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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Psalms 103

 

 

Introduction

CIII.

This psalm has been compared to a stream which, as it flows, gradually acquires strength and volume till its waves of praise swell like those of the sea. The poet begins by invoking his own soul to show its gratitude for the Divine favour, and, by a highly artistic touch, makes the psalm, after rising to sublime heights, end with the same appeal to personal experience. But national mercies till much the larger space in his thought, and he speaks throughout as much in the person of the community as his own. Beyond one probable Aramaism in Psalms 103:3, and a possible dependence in one passage on the Book of Job (comp. Psalms 103:16 with Job 17:10), there is nothing to indicate the time of the psalm’s composition. The rhythm is varied, and the form irregular.


Verses 1-5

All His Benefits

Bless the Lord, O my soul;

And all that is within me, bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

And forget not all his benefits:

Who forgiveth all thine iniquities;

Who healeth all thy diseases;

Who redeemeth thy life from destruction;

Who crowneth thee with loving-kindness and tender mercies:

Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things;

So that thy youth is renewed like the eagle.—Psalms 103:1-5.

This psalm, with which we are all familiar from our childhood, shines in the firmament of Scripture as a star of the first magnitude. It is a song of praise, yet not the praise of an angel, but the praise of one who has been redeemed from sin and from destruction, and who has experienced that grace which, although sin abounds unto death, doth much more abound unto eternal life. It is the song of a saint, yet not of a glorified saint, but of one who is still working in the lowly valley of this our earthly pilgrimage, and who has to contend with suffering, with sin, and to experience the chastening hand of his Heavenly Father. And therefore it is that this psalm, after beginning upon the lofty mountain heights of God’s greatness and goodness, in which all is bright and strong and eternal, descends into the valley where the path is always narrow and often full of darkness and danger and sadness. But as the Psalmist lives by faith, and as he is saved by faith, so he is also saved by hope; and after having described all the sadness and all the afflictions and conflicts of this our earthly pilgrimage, he shows that even at this present time he is a member of that heavenly and everlasting Kingdom of which the throne of God is the centre, and where the angels, who are bright and strong, are his fellow-worshippers, and in which all the works which God has made will finally be subservient to His glory and be irradiated with His beauty. And thus he rises again, praising and magnifying the Lord and knowing that his own individual soul shall, in that vast and comprehensive Kingdom, for evermore be conscious of the life and of the glory of the Most High.

I

Bless the Lord

1. To praise God, to bless God, is only the response to the blessing which God has given us. God speaks, and the echo is praise. God blesses us and the response is that we bless God. And those five verses of praise in Psalms 103 are nothing but the answer of the believing heart to the benediction of Aaron, which God commanded should be continually laid upon the people. The Lord who is the God of salvation; the Lord, who has revealed His Holy Name as Redeemer; the Lord who, by His Spirit, imparts what the Father of love gives, what the filial love reveals—this is the Lord who is the object of the believer’s praise. For to praise God means nothing else than to behold God and to delight in Him as the God of our salvation. Singing may be the expression of praise, may be the helpful accompaniment of praise, but praise is in the spirit who dwells upon God, who sees the wonderful manifestation of God in His Son Jesus Christ, and the wonderful salvation and treasures of good things stored up in His beloved Son.

We commonly begin our prayers with a request that God will bless us; the Psalmist begins his prayer by calling on his soul to bless God! The eye of the heart is generally directed first to its own desires; the eye of the Psalmist’s heart is directed first to the desires of God! It is a startling feature of prayer, a feature seldom looked at. We think of prayer as a mount where man stands to receive the Divine blessing. We do not often think of it as also a mount where God stands to receive the human blessing. Yet this latter is the thought here. Nay, is it not the thought of our Lord Himself? I have often meditated on these words of Jesus, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”! I take them to mean: Seek ye first the welfare of God, the establishment of His Kingdom, the reign of His righteousness! Before you yield to self-pity, before you count the number of the things you want, consider what things are still wanting to Him! Consider the spheres of life to which His Kingdom has not yet spread, consider the human hearts to which His righteousness has not yet penetrated! Let your spirit say, “Bless the Lord.” Let the blessing upon God be your morning wish. It is not your power He asks, but your wish. Your benediction cannot sway the forces of the Universe; your Father can do that without prayer. But it is the prayer itself that is dear to Him, the desire of your heart for His heart’s joy, the cry of your spirit for His crowning, the longing of your soul for the triumph of His love. Evermore give Him this bread!1 [Note: G. Matheson, Leaves for Quiet Hours, 213.]

If we want to know what it is to praise God, let us remember such a chapter as the first chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians, where Paul blesses God who has blessed him with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ, and where he sees before him the whole counsel and purpose of the Divine election, of the wonderful, perfect, and complete channel of the purposes of God in the redemption which is in the blood of Jesus, and the wonderful object and purpose of the Divine grace, that we, united with Christ, should through all ages show forth the wonderful love of God. That is to praise God, when we see God and when we appropriate God as He has manifested Himself to us in Christ Jesus. And it is only by the light which comes from above, and by the wonderful operation of the Holy Ghost, that it is so wrought in the heart of the Christian, although it may be in silence, that his soul magnifieth the Lord and his spirit rejoiceth in God his Saviour.2 [Note: A. Saphir.]

2. “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name.” The Psalmist desires to bless God with all that is within him. He who succeeds in doing this offers to God an eloquent worship. Eloquence means speaking out, letting the whole soul find utterance. And the Psalm before us supplies us with a choice sample of the kind of worship made by David. In this Psalm, mind, heart, conscience, imagination, all come into play. The whole inner man speaks rightfully, thoughtfully, devoutly, musically, pathetically; and, as was to be expected, God is praised to some purpose.

The metrical version of the Psalm puts us in possession of the fuller meaning of this verse:

O thou my soul, bless God the Lord;

And all that in me is

Be stirred up his holy name

To magnify and bless.

How truly and with what fine knowledge of the soul of every spiritual man has this rendering caught the real point of that verse! And it is not this once only that the metrical psalm selects and emphasizes some word which we did not quite realize in the prose version. Here and there it may be that to our modish and sophisticated ears the psalms in metre may fail as poetry; but they never fail in spiritual discernment. They always take hold of the point, of the real business of the prose text. They always recognize the matters which really concern our souls; so that again and again the metrical psalm serves as a kind of commentary upon the prose, developing the finer sentiments, bringing out of the text certain beauties which we might never have become aware of, though we recognize them at once the moment they are set out for us. You see what I mean in this particular instance. The prose reads: “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name.” We might read those words again and again, feeling in each case that it is merely a devout utterance of the soul, having nothing individual or characteristic about it. But how the metrical version cuts down to the root of the idea! What a distinction, what a precise meaning, the metrical form gives to the prayer!

O thou my soul, bless God the Lord;

And all that in me is

Be stirred up his holy name

To magnify and bless.

It was pure spiritual genius to bring out that idea of “stirring up” all that is within our souls.1 [Note: J. A. Hutton, The Soul’s Triumphant Way, 23.]

II

Forget Not

If we would rightly praise God, we must keep ourselves from forgetfulness. Moses warns against this vice when he says: “Beware lest thou forget the Lord thy God, in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments and his statutes, which I command thee this day, lest when thou hast eaten and art full, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; and when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” In the Prophets the sad complaint re-echoes from the Lord’s mouth: “Ye are they that forget my holy mountain.”

One of the first stories I recall from my childhood was a story of the evil of forgetting God. I remember the very spot on which it was told to me. I feel the warm grasp of the hand which had hold of mine at the time. I see once more the little seaport town stretching up from the river mouth, with its straggling “fisher town” at one extremity, and at the other its rows of well-built streets and its town hall and academy. On this occasion we were standing on a high bank looking down on the beautiful shore at our feet. Across the tiny harbour, and along the shore on the other side of the river, is a very different scene. What one sees there is a dreary waste of sand. No grass grows there, no trees shadow it, no house stands upon it. It is a place forsaken and desolate. It has been a desolation longer than the oldest inhabitant can remember. But it was not always desolate. It was once a fair estate, rich in cornfields and orchards. A stately mansion stood in the midst of it, and children played in the orchards, and reapers reaped the corn. But the lords of that fair estate were an evil race. They oppressed the poor, they despised religion, they did not remember God. They loved pleasure more than God, and the pleasures they loved were evil. To make an open show of their evil ways they turned the day of the Lord into a day of rioting and drunkenness. And this evil went on a long while. It went on till the long-suffering of God came to an end. And then upon a Sunday evening, and in the harvest-time, when the corn was whitening for the reaper, the riot and wickedness had come to a height. The evil lord and his evil guests were feasting in the hall of the splendid house. And on that very evening there came a sudden darkness and stillness into the heavens, and out of the darkness a wind, and out of the wind a tempest; and, as if that tempest had been a living creature, it lifted the sand from the shore in great whirls and clouds and filled the air with it, and dropped it down in blinding, suffocating showers on all those fields of corn, and on that mansion, and on the evil-doers within. And the fair estate, with all its beautiful gardens and fields, became a widespread heap of sand and a desolation, as it is to this day.1 [Note: Alexander McLeod.]

III

All His Benefits

Of the benefits that David enumerates the first three are all negative: He forgives our sin, He heals the consequences of our sin, our diseases, He delivers us from destruction, the wages of our sin. But in the forgiveness of sin and in the healing of our diseases, in the deliverance from the devil and from everlasting hell, God gives Himself, He gives the whole fulness of His love, He elevates the soul into the very highest spiritual life; and therefore, the Psalmist continues, he who has been thus delivered out of destruction is a king, he is crowned with lovingkindness and with tender mercies, he is enriched and satisfied with good things; and not merely outwardly enriched, but there is a life given him which is unfading, the youth of which is perennial, continually renewing itself by the very strength of God.

1. The Psalmist sets himself to count up the benefits he has received from God. He has not proceeded very far when he finds himself to be engaged in an impossible task. He finds he cannot count the blessings he has received in a single day, how then can he number the blessings of a week, of a month, of a year, of the years of his life? He might as well try to count the number of the stars or the grains of sand on the seashore. It cannot be done.

St. Francis, dining one day on broken bread, with a large stone for table, cried out to his companion: “O brother Masseo, we are not worthy so great a treasure.” When he had repeated these words several times, his companion answered: “Father, how can you talk of treasure where there is so much poverty, and indeed a lack of all things? For we have neither cloth nor knife, nor dish, nor table, nor house; neither have we servant nor maid to wait upon us.” Then said St. Francis: “And this is why I look upon it as a great treasure, because man has no hand in it, but all has been given us by Divine Providence, as we clearly see in this bread of charity, in this beautiful table of stone, in this clear fountain.”1 [Note: E. Meynell, The Life of Francis Thompson (1913), 283.]

I was walking along one winter’s night, hurrying towards home, with my little maiden at my side. Said she, “Father, I am going to count the stars.” “Very well,” I said; “go on.” By and by I heard her counting—“Two hundred and twenty-three, two hundred and twenty-four, two hundred and twenty-five. Oh! dear,” she said, “I had no idea there were so many.” Ah! dear friends, I sometimes say in my soul, “Now, Master, I am going to count Thy benefits.” I am like the little maiden. Soon my heart sighs—sighs not with sorrow, but burdened with such goodness, and I say within myself, “Ah! I had no idea that there were so many.”2 [Note: M. G. Pearse.]

2. But if he cannot remember them all, he may at least try not to forget them all. He may try to remember some of them. But this also is a hard task. For memory is weak, and the blessings are many and manifold. How can he help himself not to forget? How shall he help himself to remember those benefits which he values most highly? He sets himself to find helps to memory, helps not to forget. So he falls upon a plan which he finds to be most helpful, and which others ever since have found to be so. He takes those benefits which he desires not to forget, and he ties them up in bundles. And then, to make sure that he will not forget them, the Psalmist shapes the bundles of God’s benefits into a song. A song is the easiest thing of all to remember. So he shapes them into a song, which people can sing by the wayside as they journey, can carry with them to their work, and brood over in their hours of leisure.

By tying the benefits up in bundles, and by shaping them into a song, the Psalmist earned for himself the undying gratitude of future generations. Specially has he earned for himself our gratitude, for he gave us a song which we sing in Scotland to-day, and have sung for more than three hundred years, when our religious emotions are at their highest and their best. We sing this song when the feeling of consecration has been renewed, widened, and deepened by communion with God at His table. I never was at a communion-time at which this song has not been sung, and no other song could do justice to the feelings of gratitude of the Lord’s people. So we sing, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: who forgiveth, who healeth, who redeemeth, who crowneth, and who satisfieth.”1 [Note: James Iverach, The Other Side of Greatness, 121.]

i

Forgiveness

“Who forgiveth all thine iniquities.”

Note how the Psalmist begins. He begins with iniquity. Where else could a sinful man begin? The most needful of all things for a sinful man is to get rid of his sin. So the Psalmist begins here. This beginning is not peculiar to him, it is the common note of the Bible. In fact, we here come across one of the distinctive peculiarities of the Bible. We may read other literatures and never come across the notion of sin in them. Crimes, blunders, mistakes, miseries enough one may find, but sin as estrangement from a holy personal God who loves man and would serve him one never finds. But in the Bible we are face to face with sin from first to last. One chapter and a bit of another are given to the story of the making of the world and the making of man, and then the story of the entrance of sin is told, and the reader is kept face to face with sin in every part of it. In the gospel story we read at the outset: “Thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins”; and in John almost the first word about Him is, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” It is characteristic of the Bible to keep its reader face to face with sin and its consequences, till he is stirred up to the effort to get rid of it.

Sometimes in business a man will say: “There is a limit to everything. I have trusted such an one, and he has deceived me. I have forgiven him much, but now he has crossed the score, and I will have no more dealings with him.” But it is only when men, in their own estimation, have got over that score that the heavenly business begins. Some minister comes from somewhere, to preach some day, and preaches the forgiveness of sins, and that is the beginning of the business; and at length the man finds Heaven for himself, and can say: “He forgiveth all mine iniquities.”2 [Note: A. Whyte.]

ii

Healing

“Who healeth all thy diseases.”

Once a prophet said, “From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores.” When we read these words, we are inclined to say they are Oriental figures of speech, exaggerated metaphors. If our spiritual vision were as keen as that of the prophet, we should find that he was speaking what he knew. Sin then makes disease, and God’s relation to disease is described as that of healing. In the Scriptures this relation is described so fully that it gives a distinctive name for God—Jehovah the Healer. He not only forgives sin, He also so deals with the results of sin that He removes every trace of sin. He heals all our diseases.

The nineteenth century produced three famous persons in this country who contributed more than any of their contemporaries to the relief of human suffering in disease: Simpson, the introducer of chloroform; Lister, the inventor of antiseptic surgery; and Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. The second of the great discoveries completed the beneficent work of the first. The third development—the creation of nursing as a trained profession—has co-operated powerfully with the other two, and would have been beneficent even if the use of anæsthetics and antiseptics had not been discovered. The contribution of Florence Nightingale to the healing art was less than that of either Simpson or Lister; but perhaps, from its wider range, it has saved as many lives, and relieved as much, if not so acute, suffering as either of the other two.1 [Note: Sir Edward Cook, The Life of Florence Nightingale, i. 439.]

iii

Redemption

“Who redeemeth thy life from destruction.”

That is, God preserves the life that He saves. Here is first a life forfeited. That life is then saved by forgiveness. Then there is a life imperilled by disease, and saved by God’s healing. But that life is in a thousand dangers. Many seek after the young child—the Christ within us—to destroy it. But God “redeemeth thy life from destruction.” How often God has saved some of us from impending ruin, He alone knows.

In my native town of Stirling workmen were blasting the castle rock near where it abuts upon a wall that lies open to the street. The train was laid and lit, and an explosion was momentarily expected. Suddenly, trotting round the great wall of cliff, came a little child going straight to where the match burned. The men shouted. That was mercy. But by their very shouting they alarmed and bewildered the poor little thing. By this time the mother also had come round. In a moment she saw the danger, opened wide her arms, and cried from her very heart, “Come to me, my darling.” That was Render mercy; and instantly, with eager, pattering feet, the little thing ran back and away, and stopped not until she was clasped in her mother’s bosom. Not a moment too soon, as the roar of the shattered rock told.1 [Note: A. Grosart.]

I remember one who had been for a long time drifting towards an evil act which was certain to do more harm to others than to himself, but who had not as yet determined on flinging friends, society, work, good repute, his past and future, and God Himself, to the winds. The one thing that kept him back was a remnant of belief in God, in One beyond humanity, beyond the world’s laws of convention and morality. Nothing else was left, for he had, in the desire for this wrong thing, passed beyond caring whether the whole world went against him, whether he injured others or not. He was as ready to destroy all the use of his own life as he was careless of the use of the lives of others. But he felt a slow and steady pull against him. He said to himself, “This is God, though I know Him not.” At last, however, he determined to have his way. One day the loneliness and longing had been too great to be borne, and when night came he went down his garden resolved on the evil thing. “This night,” he said, “I will take the plunge.” But as he went he heard the distant barking of a dog in the village; the moon rose above a dark yew tree at the end of the garden, and he was abruptly stopped in the midst of the pathway. Something seemed to touch him as with a finger, and to push him back. It was not till afterwards that he analysed the feeling, and knew that the rising of the moon over the yew tree and the barking of the dog in the distance had brought back to him an hour in his childhood, when in the dusk he had sat with his mother, after his father’s death, in the same garden, and had heard her say—“When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.” It was this slight touch that saved him from wrong which would have broken more lives than his own. It was God speaking; but it would have been as nothing to him, had he not kept his little grain of faith in God alive, the dim consciousness that there was One who cared for him, who had interest that he should conquer righteousness. Next day, he left his home, travelled and won his battle; and his action redeemed not only his own but another’s life.1 [Note: S. A. Brooke, The Ship of the Soul, 23.]

There is an old poem which bears the curious title of “Strife in Heaven,” the idea of which is something like this. The poet supposes himself to be walking in the streets of the New Jerusalem, when he comes to a crowd of saints engaged in a very earnest discussion. He draws near and listens. The question they are discussing is which of them is the greatest monument of God’s saving grace. After a long debate, in which each states his case separately, and each claims to have been by far the most wonderful trophy of God’s love in all the multitude of the redeemed, it is finally agreed to settle the matter by a vote. Vote after vote is taken, and the list of competition is gradually reduced until only two remain. These are allowed to state their case again, and the company stand ready to join in the final vote. The first to speak is a very old man. He begins by saying that it is a mere waste of time to go any further; it is absolutely impossible that God’s grace could have done more for any man in heaven than for him. He tells again how he had led a most wicked and vicious life—a life filled up with every conceivable indulgence, and marred with every crime. He has been a thief, a liar, a blasphemer, a drunkard, and a murderer. On his death-bed, at the eleventh hour, Christ came to him and he was forgiven. The other is also an old man, who says, in a few words, that he was brought to Christ when he was a boy. He had led a quiet and uneventful life, and had looked forward to heaven as long as he could remember. The vote is taken; and, of course, you would say it results in favour of the first. But no, the votes are all given to the last. We might have thought, perhaps, that the one who led the reckless, godless life—he who had lied, thieved, blasphemed, murdered; he who was saved by the skin of his teeth, just a moment before it might have been too late—had the most to thank God for. But the old poet knew the deeper truth. It required great grace verily to pluck that withered brand from the burning. It required depths, absolutely fathomless depths, of mercy to forgive that veteran in sin at the close of all those guilty years. But it required more grace to keep that other life from guilt through all those tempted years. It required more grace to save him from the sins of his youth and keep his Christian boyhood pure, to steer him scathless through the tempted years of riper manhood, to crown his days with usefulness, and his old age with patience and hope. Both started in life together; to one grace came at the end, to the other at the beginning. The first was saved from the guilt of sin, the second from the power of sin as well. The first was saved from dying in sin. But he who became a Christian in his boyhood was saved from living in sin. The one required just one great act of love at the close of life; the other had a life full of love—it was a greater salvation by far. His soul was forgiven like the other, but his life was redeemed from destruction.1 [Note: H. Drummond, The Ideal Life, 149.]

iv

Crowning

“Who crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies.”

So far the Psalmist has been thinking of God’s action as it is defined in relation to sin. Now his thoughts take a grander flight, and he thinks of the Divine action when sin is taken out of the way, and no longer presents a barrier to the fellowship between God and His people. His words take on a finer meaning, and mould themselves into a more musical form. For he tries to represent the intercourse between God and the children of God, when sin is removed from between them. “Who crowneth thee with loving kindness and tender mercies.” These words are about the most musical and pathetic in the whole Bible, and they are as fine in meaning as they are in form.

God puts honour upon the brow of a forgiven man. He does not merely forgive, and that in a formal way, but, when He forgives, He crowns. He crowns me with the title of “son,” and He places the coronet of heirship upon my head, for “if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ.” Sweet picture this. Observe that it is not a crown of merit, for “He crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies.” This is the only crown that I can consent to wear.2 [Note: A. G. Brown.]

1. Lovingkindness.—Note how the translators of the Psalm have been constrained to tie two English words together in order to set forth the meaning of the original. These translators of the Bible were poets as well as scholars. They took the two words “love” and “kindness” and tied them together in order to shut out the weaker meanings of both, and from the union of them set forth a higher and better meaning than either alone could express. Love has always been recognized to be the strongest and best thing in the world of life, and in recent years it has come to even larger recognition. It really holds society together, is at the basis of family life, is the motive power of the highest activities of mankind. But while love is so and acts so, it may partake of the weakness or the selfishness of human nature. It may become fierce, jealous, regardless of the interest of the person who is its object. It may look at the person merely as belonging to itself, and fiercely insist on exclusive possession. No doubt ideal love would labour, toil, and spend itself for the good of the person loved. But all love is not ideal, and it may have more ferocity than kindness in it. So this fierce side of love is shut out, and only the ideal side is kept, and kept by uniting it with kindness. But kindness is apt to be weak, injudicious, and foolish. It is the kindness, perhaps, of a fond young mother who gives the baby whatever it desires, cloys it with sweets, or gives it unwholesome food because the child likes it, or, as George MacDonald suggests, gives the child a lighted candle because it cries for it. This foolish side of kindness is shut out by tying it to the firmer, wiser fact of love. So united, kindness becomes lovingkindness, and the two become, in their union, something higher and better than either of the two elements contained in it, when these are taken by themselves.

