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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 103

Psalms 103

Praise the Lord, O my soul, for he has crowned thee with favour and compassion, Psalms 103:1-5, he is full of kindness and pity towards his church, Psalms 103:6-10. His kindness is infinite towards us poor mortals, Psalms 103:11-14, the only and sure help to his people in the weakness and nothingness of human existence, Psalms 103:15-18. O my highly favoured soul, do thou also praise him who rules over the whole world, and is praised by the whole world, Psalms 103:19-22.

The Psalm, in regard to number, is an alphabetical one, harmonised in such a way as that the concluding turns back into the introductory verse, the whole being in this manner finished and rounded off. In like manner, the name Jehovah occurs eleven times. The Psalm is divided into two strophes, the first of ten and the second of twelve verses. The ten is divided by the five, and the twelve falls into three divisions, each of four verses. Jehovah occurs in the first strophe four, and in the second seven times.

The Psalm bears the character of quiet tenderness. It is a still clear brook of the praise of God. In accordance with this, we find that the verses are of equal length as to structure, and consist regularly of two members. It is only at the conclusion, where the tone rises, that the verses become longer: the vessel is too small for the feeling.

The testimony which the Title bears on behalf of the composition of the Psalm by David, is confirmed by the fact that the Psalm in passages, the independence of which cannot be mistaken, bears a striking resemblance to the other Psalms of David (comp. the exposition), and by the connection with Psalms 102.

David here teaches his posterity to render thanks, as there he had taught them to pray: the deliverance from deep distress which formed there the subject of prayer, forms here the subject of thanks—and with Psalms 101 comp. the Introd. to that Psalm. In accordance with what was observed there, we find first an individual person speaking, Psalms 103:1-5, the seed of David, from whose soul David gives thanks; this individual person, however, bears a comprehensive character, is inwardly identical with the whole congregation, so that without any mark of the change, the community speaks from Psalms 103:6, and again towards the conclusion it is a single individual that speaks.

Verses 1-10

Ver. 1. By David. Praise, O my soul, the Lord, and all that is in me his holy name. Ver. 2. Praise, my soul, the Lord, and forget not all his gifts, Ver. 3. Who forgiveth thee all thine iniquity, who healeth all thy infirmities. Ver. 4. Who delivereth thy life from the grave, who crowneth thee with pity and tender mercies. Ver. 5. Who satisfieth thy beauty with good things, so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle. Ver. 6. The Lord executed righteousness and judgment for all oppressed. Ver. 7. He made known his ways to Moses, his mighty deeds to the children of Israel. Ver. 8. Compassionate and gracious is the Lord, long suffering and rich in kindness. Ver. 9. He contends not always, and keeps not up for ever. Ver. 10. He deals not towards us according to our sins, and does not give to us according to our iniquities.

On the first clause of Psalms 103:1, comp. Psalms 34:2-3. The thrice repeated “praise,” properly “bless,” (twice at the beginning and once at the end), to which the thrice repeated “praise” in Psalms 103:20-22, corresponds, stands in reference to the three-membered Mosaic blessing, Numbers 6:24-26: the soul, which has experienced the strength of the “bless thee,” is exhorted to “bless;” he who has been blessed and refuses to bless has sunk from the state of a man to that of a beast. Berleb.: “The smitten and death-struck soul again brought to life, feeling the joy of its new freedom, and the enjoyment of its deliverance, flows out, in testimony of its gratitude, entirely in praise and thanksgiving. He has, says such a man, delivered thee by his goodness from thine own cares. Thou hast therefore only one thing to do, namely to occupy thyself singly and alone with offering to him praise and thanks. This for the future should be thy only employment.” On קרב , the inward part, comp. at Psalms 5:9. The inward part where the heart is (comp. Psalms 39:3, “my heart was hot within me), stands here in contrast to what is external, the mere lips, with which even the unthankful give thanks

Berleb.: “Men often say from mere custom, God be thanked or praised, and this rather externally, without any inward tender gratitude, than in spirit and in truth”—comp. Psalms 62:4, “with the mouth they bless, and with their inward part they curse.” The plural of the קרב , and the “all” are particularly emphatic. It adds besides the contrast of the heart to the mouth, that of the whole heart against the half of it; comp. at the “my one heart,” and “with the whole heart,” in Psalms 86:11-12. The address to the soul, by no means a mere figurative expression, stands in contrast to a superficial lip service. The fundamental passage is Deuteronomy 6:5, “thou shalt love (and therefore also praise, for praise grows out of love) the Lord with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength.” His holy name—him who by his deeds has manifested himself as the holy and the adorable one, comp. at Psalms 22:3.

