We live in unstable and unhappy times. Lots of people are complaining—and there’s a lot to complain about. But we all know that living in a spirit of complaint isn’t good for us, and we also know that we tend to magnify our difficulties and minimize our joys.
I’ve been spending extra time in the Psalms lately, and I’ve found that time to be well invested. It’s good to be around happy people—though not all the Psalms are happy, certainly—and it’s good to be reminded that our time is not substantially different from what lots of other people have endured, and over which they have triumphed.
Psalm 103 is a simple meditation on good things, encouraging things—and better yet, eternal things. According to its superscription, it’s Davidic—by David, or perhaps for him or in his style; the Hebrew preposition can mean a lot of things. It begins and ends with a call to praise, first by the author himself (Ps 103.1-2) and at the last by all of creation (Ps 103.20-22). In between, the Psalmist considers some of the reasons why we should praise God—and along the way there’s a hint that his life hasn’t been all sunshine and roses.
We’ve all heard the children’s prayer at mealtime:
God is great,
God is good;
Let us thank him
For our food.
This psalm appears to pray that prayer on a much grander scale.
The Psalmist begins—after the initial call to praise—with God’s goodness (“his benefits,” Ps 103.2), and specifically his goodness to the Psalmist himself as an individual. He lists those benefits in two categories.
First, God has delivered him (and you, and me) from many of the negative things about life:
- He forgives all your sins (Ps 103.3).
- We’re defeated by an enemy far greater than we are; we’re at the mercy of sin, and we even find ourselves being attracted by it. We’ve sinned ourselves so deeply into slavery and brokenness that there seems to be no hope for us.
- But God has stepped into our misery and has rescued us, applying Christ’s righteousness to us and forgiving the depraved things we’ve done. Further, he’s cast them into the sea (Mic 7.19), as far from us as the east is from the west (as we’ll see later in the psalm).
- He heals all your diseases (Ps 103.3).
- Is this line an indication that the Psalmist has just come through hard times? He seems to speak from experience.
- We find that often physical healing is available to us in answer to our prayers; but I think, given the close reference to forgiveness of sins, that we should consider our healing from spiritual sickness and death (Ep 2.1-7) here.
- And further, we anticipate the day when there will be no more disease—physical or spiritual—because God has brought history full circle and returned us to the “very good” state in which we began (Re 21.4).
- He redeems us from destruction (Ps 103.4)—that is, he sets us on a path to life instead of death.
Then the Psalmist considers how he has replaced those negative things with positive ones:
- He crowns us with lovingkindness and tender mercies (Ps 103.4)—that is, he pours out his loving loyalty and his compassion on us. He is a gentle and committed shepherd.
- He feeds us well, nourishing us for strength (Ps 103.5). I think it’s interesting that God made food taste good. He could have made it all a tasteless grey paste, just something we have to choke down every so often to keep our strength up. But he didn’t do that; he made food really good. Salty, sweet, sour, bitter, meaty. Cold, hot, and in between. Crunchy, smooth, creamy, crispy. It’s all good.
There’s a lot more that God does for each of us that demonstrates his goodness; the Psalmist has given us just a sampling. We can profitably meditate on the much longer list. And as we’ll see, the Psalmist is just getting started.