W. Robert Godfrey writes of Psalm 103: “The central verses of this psalm (vv. 7–18) are one of the greatest reflections on the love and grace of God that we find anywhere in the Bible” (Learning to Love the Psalms, 181, 182). In the entire Bible? Seriously?
At the beginning and end of this passage, the psalmist reminds his readers that he has come by his profound insights into the heart of God toward His children from meditating on His “covenant” given to “Moses” for “Israel” (vv. 7, 18). It is not only the “benefits” of the covenant that he extols, but the character, compassion, and love of the covenant Maker. “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love” (vs. 8, NIV). Commentators do not always portray the Old Testament God in this light, but His covenant did, and Jesus did when He summed up the entire law and prophets with the “golden rule,” which was first a characteristic of God before it was formulated as a moral standard for humanity (Matt. 7:9–12). “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
It may concern some that this idyllic psalm acknowledges God’s anger, though it is restrained (“slow to anger,” “nor will he harbor his anger forever,” Ps. 103:8, 9, NIV) and targeted (primarily in favor of the “oppressed,” v. 6). Jesus Himself exhibited such anger in situations where the character of His covenant commitment to people, and the genuine new covenant experience He seeks from them, were misrepresented by those who claimed to represent both (Matt. 21:12–16; 23:1–38). The gods of the other nations were capricious and cruel; one never knew what would offend them or how severe the punishment for the unwitting offense might be. Life in those cultures and life in Yahweh’s covenant of love were separate universes.
“He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (Ps. 103:10, NIV). Every covenant member who sang those lyrics had numerous, confirming personal testimonies of that truth, as do many of us who read it these several millenniums later. To help his congregation better understand forgiveness, David attempts an extreme spatial description: “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” (vv. 11, 12, NIV). He knows no greater distances; perhaps they will help to visualize the utter removal of our sins.
To make the point more visceral, he plays the family card. A deeply committed parent could choke up while singing the line, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (vv. 13, 14). The picture is of deep parental love for a child born severely disabled. It was not the child’s fault. There is a parallel. None of us chose to be born with a sinful nature, born in the Pit through no fault of our own: “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin” (Rom 5:12, NIV). God “knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” We are not held accountable for our potentially fatal handicap, but only for our response to the covenantal promises that are a 100-percent cure for the disability, promises that have a drawing power that we have to intentionally, stubbornly, persistently resist or we will be drawn to the Covenant Maker and cured.
The psalmist then acknowledges our temporal reality, our transience: “our days” on this earth are “like a flower” that flourishes till “the wind blows over it and it is gone” (vv. 15, 16). He counters with something from “everlasting to everlasting”—“the Lord’s love . . . and his righteousness” (v. 17).
That there might be a God in this universe at all is hopeful. That He might be a God of love who is committed to the eternal welfare and happiness of His creation, from the least of them to the greatest, is almost too much to hope for. And yet, the covenant attests to the existence of just such a God. More amazing still is the picture of a universe in which all creatures obey His voice and thereby bless His name (vss. 20–22), which is the ultimate goal of the everlasting covenant.