Saturday, November 14, 2009

Psalm 103 – A Premier Psalm of Mercy and Grace

“For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

so great is [the Lord’s] love for those who fear him.”

—Psalm 103:11 (NIV).

Fear is a principle of constancy in life. Life would not be life without it. It’s fear that extracts the best out of us in courage, and it’s also fear that reveals the worst in us as we fall for all vagaries of twists, wiles and temptations in a spiritual world of trickery for the faithless—our problem in sum.

I once described Psalm 119 as a theological monster. This psalm has a similar pedigree, both from theological and evangelistical viewpoints. With its shoots of praise and shards of loyal testimony it trumpets a regality of faith and reverence that’s hard to match, biblically, anywhere.

The scope of the psalm broadens significantly from its opening verses, from the personal to the social, to the national, and then finally to the heavenly.[1] Its structure is also layered so far as a semi-helical thematic repetition is concerned.[2]

The fear of the Lord is positioned as a refrain throughout, and woven into its fabric are themes such as hesed (Heb: steadfast love), remembrance and compassion.

Before a more thorough analysis, a brief excursus on the fear of the Lord is required:

“The fear of the Lord is simply reverence practiced in trust and obedience.”[3]

The fear of the Lord is therefore simply what every believer should do in putting God at the forefront of their practical lives.

The psalm takes the imagery of the fear of the Lord and creates for it numerous angles to acknowledge the many faultless ways God rewards those who fear him. These angles also set out to describe the greatness of God’s covenant love.

Naturally, the flow of the psalm drives steadily towards the people of God’s response. Mercy begets praise.

The hymn is dazzlingly sufficient so far as recognising the theological vastness in the human-divine gap, juxtaposing human with the divine (for instance, vv. 10, 14-15). The jury’s back in and the verdict is conclusive; for the realm of moral justice and regarding the divergences of power and capacity—God is abounding in his mercy and provision. We’re plainly not in his league, yet he places us there.

Practiced alongside the fear of the Lord is a weight of constant worship and observation over the character of God, and as this psalm shows, those traits of God are boundless. It sweeps through theological history making praiseworthy touchstones out of the generic and specific events of the Israelite account.

This psalm is packed with theological truths; a wondrous analysis of an all-mighty, all-powerful and all-merciful God, the Lord.

There are threads of both praise and of thanksgiving. As far as biblical psalms are concerned they normally hold to one or the other primarily, not both simultaneously. Perhaps this is why scholars all seem to agree its genre as that of a hymn.

There are some ironies—with such a heaving program, the psalm does present some tensions—judgment and consequences versus mercy and grace; healing diseases whilst condemning humanity to ‘days like grass.’[4]

Perhaps most exceptional of all is the fact and profile of grace. We get not what we deserve. We’re punished for our iniquities only for a time; his mercy lasts an eternity compared with his anger.

© S. J. Wickham, 2009.

[1] Craig C. Broyles, Psalms – New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson/Paternoster, 1999), p. 394.

[2] Broyles, Ibid, p. 394.

[3] James L. Mays, Psalms – Interpretation (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1994), p. 329-30.

[4] Broyles, Op cit, p. 397.

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