Another young friend writes: “From such an array of beautiful characteristics as is called up by his name it is hard to choose the greatest, but his ‘loving-kindness’ is the outstanding trait that not only those who knew him best, but those who came only casually into contact with him, will remember with tenderness. How he loved every one, especially ‘those who were of the household of faith’! How eagerly would he seek out, even when on holiday, the brother-minister, superannuated by affliction from active work, to encourage and help him by his sympathy, to cheer him with his humour and his jollity, to stimulate him with his wide and varying interests! And in what good stead that wonderful fund of quiet humour stood him through the days of pain and weakness and weariness through which God’s veteran passed, and from which he is now released! One revered him as a saint, but loved him as a man, a man who radiated such love as compelled a willing love in return.”1 [Note: Love and Life: The Story of J. Denholm Brash (1913), 179.]

It is twenty-five years since I first had my attention drawn to this clause. I went to college then, and one day a minister gave me a tract, and told me, “Take that and read it, and when you bring it back, tell me what you think of it.” He said to me—and he proved a sound prophet—“I may not live to see it, but you will see it. The lad that spoke these words—his name will be heard wherever the English language is spoken,”—the name was Charles Spurgeon. It was a discourse on this word—“He crowneth me with lovingkindness and tender mercies.” He had never been to college, and had taken none of your envied degrees that seem to stamp a man as a Master of Divinity. My friend said: “I may not live to see it, but you will.” A young man in his teens, not far up in the offices yet, Spurgeon was under twenty-one when he preached a sermon that made my old friend prophetic. “When God takes a man’s head out of the dust”—said this young fledgling Puritan preacher—“He crowns it with a crown that is so heavy with His grace and goodness that he could not wear it were it not lined with the sweet velvet of His loving-kindness.” Not a classic figure perhaps, but Spurgeon’s figure is graven on my memory while many a classic figure has faded away. Many a costly gift, given carelessly with lavish abundance, you have nearly forgotten: but one gift, given many years ago, you remember still. It was only a cup of cold water, perhaps, but given with a hand and with a look of loving-kindness. And when God crowns us with such love as this, when He smiles upon us, no wonder that it gladdens the heart so that a man never forgets it.2 [Note: Alexander Whyte.]

2. Tender mercies.—Mercy in itself is one of the grandest things in human nature. It is not mere feeling, it is feeling in action. It is not mere sympathy or pity, it is sympathy made alive and active. It is not pity, it is pity going forth into action, to bind up the broken-hearted, to comfort the sorrowful, to make the widow’s heart to sing for joy. But tender mercy is even more than mercy, great and good though the exercise be. It is mercy exercised in the most tender way. For mercy may be exercised in such a way as to wound the feelings of the person to whom you are merciful. You may intend to help your friend who has fallen into misfortune. He may have been blameworthy, his misfortune may have arisen from his want of thought, from his recklessness, or even from wrong-doing. You intend to help him, but you are annoyed with his conduct; you insist on showing him how foolish he was, how reckless was his conduct, how unprincipled was his motive, until he almost feels that he would be without the help if he could be free from the scolding. Or you are merciful to the person who asks you for help, but you fling the penny to him across the street. It is possible in this way to undo all the effects of a merciful action by the ungracious way in which it is done. Mercy according to our text is exercised tenderly. You help your friend, or come to the assistance of those who are in poverty and need, in such a way as to bind up their wounds, to cheer them, and to give them courage to begin the battle of life anew, though life heretofore has been all a failure. For the mercy which man shows to man interprets for man the tender mercies of God. After that interview with you, during which you entered into the sorrow of your friend sympathetically and tenderly, gave him of your wisdom, of your experience, of your means, he goes forth to the work of life again with a new outlook, with a firmer resolution to do well. He says to himself, “It is a good, kind world after all, and there are good, kind people in it. I must show myself worthy to live in so good a world, and worthy of the help I have received.” So tender mercies help, but they help in such a way as to bind up the broken-hearted, and to open a door of hope for those who have failed, and to give them courage to lift them above the feeling of despair.

Stern and unflinching in his denunciation of drunkenness, Ernest Wilberforce was tenderness itself in his dealings with the individual sinner. Few cases are more distressing or more difficult to deal with than those where a clergyman has fallen into habits of intemperance. The Bishop’s correspondence in one of them is lying before me as I write, marked throughout by the strong sense of justness and fairness which ever characterized him, yet compassionate and considerate, so far as consideration was possible. The facts were clear, and the unfortunate gentleman was induced to vacate his office without the scandal of judicial proceedings. But there were features which induced the Bishop to hope that, under happier auspices, he might yet do good and useful work in his chosen calling. Without any effort at minimizing the sad story, he succeeded in inducing an experienced parish priest in another diocese to give the transgressor a fresh start. The good Samaritan had no cause to regret his charity, and in writing to the Bishop he congratulated the clergy of Northumberland in having one set over them to whom they could appeal with perfect confidence in the hour of need. “If ever,” he wrote, “I should be in a fix, I shall wish for such a friend as your Lordship.”1 [Note: J. B. Atlay, Bishop Ernest Wilberforce, 162.]

v

Satisfaction

“Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things; so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle.”

1. The word “crowneth” suggests something external, something coming to us from without, and after the crowning there may conceivably be some wants unsupplied, some needs of man which have not been met. But the note of Christianity is that no human needs are left unsatisfied. “My God shall supply all your need.” Satisfied with good, so that every need shall be met—this is the promise.

The thirst of the mind for truth, the thirst of the will and conscience for guidance, and the thirst of the heart for life are satisfied through Him who is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. If there were needs which He could not or would not satisfy, He would have told us of them.2 [Note: James Iverach, The Other Side of Greatness, 133.]

2. The Psalmist felt, as we often feel, that he had emerged from the very gulf of destruction; that he had been, as it were against his will, rescued from moral suicide; that all his life had been redeemed by God. Therefore he burst out into joy and thanksgiving! He who had been through grave sorrows; who had known sin, disease, even destruction; who might have cursed life and shrieked at what men call Fate; cries out in unfeigned and mistakable rapture—it is a very outburst of song—“Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” And in realizing this joyful victory of the moral and spiritual powers; in the resurrection of his spiritual being into strength; in the leaving behind him in its own grave of all that was dead in his past; in the great cry of his heart as he looked back—“I am not there, I am risen”—his youth was renewed like the eagle’s! It was a great triumph; for his best life came back in a higher and a stronger way, with now but little chance of failure. He could again, like the eagle, look upon the sun, and love the upper ranges of the sky; again soar, but with steadier beat of wing than in youth; again possess the freedom he loved before disease and destruction had enslaved his plumes; again breathe the breath of immortal love; again in conscious union with God hear the great spheres “in measured motion draw after the heavenly tune.” And certainty was now with this victory, for he had known and found the Father of his spirit. The waters of his new life arose out of the fountain Life of God Himself, and he knew whence they came. There was now a source as well as a goal for his ideals, hopes, efforts, for the beauty he loved, and for universal joy. It was the Almighty Love and Life of loveliness Himself who was now in him—a personal friend, redeemer, strengthener, exalter; who crowned him with lovingkindness and tender mercies. This is the true resurrection; this is the triumph of life.