In Psalms 103:2 the positive exhortation is repeated for the purpose of adding to it the negative one about to be emphatically sounded forth. David knew too well from experience the forgetfulness of the human heart not to consider it necessary to remind his posterity of it. For that under the “I will not forget” there lies concealed a “forget thou not” is clear from the above remarks. Berleb.: “Let us all therefore still address our forgetful heart on all occasions. Ah! may we still impress upon our souls on all occasions, by the help of the Holy Ghost, forget not what good things the Lord has done for thee! Yea, “forget not” should always be rung in our hearts, because they so early forget. Allusion is made to the words of Moses, “forget not the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt,” &c., in Deuteronomy 6:12, Deuteronomy 8:11, Deuteronomy 8:14; compare Deuteronomy 32:15. On גמל , to bestow gifts, compare at Psalms 7:4. “All his gifts,” stands in reference to “all that is in me.” It is only he who has given sparingly that feels satisfied with half thanks. On the first clause of Psalms 103:2 compare Psalms 25:11, Psalms 51:9, and Psalms 86:5. According to the connection and parallelism, the forgiveness of sin is a matter-of-fact one; it becomes known in the bringing about of salvation. On the Jod and the suf. here, and in Psalms 103:4-5, compare Ew. § 258 a. The manifestly designed repetition shows that it is no incidental Arameism but a poetical form. That the sicknesses figuratively refers to sufferings (many expositors suppose that moral infirmities are meant, which, however, will not suit the connection), is clear from the fundamental passage, Deuteronomy 29:22, “when they see the plagues of this land and the sicknesses which the Lord hath laid on it,” and Exodus 15:26, “If thou wilt hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God, . . . I will not send upon thee the sickness which I brought upon the Egyptians (in reference to the plagues of Egypt) . . . for I the Lord am thy physician.” The Psalmist praises the Lord because he had removed the fulfilment of the threatening contained in the first clause, and had brought about the fulfilment of the promise of the second.

From the grave, Psalms 103:4, compare at Psalms 16:10, Psalms 30:9, to which the Psalmist had been very near, comp. “my life is near to hell,” Psalms 88:3, Psalms 68:20, Psalms 48:14. The preceding Psalm complains of impending danger of death, and hopes in it. Thy life—he, the God of thy life, Psalms 42:8. Who crowns thee, Psalms 65:11, with kindness and compassion, Psalms 25:6, Psalms 40:11.

In Psalms 103:5 all translations are to be set aside as arbitrary, and not worth mentioning, which take עדי in any other sense than in the only one which is ascertained, and which also occurs in Psalms 32:9, that viz, of ornament, beauty. That the Psalmist by his beauty denotes his soul as his better part, is clear from the fact that the corresponding expression “my glory,” as denoting the soul, is a favourite one with David, (compare. at Psalms 57:8), and from the fact that to satisfy the soul as the seat of the desires and wishes, is a phrase of constant occurrence, comp. Psalms 107:9, “for he satisfies the longing soul, and fills the hungry soul with good,” Isaiah 63:11, “God satisfies in thirsty places thy soul,” Psalms 63:5, Psalms 25:13. The objection that the Psalmist addresses his soul, and cannot call his soul the beauty of his soul, has no force. For in the preceding clauses the idea of the whole person represented by the soul as the better part, had imperceptibly come into the place of that of the soul; and the soul is therefore named as the ornament of the person, compare “who healeth all thy sicknesses,” and “who delivereth thy life from the grave.” In reference to the poetical connection of the plural with the feminine singular in the second clause, compare. Ew. § 307. We cannot translate: like that of the eagle, but only, like the eagle, the comparison as is the case very frequently (comp. Ew. § 221, Lamentations 5:21), being merely intimated, instead of “as is the case with the eagle,” “so that in point of strength thou art like the eagle.” The Scripture knows nothing of the idea that the eagle when old renews its youth. That there is nothing of this kind contained in Isaiah 40:31, which is commonly appealed to, but that it is rather the powerful flight of the eagle that is there referred to, “they mount up on wings like the eagle, they run and are not weary,” is evident from the parallel, to fly, run, march. The want of the copula before the second clause, shows that the goodness with which the soul is satisfied, is just the renewing of the youth, the high privilege of the royal family of David which is continually verified as ages run on. Old age, in other cases always the forerunner of death, is here continually the forerunner of youth; the greater the failure of strength is, so much the nearer is the entire renewal of strength. How completely worn out with old age was the family of David at the time of the first appearance of Christ!

From the favour of God towards the royal family of David, the Psalmist turns in the second half of the strophe to that towards the church, whose weal and woe were intimately and indissolubly bound up with those of the royal race, which in it and with it is crowned with kindness and compassion, satisfied with good things, and raised to fresh and powerful youth. That by “all oppressed ones” in Psalms 103:6, we are to understand “his people in all oppressions,” is evident from what follows; compare the praise of the care of God for widows and orphans, in special reference to the suffering church, in Psalms 68:5. The צדקות , righteousnesses, is manifestations of righteousness, as משפטים is right actions.

The ways of the Lord in Psalms 103:7 are his safe guidance, and the making known is a matter-of-fact one; comp. at Psalms 25:4, “thy ways, O Lord, make known to me,” instead of “manifest to me thy safe guidance,”—our passage serves to confirm the interpretation given there, Psalms 67:2. All these passages depend upon Exodus 33:13, where Moses says to the Lord, “if I have found grace in thy sight, make known to me thy ways, and let me know thee.” Moses speaks there in name of the people whose soul he was. The import of the prayer is, that the Lord would make him the object of his safe guidance, and make himself known in it. The prayer is heard. God promises that he himself will go before him and will lead him to rest. The reference of our verse to this fundamental passage is all the more direct, as the following verse also is unquestionably borrowed from the Pentateuch. As Moses represents the congregation of the Lord, there is no reason for taking יודיע in the sense of a preterite; God always makes known his ways to Moses,—the discourse even in the whole paragraph is of what God does continually. His mighty deeds, Psalms 9:11, Psalms 78:11,

Psalms 103:8 depends upon Exodus 34:6, comp. the repetition just as literal in Joel 2:13, Psalms 86:15, and the references as entirely undeniable in Psalms 78:38, Psalms 111:4, Nahum 1:3. These passages show what a deep impression had been made upon the Israelitish mind by this great and consolatory saying which alone ought to have annihilated all the dreams of Moloch.

On the thought of Psalms 103:9, comp. Psalms 30. Isaiah 57:16 depends upon the first clause: “for I will contend for ever.” The circumstance that the ואמת of the fundamental passage is omitted, shows how close is the connection here with the preceding clause. The second clause depends upon Leviticus 19:18, “thou shalt not be revengeful nor bear any grudge לא תטר , against the children of thy people.” In strict theological exposition, the Psalmist sees in the passage a proof of the inclination of God to forgive his people, whose commandments are so many illustrations of his nature. He would destroy his own law were he not to do so. Nahum 1:2 again depends on the passage before us: “the Lord will take vengeance on his adversaries, and he keepeth wrath (not assuredly for his people, of whom the declaration of the Psalmist holds true, but still) for his enemies,” and Jeremiah 3:5, Jeremiah 3:12.

That the preterites in Psalms 103:10, and also the preceding futures, are to be translated as presents, and refer to the constant doings of God, is evident from Psalms 103:11-14, especially Psalms 103:14, where the pret. does not give the least meaning. He deals not with us according to our sins, as he has threatened in Leviticus 26:21: he does this only to mere despisers, The “with us”—the fearers of God—must be carefully attended to. Otherwise the ungrounded inference which the Berleb. B. deduces will meet us: “punishments hence cannot be absolutely eternal, otherwise he would undoubtedly act towards us (?) according to our sins.” The גמל , to give, in Psalms 103:2 with the על is to gift, as here, at Psalms 13:6.

Verses 11-22

Ver. 11. Far as high as heaven is above the earth, his mercy is mighty over those who fear him. Ver. 12. As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. Ver. 13. As a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them who fear him. Ver. 14. For he knoweth our frame, he remembereth that we are dust: Ver. 15. Man is, in his life, like grass, like a flower of the field, so he blossoms. Ver. 16. For a wind goes over it, and it is gone and its place knows it no more. Ver. 17. And the mercy of the Lord endureth, from eternity to eternity over those who fear him, and his righteousness to the children’s children. Ver. 18. With those who keep his covenant and remember his commandments to do, accordingly. Ver. 19. The Lord has in heaven prepared his throne, and his kingdom ruleth over all. Ver. 20. Praise the Lord, ye his angels, ye strong warriors, who perform his word, you that listen to the voice of his word. Ver. 21. Praise the Lord, all his hosts, his servants, who do his pleasure. Ver. 22. Praise the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Praise the Lord, O my soul.

In Psalms 103:11 the point of comparison is infinity. [Note: Amyrald. on ver. 11, 12, “The prophet here uses the largest measures which the world can afford to express a thing which can scarcely be expressed any other way.”] The verse is independently allied to the two Davidic passages, Psalms 36:5, Psalms 57:10. “Ye who fear him,” is expanded in Psalms 103:18. It is not a vague “sense of dependance,” but the living knowledge of his holiness (at Psalms 22:3), which calls forth child-like and unreserved obedience to his revealed will. The region of God’s fatherly love extends only so far as this does. The Psalmist every where speaks not of what God is towards the human family, but of what he is towards his church.

The infinite mercy of Psalms 103:11 is verified in the forgiveness of sin of Psalms 103:12.

On Psalms 103:13, comp. Deuteronomy 30:3. What is there said of Israel is here said of those who fear the Lord. These are identical with Israel as soon as the false seed are excluded from the latter. What especially moves God to shew fatherly pity to his people is, according to Psalms 103:14, the misery of their earthly condition, which appears altogether to cut them off from the riches of his fatherly care. [Note: Calvin: “This is carefully to be attended to, lest our misery retard or impair our confidence, for in proportion as our condition is miserable and despised, is God inclined to pity, since, indeed, in order to do us good, he is content with even dust and ashes.” Berleb. B.: “All unbelief and dejection should be ashamed of itself and be put to shame, which does not give to God the glory of interesting himself in his creatures and of feeling for their misery.”] Comp. in reference to the thought at Psalms 78:39, Psalms 89:47, and in our (German), spiritual poetry the words, “we are still poor worms, dust and ashes, laden with sin, weakness, trouble, and death, wherefore should we be destroyed in thy wrath without any pity.” The יצר , the form, the nature, is used in the Pentateuch to denote the moral nature of man, Genesis 6:5, Genesis 8:21, Deuteronomy 31:21, and here, according to the reference to the fundamental passage, Genesis 2:7, his physical nature. According to this passage, “and the Lord God formed וייצר man as dust of the earth,” the second clause contains the development of the first: he knows our form that we are dust, transitory, and hence frail, weak, and miserable. In like manner, the first clause is to be supplied out of it: He, as our former, knows our form. The use of the passive part. זכור is to be here explained from the passive nature of memory.

Psalms 103:15-18: in the transitory, and, as caused by this, the feeble and helpless nature of the human condition, we must despair, were it not that we had a sure ground of hope in the eternal mercy of the Lord, which is exercised towards those who fear him, those of the latest no less than those of the earliest generations. This paragraph agrees so very strikingly in thought and expression with Psalms 90:1-5 (the transitory nature, and the miserable condition of life on earth, leads us to God as our only refuge), that David without doubt drew it from Moses. The eternal word of the Lord in Isaiah 40:6-8 is opposed to men as grass, just as his eternal mercy is here. That the borrowing is on the side of Isaiah is clear from the references in which the peculiar expression (which, like many other expressions in the passage, are generally misunderstood by expositors: all his mercy (all mercy and all help which flesh can show and secure is as the flower of the field) stands to the clause here, Psalms 103:17, “the mercy of the Lord is from eternity,” &c.: the fact also that the thought here is much more simple, is in favour of this view.

