Psalm 103 Study Notes
103:1-2 The threefold repetition of bless represents the highest form of worship (Is 6:3). The Hebrew word translated benefits (gemul, from gamal) means paying back what is deserved (28:4; 94:2; 116:12; 142:7). It most often describes God’s divine wrath and retribution toward the enemy (Is 59:18), but here it describes the Lord’s blessings enumerated in vv. 3-5.
103:3 Forgives (Hb soleach), a cultic expression common in Leviticus and Numbers, finds fuller development in Is 33:24; 43:25, although only Is 55:7 includes the expressed condition of repentance. God heals Israel physically and spiritually, yet we should not associate all physical distress with sin. The Lord heals both body and spirit through forgiveness, providing a sense of wholeness (147:3; Is 53:5).
103:4-5 The word redeems denotes the payment of a ransom price. The Israelite redeemed his firstborn (Ex 13:1-16). The family redeemer exacted revenge for wrongful death of a near relative, and he adopted the responsibility of raising a son to carry on a deceased brother’s lineage (Dt 19:1-13; 25:5-10; Ru 3:8-9). Pit refers to Sheol, the place of the dead. The people of God are adorned with covenant loyalty and mercy, like a wreath of honor or esteem presented to a dignitary or king. These verses convey a sense of divine providence and peace, so that youthful strength is renewed (lit “renews itself”) like an eagle (Is 40:31; 57:10).
103:6-7 Righteousness and justice toward the poor and needy in society reflect the ethical integrity of the king as God’s representative. The Lord’s revealing his ways to Moses refers to the divine formula describing God’s character (Ex 34:6-7). God demonstrated his compassion through his mighty works of victory and the sustenance of his people in the wilderness.
103:10 While God’s holiness demands payment for sin, God’s mercy and compassion restrain his discipline. The Hebrew word gamal, rendered repaid, forms a wordplay with v. 2. The Lord’s people enjoy his “benefits” (gemul) because he does not pay them back (gamal) for their sins.
103:11-12 The extent of the Lord’s covenant loyalty is incomprehensible, and his capacity for removing transgression is immeasurable. Once the Lord forgives sin it no longer exists (Is 43:25), and the sinner is delivered from the Pit (Is 38:17). The language alludes to Is 55:6-9.
103:13 A godly father disciplines his child not out of malice, but because he loves him (Heb 12:3-13). The Lord demonstrates mercy and compassion toward his children through forgiveness of sin and blessing, in spite of their weaknesses.
103:14 The Hebrew word yetser (what we are made of, “our formation”) comes from the verb yatsar, which denotes the shaping of clay by a craftsman into an acceptable vessel. God’s intimate knowledge of his created beings affirms their origin and frailty.
103:15-16 The temporary nature of life is compared to the brief blossoming of grass and a flower, easily wilted by the elements. The same metaphor in Isaiah contrasts the power of God’s word and the impotence of humanity (Is 40:6-8).
103:17-18 Although God’s people struggle with unfaithfulness, the Lord’s covenant loyalty endures for those who fear him (v. 11). The Hebrew word yara’ (“fear”) combines obedience and respect with humility before a sovereign God.
103:19 This verse speaks of God’s eternal rule over all that is.
103:21 God’s armies (or “hosts”) refer to divine beings who dwell with God and serve him.