as “physician” (Genesis 50:2). The word also can be used to designate moral and spiritual healing.
The psalmist saw a connection between his sin and his illness. People today should not believe that all illness is a punishment for sins one has committed against God or other people. Job suffered much, but his physical suffering was not caused by his sins. When people are sick, their pain and suffering tend to bring to mind their sinful condition and their need of grace and forgiveness.
Whenever people are confronted with their mortality, the foreboding of things to come causes despair and motivates people to prepare themselves to meet their creator (Amos 4:12). The belief of the psalmist, that his sickness was the result of his sin, should not cause sick people to despair and believe they are sick because they have sinned against God.
Whatever his problem was, the psalmist knew that his sins, his iniquities, had offended, not only God, but had also offended himself and people in relation with him. The word for “iniquity” in Hebrew means “a deliberate rejection of the will and of the law of God.” So, in a sense, the psalmist knew that he had broken God’s law by offending someone in the community. Aware of his condition, the psalmist came before God to pray and ask for God’s forgiveness and healing. God forgave and healed him.
Now that he had been forgiven, and now that he had been healed, he praised the Lord because the gracious nature of God had been manifested in his life. God had forgiven him as a judge, but now he had healed him as a physician. This was the reason he wanted to praise God in the temple. This was the reason he wanted to worship with other believers in the house of God. Thus, in song, he called everyone to join him and praise God: “Bless the Lord, O my soul and all that is within me, bless his holy name.”
The psalmist had experienced a difficult time in his life because of his sin and because of his illness. At that time he turned to God in prayer and he was healed.
The experience of the psalmist has a lesson for people today. In today’s society people are suffering with all kinds of physical as well as spiritual illnesses. People with broken hearts, broken lives, and damaged emotions look for help without finding the solution to their problems.
When Isaiah described the sick conditions of his society, he was describing a situation similar to what is found in many societies in our present day. Isaiah said: “The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and bleeding wounds; they have not been drained, or bound up, or softened with oil” (Isaiah 1:5-6).
Isaiah compared Judah’s rebellion to a sick body. The body was affected from the sole of the foot to the top of the head, and the disease was, as Jeremiah saw it, “incurable” (Jeremiah 30:12, 15). And yet, since there is mercy with the Lord, the Lord spoke to the sick society of Judah and offered the possibility of healing: “For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, says the LORD” (Jeremiah 30:17).
At Marah, God used the healing properties of the tree cast into the water to cure the people of Israel. Today he uses the advances in medicine to produce drugs that are derived from plants, animals, germs, and mineral substances, but it is always God who is the healing hand behind the miracles of modern medicine.
The New Testament gives the context in which divine healing occurs. James said that divine healing occurs in the context of worship, prayer, and forgiveness (James 5:14-16). When the people of God pray, the sufferer experiences forgiveness and healing occurs. The most dramatic example of prayer for a sick person is Moses’ prayer for his sister Miriam. When Miriam was afflicted with a skin condition, Moses cried to the Lord, “O God, please heal her” (Numbers 12:13). People, however, must be aware that healing does not always occur when people pray. People also must be aware that it is not always God’s will to heal. Some sickness will end in death and others will not (John 11:4). When Timothy was sick with a stomach problem, Paul could not heal him.
God may not always heal the broken body, but he has the remedy that can cure the human spirit. Like the balm of Gilead, God sends his messenger with a message that brings healing to broken lives: “He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted” (Isaiah 61:1).
Like the psalmist, people of faith should rejoice and bless the Lord. “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” for God is a God who forgives and a God who heals.
Studies on Psalm 103
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary