Psalms Week 10
Bless the Lord, O My Soul: Psalms 103, 104, 105, 106
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Old Testament
Read this week’s Scripture: Psalm 103; Psalm 104; Psalm 105; Psalm 106
These four psalms — one titled (103: “Of David”), three untitled (104; 105; 106) — are soaring hymns of praise. Psalm 103 calls for praising God in the context of God’s graciousness and the forgiveness of sin. Psalm 104 lauds God for God’s having created everything that is. And Psalms 105 and 106 exalt God in the context of the magnalia dei — the mighty acts of God — on behalf of Israel, God’s elect people.
The theme of Psalm 103 is sounded at the outset. Using exquisite poetic language, the psalmist — David — musters all his strength to praise God, which is what bless means when the speaker is a person and the object of the blessing is God. The conventional translation soul should not be thought of as indicative of some part of personhood unrelated to the body. In this case, the word is a synonym for one’s self. Note that in 103:1 the parallel to soul is “all that is within me,” meaning one’s innermost being or one’s essential self. Likewise, blessing the Lord and blessing the Lord’s holy name are one and the same. God’s name is indicative of God’s being. [Author’s Note 1]
Upon repeating this phrase in 103:2, along with an admonition not to forget the many benefits that God fosters, there is a short list of the most obvious actions on God’s part that are deserving of ardent praise: forgiving iniquity, healing diseases, redeeming from “the Pit” (the world of the dead), crowning with covenant love and mercy, offering goods of all kinds, and renewing one’s youth (103:3–5). How could there be any other response than effusive praise for a deity who does these things?
In light of this beginning, it is difficult to tell whether this psalm should be read individually or collectively. That is, is David to be thought of here as a single person or is the psalmist in this case a representative of the whole community? The ambiguity may be purposeful. After all, in addition to the obviously personal elements indicated by singular personal pronouns, there are a number of plural references (e.g., 103:6–14
). Perhaps we should think of this as a personal statement in a communal context, as when during Christian worship one recites a creed by beginning “I believe” even while the recitation is engaged in by the whole congregation.
In any case, the next segment of Psalm 103 catalogs several divine actions in behalf of Israel. The Lord vindicates the oppressed (103:6), reveals the divine self to Moses and the people (103:7), acts mercifully and graciously in response to the people’s sins (103:8–13), and remains aware of human frailty (103:14). This latter point is elaborated upon by comparing human transience with divine permanence. Human beings are compared to plant life, which flourishes for a period, but eventually succumbs to decay and death (103:15). In contrast, for those who obey God’s covenant and keep God’s commandments (103:18), the Lord’s covenant love is from everlasting to everlasting, extending even to multiple generations (103:17). Human weakness is more than matched by divine strength.
If Psalm 103 began with an intensely personal flavor, it concludes with an intensely communal flavor. This final section first affirms that the Lord has established the divine throne in the heavens, which is the seat of God’s universal rule: God’s “kingdom rules over all” (103:19). There follow four commands to “bless the Lord” — the psalm also featured four such commands in the first three verses. Who is to bless the Lord at the conclusion? Angels and mighty ones (another category of divine agent) who are obedient and attentive are to bless the Lord (103:20). All God’s hosts are to bless the Lord, along with all ministers who do the Lord’s will (103:21). Even God’s works (i.e., the created order) are to bless the Lord wherever the Lord has dominion, that is, everywhere (103:23). Finally, for good measure the psalm ends exactly as it began: “Bless the Lord, O my soul” (103:23)!
Like Psalm 103, Psalm 104 begins and concludes with “Bless the Lord, O my soul” (104:1, 35). The only difference is that a Hallelujah/“Praise the Lord” enhances the second occurrence in 104:35. The reason for the blessing/praise in this psalm, however, is God’s majesty and grandeur as manifested in and through God’s creation.
Before getting to the created order itself, though, the psalmist describes God in a manner that befits a deity who is responsible for bringing into existence everything there is. This is a God who is outfitted with honor, majesty, and light; who dwells in a tent made of the heavens and in chambers that rest on the waters; who rides on a chariot constructed of the clouds and on wings supplied by the wind; and, finally, whose messengers/ministers are the winds, fire, and flame (104:2–4). The image is almost too magnificent for words, even the lofty, poetic words of the psalm itself. While it was forbidden for Israelites to make any physical images of their God, no limits whatsoever were put on mental images.
After this incredible introduction, the psalmist launches into a litany of God’s creative acts. God set an unshakable earth on its foundations, and clothed that same earth with oceans and waters higher than mountains (104:5–6). [Author’s Note 2] According to the psalmist, God not only was responsible for the created order but ruled over it. Thus, God rebuked the mighty waters (perhaps the primordial waters of chaos) so that they fled, ordered mountains to rise and valleys to sink, and established boundaries to contain the elements (104:7–9).
The psalmist also mentions the utilitarian aspects of God’s created order. God provided springs so that animals and birds could drink (104:10–11). Though ruling from a lofty divine abode, the Lord provides water such that the world is satisfied with what God has done (104:13). Continuing in this vein, God sees to it that grass grows for cattle, and plants for human cultivation; that conditions are good for wine, oil, and bread, which human beings require; and that trees are watered and planted so that avian creatures have homes (104:14–17). Leaving no detail out, the psalmist asserts that God has planned for the mountains and rocks to provide housing for goats and badgers. By extension, every living thing on the earth has been taken care of by this creator God (104:18). God made the moon and sun to mark time (104:19). Even nighttime has been planned for by God so that nocturnal animals could be accommodated (104:20). Predators — such as lions — may be skillful hunters, but ultimately their sustenance is from God (104:21–22). That is the role darkness serves. As for the human species, daytime is when they complete the necessary work (104:23). Bless God, for in God’s guise as creator everything has been done for a purpose.
The psalmist maintains the focus on creation as the poem continues. A section now appears in which the psalmist is overwhelmed by God’s creative hand. The Lord’s works are many. The Lord has used wisdom as a creative tool. The whole earth teems with God’s creatures. The sea contains creatures both great and small that are beyond counting. The sea itself exists for ships to traverse it and for the mythical monster Leviathan — which God made just for the thrill of it! — to cavort in its depths (104:24–26).
Returning to the motif of God’s sustaining of the created order, the psalmist relishes the fact that all creatures look to God for food. All the creatures have to do is line up to receive all manner of good from God. Conversely, if God abandons this responsibility, the creatures perish. As long as God’s Spirit is at work, however, the creatures flourish and the good earth is renewed (104:27–30).
In conclusion, the psalmist is overcome with praise and gratitude. The psalmist asks that God’s glory always be manifest even while the Lord rejoices in the Lord’s own works (104:31). Words fail when wanting to praise a deity who only has to look at the earth for it to tremble or touch the mountains for them to smoke (104:32). As long as the psalmist lives, the psalmist’s first duty is to praise, hoping all the while that this praise is itself pleasing to God (104:33–34). Apparently thinking that failing to praise a creator God of this description can be explained only by sin, the psalmist adds that the wicked are an affront to the created order and ought to be removed. There is only one fitting response to this God — namely, praise, on which note the psalmist concludes (104:35).
Psalms 105 and 106 are framed by hallelujahs — “Give thanks to the Lord” or “Praise the Lord” — strategically placed at their beginnings and conclusions. These literary devices and the similar content allow these two psalms to be considered together. As noted above, these hymns extol God for God’s mighty divine works in electing and working through Israel, the people of God.
After the initial hallelujah, Psalm 105 immediately invites the people to give thanks to the Lord, call on the divine name, and more specifically make known God’s deeds (105:1). This same thought is repeated when people are called to sing praises to God and tell of God’s wonderful works (105:2). Wonderful works is repeated (105:5) when the people are admonished to remember them along with God’s miracles and judgments. This is all in the context of prompting the descendants of Abraham/the sons of Jacob to unbridled glorying in God’s name, heartfelt rejoicing in the Lord, seeking the Lord, and basking in the Lord’s presence (105:3, 4, 5). Singing this hymn is designed to ensure fixing God’s wondrous actions in the minds of God’s people.
The foray into God’s deeds begins by calling attention to the fact that though the Lord’s judgments are universal (105:7), the covenant that God has made with Israel is binding forever (105:8–10). Part of this covenant is God’s promise to give the people the land: a promised land (105:11). The call of Abraham and Sarah is dealt with only generally, however. The psalmist recalls when there were only a few ancestors wandering around basically homeless (105:12–13). Though a dangerous time, the Lord saw to it that these ancestors — here interestingly referred to as anointed ones and prophets — were protected from the powerful (105:14–15). [Author’s Note 3]
The psalm then moves immediately to the part of the story in which Joseph’s role is prominent (Genesis 37–50), curiously omitting altogether any details involving Isaac and Rebecca or Jacob and his four wives and subsequent family (Genesis 25–35). It is noteworthy that the psalmist is not merely relating a known story, but also interpreting it. The psalmist declares that God brought about the famine that afflicted Egypt and also planned to have Joseph well positioned for this eventuality (Psalm 105:16–17). Though Joseph had been enslaved, according to the psalmist this was part of God’s plan (105:18–19). In time, Joseph was elevated to a position of prominence (105:21–22).
Joseph’s power gave him the ability to benefit his family greatly; this resulted not only in Israel/Jacob’s and his whole family’s venturing to Egypt but in their becoming extremely strong in the process (105:23–24). Emphasizing God’s complete sovereignty, the psalmist insists that the people’s reversal of fortune — whereby a previously benevolent Egypt became malevolent — was God’s doing, too (105:25). This in turn created the situation in which God sent Moses and Aaron to deal with the oppressive Egyptians (105:26).
As we might expect, the psalmist next delves into the plagues God visited upon Egypt as announced by Moses and Aaron (105:27). These included darkness (105:28), waters turning to blood (105:29), swarms of frogs (105:30), swarms of flies and gnats (105:31), terrible hailstorms (105:32), ruined vegetation (105:33), locusts that devoured plants and fruit (105:34–35), and, finally, the deaths of Egypt’s firstborn (105:36).
The psalmist goes on to allude to Israel’s plundering of Egypt by “borrowing” their jewelry upon departure (105:37; see Exodus 11:2–3; 12:35–36). Naturally, for all they had endured, Egypt was pleased when Israel finally left Egypt (Psalm 105:38). The recitation continues with references to God’s leading Israel by cloud and fire in the wilderness, providing water and meat to the people, and ultimately remembering the ancestral covenant (105:39–42).
Before the final hallelujah of Psalm 105, the psalmist emphasizes that a joyful Israel followed God through the desert with singing (105:43), though this is a very different accent from the murmuring traditions found in Exodus (Exodus 15:24; 16:2–3, 8–12; 17:2–3, 7). Subsequently, God gave Israel the promised land (Psalm 105:44). All this was for the purpose of God’s people’s acting according to God’s will (105:45). Then, as expected, we encounter the concluding hallelujah.
Another hallelujah is repeated, whereupon Psalm 106 begins. This psalm, too, recounts God’s mighty works in Israel’s behalf, but with a twist. Rather than praising the Lord and simply rehearsing what God has done, the psalm calls attention to Israel’s disobedience from Exodus to Exile. It is a profound juxtaposition of God’s gracious acts for God’s people and their consistent, persistent negative response. In so doing, the psalm locates the people’s praise in the context of God’s not completely abandoning them in spite of their great sins. The accent is ultimately on the grace of God.
The proem, or introduction, sets the stage. After the initial hallelujah, the psalmist calls on the people to give thanks to the good Lord for the Lord’s enduring steadfast love. This includes a statement that it is virtually impossible to recite all that the Lord has done. The proem concludes by noting that all are blessed who behave justly and righteously at all times (106:1–3). At this point, one cannot anticipate the direction the rest of the psalm will go.
Then, there is a curious prayer. The psalmist wants the Lord to remember the psalmist when God shows favor to the people by delivering them (106:4). This involves the psalmist’s desiring to join with the chosen at the time of deliverance (106:5). The question is: What deliverance? It appears that the psalm reflects a condition when the people are in need of rescue. As we shall see, this is almost certainly a reference to the Exile.
Such a prayer justifies the psalmist’s launching into a litany of Israel’s sins. Israel’s ancestors sinned by not properly acknowledging God during the miraculous crossing of the sea (106:6–7). God saved Israel anyway (106:8–11), after which they believed and praised (106:12). But they immediately returned to their iniquitous ways in the wilderness (106:13–14). God responded with judgment (106:15).
The psalmist continues by bringing up rebellion against Moses and Aaron and the subsequent punishment (106:16–18; see Numbers 16), Israel’s construction of the golden calf and Moses’ mediation in their behalf (106:19–23; see Exodus 32), the unfaithful murmuring in the wilderness (106:24–27; see the above references), the terrible incident involving the Baal of Peor (106:28–31; see Numbers 25), the outrage at Meribah (106:32–33; see Numbers 20:1–13; Exodus 17:1–7), and their persistent idolatries even in the Promised Land (106:34–39; see Judges 2:11–19; 1 Samuel 7:3; 1 Kings 11:1–8).
All this induced divine anger and led to God’s ultimate punishment: removing Israel from the land (106:40–43). Yet judgment is never God’s last word. God eventually relented and acted providentially for Israel’s return to their land (106:44–46; see Ezra and Nehemiah). Even though the psalmist has already recounted the return from exile, the final prayer is that Israel be gathered from among the nations (who had been their oppressors) so that thanks and praise might be offered (106:47). The final doxology praises God from everlasting to everlasting, calls for an “Amen!” from the people, and has a final hallelujah that concludes this psalm as well as Book IV of the Psalter.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Dr. Spina identifies three reasons for the praise exuded in Psalms 103-106: God’s graciousness and forgiveness, God’s work in Creation, and God’s magnolia dei, or mighty acts. Which of these is most compelling to you personally and why?
- Psalm 103 lists many of the “benefits” (103:2) of knowing God. Re-read the chapter. What, if anything, would you add to this list? Which verse or verses of this psalm speak to your current life situations?
- Psalm 104 is a celebration of God’s work throughout creation. Reflect on an experience in the created world that was praise-inducing for you. What was so meaningful about this experience and why?
- These psalms frequently refer to humans blessing God. How is this similar or different to God blessing humans?
- In the church, in what ways should God’s magnolia dei (mighty acts) of the past be remembered and celebrated?
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