The brilliant Princess Anastasia Malsoff (the Nancy Malsoff of the Russian Court) was one of those led to Christ by the Maréchale, with whom she kept up a close friendship during the rest of her life. One of the Princess’s letters is peculiarly interesting: “I will see the Emperor in these days,” she writes, “and I will seek strength to speak to him. You see, my darling, speaking is not enough, one must in such a case pour out one’s soul and feel that a superior force guides one and speaks for one.” It turned out as she hoped. One night she was at the Palace in St. Petersburg. After dinner the Czar came and seated himself beside her. Soon they were deep in intimate conversation. She began telling him what her new-found friend in Paris had done for her. She talked wisely as he listened attentively. At length he said: “But, Nancy, you have always been good, always right.” “No,” she answered; “till now I have never known the Christ. She has made Him real to me, brought Him near to me, and He has become what He never was before—my personal Friend.”1 [Note: J. Strahan, The Maréchale (1913), 184.]

“I shall be sorry,” says Eckhart, the German mystic, “if I am not younger to-morrow than I am to-day—that is, a step nearer to the source whence I came.” And Swedenborg tells us that when heaven was opened to him he found that the oldest angels seemed to be the youngest.

’Tis said there is a fount in Flower Land,—

De Leon found it,—where Old Age away

Throws weary mind and heart, and fresh as day

Springs from the dark and joins Aurora’s band:

This tale, transformed by some skilled trouvère’s wand

From the old myth in a Greek poet’s lay,

Rests on no truth. Change bodies as Time may,

Souls do not change, though heavy be his hand.

Who of us needs this fount? What soul is old?

Age is a mask,—in heart we grow more young,

For in our winters we talk most of spring;

And as we near, slow-tottering, God’s safe fold,

Youth’s loved ones gather nearer:—though among

The seeming dead, youth’s songs more clear they sing.2 [Note: Maurice Francis Egan.]

Literature

Brooke (S. A.), Christ in Modern Life, 351.

Brooke (S. A.), The Gospel of Joy, 67.

Brooke (S. A.), The Ship of the Soul, 16.

Brown (A. G.), in The People’s Pulpit, No. 20.

Brown (C. G.), The Word of Life, 141.

Campbell (J. M.), Grow Old Along with Me, 19.

Cross (J.), Knight-Banneret, 292.

Drummond (H.), The Ideal Life, 145.

Hall (F. O.), Soul and Body, 73.

Hutton (J. A.), The Soul’s Triumphant Way, 23.

Iverach (J.), The Other Side of Greatness, 119.

Macmillan (H.), The Ministry of Nature, 321.

Matheson (G.), Leaves for Quiet Hours, 213.

Miller (J.), Sermons Literary and Scientific, i. 270.

Morrison (G. H.), The Oldest Trade in the World, 103.

Myres (W. M.), Fragments that Remain, 89.

New (C.), The Baptism of the Spirit, 278.

Owen (J.), The Renewal of Youth, 1.

Pearce (J.), The Alabaster Box, 141.

Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, vii. 17.

Robinson (W. V.), Angel Voices, 137.

Selby (T. G.), The Unheeding God, 216.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xviii. (1872), No. 1078; xxv. (1879), No. 1492; xlix. (1903), No. 2860.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Evening by Evening, 152.

Voysey (C.), Sermons, xviii. (1895), No. 34; xxv. (1902), No. 44; xxvii. (1904), No. 10.

Christian World Pulpit, xxvii. 161 (M. G. Pearse); xxxvi. 218 (A. B. Bruce); xlix. 72 (J. Stalker); lxxv. 59 (J. Birch).

Contemporary Pulpit, 1st Ser., viii. 10 (A. Whyte); ix. 175 (A. Saphir).

Weekly Pulpit, i. 582 (D. Dann).


Verse 2

(2) Benefits.—Literally, actions, whether good or bad (Judges 9:16; Proverbs 12:14). But what a significance in the restricted meaning “benefits.” God’s acts are all benefits.


Verse 3

(3) Forgiveth.—The first “benefit” to one who aims at the higher life is the knowledge of the Divine readiness to forgive and renew, and this, as Augustine remarks, implies a quick moral sense: “God’s benefits will not be before our eyes unless our sins are also before our eyes.”

Diseases.—Here chiefly in a moral sense, as the parallelism “iniquity” shows, even if the next verse, taken literally, implies an allusion to physical suffering as well.


Verse 4

(4) Destruction.—Rather, pit, or grave, as in Psalms 16:10.

Crowneth.—A metaphor drawn from the common custom of wearing wreaths and garlands on festive occasions (Sirach 32:2). Comp. Psalms 8:5.


Verse 5

(5) Mouth.—On the Hebrew word thus rendered, see Psalms 32:9. The word there adopted (“trappings,” or “ornaments”) would Commend itself here, from the evident allusion in the next clause to the moulting of the bird, and its appearance in new plumage, if the expression “to satisfy ornament with good” were in any way intelligible. The LXX. and Vulg. have “desire; the Syriac “body;” but the Chaldee, “age,” which is supported (Gesenius) by the derivation, gives the best sense:—

Who satisfleth thine age with good, so that

Thy youth renews itself like the eagle.

The eagle’s.—Heb., nesher; properly, the griffon, or great vulture. See Exodus 19:4; and Note to Obadiah 1:4.

The rendering of the Prayer Book, “like the eagle’s,” follows the LXX. The idea that the eagle renewed its youth formed the basis of a Rabbinical story, and no doubt appears also in the myth of the Phœnix. But the psalmist merely refers to the fresh and vigorous appearance of the bird with its new plumage.


Verse 6

(6) Oppressed.—From individual the poet passes to national mercies, and goes back to the memorable manifestations of Divine favour vouchsafed to Moses.


Verse 7

(7) Moses.—A direct reference to Exodus 33:13.


Verse 8

(8) Merciful and Gracious.—The original confession (Exodus 34:6) had become a formula of the national faith. In addition to the marginal references, see Joel 2:13, Psalms 145:8.


Verse 9-10

(9, 10) This reflection naturally follows after the last quotation from Exodus.


Verse 11

Verse 13

(13) Father.—This anticipation of Christ’s revelation of the paternal heart of God, is found also in the prophets.


Verse 13-14

The Father’s Pity

Like as a father pitieth his children,

So the Lord pitieth them that fear him.

For he knoweth our frame;

He remembereth that we are dust.—Psalms 103:13-14.

1. “Like as a father.” The history of religion shows that it has not been easy for men to think of God in that extremely simple and human fashion; and yet, to Christians, no other way of thinking appears so obvious or so natural. It met us in our childhood, grew into the thinking of our youth, and has swayed the conceptions we have formed of that august and invincible power that works for righteousness and peace for evermore. We lisped it in our earliest hymns. It had a place in the first prayers we offered at our mother’s knee. It was set out in many winsome forms in the Sunday school; and when we realized something of the joy of the Divine pardon, we felt more deeply than ever the entire appropriateness and unsurpassed charm of the poet’s words. God is like a father. It saturates the Christian atmosphere. It is shaping the thought and the life of the world.

And yet it is a matter of historic fact that men were thinking and inquiring for ages before they were able to interpret God in the terms of human fatherhood. Groping after God, if haply they might find Him, they sought their symbols first of all in the many-leaved picture book of nature, and said, God is like the sun, shining in its strength, and filling the world with its radiance. The moon is His symbol as it casts its light on the path of the pilgrim in the night. “God is like the rock,” they exclaimed; “His work is perfect.” He abides amid the storms and stress of life, stable as the everlasting hills.

Quite late in history did men come to the human in their quest for the terms in which they might express God; and when they reached this point, they seized at first only upon the more arresting qualities of the animal in man, and said, “God is like Hercules” in the invincible strength with which He crushes the evils in the world, and makes an end of them. Later still, Plato advanced to the suggestion that God was like a “geometer,” a thinker and fashioner, full of ideas and ideals; and, latest of all, in one of the youngest portions of the Old Testament, not in Genesis, not in any part of the Pentateuch, but in this wonderful and most gracious lyric, the 103rd Psalm, possibly one of the last contributions of Hebrew Psalmody, the seer surpasses all the great historical religions, and pictures God to us as a pitiful, compassionate, sin-forgiving, and soul-healing Father, and thus supplies the basis for the most true, most worthy, and most inspiring conception of God.

There was once a group of friends standing at the house door, gazing in wonder at an eclipse. It was a cloudless night; and, as they saw the shadow of the earth gliding so punctually over the face of the brilliant moon, a solemn emotion of awe fell upon every mind, and in absolute silence they watched the magnificent phenomenon. Everything connected with their daily lives seemed for a season to be forgotten; they were citizens of infinitude; all their thoughts were swept into the regions of immensity. But suddenly the silence was broken by a cry from the nursery where a child had been laid to sleep. In that company, how soon you could tell who was the mother; in a moment she had left the scene, had rushed upstairs, and was clasping the baby in her embrace! What were the wonders of nature compared to the needs of a suffering child? More sacred than the music of the spheres was that feeble appeal for pity; more powerful than the sweet influence of the Pleiades was the attraction of love which at once absorbed that woman’s soul. Then was she most like God, not when she was exalted into amazement at the marvels of the sky, but when she was soothing pain and chasing fear by tenderness and pity.1 [Note: F. Walters.]

2. In depicting the milder and kindlier aspect of God’s character the Old Testament writers make pity the ground quality on which everything is based. With the Psalm writers it is a standing description of God on this side of His nature that He is “gracious and full of compassion.” His compassion for the perishable life and oppressed state of Israel is expressly assigned by the prophets as His reason for “redeeming” His people and forgiving their rebellions with long-suffering mercy. When He withdraws locusts from the wasted fields of Palestine, it is because He pities His people’s sufferings. The repentant city of Nineveh is spared because its helpless myriads touched in God’s great heart such ruth as Jonah had for his withering gourd. And after Jerusalem’s fall, the patriot-poet who mourned so exquisitely over its ruin finds the explanation of all disaster in these plaintive, half-reproachful words, “Thou hast not pitied.” It reads as if the Almighty’s long-suffering patience with men, His gracious kindness to His people, His relenting, even His mercy in pardoning sin, were all felt by these old Hebrews to root themselves in that beautiful sentiment of compassion with which a Being so immense and self-contained in blessedness must look down on the fragile and sorrowful creatures whose origin, whose habitation, and whose end are all of them in the dust.

“Pity lies at the core of all the great religions.” The chapters of the Koran, all of them, begin with these words: “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful.” The vast religion of Buddha numbers five hundred million votaries, and pity is the keynote to it all.1 [Note: M. J. McLeod, Heavenly Harmonics for Earthly Living, 99.]

3. The sense of God’s fatherly compassion grows out of man’s deepest experience. The Psalmist is face to face with his own life, and with the life of Israel. He looks back in his history, and counts up the “benefits” he has received from the Lord: forgiveness and healing, solace and renewal, quickening and uplift. He is swayed by the spirit of praise and adoration and love; and out of his own growing affection there leaps up irresistibly this thought of God. It must be so. The God who meets his sin with such pity and pardon, bears with his errors and guilty ignorance so patiently, must have the heart of a father. These are the gifts of love. They reveal wisdom, intelligence, adaptation of means to an end, but chiefly they show the same sort of care for the soul of man as a loving father shows for his child; they disclose the Divine heart. God forgives as a father does the mistakes and follies and sins of his son. He delivers from peril, He crowns with loving-kindness and tenderness. He satisfies the soaring desires of the spirit; He renews the springs of life. “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.”

But the most vital element in the Psalmist’s experience is the forgiveness of his sins. It is to that he recurs again and again. God forgives as only a father-heart in its fullest flow of pity and compassion can forgive. For it is not easy to forgive. Brothers have been known to pursue one another in a spirit of retaliation for years, and some fathers and mothers have shown hardness of heart towards their own offspring; but God forgives with a generosity and completeness which show that no father has a love so large as His.

Who is a pardoning God like Thee,

Or who has grace so rich and free!

It seems impossible to exaggerate in describing it. Listen to the singer as, with soul bursting with thankfulness, he says, God does chide—but not always; nor does He keep His anger for ever. Take your measuring-glass and look up into the heavens. Let your gaze reach out to the farthest depths of the infinite blue, soar and still soar, and still you do not reach the boundaries of His forgiving love: “He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.”

Years ago when death came to me first and took a child, the anguish was great. Watching her while she lay dying, I learnt for the first time what is meant by the words, “Like as a father pitieth his children.” Only so could I be taught the pity of God. And I learnt too, at the same time, what God must feel at the loss of His children. What are all these passionate affections but parables of Divine things? Shall God suffer and not we?1 [Note: Life of R. W. Dale of Birmingham, 21.]

My little Son, who look’d from thoughtful eyes

And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,

Having my law the seventh time disobey’d,

I struck him, and dismiss’d

With hard words and unkiss’d,

His Mother, who was patient, being dead.

Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep,

I visited his bed,

But found him slumbering deep,

With darken’d eyelids, and their lashes yet

From his late sobbing wet.

And I, with moan,

Kissing away his tears, left others of my own;

For on a table drawn beside his head,

He had put, within his reach,

A box of counters, and a red-vein’d stone,

A piece of glass abraded by the beach

And six or seven shells,

A bottle with bluebells

And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,

To comfort his sad heart.

So when that night I pray’d

To God, I wept, and said:

Ah, when at last we lie with tranced breath,

Not vexing Thee in death,

And Thou rernemberest of what toys

We made our joys,

How weakly understood,

Thy great commanded good,

Then, fatherly not less

Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay,

Thou’lt leave Thy wrath, and say,

“I will be sorry for their childishness.”1 [Note: Coventry Patmore, The Unknown Eros.]

4. The New Testament discloses the fact that the pity of God is the sympathy of One who associates Himself with us and undertakes for us. When we speak of the Incarnation we think of the Divine in the human. But there is another side to that great truth. There is the human in the Divine—what Robertson of Brighton used to call the humanity of Deity, and what the late Principal Edwards of Bala called “the humanity of God.” That is something which makes Him one with us, so that He identifies Himself with us, and, in a word, pities us. Now nobody resents that kind of pity, the pity of a genuine sympathy, which makes a man suffer because you suffer and compels him so to identify himself with you as to enter into your experience. That comes to you like balm; there is healing in it. It stands by your side; it puts its arms around you, so to speak, and in quivering tones says: “My brother, my sister, my child, this misfortune touches us both, for you are bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh. Because you suffer I must suffer. In the name of our common humanity, in the name of God, let us try to help each other.” That is pity. That is the pity of God; for that is the pity of love.

