BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book of Psalms is a collection of songs or hymns of thanks and praise, and of prayers. Sometimes referred to as “the hymnbook of the 2nd Temple” – that is, the Temple as rebuilt after the Babylonian exile. But, it might have been the hymnbook of the 1st Temple, or at least, it may include psalms that are that old.
“Psalm” comes from the Greek word that translated the Hebrew word tehillim, which means musical praise. It’s used for the entire book, although the book includes poems that are more properly thought of as prayers. Either way, it seems, the texts played a role in the worship life of ancient Israel.
Commentators have proposed MANY systems for categorizing the Psalms (3 kinds, 4 kinds, 5 kinds, 10 kinds, 12 kinds …) All of these systems seem to come with the caveat that “there is a lot of overlap,” “there are psalms that cross the categories,” etc. Still, no reader of the book of Psalms can help noticing that some of the psalms are clearly oriented towards praise, others more towards thanksgiving for something God has done, others oriented more towards pleading for God’s action in the midst of some trial, etc.
Scholars have devoted plenty of energy to examining the superscripts that attach to almost all of the individual poems in the book. [Psalm 103 has the superscript “Of David” – which many readers think means that David wrote it, as readers have thought for centuries, but it’s possible that it means it was dedicated to David, or was written in Davidic style.]
In thinking about all of this, it might be worth considering what someone would make of the Presbyterian Hymnal if they just happened to have a copy of it after a millennia or so, and nothing else to go on. What would they make of the organization, the topical index, the little notations in the headings, etc.? Would they be able to figure out what people had done with those hymns? Would they still be able to read the music? That’s something like the position contemporary readers are in with respect to the Psalms.
That thought experiment also helps make sense of the observation that the Psalms, taken as a whole, tell a broadly single story but with a fair amount of variation – just as we won’t find hymns in a hymnal today that flat out contradict Christian theology, but we might find more than one kind of depiction of God, some are more focused on God and others on Jesus or even the Holy Spirit, there’s a range of theological affirmations made within the covers of a single hymnal … as with the book of Psalms.
We might want to call this “rich.”
CLOSER READING: Psalm 103 will generally be classified as a psalm of praise or – if the classifier makes a distinction between “praise” as being “for what God is” and “thanksgiving” as being “for what God has done” – a psalm of thanksgiving.
Blessing YHWH – which is given as an imperative seven times – a perfect number of times – is something we might do with our whole body; these days, in a rabbinic Jewish context, a blessing is the root element of all prayer.
Initially the soul of the psalmist is told to bless YHWH. The soul is married to or embedded in the body, making this a deeply physical instruction. The soul is also a feminine noun in Hebrew, making all the following you’s in verses 3-5 feminine singular you’s. That is, it is “my soul’s” iniquities that are forgiven, “my soul’s” diseases that are healed, etc.
Verses 3-19 seem to outline all of the benefits the soul is not supposed to forget, starting with the benefits to the soul individually (verses 3-5), continuing with the benefits to people more generally (6-18, or perhaps 19), and then picking up again with the instruction to bless YHWH, given now to exalted beings, all God’s works, and finally, in conclusion, “my soul.”
Ending with the words of the beginning creates an inclusio, a poetic device that emphasizes the poem’s wholeness, as well as what is contained between the two verbal “bookends.”
In verse 4, the Pit is another name for Sheol, the place of the dead. [The Pit is not “hell,” that is, not a place of organized torment, but instead something like a dark underworld of non-experience. It may not be as bad as “hell,” but it’s not where people want to be.]
Verse 6 might be a reference to what God has done in the past. Or it might be a ringing affirmation of faith. If the latter, it might be made in the teeth of some empirical evidence to the contrary, making it an affirmation of hope and confidence for the future. This seems to me to be the interpretive crux of the psalm.
Saying YHWH is slow to anger in verse 8 implies that YHWH does get angry; that YHWH will not always accuse in verse 9 implies that YHWH does at some point(s) accuse. But this implicit acknowledgement of God’s stern side comes with the assurance that this isn’t all there is to God. Again, verses 8-9 seem to speak to some negative human experience, that could be felt as the experience of divine anger or accusation. In that context, these statements would offer reassurance.
Verses 10 and 12 refer to sins, iniquities, and transgressions, none of which God treats “strictly by the book,” according to the psalmist. Another reassurance.
It is worth considering how, and when, a father has compassion for his children to feel our way into the imagery in verses 13-14. When they are struggling? Sad? Hurt? Frustrated? Overwhelmed? …
The Psalmist identifies those who fear him as those given tender consideration by YHWH (verses 11, 13, 17). In other contexts, “fearing YHWH” is tightly linked to heeding YHWH’s word and commands. Here, too.
It’s worth noticing that the psalm indicates that it’s good to “keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments” (v18), but this is after the psalmist has already made clear that God does not pay us back in full for our sins, iniquities, and transgressions. There is a way in which the idea that God is loyal to those who keep the commandments keeps coming back around to the companion idea that God removes transgressions from those who fear him as far as the east is from the west. So – is the psalmist a realist about the degree of compliance those who fear God actually attain? Making an emphatic affirmation of God’s redemptive and forgiving love in the face of that? Maybe so.
Verses 20-22 extend the instruction to bless YHWH to everyone – all YHWH’s created beings, and works, everywhere. So the soul is blessing YHWH along with everyone and everything all around. The inclusio is really, really inclusive.