Turn with me, please, to Psalm 103. Many of you will immediately recognize this psalm. You might be able to recite much of it by memory. For some of you, that might be because our tradition at Calvin Church of reciting Psalm 103 every time we celebrate communion together. I appreciate that tradition, because it is a good way of ending our celebration of communion with a congregational song of praise to God. “Praise the Lord, O My Soul.”
Have you ever had a song stuck in your head, and you can’t shake it, whether you want to or not? I certainly have, and I suspect most of you have as well.
I wonder, have any of you ever had the same thing happen with a Scripture passage? Has God ever put a Scripture passage in your brain in such a way that you can’t shake it? Well that happened to me this summer with Psalm 103. In a period of about eight days this summer, a pastor used it as a call to worship and commented on it, we celebrated communion here at Calvin and recited it, it came up in my nightly devotions, and it was the text of a wonderful sermon given by the pastor of my parents’ church. Needless to say, Psalm 103 got stuck in my head.
Tonight, my comments will reflect the words that God stuck in my head this summer. But it is also an excellent passage to reflect on as we head into the Advent season. In fact, it is my hope that the opening words of Psalm 103 will also get stuck in all of your heads, and stay there at least through Christmas. “Praise the Lord, O My Soul.”
Hear the Word of the Lord from Psalm 103:
1 Praise the LORD, O my soul;
2 Praise the LORD, O my soul,
3 who forgives all your sins
4 who redeems your life from the pit
5 who satisfies your desires with good things
6 The LORD works righteousness
7 He made known his ways to Moses,
8 The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
9 He will not always accuse,
10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
12 as far as the east is from the west,
13 As a father has compassion on his children,
14 for he knows how we are formed,
15 As for man, his days are like grass,
16 the wind blows over it and it is gone,
17 But from everlasting to everlasting
18 with those who keep his covenant
19 The LORD has established his throne in heaven,
20 Praise the LORD, you his angels,
21 Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts,
22 Praise the LORD, all his works
In my family, Thanksgiving is a very important holiday. The Adamses have been getting together for Thanksgiving for decades, and while not everyone is there every year, this was the 27th consecutive year that a majority of us have been able to get together, all in either Oostburg or in the western suburbs of Chicago.
Any family that gets together every year for 27 years has deeply held traditions. For example, we played Oostburg Bowl 27 on Friday at the Oostburg Park. I’m proud to tell you that my team won 35-14, in one of the more lopsided games in Oostburg Bowl history.
Another tradition we celebrate as a family is similar to a tradition I think a lot of families have—on either Thursday or Friday evening, we all get together in a circle, and after a time of singing and praying, we each tell what we are thankful to God for. We start with the youngest child able to speak—this year that was my daughter Hannah—and in the order of our ages, and including all family members and guests we share God’s goodness in our lives. Since my grandfather passed away nearly 20 years ago, my grandmother has always been the last to speak. And one thing she always repeats is “Praise the Lord!” Whether the family has given thanks for wonderful events like new births and marriages and good health, or for perseverance through dark times, Grandma always repeats those words: “Praise the Lord!”
And that’s how the Psalmist begins and ends Psalm 103: “Praise the Lord, O My Soul!” I hope that today you, like King David, and like my grandma, can sing out “Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being praise his holy name.”
Before I get into the specifics of what the psalmist is saying in the different verses of the psalm, let’s take a look at Psalm 103 as a whole. When we do that, it is clear that Psalm 103 is both a well-crafted poem of praise as well as an excellent hymn of worship.
English teachers will often teach about poetry by looking at how the author put together the poem—often the beauty of the poem is as much in the form as it is in the actual words. I think the same can be said for Psalm 103, which many commentators have called one of David’s best poems. He begins and ends with the same call to “Praise the Lord, O My Soul.” And in between the Psalmist takes us on a trip from the innermost depths of his soul to the farthest depths of the universe.
Rev. Herm van Niejenhuis, whom I heard preach on this passage this summer, pointed out that Psalm 103 is a lot like the short movie “Powers of 10.” I am sure many of you have seen the film—science teachers all over the country have used it for decades. I think I first saw it in a fourth grade science class in Wyckoff, New Jersey, and most recently I saw it with my kids as part of an exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago.
The film starts with a view of a man lying on a blanket in a park near the Chicago lakefront. Each side of the frame is one meter wide, and the man is snoozing in the sun. There is some food nearby, and a book next to him that he evidently put down as he started his nap.
The frame then expands out by a power of 10, so that each side of the frame is 10 meters wide. Now the man looks small, surrounded by an expanse of lawn—he and his female companion are the only ones taking advantage of the beautiful day. Then the frame expands out again, each time by another power of 10, and slowly we see not only the park, but Lake Shore Drive and the nearby harbor, and then a bird’s eye view of much of the city, then the bend of Lake Michigan, then what looks like a satellite view of the entire Great Lakes region, with Lake Michigan front and center. As the shot keeps moving out, we get farther and farther away—by the eighth frame, the earth is just a small sphere, and by the eleventh frame, the orbits of Mars and Venus are also visible.
But the camera appears to continue to move out, faster and faster, until it reaches the 25th frame, a billion light years on each side, and the frame is nearly empty; a super cluster of galaxies of which our Milky Way is a part dimly visible at the center.
The film maker then reverses the journey, taking us back to the man on the blanket, and then going smaller and smaller, first to the skin on the man’s hand, then to a cell, and then the DNA inside the cell, and then all the way to the atomic and subatomic level.
Powers of 10 was created in 1968 and revised in 1977, so it is only about 40 years old. However, the psalmist has been taking us on a similar journey via Psalm 103 for thousands of years. He starts in the depths of his own soul, in his very DNA—“Praise the Lord, O my soul, all my inmost being praise his holy name.” As he continues with the psalm, the frame gets larger and larger. In verses 3 through 5, the frame includes David’s whole self; in verse 7 we see the people of Israel and in verses 8-10, we see all the people of the world.
But David is not done. As the psalm continues, the frame just gets bigger and bigger. We see in verse 17 that praise encompassing not only space, but time as well—“from everlasting to everlasting.” And in verse 19, we see the praise encompassing not only the kingdom of this world, but the next as well. As the psalm comes to an end, David is calling on not just his inmost being, not just the people of Israel, not just the population of the world, to praise the Lord.
He then sings “Praise the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts, you servants who do his will.” And then he ends it, “Praise the Lord, all his works, everywhere in his dominion.” Not even the biggest frame in the movie “Powers of 10” is big enough to cover the dominion of God. David knew nothing of the Virgo Super Cluster; he knew nothing about subatomic quarks, yet David calls on every single one of them, and everything in between—all the works of God’s hands—to praise the Lord!
Psalm 103 is certainly a poetically beautiful poem, one of several that warrant David’s inclusion among the greatest poets of all time, along with people like William Shakespeare, Robert Frost, or T.S. Eliot. Psalm 103 is a poem that not just in its words, but in also its very form, expresses the depth of gratitude and praise God deserves. But Psalm 103 is not just a wonderfully crafted poem—it was also written as a hymn of praise, a song written for use by a congregation of believers in worship of their God.
In today’s church, we often argue about whether we ought to sing hymns or praise songs. That argument is rather silly, since hymns and praise songs are not mutually exclusive of each other. Hymns are simply songs that are composed, rather than simply made up as one sings; that are designed to be sung in worship as a corporate act of worship by those singing; that are written as poetry with regular verses; that deal with a religious message; and that address the thoughts of the people singing.
By this definition, Psalm 103, which is most certainly a praise song, is also a hymn.
The key to the definition is that hymns are written to be sung by a congregation as an act of worship. Like the other psalms, Psalm 103 was written to be sung by a congregation of believers. I think that it is not at all a coincidence that the largest book of the Bible, Psalms, is a book of songs. Regardless of whether you are an accomplished musician or a tone-deaf droner, God created you with a song in your heart—God created you with the ability to hear, understand, and enjoy music. And he did that primarily to give us a most excellent way to praise God.
A couple of years ago I read a science fiction novel entitled “Century Rain,” in which a minor part of the plot involved the fact that a virus had destroyed the ability of the human brain to process music. I cannot fathom living in such a world. Think of the way music functions in our world—the first notes of a familiar Christmas carol are enough to get us into the Christmas mood. Hearing a song from your teen years is enough to make you nostalgic about “the good old days.” A song with a good beat is enough to get you dancing, or if you are Christian Reformed, at least to get you quietly tapping your toe. God created music, and he created songwriters like King David, as a way to help us praise Him.
Most of you know the hymn “This is My Father’s World.” The first two lines of the song say that “This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears; all nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.”
During the Middle Ages, scholars believed that the movements of all of the celestial bodies—the sun, moon, planets, and stars, created a kind of music called the “music of the spheres.” This was one form of music, the other two being the music of the internal workings of the human body; the kind of music made by singing and playing instruments.
God created us all to with the ability to hear and make music as a way of praising him. King David wrote Psalm 103 as a piece of praise music, as a hymn designed for humans to sing together in praise of a majestic and holy God. Whether in the extolling of his own soul, “all my inmost being” to praise his holy name, or his calling on the angels and the heavenly hosts to praise the Lord, David is calling us to a life in which our souls are attuned to the music of praise, a life in which even the rhythms and patterns of our lives blend into a hymn of praise to the Father, a life in which we join in with all of God’s creation in the music of the spheres.
Psalm 103 is wonderful song of praise to the Lord of all creation, the God who created us and the creation around us to burst forth into songs of praise.
So we see that Psalm 103 is both a beautiful poem covering the span from our innermost being to the depths of the universe, and a wonderful song of praise that we can join with all of creation in singing. Now, let’s talk specifically about what the Psalmist says about God—about why the Lord is worthy of praise from every part of creation.
As we’ve already mentioned, the Psalmist begins in verse 1 with an exhortation to his own soul, to his inmost being, to praise God’s holy name. In doing so, David recognizes that, to our very core, we were created to praise God. Our hearts, souls, and minds are all able to praise God. As one commentator has put it, not one of our faculties or powers is exempt from the ability to praise God. And of course that means that everything we do is meant to be praise to God. It is not just our music, but also our work, our recreation, everything that we do that praises God.
And then David tells us why every breath of our life should be a song of praise to the Lord—because of all his benefits, benefits David describes in verses 3 through 10.
Notice that just as the entire psalm is designed as a journey of praise from the inner soul of the psalmist to the farthest bounds of the universe, David writes verses 3 through 10 in a way that shows how God’s benefits to us run the whole range from benefits to us as individuals, to benefits for us as the community of God’s chosen people, to benefits given in common to all humans around the world.
Verses 3 through 5 describe God’s benefits to the individual: “who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases; who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”
The very first thing that David lists is the forgiveness of sins. And of course that ought to be at the top of any list of what God has done for us. God has mercifully erased our sins, so that we no longer bear the punishment we deserve. Despite our contamination by sin, contamination caused by our own sinfulness, God mercifully forgives us and does not, as the Psalmist says later in verse 10, treat us as our sins deserve.
A few years ago the Newsboys sang that “When we don't get what we deserve, that’s a real good thing.” I don’t know that there can be any better definition of mercy than that—not getting what we deserve. God’s mercy is all about withheld punishment. And the psalmist reminds us to thank God for the benefit of withheld punishment.
But God’s benefits to us as individuals go beyond just mercy. When the psalmist tells us that God redeems our life from the pit, he is telling us that we have been saved from death. In other words, God has provided us not only with the benefit of mercy, but with the benefit of grace.
Mercy and grace are often seen as one and the same, but really they are two sides of a coin. Mercy is not getting what we do deserve, but grace is getting something we don’t deserve—an unmerited favor. When David says that God “redeems your life from the pit,” he is saying that not only has God been merciful, but he has been gracious, granting you the gift of eternal life, the gift of freedom from death.
Those of you who have studied the Heidelberg Catechism probably know that it is divided into three sections, sections we often title “Sin, Salvation, and Service,” or “Misery, Deliverance, and Gratitude.” In verses 3 through 5 we see this same pattern in David’s verse. He points to our sins, which God forgives, and shows us God’s deliverance, his redemption of our lives from the pit of eternal death. And then he gives us an image of a life of gratitude. At the end of verse 4 he says that God “crowns you with love and compassion.”
What David is saying is that God’s work of lovingkindness and mercy in our lives is so great that they become the crown, or the ornament of our lives. By bestowing his incredible mercy and grace upon us, he has in fact put a crown of love and compassion on our heads, on the most visible part of our body.
If we are crowned with love and compassion, then that is the first thing that people around us see in us. It is one of the greatest benefits of being a child of God that God has equipped us with that crown so that we can live lives of service and gratitude. God has granted us the benefit of being used as his tools for compassion, as his instruments of justice and righteousness, and as his implements of love. Because of God and his gift of mercy and grace, we can live lives of service and gratitude to God.
As I mentioned, though, David has crafted his Psalm so as to point out that God’s benefits are more than just those we receive as individuals. In verse 6 David makes clear that God is a God of righteousness and justice; he cares for the oppressed—in fact he cares so much about those who face injustice that he constantly refers, both in the Old Testament and New, to our duties to the poor, to the oppressed, and to the strangers within our gates. It is my prayer that as we go into an election season where immigration policy may end up being a key issue, Christian voters will not forget the importance that God places in His law on justice toward the strangers within our gates.
In verse 7, David points out another benefit of God for his people—he has provided us with all we need to know about Him—“He has made his ways known to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel.” God has revealed his will and his law to us, so that we are able to know what God wants from us. And he has revealed the path to salvation through Jesus Christ, a path that we can only learn about through God’s revelation of Himself to his people.
And then in verses 8 through 10, David points to benefits that all humans receive from God, whether they know it or not. He points out that “the Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” These words evoke Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:45, when he said that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
No hymn to the greatness of God would be complete without a comparison to our utter smallness, and David reminds us of that in verses 14 through 16. In a way, those verses almost come as a shock as we read through the Psalm. David has just finished telling us that “as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” He has reiterated the mercy and grace God has given us once again and he points to God’s love for humans when he says “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.”
But then come those jarring words in verse 15: “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field, the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” If we somehow try to puff ourselves up, to fill ourselves with pride, David is there to pop that balloon. We are nothing, David reminds us, but a pretty flower in a field, hardly noticeable among all the others, and gone with little fanfare or notice.
One of my hobbies is genealogy. Whenever I get the chance, I spend a few hours searching the internet and various databases for information about my ancestors and relatives. But there is always a dead end. In some parts of my family, I can go back pretty far—I know I am descended from Francis Bohan, a tenant farmer from the tiny village of Killyvehy, in County Leitrim, Ireland who married a woman named Margaret Reily in 1770.
On Kim’s side we can go even farther, to Frisian fishermen in tiny North Sea villages in the 1600s, and to numerous Dutchmen of the same time period living in a number of small villages and towns where the Rhine River forms the border between the provinces of Utrecht and Gelderland.
But no matter how far back I can go, there is always a dead end, a point at which the people for whom I am searching have disappeared into the mists of history. Some of those disappeared and forgotten ancestors have been in the grave for little more than 100 years. I’m sure they lived interesting lives; I would love to learn more about them, but their lives have passed, no more noticed than the flower of the field. In fact, not only do the places where these people lived no longer remember them, but many of the little villages in which they lived have disappeared, merged into larger cities that have taken them over.
But now listen to verse 17: “But from everlasting to everlasting, the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children.” I love that phrase, “from everlasting to everlasting.” Of course, it is meant to contrast with the shortness of our lives, to point out how even though our days are numbered, the days of the Lord are forever. But there is something more there that I want you to see. When the Psalmist says that the Lord’s love lasts “from everlasting to everlasting,” he is saying that it began in the eternity of the past, the eternity out of which God created the world and everything in it, and it will continue on into the eternity of the future. God has always loved us, even before we existed, and he will do so forever.
My daughter and I have a little game we play, where she says “I love you more than you love me,” and I say, “No, I love you more than you love me.” Last night, maybe thinking of these verses, I told her, “I love you more, because I loved you before you existed.” If you are a parent, you probably know the feeling—loving a child before he or she even existed. Before any of my children were even conceived, Kim and I loved them, looking forward to the day when God would bring them to us. God loved every single one of us in the same way—he loved us before we even existed; he loved us before he even created the universe we would live in. He loved us from everlasting.
And God will love us to everlasting—he will always love us, even after our days on this earth have faded to nothingness; after the place in which we live has completely forgotten us; long after the earth ceases to exist. For, as the psalmist tells us in verse 19, “The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.” God will love us through all eternity, an eternity we will spend with Him in the new heavens and new earth. Our days may be like grass, but our God is from everlasting to everlasting, and therefore he is worthy of praise from our innermost souls, and from the stars and galaxies of the universe.
As we finish reading the psalm, we read David’s exhortation to the angels and the heavenly hosts in verses 20 and 21: “Praise the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the Lord all his heavenly hosts, you servants who do his will.”
Now that we are heading towards Christmas, I hope these words are a foreshadowing to you of the praises sung by the angels and heavenly hosts to the shepherds on a wonderful night near Bethlehem about 2,000 years ago: “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’”
We can praise God because he has provided his son, Jesus Christ. He has mercifully provided a way that the stain of sin can be removed from us and from the groaning creation around us; He has graciously provided a means by which we, and all of creation, are redeemed to a perfect and eternal life of gratitude and praise to our God.
David did not know when the Messiah would come. He did not know exactly how God would send his son to redeem his people. But David knew that God would do it. He knew that God had an ultimate plan to forgive our sins, to redeem our lives from the pit of death, and to fully establish his throne in heaven and his kingdom to rule over all. And for this, David knew that God deserved the highest of praise. And for this, we too should lift our voices together: “Praise the Lord, O my soul.”