What is the meaning of Gethsemane and the cross but this, that the Son of God by virtue of His identification with us in His humanity entered sympathetically into the sin and suffering of the world? Not that He shared our sin by actual transgression, for He knew no sin; but as a father shares the sin and shame and suffering of his child, so the Lord Jesus shared our sin and shame and suffering. “Himself bare our sins in his own body on the tree.” “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities.” He who knew no sin “was made sin for us.” How otherwise could He have made atonement for us? And what is the teaching of the parable of the Prodigal Son in this regard? How did the father pity his wandering boy? He yearned for him when he was away in the far country; he knew well what it all meant—the degradation, the undying stain, the suffering. And for every pang in the heart of the son there was an answering pang in the heart of the father. And how did the pity express itself? While the son was yet a great way off the father saw him, and had compassion on him, and ran to meet him. Ah! pity does not think of its dignity. The pity of some people could never get beyond a walk; it is too often on stilts. The father’s pity made him run; he ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And that is the pity of God; that is how it is unfolded in the story of redemption.

A chord which has been once set in unison with another vibrates (they say) when its fellow is sharply struck. God has set His heart through human suffering into perpetual concord with human hearts. Strike them, and the heart of God quivers for fellowship. If this is compassion, it is so in a more literal sense than when we use the word as a mere synonym for pity. It is sympathy, in the Greek and New Testament sense; it is, as our version has it, being “touched” with the same feeling. It is the remembrance of His own human past which stirs within the soul of Christ, when, now, from His high seat, He sees what mortal men endure.1 [Note: J. O. Dykes.]

5. The Psalmist says that man’s weakness makes a sure appeal to the Father’s heart. “For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.” Dust is a synonym for frailty. While the mountains stand fast for generations, the dust into which they are slowly worn has no abiding place. The winds toss it, carrying its unresisting particles whithersoever they will. And the stuff out of which we are fashioned is just as unstable and never at one stay. Our lives are of slenderer fibre than unspun silk, brittle as threads of fine-drawn glass, breath-breakable as the texture that holds together only in a vacuum. The Psalmist goes on to speak of death, reminding us that man is like a flower of the field which, untended by human care, unscreened by human device, unwarmed by human art, shrivels at the first sign of change and the first moan of desert wind, and dies neglected and forlorn. Through the entire round of his days he is ever matching and measuring his puny capacities against the strong. Death, which draws the curtain over his cold, inert, baffled clay, is but the last phase in that ever-recurring spectacle of impotence. And yet man draws the Almighty God down to his help; and, marvellous to say, man draws God by reason of his very frailty. Of the sum of that human life over which He bends I am but a thousand-millionth part, and yet “the Lord thinketh upon me,” who “am poor and needy”—thinketh of me the more closely for that very reason.

In his essay on “The Sublime and Beautiful,” Burke points out the fact that we always associate physical smallness with the idea of beauty, and he supports his rule by reminding us that in every known language terms of endearment are diminutives. Is not the reason for this common note in the taste and speech of mankind that the hearts of the strong and the chivalrous are captured by the very weakness which solicits defence? When we are called upon to play the part of providence to the helpless we experience a mysterious satisfaction which influences our æsthetic judgment, and the helpless grow beautiful in our eyes. And does not this peculiarity in human nature give us the clue to a mystery in the heart of God? When He made man He put Divine qualities into a slender framework, filled up with delicate clay, because to such beings the deepest secret of His tenderness could be spoken.1 [Note: T. G. Selby.]

Will you say to a mother, Why do you waste such love on that poor child? Do you not see that he is a cripple, has curvature of the spine, always will be a cripple? See the little fellow creeping on his hands and knees! The doctor says that he can never be strong; always will be a source of anxiety to you; most likely never will be able to walk. Why worry so over him? What good will he ever be? Ah, if you spoke thus, she would give you a look that would shrivel you.

My silent boy, I hold thee to my breast,

Just as I did when thou wast newly born.

It may be sinful, but I love thee best,

And kiss thy lips the longest night and morn.

Oh, thou art dear to me beyond all others,

And when I breathe my trust and bend my knee

For blessing on thy sisters and thy brothers,

God seems the nighest when I pray for thee.1 [Note: M. J. McLeod, Heavenly Harmonies for Earthly Living, 110.]

6. God’s intimate knowledge of our weakness is the sure pledge of tender parental treatment. It is certain that a very great part of the harshness of judgment which passes among men is the result of imperfect knowledge. You do not know the man you are speaking about; you do not know the natural infirmities, the bodily hindrances, the constitutional causes which affect the person whom you are blaming. You cannot take into your calculation all the circumstances, all the pressure, all the temptation. You cannot read his motives, you cannot dip into the secret processes going on in that man’s mind. If you could see all this, your feelings would be very different, and your sentiments would be reversed.

Now, of all upon earth, a parent can best estimate these things in his own child. Has he not watched him from the first passages of his dawning life? Has he not seen the moulding of his frame? Has he not become intimate with the secret framework of his being? Can he not take a more comprehensive view of him than any other man can? And this pity flowing from parental knowledge is the shadow of that love of God. He sees what no other eye sees, and His calculations include all the extenuating circumstances—the health, the position, the conflict, the effort, the struggle, the sorrow, the penitence. “He knows” and—blessed be God for the kind word, a word very rarely known to us—” He remembers.” And so pity is the child of knowledge. “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.”

Not as one blind and deaf to our beseeching,

Neither forgetful that we are but dust,

Not as from heavens too high for our upreaching.

Coldly sublime, intolerably just:—


Nay but Thou knewest us, Lord Christ Thou knowest,

Well Thou rememberest our feeble frame,

Thou canst conceive our highest and our lowest,

Pulses of nobleness and aches of shame.


Therefore have pity!—not that we accuse Thee,

Curse Thee and die and charge Thee with our woe;

Not thro’ Thy fault, O Holy One, we lose Thee,

Nay, but our own,—yet hast Thou made us so!


Then tho’ our foul and limitless transgression

Grows with our growing, with our breath began,

Raise Thou the arms of endless intercession.

Jesus, divinest when Thou most art man!1 [Note: F. W. H. Myers, Saint Paul.]

7. The Psalmist based the pity of our Heavenly Father on His special knowledge of our frame—such knowledge as only the Framer of it can possess. But to know man’s frame, to know what is in man, even to search and try with Divine inspection the heart and spirit of a man, is after all something less intimate and perfect than to be a man. To learn a child’s lessons, feel a youth’s passions, think a man’s thoughts; to be actually tempted to evil as men are tempted, and find out by trial how hard it is for them to be good; to undergo the moral probation and discipline peculiar to a human creature, impossible to the Creator; this must give—or, if we are to think about the subject at all, it must be supposed by us to have given—to the Son of God a fresh acquaintance with human experience, of quite another sort from the omniscience of the creating Father. At all events, who can help feeling this, that, if it is possible for any one to know us, understand us, and do us justice, Jesus Christ is that One; since, as our Maker, He both knows what He made us fit to be and to do and, as our Fellow-Man, has learned through what hindrances and temptations we have become what we are?

