|Psalm 103: "Forget Not All His Benefits"
November 22, 1998
On this Sunday before Thanksgiving Day for 1998, I want you to join with me in singing a truer and more candid hymn than some Christians typically dare to offer the Lord. Sung to the tune of "Count Your Many Blessings," it goes like this . . .
If there is bright sunshine,
Think how soon ítwill rain;
Should it be midsummer,
Winter comes again.
Every glorious sunset
Ends in dark, dark night;
Youth gives way to cheerless age;
Thereís nothing right!
Did I "sucker punch" you with that new lyric? I donít know who wrote it, but I ran across it a while back. And my reaction was: Thatís how you think sometimes, Rubel. With all the wonderful things in your world, you sometimes canít enjoy them for fear they arenít going to last. Shame on me! And shame on all of us who sometimes fall prey to that sort of negative, ungrateful thinking.
The truth is that nothing in this world is going to last very long. War, cancer, cerebral palsy, AIDS, heart disease, poverty, scoliosis, asthma, migraine headaches ó not one of these things is going to last for long. As David has already put it in one of his poems, "the span of my years is as nothing before" the Eternal God. The longest human life is "fleeting." The length of any human life is a "mere handbreadth" ó about nine inches ó when measured against the 93,000,000 miles between Earth and the sun. "Each manís life is but a breath" (Psa. 39:4-5).
Yet thatís not the way we think about it, is it? We think of lifeís good things as being too short-lived, too infrequent. And we lament that our experience is not uniformly filled with those things. Why should that be our perspective? The best thing about life on Planet Earth is trifling and paltry when compared to the most picayune of things the Bible tells us about the eternal destiny of those who are in Christ. If we really believed that, we would hold the things of this world with a lighter touch. If we really believed it, surely we could bear our hurts and indignities with more composure.
In this lesson, I want to use Psalm 103 to call us to a spirit of gratitude. Using the language of verse 2, I will challenge all of us to "forget not all [the Lordís] benefits" to us. Or, put positively, I will plead for us to reject the dismal thanklessness of the whimpering lament with which I began and to adopt instead an "attitude of gratitude" as we begin the week that includes Thanksgiving Day. Of all people with something to celebrate, people who acknowledge God as the giver of all good gifts should celebrate this coming Thursday with joy.
By anyoneís classification, Psalm 103 is a psalm of thanksgiving. Almost a third of the psalms are laments or pleas for divine deliverance. Most of them are embryonic with praise, however, for they are written in the confidence that Yahweh can and will reply to the cries of his people. But a thanksgiving psalm is written explicitly in the tone of praise, acknowledgment, and celebration. In them, confidence becomes realization, anticipation gives way to fulfillment.
Psalms of thanksgiving were probably used in Israelís public worship to praise Yahweh and to testify to his goodness. They were closely related to lament psalms because they came after prayers had been answered. They were testimonies to the faithfulness of God to his covenant community. The frequency with which psalms of this variety occur let us know how important they were thought to be in Israelís worship.
Many Christian groups have known the power of personal testimonies in public worship for a long time. Others of us are learning. God is glorified when his people give him public praise and thanksgiving when our laments are answered. These "sharing times" should focus on God and his faithfulness ó not our experiences per se ó and ought to encourage the rest of the church to believe in him for salvation and deliverance.
Two Common Laments
Psalm 103 celebrates Davidís experience of the Lord. It is a soaring song of praise that begins with these beautiful words:
Praise the LORD, O my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefitsó
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagleís (vs. 1-5).
Brueggemann points out that this psalm "alludes to two large human problems that skew and challenge the simplicity" of a world-view that says life is essentially a choice between two straightforward alternatives.1 Psalm 1 introduced this total collection of songs and poems with an affirmation that one must choose between being a "righteous" person (i.e., one who is constantly open to the Lordís torah or instruction, counsel, and reorientation) and a "wicked" man or woman (i.e., one who is self-centered, self-willed, and self-seeking to the degree that he or she is closed to the torah or instruction of Yahweh). But is life really that simple? Two issues seem to challenge all of us who read the Bible seriously here. Those issues are guilt and death.
First, there is the matter of guilt. Does one cease to be among the righteous by doing wrong? Does sin make one wicked? The answer to these questions is: Not necessarily! Part of the righteous personís identity is in his or her ability to receive Godís instruction in a time of failure. And David had certainly learned that lesson the hard way! He was "a man after Godís own heart" after his notorious sin with Bathsheba. How so? He received the rebuke that came through Nathan, repented of his sin, and believed the promise of God that divine love, mercy, and grace are greater than human failure, sin, and heartache. "Guilt is acknowledged in this psalm, in utter confidence of Godís willing capacity to override guilt and not let it determine the outcome of life."2
The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us (vs. 8-12).
Do you know a more precious text anywhere in all the Bible? It pulls out all the stops in trying to assure those who are flawed but teachable, sinful but penitent that they are not counted among the rootless "chaff that the wind blows away" or judged to be among the "wicked [who] will not stand in the judgment" (Psa. 1:4-5). Doing a wicked thing does not make you wicked ó unless you run from God and refuse his pardon. He is a determined lover and eager pardoner who looks to save rather than destroy! (How different a view of God this is to what some people have been taught!)
There is an old Celtic allegory of an angel who was sent to Earth to bring a Christian to the Celestial City. The man received the messenger with joy, and they set out together. As they moved up the shining path beyond the bounds of this world, the believer was suddenly tormented with the thought of his many transgressions. It was as if every one of them came flooding back to his mind. Turning to his angelic guide, the man asked, "Where did you bury my sins?"
"I only know that I buried them," came the reply, "but I cannot recall where." Then, for the manís reassurance, he added, "As for the Heavenly Father who sent me for you, he has forgotten that you ever sinned. You are justified in his sight, and he can only see you as one clothed in the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ!"
Like a father who cherishes his children, God sees you through eyes of compassionate love. The Hebrew word at 11b ó "so great is his love for those who fear him" ó is hesed, "steadfast love" or "constant mercy." The constant love of God affirmed here by David is complete and full in the blood of Christ. What the blood of bulls and goats anticipated, the blood of Jesus actualized. And now those who walk in the light of Godís love through faith in Jesus are kept continuously and eternally free of sinís guilt.
"If we walk in the light, as [God] is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin" (1 John 1:7). And who are those who "walk in the light"? Are they the people who live unblemished lives and hold flawless theology? Not at all! They are the same people envisioned in the psalms, the people who are open, teachable, and correctable in their flawedness. Thus John continues: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).
Second, there is the issue of human finitude and vulnerability. In a word, there is the problem of death. This brief and fragile life on Earth will end soon enough. There is no escape ó even for the righteous ó from the appointment everyone will keep with the grave. But David grasps the wonderful truth that Godís steadfast love and grace resolve that dilemma as well.
For [the Lord] knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass,
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
the LORDís love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their childrenís children ó
with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts (vs. 14-18).
The Lord offers himself to all those who fear him, keep his covenant, and obey his precepts. Yet, I would warn once more against hearing this psalm as a call to works-righteousness. Yahweh called Israel to covenant faithfulness, but that nationís faithlessness did not diminish his fidelity in keeping his promises. We are called to be covenant-keepers with our Lord Jesus Christ. "In the end, however, it is not human righteousness but the abiding hesed of Yahweh that matters decisively."3
As you give thanks this week, give thanks to Someone. Donít allow yourself the vague, warm-fuzzies of Thanksgiving Day. Articulate ó perhaps with the aid of this very psalm ó your personal prayers of gratitude to God for his material bounty, for the people in your life, for his presence in your trials, for his continued power in your spiritual life, and ó above all ó for the salvation he has given you in Jesus.
I saw a cartoon that featured a man sitting at a Thanksgiving table that was loaded down with turkey, dressing, hot rolls, and all the trimmings. The caption read: "Alvin the atheist realized he was at his lowest point, for he felt grateful but had no one to thank." If you believe in God, please donít sit down to your loaded table this Thursday without giving thanks to him.
If you do not know Jesus as your Savior, this would be a glorious day for you to offer your life on the altar of living sacrifice to him as a thank-offering for his grace offered you in his Son.
1 Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1995), p. 200.
3 Ibid., p. 201.
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