25 Feb 2016

Psalm 103: The Song of Songs of Grace, Mercy, Hesed

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Faith, Forgiveness, Grace, Jewish Backgrounds, Love, Psalms, Worship

The Song of Songs of GracePsalm 103.11

Psalm 103 is a magnificent meditation on what makes the God of Israel unique, his Hesed. Indeed the Psalm has been called the “Song of Songs of Grace.” I find no reason to disagree since hesed occurs 4x in our text (vv 4, 8, 11, 17). What follows is a “canonical” reading of Psalm 103.

The Psalm begins and ends with the command to “Bless, O my being, the LORD” (103.1, 22). The psalmist, in the midst of the assembled congregation, sings “Bless, O my being, the LORD and do not forget his generous acts.”

His generous acts (benefits, NRSV) are the basis of worship. God’s people have a habit of forgetting God’s gracious deeds but in the life of our Spiritual ancestors they were to be front and center. To forget God’s grace/hesed is nearly equivalent to apostasy in the Hebrew Bible. But what are his generous acts?

Who forgives all wrongs,
heals all your diseases,

redeems your life from the Pit,
crowns you with Hesed
(steadfast love & mercy)
sates you with good as long as you live” (103.3-5)

God’s generous acts include forgiving, healing, saving from death, showering hesed and renewing us.

Absorbed into the History of Grace

In Psalm 103.1-5, we see the testimony on the psalmist for his own reception of God’s incredible generous acts. Beginning with v. 6 and going thru 10, the psalmist places himself within the history of grace. You see, every child of God needs to be intimately aware that they are part of the history of God’s grace.

Thus this Psalmist has a “flash back” to the most astounding miracle of grace –  it took place in the aftermath of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32-33).

We might think of that dark day as a moment of supreme sin. Which it was. The Golden Calf is the equivalent of Genesis 3 all over again in the life of the newly redeemed by grace people of God. But the psalmist sees the majesty of God’s grace at precisely the darkest moment in Israel’s history. It is as if the Psalmist is putting his own personal sin and experience of grace in the category of the Golden Calf and the moment of the divine revelation of hesed. It was here at the calf that Yahweh performed “righteous acts” and “made known his ways to Moses.”

The LORD performs righteous acts and justice for all the oppressed.
He makes known his ways to Moses, to the Israelites, his feats.

Compassionate and gracious is the LORD,
slow to anger and abounding
in kindness.
He will not dispute forever nor nurse his anger for a long time.
He does not deal with us according to our and sin
nor repay us according
to our guilt.
For as the heavens loom high over earth,
so is his Hesed great over those who fear him.

As the east is far from the west,
He has distanced us from our transgression”

(Bobby V translation)

The Psalmist quotes the golden text of the Bible, declared by Yahweh at the Golden Calf debacle in Exodus 34.6-7. There, at that place, God performed “righteous acts.” There at the Golden Calf, the Lord made known who he was!

Our fathers and mothers sinned grossly, the psalmist sings, but Yahweh crowned them with hesed. The psalmist claims that the God of Israel’s hesed towers over the earth like the infinite expanse of space.

The Divine Pattern Revealed … Mercy for Me

When the Psalmist looks back at Exodus 32-34, he is quite aware of the gross sin of his fathers. But what he “sees” is a stunning moment of grace. It is so stunning because Yahweh claims that moment was his finest moment of revelation! The divine pattern of behavior of hesed was announced by Yahweh himself. And because God had compassion and mercy and hesed THEN, so the Psalmist rests in the security that Yahweh has removed his own sin as far from him as the east is from the west NOW.

for as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his hesed toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west
so far he removes our transgression from us”


Certainly a generous act to praise him for is due! So generous of an act, in fact, that in v.8 when the Psalmist quotes Exodus 34.6-7 the words “reckoning the crimes of the fathers with the children” is not included. The focus of the quotation is exclusively upon divine compassion and forgiveness.

We are Fallen … We are Dust

The Psalm continues confessing that we humans are sinful. We are frail. “We are but dust.” And God knows this! (vv 14f). This is not stated to indicate that we are worthless but that we struggle and that our lives pass quickly. We are here today and gone tomorrow.

But God’s hesed (v.17) is for forever and ever. “But the hesed of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting …” The fragility of our lives are in stark contrast to the eternal, glorious hesed of Yahweh … this is the hope of the Psalms.

The Psalm ends with a series of exhortations for the people to join with the psalmist in the assembly to bless the LORD. God must be blessed, praised and worshiped for his grace, his hesed, his generous and righteous deeds. (vv. 19-22).

Canonical Thought … The Song of Songs of Grace 

Now the heading of this Psalm identifies it as “Of David.” When the Spirit guided editors of the Psalter brought the Five Books of Psalms together and arranged it sometime after the exile they included that name. In so doing they invite us to read the Psalm also in light of David’s turbulent life. So if we imagine David praising God for his benefits, that include forgiveness, deliverance, renewing life, etc, we think of the devastating debacle of the murder of his servant Uriah and the rape of his wife Bathsheba. Thus suddenly we hear David in the midst of the people praising God for grace even to him. Thus in the community of the saints we can here him compare his sin to the Golden Calf/Uriah not as a moment of punishment but as moment of salvation of God’s hesed … he is still king, he is still the bearer of the promise of God, he is still the “father” of the Messiah.  Truly the hesed of the Lord is limitless like the heavens above!

Thus in the canonical arrangement Psalm 103 truly is the Song of Songs of Grace. For it celebrates the pardoning of two of the greatest sins in Israel’s history: the gross idolatry in the wilderness the golden calf; and David’s gross abuse of his anointing and power against the powerless Uriah and Bathsheba. Truly God’s hesed is great.

The Psalm does several things. It invites us to know that if God can forgiven the calf and God can forgive David then God’s generous deeds will certainly make us a part of the history of his grace too. And if we are a part of the History of Grace then our soul can do nothing else except

Bless the LORD, O my soul” (NRSV).

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