An obelisk, originally brought from Egypt, stands in the piazza of St. Peter’s at Rome. It was put into its present position in the sixteenth century. It weighs a little short of a million pounds, and required the strength of eight hundred men, one hundred and fifty horses, and forty-six cranes, to lift it on to its pedestal. The crowds who witnessed the feat were forbidden to speak under pain of death. As the ropes were tugged by hosts of workmen, and the huge obelisk slowly reared itself like a waking giant, the movement suddenly stopped and the ropes threatened to give way. The huge mass was about to fall crashing upon the pavement. An old sailor in the crowd, familiar with the humours of ropes and the methods of treating them, broke the silence and cried, “Pour water on the ropes!” The advice was quickly followed, the ropes tightened, and the obelisk slowly rose again and settled securely upon its base. In our past life how often have strain, tension, and peril come to us! The ties by which we were knit to goodness, to truth, to purity, to faith, were sorely tested, and seemed ready to snap and plunge us into ruin. Some temptation arose out of all proportion to the staying power of our trust in God, some shock fraught with impending disaster to the character, some partial alienation from right paths threatening to strand our lives in uselessness. But the eye of infinite wisdom was watching, and God remembered the weakness of the flesh. From within the unseen there came a voice that saved us, and the peril was overpast. The strain eased off, character strengthened itself to the emergency, and we were kept in the plane of our providential lot. And through this wise, watchful pity of our infirmities we come to find ourselves with a place in the living temple, monuments of the gentleness, the sympathy, and the upholding power of the God who pities the frail. In the moments which show most our weakness the Lord remembers that we are but dust, and fortifies us against the strains and hazards which belong to our earthly course.1 [Note: T. G. Selby, The God of the Frail, 14.]

8. Who are they that experience this pity of God? What does the text say? “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.” The same expression occurs in the eleventh verse: “As the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.” And again in the seventeenth verse: “The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him.” Now, let us not imagine for a moment that God does not yearn with compassion over men who are utterly reckless, men who are breaking through God’s law, and treading the path that leadeth to destruction. God pities them; but, then, observe, they are indifferent to Him; and if we are indifferent to any one, we do not care for that one’s pity, we have no wish for his compassion. God’s compassion goes forth upon all men, but all men cannot receive it, and do not receive it. It is not the idea of terror that is conveyed by this word “fear.” We do not crave mercy from a tyrant; we demand justice from him. If one might translate this word “fear” one should do so by two words—“reverential love.” We can receive real sympathy only from those we love with reverence. When we are bearing a great trial, when we are going through our testing time, when we are bowing under a heavy sorrow, who are the men and women from whom we seek sympathy or pity? It may be we seek for the companionship of but one—only one—for whom our love is deep and reverent.

Bunyan in his long treatise On the Fear of God deals with the matter of “right fear” very fully. “Take heed,” he says in that treatise, “of hardening thy heart at any time against convictions of judgments. I bid you before to beware of a hard heart, now I bid you beware of hardening your soft heart. The fear of the Lord is the pulse of the soul. Pulses that beat are the best sighs of life; but the worst show that life is present. Intermitting pulses are dangerous. David and Peter had an intermitting pulse in reference to this fear.” Christian is no coward, and the adjective right is emphatic when he speaks of right fear. The word fear has two senses, according as it relates to dangerous or to sublime things. In the one connexion it is a sense of danger; in the other it is the faculty of reverence, the habit of wonder, the continued power of awe and admiration. Christian’s analysis of it includes both these senses. (1) It rises in the conviction of sin—not (it will be observed) in the approach of punishment, but in the horror of sin itself, as a thing to be abhorred apart from its consequences. (2) It leads to a laying hold on Christ for salvation—in which the sense of danger and the faculty of reverence are combined. (3) It begets in the soul a great reverence for God.1 [Note: John Kelman, The Road, ii. 162.]

Among the children of God, while there is always that fearful and bowed apprehension of His majesty, and that sacred dread of all offence to Him, which is called the Fear of God, yet of real and essential fear there is not any, but clinging of confidence to Him as their Rock, Fortress, and Deliverer; and perfect love, and casting out of fear; so that it is not possible that, while the mind is rightly bent on Him, there should be dread of anything either earthly or supernatural; and the more dreadful seems the height of His majesty, the less fear they feel that dwell in the shadow of it (“Of whom shall I be afraid”), so that they are as David was, “devoted to His fear”; whereas, on the other hand, those who, if they may help it, never conceive of God, but thrust away all thought and memory of Him, and in His real terribleness and omnipresence fear Him not nor know Him, yet are by real, acute, piercing, and ignoble fear, haunted for evermore.2 [Note: Ruskin, Modern Painters, ii. ch. xiv. (Works, iv. 199).]

Literature

Buckland (A. R.), Text Studies for a Year, 143.

Clifford (J.), The Gospel of Gladness, 17.

Conn (J.), The Fulness of Time, 1.

Dykea (J. O.), Sermons, 138.

Fleming (A. G.), Silver Wings, 26.

McLeod (M. J.), Heavenly Harmonies, 99.

Murray (W. H.), The Fruits of the Spirit, 397.

Pierce (C. C.), The Hunger of the Heart for Faith, 59.

Selby (T. G.), The God of the Frail, 2.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xvi. (1870), No. 941.

Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), vii. (1868), No. 678.

Walters (F.), in Sermons by Unitarian Ministers, 53.

Christian World Pulpit, xxx. 230 (J. Baillie); xxxii. 376 (F. Ferguson); xxxviii. 188 (D. Hobbs); lx. 376 (E. Griffith-Jones); lxi. 251 (J. Ritson).

Church Pulpit Year Book, 1909, p. 153.


Verse 14

(14) Frame.—Rather, fashioning; referring to Genesis 2:7, or possibly to the image so common in the prophecy of the potter’s vessel.


Verse 16

(16) The wind—i.e., the hot, scorching blast, as in Isaiah 40:7. Even in our humid climate, it may be said of a flower—

“If one sharp wind sweep o’er the field,

It withers in an hour.”

But the pestilential winds of the East are described as bringing a heat like that of an oven, which immediately blasts every green thing.

Know it no more.—Comp. Job 7:10. Man vanishes away without leaving a trace behind. The pathos of the verse has been well caught in the well-known lines of Gray:—

“One morn I missed him on the accustomed hill,

Along the heath, and near his favourite tree:

Another came, nor yet beside the rill,

Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he.”


Verse 19

(19) Prepared.—Rather, established.


Verse 20

(20) Just as in the highest revelation made by Jesus Christ the angels in heaven rejoice over the repentant sinner, so in the psalmist’s view the mercy of Jehovah to his faithful people is cause for high acclaim among the hosts around the throne.


Verse 21

(21) Hosts.—There are apparently in the psalmist’s thought three grades of beings in the hierarchy of praise:—

1. High angels around the throne.

2. Angelic powers, such as winds, lightnings, &c, specially commissioned to do God’s behests, as in Psalms 104:4.

3. Creation generally. (Comp. Psalms 148)


Verse 22

(22) All his works.—Not only the heavens and their hosts, but

“Earth with her thousand voices praises God.”

Nor can the psalmist himself remain silent, but must repeat the self-dedication with winch he began his song.

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Psalms 103:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/psalms-103.html. 1905.

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