Bless the Lord, O My Soul

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Psalm 103

He knows all the needs of the whole person ? work and play, freedom and order, peace and justice ? and God gives them all.

I walked into the hospital room and said hello to the man lying in bed, one of my parishioners. I asked him how he was. The doctors had thus far been unable to diagnose his illness. They couldn’t say exactly what was wrong with him or how serious the problem might be or even what the best course of treatment was. Under those circumstances, anyone would feel anxious. But as we spoke together in the hospital room, my friend pointed to the Bible sitting on the bedside table and remarked, “I’m so glad to have my Bible; it’s been such a great source of strength and encouragement to me. Just now I was reading the 103rd Psalm, and I was especially helped by it.” I asked him what it was about that particular psalm that had done so much to encourage him. His answer: “It’s good just to hear the facts stated again.”

That’s the truth. We can never rehearse the basic facts of our faith too often. Just to hear again what God has done for us, to repeat Bible truths about God’s nature, character and saving acts strengthens our faith, rekindles our love and prompts our devotion and praise. In the Jewish religion the annual Passover meal is celebrated by each family at home. As they sit at the dinner table the oldest son in the family asks, “Why do we observe this night?” and the father replies, “Because this night the Lord delivered us from bondage.” And so the father retells the story of the Exodus to his family about how the Lord saved his people Israel from slavery in Egypt. In the same way Christians at worship stand and recite the Creed, or gather at the Table with its bread and wine and re-tell again and again the mighty acts by which an even greater salvation came in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. To say these truths over and over is not a dull routine; it is the way we remember them and engrave them upon our hearts. Repetition can fan our faith into fresh flames. You can’t recite what God has done for us or thank and praise him for his blessings too often any more than you can tell your kids too many times that you love them.

So listen to the 103rd Psalm:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits –
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. . . .

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. . . .
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. . . .
. . .Bless the Lord, O my soul.

Bless the Lord

This psalm hardly requires any comment. I think the best way to treat it is simply to recite it until we know it by heart. But let me just point to two things this psalm encourages us to do.

The first is to praise the Lord. Psalm 103 begins with an exhortation: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is in me, bless his holy Name.” At least half a dozen times in the opening and closing verses of the psalm this same command rings out. The call to bless or praise the Lord is really an invitation to give thanks to him. In Hebrew idiom, blessing the Lord means thanking him for all his good gifts. Recall the solemn scene in the Upper Room on the last night of Jesus’ life. The Gospels tell us that after sharing the Passover Supper with his disciples, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take, eat, this is my body.” That act of blessing just before he broke the bread was not a consecration or a hallowing of the bread; it was Jesus repeating the standard Jewish prayer of thanksgiving to God for his provision of life’s necessities, a prayer which began, “Baracha Adonai Elohim, Blessed be Thou, Lord God.”

So Psalm 103 with its exhortation to bless the Lord is the psalm of the great Thanksgiving. Like any good hymnbook, the Psalter contains songs for every mood and circumstance. There are somber, penitential prayers, laments and cries for help, and many expressions of joy, gratitude, praise and thanks. But the 103rd Psalm stands above all others in this last category, both for the beauty of its language and imagery, and the breadth of its concern. In Reformed churches this song is part of the liturgy for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It is the Communion Thanksgiving. No better words could be found to express our feelings in response to God’s grace, for this psalm calls us to offer thanks which are both personal (“Bless the Lord, O my soul“), in other words “my inmost self” and thanks that are profound (“all that is within me, bless his holy name”). “Bless the Lord with all my life” all that I am and all that I have.

We need this urging. We need to be reminded to say thank you. The common tendency is to claim credit for ourselves. Deep down, all of us tend to imagine that our talent or our hard work or even our good luck is what has brought us success. A lot of people think the only thing they have to thank for the good things they enjoy is their lucky stars, or they don’t even bother to think about being grateful at all. In America and Canada we celebrate national days of Thanksgiving. But the embarrassing truth is that so many North Americans no longer know whom to thank. They don’t have a personal relationship with the God to whom all thanks are due. So many people today are like thoughtless children, caught up in themselves, excited about all their presents, so much so that they plain forget how they got them and who gave them. So the Lord needs to interrupt us like we do our little children and ask, “What do you say?” And we need to look up and say, “Thank you, Father.” All true faith begins with gratitude.

Do Not Forget All His Benefits

The second thing Psalm 103 encourages us to do is to remember and recite. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits.” Having urged us to praise, bless and give thanks to God, the psalmist goes on to remind us why we ought to do that. He rehearses all the reasons we have for being grateful. Praise does not exist in a vacuum. It needs a reason; there has to be something that gives rise to it. The 103rd Psalm offers a comprehensive list of “all his benefits” for which we are urged to “bless the Lord.”

First on the list is forgiveness (v. 3a). “Bless the Lord who forgives all your iniquity.” Forgiveness is not something for which people who don’t really know God are grateful. Worldly folk may occasionally be moved to something approaching thankfulness, or at least to a vague sense of appreciation for the physical joys of life and for the world’s beauties and delights. Their thoughts might even rise to admiration for the power that created these things. But there is no sense of knowing God in a personal way. Forgiveness is the first and greatest gift God gives us because it is the precondition for being reconciled to God and having a real relationship with him. “Reconciliation,” said one great theologian, “is the fountain from which all other blessings flow” (Calvin).

Next comes healing “Bless the Lord . . . who forgives all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases” (v. 3). Living in a scientific age as we do, we have a tendency to reductionism, to seeing everything in mechanical terms. Humans are simply complex organisms. Disease is explainable in physiological terms, and doctors are medical repairmen whose job is to fix whatever is broken. We forget that there is a spiritual dimension to all of life. Sickness and death are part of sin’s consequences in the world; health and well-being are part of God’s gift of salvation. He alone can heal, and he does, though for our ultimate healing we must pass through death and wait for the final victory in the last day. But we depend upon God for daily health and strength. The psalmist, who had no hospital to go to, no doctors to consult, no medicine or surgery, for whom there was nothing between him and death but God, understood that better than we do.

Next we are reminded of the Lord’s grace, his saving mercy to us: “Bless the Lord . . . who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy” (v. 4). Much of the rest of the psalm takes up this theme and expands on it, reminding us of the infinite goodness of God to us (vv. 8-10). In fact, later on in verse 10 we find as good a definition of grace as you’ll ever want: “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” Isn’t that a wonderful thought? God does not treat us as our sins deserve. And how much does he love us? How great is God’s compassion? The psalmist compares it to the universe as high as heaven above earth, as far as east is from west. If you can measure the expanse of the universe you can begin to sense the greatness of God’s lovingkindness and tender mercies.

Finally, one last thing for which we’re urged to give thanks. “Bless the Lord . . . who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (v. 5). Every good thing, every necessity for life is a gift for which we thank God. God knows us, as we’re reminded later in this Psalm. “He knoweth our frame,” as the old version says, “he remembereth that we are dust” (v. 14, kjv). Knowing that we are fragile, transitory creatures, the Lord does not treat us as if we were angels. He provides for all our wants. He knows the things our bodies need food and drink, exercise, recreation, shelter, clothing and he provides all that. He knows what our spirits need love, encouragement, friendship, the joy of family, as well as the deeper need that the gospel supplies through the saving love of Christ. He knows all the needs of the whole person work and play, freedom and order, peace and justice and God gives them all, and more. “Every good . . . and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights” (James 1:17).

So . . . “Bless the Lord, O my soul.”
Praise, my soul, the King of heaven;
to his feet your tribute bring.
Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,
evermore his praises sing.
Alleluia, alleluia!
Praise the everlasting King!

Henry Francis Lyte