In my initial post on Psalm 103, I designated this third of the four alls, or sections, that comprise the poem as the “contextual” one. While that may be accurate in terms of the literary purpose it serves, the terminology falls extraordinarily short of capturing the essence of verses 6 through 19. This portion of the psalm truly centers on the heart of blessing — that is, on the manner in which God interacts in unique covenant relationship with David and with all of His people.
I have chosen to use the verb “interacts,” because the present tense is the best English equivalent for the several imperfect (or ongoing present and future) verbs that David employs in the opening verses of this section. “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed” (verse 6), he declares in the first line. By including all in the prepositional phrase that completes the verse, the psalmist intensifies the effect that the imperfect tense in Hebrew already conveys. That is, all makes the proclamation inclusive and timeless. It thus secures in perpetuity God’s promise for every hearer and reader who is among “those who fear Him” — a critical qualifier that David repeats three times (verses 11, 13 and 17). Then, perhaps anticipating the question of what it means to “fear Him,” David provides unequivocal clarification in verse 18, saying “those who keep His covenant and remember to do His commandments.” Our fear of the Holy One is made manifest through our reverence and by our obedience, which is the upholding of our portion of the covenantal relationship.
The nature of covenant, as we have observed before, always involves mutual commitment, although with differing roles and responsibilities for each party. The psalmist first looks back in verse 8 to the covenant that the Lord made with the patriarch Moses in behalf of the Hebrew people. All of David’s kinsmen surely would have recognized in the language of the psalm the unmistakable echo of the Lord’s own words spoken when He descended in a cloud and passed before Moses: “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth” (Ex 34:6). Let me repeat that, lest the point be lost: David chooses not to present man’s characterization of God but rather to quote verbatim the Lord’s own description of Himself. Here we are invited to understand who God is by regarding the way in which He treats those who by covenant are His; here we meet the heart of God to which His compassion, mercy, love and qualified forbearance bear witness.
One Hebrew word in verse 8 — namely, the one translated gracious — deserves our special attention because in it we find a “reserved” adjective. This term is set apart in Scripture solely to describe the Lord. It is never used to refer to any other. Our modern or English vernacular has diluted the meaning, so that many acts of kindness, hospitality or generosity are considered “gracious.” That is not the sense here. The psalmist is reminding us what grace really is — unmerited favor, an undeserved divine gift. There is only One who is by nature gracious and that is God alone, the author and giver of grace. The adjective that precedes gracious in verse 8 is most frequently translated compassionate; however, it can also be translated merciful and that might be the more accurate choice here. It too is significant as a “divine” attribute and that adjective, with only one exception in the Hebrew bible, is also always ascribed to God. Mercy, like grace, flows from His nature and is His to bestow.
In the middle of the revelation that the Lord speaks to Moses, positioned between “merciful and gracious” and “abounding in lovingkindness and truth.” is the double-edged phrase “slow to anger.” In this we find the complex promise — of the Father’s seemingly inexhaustible patience with His impetuous and fully human children and of His absolute intolerance of evil and disobedience and of his unerring response to it. This is what I termed qualified forbearance. And this is the quality that the Hebrew word mishpat (used in verse 6), which means both justice and judgment, embodies. The Holy One will not hold back His anger forever; He will not and cannot endlessly turn a blind eye to evil, for that would be to defy and deny His own nature. The justice with which He judges and His judgment that is always just will inevitably come.
In Hebrew God’s “slow to anger” portrayal of Himself is rendered in image-like fashion that is difficult to capture in a verbal phrase. It seems to describe a wild snorting (literally reading “long in the nostril”) — so it pictures an action akin to that of a restless, raging bull, which will eventually break his restraints to charge and trample those who taunt him or stand in his way. The Hebrew people, constantly beset by ruthless and bloodthirsty enemies, certainly would have found some solace in this. The consolation of ultimate righteous judgment against those who perpetrate evil is clearly evident here — and because He is eternal and changeless, David and we can have confidence that it will exist for as long as God Himself abides. In verses 9 and 10, the psalmist explicates his own text by expounding on the Lord’s judgment first and then extolling God’s mercy and compassion for his covenant people. This, by implication, sets up the stark contrast between what we deserve on our own merit and what receive from the God of grace.
What follows in verses 11 through 16 is a rich series of poetic images, each of which could engage us at length. The first of these depicts in spatial terms God’s compassion and His grace and mercy toward us despite our transgressions. I find particularly fascinating — and might even suggest it to be a mysteriously embedded prophetic geometry — that the first description is a vertical simile of distance. “As the heavens loom high above earth,” David writes. I set my pencil at the bottom of the paper and draw the vertical line straight up. Then the psalmist continues with a horizontal simile of distance when he says “as the east is far from the west.” I place my pencil in the middle on the right-hand side of the page and move it leftward, plotting a course like the one the sun appears to take without exception every day. Looking at those marks, I see I have sketched a simple cross– that place and act, the only place and act, through which “He has distanced us from our transgression” (verse 12).
The next two verses of the psalm are almost parenthetical ones in which the consummate poet employs two stark images of man — that we are dust and like grass — to help keep us mindful of our transitory nature. And then he seamlessly bookends those figures of speech with the reminder of God’s promise to his children, saying “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting” (verse 17). The repetition of the word everlasting once more strengthens the point.
Whether scholars regard this psalm as among prophetic or messianic ones, I do not know. It is not a question that I have studied (although perhaps I should). That said, I will confess that approaching this psalm with an open heart, I do see it that way. The visual image of the cross I perceive may not have been the psalmist’s intention, but the picture of the God of covenant — of the Davidic covenant as well as Mosaic one — surely was.
The man David repeatedly fell far short of the requirement to keep perfectly every jot and tittle of the law of Moses. But of the faithfulness of the man after God’s heart–of his turning in penitence for each transgression only and always to the only One who could distance him from them –cannot be impugned.
As we in America approach Thanksgiving and the world again anticipates Advent and celebrates the coming of the Savior, I believe it is fitting that we, like David, spend time remembering both the fragility of “our frame” (verse 19) and the mercy and grace of the great I AM in establishing another and different covenant of promise with and for David and for his progeny, that is for “those who fear Him,” forever.
You might read 2 Samuel 7: 8-16 to prepare your heart for those seasons. It is a fitting prelude as well to the cosmic symphony of the fourth all we will examine when we next bring our study of Psalm 103 to a close.