Psalm 103 is surely one of the most familiar of all the psalms and its opening line often quoted or adapted in prayer, sermon and song. The majority of the standard English texts over the centuries– from the King James to the recent English Standard Version and numerous others as well– render its opening line with exactly the same words: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and everything that is within me, bless His Holy name.” I have loved that verse (Ps 103:1a) for as long as I can remember knowing it. But my study of the holy poem in its original Hebrew has opened my appreciation to scholar Robert Alter’s translation of those critical first words: “Bless, O my being, the Lord, and everything in me, His holy name.”
The apparently subtle difference between Alter’s rendition and the others hinges on the selection of a single English word to convey the meaning of the Hebrew noun nefesh. There are numerous places in Scripture where that word is rightly expressed as soul, as most translators have done here. But nefesh embodies a meaning that is greater than soul. In a single word, nefesh conjures and captures the complex Hebrew understanding of the whole of man, which we have examined before. The choice of “my being” prevents us from being unconsciously wooed into accepting a dichotomy of heart and soul or head and heart, the false notion David never would have found inconceivable. When the psalmist exhorts himself, he speaks to his integrated inner and essential self, and to all of it — “everything in me,” (Ps 103:1b) he goes on to say.
As a sidebar: The verb used in Psalm 103 is bless (baruch), not praise (hallel) as is employed in the similar opening line of Psalm 146, “Praise the Lord, O my soul.” Baruch can also be translated kneel, so this verb conveys the enriched meaning of deep reverence coupled with a joyful expression of thanksgiving. Were bless an adjective instead of a verb, we might consider it the superlative form –the best offering that we are able to give in response to the infinite blessings He bestows on us — while praise would represent the comparative, when it refers to mankind’s actions toward his God. And were I writing in Hebrew now, I would choose the imperfect form of the verb to indicate He “bestows, has bestowed, is bestowing and will bestow,” from the beginning, now and in perpetuity.
Is all this focus on the individual words necessary? Yes, it absolutely is, because it acknowledges the care the poet gave to each and every one of them as he composed Psalm 103. The formal elements and structure of Hebrew poetry are skillfully displayed in this psalm. It relies on parallelism to express the magnitude of God’s gifts; utilizes the envelope structure, which begins and ends the poem with the same line (and, we will see, thus illustrates through structure part of what it conveys by language); employs the curious pronominal shifts that move from the speaker to involve the listener directly; and skillfully employs intricate imagery rooted in the natural world to give concrete footing to abstract spiritual concepts.
In addition, David makes deliberate and profound use of repetition –another primary characteristic of ancient Hebrew poetry. The notion set up in the opening words with nefesh and “everything in me” sets the stage for a litany of “alls.” The psalmist repeats all nine times in the 22 verses of the poem.
These “alls,” while the same word, are richly diverse in connotation. It seems to me that they are of four types or have four subjects and/or objects; or, one could say, they touch on four realms. First, as we have seen, is the all of the speaker, the whole being of the creature surrendered in the act of consummate praise of the Divine One.
The second is the all of “the benefits,” bestowed by the One on His people who put their faith and trust in Him, that is, to “all those who fear Him.” (Ps 103:11, 13 & 17). These promised gifts define a Judaic and messianic theology that is first pronounced straightforwardly here by the man after God’s own heart, and then repeated and amplified in the writings of the Prophets, the Gospel and Epistle writers, and most significantly by the acts and in the words of the Son of David himself.
The third is a contextual all, which describes the eternal character of the Divine Blesser and Covenant Maker both through historical reference and metaphor that moves beyond the confines of terrestrial time and space.
The fourth is the all of the created order, the entire universe including the heavenly hosts as well as “all His works, in all places of His dominion” (Ps 103: 22a) which are directed, as we have been, to join the psalmist in the great symphony of blessing.
The speaker initially adjures himself “do not forget all His generous acts” (Ps 103:2b). The word choice here is striking. David does not say remember, as he might ask a friend “can you remember…”. It is no causal question or encouragement to recall. Rather, using the imperative, he demands of himself that he “do not forget all” — that is, never, regardless of the circumstances, fail to be aware of and acknowledge with his entire being “all His generous acts.”
The directive is not to himself alone. In the infinitesimal space of the turn of the line, David employs the so-called pronominal shift from the first person pronoun “my” to the second person “your,” where he seamlessly and without presumption invites others to embrace the truth he is about to proclaim. That represents the transition from the first type of the alls to the second and provides the natural point at which to conclude Part One of The Heart of Blessing.
Until we turn together in Part Two to follow after the shepherd king and examine those proclamations with the same deliberation he took when he articulated them, I intend to contemplate what it might mean if I could, always and in every circumstance, surrender all my being to blessing the Lord. Surely that is the place to find the heart of blessing.