Psalm 103: The Character of God in the Old Testament

Those who follow me on Facebook may have noticed I have been sharing a lot of excerpts from Psalms lately. As part of my spiritual discipline I read through the Bible regularly – sometimes over the course of a year, sometimes in less than a year. Sometimes it takes me more than a year as I also occasionally read the commentary in different study Bibles. Currently I’m on the slower track and thoroughly enjoying it.

Today as I read through a few Psalms, Psalm 103 was among them. Psalm 103 has been a favorite of mine for well over 20 years. It has been a favorite for my wife basically all her life. She had it memorized at a very early age. Psalm 103

While there are many different types of psalms such as hymns of praise and thanksgiving, prayerful laments, celebrations of salvation history, praise for Torah (God’s instruction and law in written form) and psalms of wisdom that resemble books such as Proverbs and Job, there are a few themes that come up repeatedly throughout as well. Those themes include the importance and blessing of covenant faithfulness, the promise and warning of God’s judgment of the wicked (see Psalm 1 for both themes), the hope of God’s salvation reaching all nations throughout the earth through the witness of Israel, and the loving, faithful, gracious, and merciful character of God, the Creator of all and the rightful Lord of all the earth and its peoples.

We certainly need to be reminded in these sad days of increasing racial tensions that God’s purpose in choosing the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, was to eventually bring all the descendants of Adam, people of all ethnicities and races, back into covenant relationship with the Creator who revealed himself as Yahweh to Israel. Intriguingly, in a world where it’s all to easy to value one’s own ethnic identity over others, the heart of the chosen people’s own Scriptures reveal that God didn’t choose them because of anything inherently special about them over all other peoples. Rather God specifically says he chose them because of his own integrity and gracious character not theirs. Deuteronomy 7 and 9 make it clear that God chose Israel in spite of their stubbornness and rebelliousness because of the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

That promise and the election of Israel as his treasured possession was not just for their benefit, but also for the benefit of the rest of the wayward nations. The promise to Abraham was that in him and in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:1-3). This is why prophets such as Isaiah hold out the hope and vision of the day when people from all nations will stream in to worship Yahweh.

Isaiah 2:1-3 (ESV)
“The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”

This is also a recurrent theme and hope held out in the psalms.

Psalm 102:12-22 (ESV)
“But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations.
You will arise and have pity on Zion; it is the time to favor her; the appointed time has come. For your servants hold her stones dear and have pity on her dust. Nations will fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth will fear your glory.
For the Lord builds up Zion; he appears in his glory; he regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer. Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord: that he looked down from his holy height; from heaven the Lord looked at the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die, that they may declare in Zion the name of the Lord, and in Jerusalem his praise, when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to worship the Lord.”

We would do well to remember these things whenever anyone insists that some races are inherently superior to others or that some are inherently more evil than others simply by virtue of their skin color or ethnicity. Racism and racists of any variety have no place in the kingdom of the God. Anyone who can’t stand the thought of being in a multi-ethnic, multi-racial family can’t be a true member of the family of God that Christ has opened up to people of every nation, tribe, and tongue (see Rev. 7). The Bibles reveals God as the Creator of all peoples, who seeks to be reconciled with them. And the love of God for the world and all the peoples of the world flow from God’s very own character.

Psalm 103 is one of the many psalms that refer to the character of God, which makes him worthy of the highest and most exclusive praise among the nations of the world. Psalm 103:8 says, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” This is a clear reference to Exodus 34:6-7 where God reveals himself to Moses.

Exodus 34:6-7(ESV)
“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,  keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Psalm 103 and the plethora of other psalms that refer to God’s steadfast love and faithfulness all harken back to Exodus 34:6-7. This is the central and most important description of the nature of God in the Old Testament, which may come as a surprise to those outside the church like atheist Richard Dawkins and some inside the church, who think of the God of the Old Testament as a capriciously wrathful deity, a cosmic killjoy and malevolent bully. Listen to Richard Dawkins’ description of the god of the Old Testament.

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” ― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Some Christian theologians unwittingly – perhaps some wittingly – echo these sentiments whenever they set up Jesus as a “corrective” in some sense to the way God is depicted in the Old Testament. But Exodus 34:6-7, which resounds throughout Psalms is the revelation of God in the Old Testament that was embodied most fully in the person of Jesus Christ. God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness has always outweighed his wrath, but has never negated it altogether for the unrepentant wicked. But the gracious, merciful, and generous God of the Old Testament is the one who has always provided for the forgiveness of sins and who refuses to give up on his people and his promises. God love is revealed in his faithfulness to his word, which is why God’s love and faithfulness are mentioned together so frequently. As Dr. David Watson wrote about so beautifully, the nature and character of God is the basis of any genuine “generous orthodoxy.” There is nothing capricious about the God of the Bible, who is most fully revealed in Christ. And there is nothing revealed about Jesus in the New Testament that should give anyone the idea that God’s mercy negates God’s just wrath against the wicked altogether.

It is the character of God revealed in Exodus 34:6-7 that inspires the praise and thanksgiving found in the Psalms. Psalms 103 is a further exposition of the character of God revealed to Moses. This same God is the one who can be trusted to bless his faithful people and to punish the wicked as he has always promised. He is a patient and forgiving God, and will never turn any repentant sinner away. As Psalm 103:17-18 says: “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.”  

The later, by the way, in no way diminishes the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. After all it was Jesus who taught that those who will be welcomed into the kingdom of God at the final judgment will only be those who do the will of God. Those who claim the name of the God while rejecting God’s claim on their lives will be turned away as “workers of lawlessness” (Matt 7:21-27). The good news is God not only provides the forgiveness we need for breaking his commandments by the blood of Christ, he also provides the power we need to live a faithful life by his very own Spirit. God’s grace provides forgiveness and empowerment for holiness. In this the promise of the new covenant is fulfilled. God’s steadfast love endures forever! What an awesome and wonderful God we serve!

Psalm 103 (ESV)
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 forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.
The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all.
Bless the Lord, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his word,
obeying the voice of his word!
Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
his ministers, who do his will!
Bless the Lord, all his works,
in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul!



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