The first clause of Psalms 103:15 is literally: a man, as grass are his days, he who has his name from frailty (comp. at Psalms 8:4) perishes as quickly as the grass. How could this breath help, protect, heal itself! Comp. Psalms 37:2. Like a flower of the field so he flourishes, for as short a time as the flower of the field flourishes does his existence last; comp. Psalms 90:6, and the dependant passage Job 14:2, “as a flower he fades and is cut down.”

The כי in Psalms 103:16 is as a confirmative particle altogether in its place: he is like grass, or the flower, for as the hot, burning east wind ( Genesis 41:6; Genesis 41:23, Jonah 4:8) destroys the grass and flowers after a short existence, so the wind of suffering, trouble, sickness, destroys the spiritual flower, man. The suffix in the בו refers to the spiritual flower, man. On “and he is not,” comp. Psalms 37:10. His place, namely in those who come into his room, knows him not, would not know him if he were to return, so completely is he unknown and forgotten. The second clause is quoted word for word in Job 7:10.

Psalms 103:17-18 depend upon Deuteronomy 7:9, Deuteronomy 7:11: the faithful God, who keepeth covenant and mercy for those who love him, and keep his commandments, for a thousand generations. . . And thou shalt keep the commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments which I command thee this day that thou do them,”—a passage to which Psalms 25:10 refers. The righteousness of God, according to which he gives to every one his own, manifests itself in this, that he does not withdraw his pity from his people, not on the ground of their merit, but because his nature demands that he show himself gracious to them. To the children’s children, therefore, not only to the fathers in the glorious past, Psalms 103:7, but also to us in these last afflicted times.

Psalms 103:19-22; Praise, O my soul, the Lord, who rules over all places with his hands, whom angels above praise with their song, whom sun, moon, stars, and all his works praise. All serves to lay the foundations for this.

On the first clause of Psalms 103:19, comp. Psalms 2:1, Psalms 9:7, Psalms 9:4. The throne of God in heaven stands in contrast to the throne of those who are usually called kings, the throne of David itself upon the earth, the state of feebleness.

On Psalms 103:20, comp. Psalms 29:1-2. The exhortation in that passage goes forth to the heavenly servants of God to praise his glory and strength, in order to remove fear from the church of God on the earth; in the passage before us, to awaken it to praise God. [Note: Amyr. in reference to this view: “It has admirable force, for it cannot proceed except from singular piety and admiration of the Divine excellencies.”] The גבר is always a warrior, comp. at Psalms 52:1. The clause “to listen to the voice of his word,” comp. Deuteronomy 26:18, Deuteronomy 30:20, where to hearken to the voice of the Lord is connected with to love him, and to cleave to him is added for the purpose of rendering still more pointedly prominent the difference between the spiritual and the material portions of the heavenly hosts, which is also adverted to in the relation subsisting between those who obey his word and those who obey his will in his Psalms 103:21. The angels serve God as conscious instruments with free love, the stars do his will only unconsciously. The marked difference between the angels and the stars ought to be carefully attended to. It testifies against those who would fain connect the angels more closely with the stars, and also against those who, from dislike to angels, consider them a mere personification.

The hosts of God are in other passages very particularly and usually the sun, moon, and stars, comp. at Psalms 24:10. Here the angels are specially excluded by Psalms 103:20. Psalms 19:1 ought to be compared where in like manner the heavens and the firmament are enjoined to make known the glory of God, which in fact they by their very being praise.

My soul, Psalms 103:22, thou who hast received so many special proofs of the glory of the Lord, bast been crowned with compassion and tender mercy. How canst thou alone remain silent, when everything in the world praises God? Berleb: “The Psalm thus ends as it began, and by such a conclusion powerfully reminds the reader of his duty.”

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Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 103". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms.