David—or whoever wrote this Psalm—has begun with a call to praise God, and he’s given as his first reason a series of good things God has done for him—and you, and me; the recipients there are all singular. In the next section he changes to the plural; he talking about things that God has done not just for “me,” but for “us”—for his people corporately. Throughout history, God has consistently intervened to meet the greatest needs of his people.
At Israel’s birth as a nation, God revealed himself to them in multiple ways: at the burning bush (Ex 3.1-6), through the plagues in Egypt (Ex 5-12), at the parting of the Red Sea (Ex 14.21-31), and at Sinai (Ex 20). In fact, verse 8 of our Psalm is essentially a direct quotation of Exodus 20.6.
And what is the characteristic of God—what is the good thing about him—that the Psalmist chooses to highlight in this section?
In his dealings with his people, God is the sort of person who doesn’t give them the punishment that they deserve. Despite our sin, despite our selfishness, despite our arrogance and disrespect toward him, he shows mercy.
- He is slow to anger (Ps. 103.8). He doesn’t lose his temper or lash out in uncontrolled rage. He puts up with a lot from us and doesn’t crush us like a bug—which, as omnipotent, he certainly could. He deals with us carefully, tenderly, reasonably, patiently.
- When he does get angry—and when he should get angry,* he does—he doesn’t stay that way forever (Ps 103.9). When his justified anger has accomplished his purpose, he calmly sets it aside.
- His dealings with us are underproportioned (Ps 103.10). He doesn’t give us the negative things we deserve.
He is merciful—filled with mercy, the attribute that stops punishment or consequence well short of what is truly called for.
And why is that?
Well, for starters, that’s who he is, and he always acts consistently with his nature.
But the Psalmist highlights another reason: he has a relationship with us; we are his people (Ps 103.11-13).
- We fear him, reverence him, recognize his fatherhood over us (Ps 103.11).
- He has removed our transgressions from us (Ps 103.12), as far as the east is from the west. I’ve traveled to the other side of the world both by going east and by going west, and I can tell you that they never meet. Why has he done this remarkable thing? Why has he unburdened us of the guilt of our sin? From the Psalmist’s perspective, he’s done so because Israel is his people, his special flock, and he’s given them the grace of forgiving their sins when they offer the specified sacrifices at the specified place. We who are not physical Israel know that those sacrifices prefigured another sacrifice, a greater, perfect sacrifice, offered by God the Son through the eternal Spirit unto God the Father. God has forgiven us because our sin debt has been paid, and we are now cloaked in the righteousness of Christ.
- He is our Father, and we are his children (Ps 103.13). That’s a significant relationship, a permanent one, one that calls for love and patience and loyalty and provision and protection.
So it’s not just that God’s a nice person, nice to all the human persons in a beneficent sort of way. No, we his people are corporeal, a body, a flock, and we have a relationship with the God who created and redeemed us. He’s good to us for reasons far deeper than the need to help a beggar on the street or an accident victim on the highway.
And we’ll always be family.
* There are times when anger is the only appropriate response. If you see a child being sexually abused, you should get angry, and you should put a stop to it. Injustice should make us angry and spur us to action. Imminent threats to the well-being of those we love should make us angry. They make God angry, and that is a virtue, not a weakness or a flaw.