“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 context of Psalm 103 indicates that this is the song of praise of an individual who was in the temple, worshiping with the community of faith. He invited all of the people there to bless the Lord and he asked himself to use everything in him to bless the Holy name of God. The blessing that the psalmist had received from God had touched him so much that now he called on his whole being to worship God. He came to the temple to worship the Lord and in worship he met a very special God–the God who forgives and the God who heals.
This was the reason the psalmist was so eager to bless God’s holy name. In worship he came face to face with the majesty and the holiness of God. This the is reason he called on himself to remember everything that God had done for him. Because as one who had experienced the grace of God, the psalmist knew that in worship, God could not be praised with less than his whole being.
The psalmist had many reasons to praise God. In previous posts, I mentioned that he had experienced God as a God who forgives. He also had experienced God as the God who heals (see the links below). In the present post, I want to emphasize another reason the psalmist came to the temple to praise God. The reason the author of Psalm 103 was praising God was because he had also experienced God as a God who redeems.
In the Hebrew Bible both human life and property could be redeemed. Since the first born belonged to Yahweh, the first born could be redeemed by a money payment. If a person lost property because of debt, that property could be redeemed by a relative who would provide the money to redeem what was sold because of the debt.
God was known as the redeemer of Israel because he delivered his people from Egypt (Exodus 6:6; Psalm 78:35). In the same way God was the redeemer of Israel, God was also the redeemer of an individual Israelite. In the midst of his suffering, Job believed there was a redeemer who would vindicate him: “For I know that my Redeemer lives” (Job 19:25).
Yahweh is the one who redeems Israel from their iniquity: “It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities” (Psalm 130:8). The Bible is also clear that there is no self-redemption for the consequences of sin. Psalm 49:7 says that no one can redeem the life of another because of sin nor give to God sufficient money to compensate for one’s sins.
Aware that no self-redemption is possible, the psalmist recognized that the redemption of his life was the work of God, since he associated his illness with his sins. 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 redeems your life from the Pit.”
The word goel (“the one who redeems”) is used to designate the near relative who was responsible for regaining possession of a property which had been sold to pay a debt or the relative who married a widow in order to preserve the name of a relative who died without a son.
In the Old Testament, the responsibility of the goel was to redeem a member of the family from difficult situations or from personal danger. The case of Boaz and Ruth is a classic example of the action of a goel, a kinsman redeemer, in Israel. When Ruth and Naomi came back from the field of Moab to Bethlehem, Boaz acted as the redeemer of Naomi’s family by buying the property that belonged to Naomi and by marrying Ruth in order to provide her with a son who would carry on the name of her deceased husband.
In the Hebrew Bible, God is the ultimate goel of Israel. He stands up for his people and vindicates them. Since he is the creator and the giver of life, he is also the one who can redeem a person from physical or spiritual death.
One example of God acting as a redeemer on behalf of Israel was the deliverance of his people from the house of oppression in Egypt. It is in this sense that the psalmist experienced God. In this psalm, the reader discovers that the psalmist was afflicted with an illness and his illness brought him close to death. But because he prayed, because he trusted in the power of God, God by His grace, healed him and delivered him from the Pit.
The Hebrew word translated “Pit” is shahat, a word which means “pit,” “destruction,” and “grave.” The word is generally used to refer to the abode of the dead. In the Hebrew Bible the word shahat is used to refer to death and the decay that occurs after death: “You will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay” (Psalm 16:10).
The word “Pit” in Psalm 103 is used to refer to the grave or the abode of the dead. The psalmist used the word shahat to refer to the place he would go after he died. At the time the psalmist wrote his song of praise, it is possible that the people of Israel did not have a definite understanding of the concept of the resurrection of the dead, a view that developed late in Israel’s theology. In the understanding of the psalmist, once a person died, that person would go to Sheol and that person would be forgotten forever.
However, since his illness had brought him near death, in the psalmist’s mind, his healing was understood as a redemption, as a deliverance from the grave. With these words of praise, the psalmist was expressing the same faith and hope expressed by Job.
The story of Job is familiar to all readers of the Bible. After months of sickness and affliction, after his rejection by his family and friends, Job, near the end of his ordeal, cried out both in desperation and in hope: “I know that my redeemer lives.” That cry was Job’s affirmation that God was his redeemer, that God would vindicate him by redeeming him from his misery.
Job knew that, as a friend and as his redeemer, God would outwardly redeem him from his desperate situation. No one around Job ever saw any hope, not his friends, not his family, not even his society. But Job had faith that his redeemer would act on his behalf. Job knew that at the end of his ordeal that he would “see God” (Job 19:26). His desire was to meet God face to face and present his case to him, so that God, acting as his Redeemer, would vindicate his life. In his vindication, Job would experience God as that redeemer he was expecting God to be.
And, yet, what Job only desired, the psalmist experienced in a very personal way. And now he could not be silent. Now he wanted to praise God and thank God for his redemption. He wanted to invite the community of faith to know that for sure the redeemer was alive and that the redeemer of Israel was also the redeemer of each individual in the nation. That is the reason why he praised God and called his soul to rejoice in God.
Studies on Psalm 103
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary