Psalm 103 - Blessings, Mine and the World's
TEXT (Hebrew text at end)
1. Of David.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, His holy name.
2. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all 1-His gifts-1:
3. Forgiving all thy sins, healing all thy diseases.
4. Redeeming thy life from the Pit, crowning thee with steadfast love and compassion.
5. Providing plentiful good things for thy beauty2—thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
6. Performing3 righteous acts is the LORD, and just rulings for all who are wronged.
7. He made known His ways to Moses; His deeds to the children of
8. Compassionate and gracious is the LORD, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.
9. Not forever will He confront, and not everlastingly will He nurse anger.
10. Not commensurate with our sins has He has acted3 toward us, and nothing commensurate with our iniquities has He given us.
11. Rather, as immense4 as the height of heaven above the earth, so is His steadfast love intense4 toward those who fear Him.
12. As east is far from west, so far has He distanced our sins from us.5
13. As a father has compassion for children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear Him.
14. Rather, He knows how we are formed, is mindful that we are dust.
15. Man, his days are like grass; like a field blossom, so he blossoms;
16. when a wind passes over him, he is gone, his place no longer knows him.
17. But the LORD’s steadfast love from everlasting to everlasting is upon those who fear Him, and His righteousness is for the children’s children,
18. for those who keep His covenant and recall His precepts, to carry them out.3
19. The LORD has established His throne in heaven, and His sovereign rule has dominion over all.
20. Bless the LORD, O His angels, strong mighty ones, performing3 His bidding, attentive to the sound of His bidding;
21. bless the LORD, all His hosts, His servants performing3 His will;
22. bless the LORD all His creations,3 in all the places of His dominion.
Bless the LORD, O my soul.
1. That is, His bounties, from the same root as “given” in verse 10. Root implies giving either reward or punishment.
2. Hebrew uncertain. Translation follows Hacham, based on use of this root in Ezekiel 16:7.
3. All six terms (vv. 8, 11, 18, 20, 21, 22) are from the single Hebrew root ‘sh (do perform, act, work, etc.)
4. English reflects a word play in Hebrew, “immense” (root meaning high, gavoha) and “intense” (root means grow great, gavar).
5. And/or “from Him.”
A poem “of singular beauty” that “does not contain one jarring note” (Kirkpatrick), Psalm 103 has also been called “one of the finest blossoms on the tree of biblical faith” (Weiser). Alter finds here “a sense of exaltation.” The tone of enthusiasm and thanksgiving is hard to escape, even if, as I shall mention, there are some “jarring notes.”
Beyond that, however, the psalmist offers the reader a series of poetic personal convictions. Speaking of God in the third person, the poet suggests by implication, particularly through the imperatives at the end, that praise may not be man’s natural instinct (as Broyles points out), but that it must be taught. Indeed, as he moves from the opening speech to his soul (to which he circles back suddenly at the end), the speaker offers two developments, both of which are challenging. First, he constantly expands outward, moving from a prolonged internal discussion to a call on the entire universe to praise God, from closest intimacy to the worldwide stage. Second, in the middle of that progression, he relates specifically to the People of Israel. That these are choices is easily be seen by comparison with Psalm 104, which shares the opening and closing verse with Psalm 103, but in precisely the opposite order, from the largest to the most intimate, and does not address Israel at all.
I review Psalm 103 by sections, relating in each case to both content and form.
A Most Intimate Conversation (vv. 1–6)
Psalm 103 opens with the speaker addressing himself, using the term “soul,” as in Psalms 42 and 43. One would do well to assume that this is not just a way of saying “speak to oneself” (which is more often indicated in Hebrew simply by “I said”), but is rather an indication of an internal dialogue and tension. As stated, praise may not be natural to man. The section is marked with a very formal term for the second person in addressing his "soul," typical not only of Aramaic but also of certain strains of Canaanite, which preceded Hebrew. Concluding that it is an antiquated usage, I have used “thy” and “thee” in place of “you.”
God’s ongoing and constant support for the speaker is emphasized here by the use of participles as opposed to verbs (which I have translated as gerunds, "–ing"), a most unusual concentration. This first section, which probably extends through verse 6 (the final use of such a participle), includes only one hint that the situation may not be perfect, when the last word indicates that the Lord acts rightly and justly for those who have been “wronged,” which presumably includes the speaker.
The combination of the participles and the antiquated verb form emphasizes the eternity of God's protection.
My People (vv. 7–17)
The second section focuses on God’s beneficence to the People of Israel (much above what they deserve), the psalmist taking advantage of subtle poetic structures to bring his points home. These are: the use of biblical references, the concentrated use of four negatives, and two parallel attempts to explicate God’s mercy. I review the three sequentially.
(A) Without fanfare, the speaker moves from speaking to himself (the presumed situation still in verse 7) to addressing the People of Israel (note the use of “we” and “our”). Appropriately, this section rests heavily on terms drawn from the nation’s earliest memory, the Torah (the first five books of the Bible).
Verse 7 paraphrases Exodus 33:13 (“made known His ways to Moses”). The primary reference, reflected in verse 8, is to the famous listing of God’s merciful characteristics, Exodus 34:6, 7 (the Bible’s most cited early Torah selection, including Pss. 77:9, 10; 86:15; 145:8). From that source “compassion” is repeated three times in this section (and once earlier, in verse 4, for a total of four times, parallel to the psalm’s four repetitions of “justice”).
(B) Dramatically, verses 9 and 10 detail God’s compassion with four consecutive negatives (in Hebrew, four uses of lo), two indicating future change and two indicating that God never metes out full punishment. Together these terms add a heavy pall to the picture. Whereas the individual of the first section can recall ongoing positive circumstances, the people as a whole at the moment do not. Times are not good, even if they deserve worse and even if the future will be better. The dependence on earlier citations thus gains weight. As God promised once after the Exodus from
, readers are again told that compassion and steadfast love are assured. Even the present negatives represent the ameliorating effect of that compassion, which will most certainly fully blossom in the future. Egypt
(C) What is it then, over and above the original promise, that assures fulfillment? God’s transcendence and His immortality are identified as the firm guarantors.
First, the speaker suggests that humans must move beyond their limited scope to begin to conceptualize the depth of God’s promise. In verses 11 and 12, breadth known (but not experienced) and height imagined (but beyond measurement) together seek to communicate a commitment that humans could not fathom otherwise. However, only the third metaphor, indicating the unlimited commitment of a parent to a child, is so familiar that the reader might finally understand and perhaps believe in its truth.
Second, the poet astounds by reversing a well-known source of complaint. Elsewhere (see Psalm 90), the comparison of God’s immortality to man’s ephemerality is a source of bitterness. (How dare God the eternal judge mortal man?) Here the same differentiation is taken as the final assurance of God’s compassion! Any human experience that would seem to point to the contrary is simply a reflection of an inability to enter God’s eternal time. Within that latter framework, man’s tenacity and memory do bring reward.
On a Universal Scale (vv. 18–22)
The poet expands—to the heavens, to everywhere. If the present situation of the people
is not perfect, the world, nevertheless, reflects divine perfection. Thus the speaker returns to repeated use of “all” as in the first section, with each of the last three blessings also making use of the verb “to make, to create” (see note 3). Gently echoing the immediately preceding section, the poet again uses two phrases that are totally beyond man’s experience (angels, heavenly hosts) to describe the magnificent chorus, rounding it out with the third phrase, which is again better understood by humans, namely, that all God’s creations bless Him. With a triple repetition of the imperative, “bless [plural] the LORD,” the psalmist makes use of a format of completeness (triple repetition) at the close of the psalm, more often seen to begin a poem (a technique inherited from earlier Canaanite literature). After doing so, he repeats the opening statement (“Bless [singular] the LORD, O my soul”), thus completing the original double usage (vv. 1, 2), and giving it the full status of a triple repetition. Israel
As in Psalm 8, an entire phrase is repeated as an inclusio, and as in that earlier case, the repeated phrase bears new meaning because of all that has happened during the course of the poem. The speaker’s call to his soul to praise God had been part of an internal dialogue at the beginning, but evolves to both an echo of, and a solo within, a chorus whose extent is beyond anyone’s imagination.
The speaker has made his case for blessing God as an expansion of a private dialogue, one that expands, through the people of
and on to a grand, worldwide scope. These choices may be didactic, biographical, or ideological. They are certainly there for the reader to consider, and I again note that the author of the next psalm, using an identical enclosing phrase, chooses not to mention the people of Israel and proceeds from the widest expanse down to the most intimate. Israel
* * * * * *
1. There is no agreement regarding the implication of the simile of the eagle in verse 5. Interpretations include emphasis on strength, a reference to the bird losing its feathers and then replacing them (as do many birds), and international myths similar to that of the phoenix, wherein a bird dies and is reborn.
2. The poet has, evidently, a consistent stylistic tendency to use the same word or root twice in a single sentence, which occurs in verses 11, 12, 13, 15, 17 (twice), and 20.
3. There are 22 verses in Psalm 103. Some interpreters find in psalms of 22 verses a purposeful “full” number, imitative of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This would be consistent with the emphasis on “all.” (See my final comments on Psalm 33.)
The author of these essays is Rabbi
Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love ( Jerusalem : Jerusalem Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(א) לְדָוִד בָּרְכִי נַפְשִׁי אֶת יְהֹוָה וְכָל קְרָבַי אֶת שֵׁם קָדְשׁוֹ:
(ב) בָּרְכִי נַפְשִׁי אֶת יְהֹוָה וְאַל תִּשְׁכְּחִי כָּל גְּמוּלָיו:
(ג) הַסֹּלֵחַ לְכָל עֲוֹנֵכִי הָרֹפֵא לְכָל תַּחֲלוּאָיְכִי:
(ד) הַגּוֹאֵל מִשַּׁחַת חַיָּיְכִי הַמְעַטְּרֵכִי חֶסֶד וְרַחֲמִים:
(ה) הַמַּשְׂבִּיעַ בַּטּוֹב עֶדְיֵךְ תִּתְחַדֵּשׁ כַּנֶּשֶׁר נְעוּרָיְכִי:
(ו) עֹשֵׂה צְדָקוֹת יְהֹוָה וּמִשְׁפָּטִים לְכָל עֲשׁוּקִים:
(ז) יוֹדִיעַ דְּרָכָיו לְמֹשֶׁה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲלִילוֹתָיו:
(ח) רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן יְהֹוָה אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חָסֶד:
(ט) לֹא לָנֶצַח יָרִיב וְלֹא לְעוֹלָם יִטּוֹר:
(י) לֹא כַחֲטָאֵינוּ עָשָׂה לָנוּ וְלֹא כַעֲוֹנֹתֵינוּ גָּמַל עָלֵינוּ:
(יא) כִּי כִגְבֹהַּ שָׁמַיִם עַל הָאָרֶץ גָּבַר חַסְדּוֹ עַל יְרֵאָיו:
(יב) כִּרְחֹק מִזְרָח מִמַּעֲרָב הִרְחִיק מִמֶּנּוּ אֶת פְּשָׁעֵינוּ:
(יג) כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל בָּנִים רִחַם יְהֹוָה עַל יְרֵאָיו:
(יד) כִּי הוּא יָדַע יִצְרֵנוּ זָכוּר כִּי עָפָר אֲנָחְנוּ:
(טו) אֱנוֹשׁ כֶּחָצִיר יָמָיו כְּצִיץ הַשָֹּדֶה כֵּן יָצִיץ:
(טז) כִּי רוּחַ עָבְרָה בּוֹ וְאֵינֶנּוּ וְלֹא יַכִּירֶנּוּ עוֹד מְקוֹמוֹ:
(יז) וְחֶסֶד יְהֹוָה מֵעוֹלָם וְעַד עוֹלָם עַל יְרֵאָיו וְצִדְקָתוֹ לִבְנֵי בָנִים:
(יח) לְשֹׁמְרֵי בְרִיתוֹ וּלְזֹכְרֵי פִקֻּדָיו לַעֲשׂוֹתָם:
(יט) יְהֹוָה בַּשָּׁמַיִם הֵכִין כִּסְאוֹ וּמַלְכוּתוֹ בַּכֹּל מָשָׁלָה:
(כ) בָּרְכוּ יְהֹוָה מַלְאָכָיו גִּבֹּרֵי כֹחַ עֹשֵׂי דְבָרוֹ לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹל דְּבָרוֹ:
(כא) בָּרְכוּ יְהֹוָה כָּל צְבָאָיו מְשָׁרְתָיו עֹשֵׂי רְצוֹנוֹ:
(כב) בָּרְכוּ יְהֹוָה כָּל מַעֲשָׂיו בְּכָל מְקֹמוֹת מֶמְשַׁלְתּוֹ בָּרְכִי נַפְשִׁי אֶת יְהֹוָה: