“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).
As I have demonstrated in my previous post, in this psalm the psalmist speaks out of his personal experience with God. His song of praise comes after he experienced the agony that comes from sinning against God and from the pain and suffering caused by an illness that had brought him to the brink of death.
His adversity led him to pray to God and ask for divine help. Once his prayer was answered, he found forgiveness and deliverance from his adversity. This song of thanksgiving is a declaration of his testimony about God’s grace and mercy. The psalmist’s words come from a grateful heart.
As the psalmist reflects on his experience of the grace of God in his life, he summons his whole being to worship God. And then, right there in the temple, he gives the reasons for his song of praise. In his song, the psalmist opens his heart and proclaims the many reasons he calls himself and others to praise God. In this study, I will mention one of the reasons he praises God before those assembled for worship in the temple and why he exults God in the presence of those who fear the Lord. In subsequent posts, I will study the other reasons the psalmist praises God.
The first reason for the psalmist’s praise was because he had experienced God as a God who forgives 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 forgives all your iniquity.”
The reason for his song of praise was because the psalmist had experienced the forgiveness of God. The word for “forgive” in verse 3 is a very special Hebrew word, a word that is only used for the action of God in the Old Testament. The verb sālaḥ is used to describe forgiveness by God that is prompted by his hesed, God’s faithful love. The word sālaḥ then describes God’s act of offering pardon and forgiveness for the sinner.
In the Old Testament, God is portrayed as a God of forgiveness: “There is no other God like you! You forgive sin and pardon the rebellion of those who remain among your people. You do not remain angry forever, but delight in showing loyal love” (Micah 7:18 NET).
Another psalmist wrote, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered” (Psalm 130:3-4 NRSV).
In this passage, the word “revered” literally means “to fear.” However, the word does not mean that a person should be afraid of God, but it means to be in awe of Him. The word “reverence,” or “fear” (in the Old Testament), is the essence of worship. Every time someone experienced God’s goodness and God’s power, that individual expressed fear and reverence–worship of God. Thus, Psalm 130:3-4 could be translated as follows: “O Lord, if you should mark inequity, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you so that each one of us might learn how to worship you in the proper way.”
Forgiveness is possible because the God of the Bible is a God of grace. Nehemiah said of God, “But You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Nehemiah 9:17).
The psalmist began his song of praise by calling himself and others not to forget what God had done. The experience of Israel had been one of forgetting the mighty acts of God. The more God had blessed his people, the more they tended to forget what God had done. But it is in his grace that God comes to meet the needs of his people. In his mercy for Israel, at times God even anticipated their petitions and delivered them from their troubles.
Israel believed that their God was a forgiving God and when God forgives the sins of his people, not a sin remains unforgiven. This is the reason the author of Psalm 103 said in verse 12, “As far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.” The psalmist had experienced God as a God who forgives. And because of that he was so grateful that he wanted to share with others this experience of knowing God personally.
Although the Bible presents God as a God who forgives, God’s forgiveness could not always be taken for granted. In some passages, the word sālaḥ is used to refer to the denial of forgiveness (Deuteronomy 29:20; Jeremiah 5:9). Yahweh’s forgiveness was denied to Israel whenever Israel was guilty of following the gods of the nations, whenever the people committed apostasy and went away from the Lord and when innocent blood had been shed in Israel.
But Yahweh’s willingness to forgive is the hallmark of God’s character. In his prayer to God, Nehemiah said: “But you are a God of forgiveness” (Nehemiah 9:17). Nehemiah’s words reveal one of the divine attributes. Like Nehemiah, the author of Psalm 103 emphasizes the forgiving nature of God’s personally. The God of the Bible is a God who forgives.
Thus, the Bible teaches that at times, God let his people experience his anger in order to prepare them to experience his mercy. The reason God forgives his people when they sin is because of his compassion: “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8).
The psalmist knew that the Lord had not dealt with him according to his sins; he had not received from God’s hands what he deserved because of his iniquities. The Lord’s abounding love was much greater and more lasting than his anger at the sin of the psalmist. It is this amazing love that is the grounds and hope of forgiveness for sinners.
“Bless the Lord, O my soul” for God is a God who forgives. “Bless the Lord, O my soul” and forget not all that God has done.
This post was originally published on March 1, 2011.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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