We live in a tragic world. Too often our lives are associated with and accosted by tragedy. Such a context raises questions. I have been following news print related to the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman tragedy. My point in bringing this case up is not the case itself, but a comment posted by one of the readers of an article related to the case. In the flow of the posts related to the article, there was back on forth on racial issues as one would expect. Among the posts was one that, in light of such tragedies, belittled those who believe in God. The writer went on to say that God is nothing more than “opium for people.”
As tragic and far-reaching as the Martin/Zimmerman event is, when viewed from a global perspective, it becomes lost in a raging sea of racial, class, and ideological hatred and violence. As I glance at the daily headlines, America is filled with bloodgulitiness. So is the world. On Easter Sunday, in Kaduna, Nigeria, a terrorist detonated a car load of explosives intended for a Christian church, killing 20 people. The week before that, they killed 11 Christians in the city market. Since 2010, they have killed 1,000 Christians. Globally, out of 47 deadly attacks this calendar year against Christians at the hands of Islamic terrorists, 25 have been against Christians in Nigeria.
We live in a tragic world. The post that attacked God in light of the Martin/Zimmerman case is not at all odd. More than a few times in a variety of contexts I have read such postings. If I wanted to belittle God and His people as unreasonable and ignorant, I would not use cases of random violence. There is plenty of ammunition that is much more potent. I would argue, for example, the tragedy that befalls God’s own people. What about the 1000 Christians in Nigeria in the last year who have been murdered? Is this the way God treats His people?
We don’t have to look far to see that Christians die tragic untimely deaths. They are murdered. In the late 90’s, a missionary couple living in Russia were stabbed to death in their apartment by a North Korean assassin. Christians get cancer and all kinds of illnesses, and they die. They watch their children die of childhood diseases and malnutrition, they are persecuted just for being Christians, and they subsist in dire need. In deed, we may ask what advantage is there to living in covenant with God?
On a previous occasion, I told you about the mission trip David Matlock and I took to Kenya. I was walking hut to hut in the bush preaching the gospel. I came upon a hut where a mama and her son were setting outside while she fanned the flies off of his leg that was absolutely without skin from below the knee to his foot. I asked her what had happened. She said that he was playing the house and turned a pot of boiling water over on his leg. The boy was not acting as if he were in pain. I’m not a doctor. I know that culturally showing pain is taboo, but he looked to be about 2 or 3 years old. He ought to have been miserable. I asked the mama if she had seen the doctor. She said that she did not have the money. I asked how much treatment would cost. She said, 3,000 KES (about 35 dollars). I pulled my wallet out and gave her about 3,500 KES. She grabbed the money and ran for help for her son.
As we left for another hut, my translator said, You saved him. I was thinking, I saved him. I just traveled 16 hours on an airplane, 8 hours across the Rift Valley, and stayed in a mosquito filled hotel where a band that played the same song over and over all night. I walking in the bush and came upon a house where a little boy had just badly burned his leg. I actually had Schillings in my wallet. Too many variables for me. That day I knew that God had appointed that meeting. I had a profound sense in that moment of why I was on the planet. But it’s not like it came at no cost to me. I still have a knot on the back of my arm where a Massai cattleman pinched me, the blood vessels in one of eyes exploded and caused me to look like a pile a disease to be feared and avoided, and I got malaria and thought I would die. It was excruciatingly painful and full of misery. What kind of deal is that? It just makes you want to say, Come on! Show me a little love here!
In the context of Luke 13, Jesus was teaching of the opportunity, responsibility, and accountability of man to repent in light of the coming judgment of God. Some raised this very question with Jesus. What about those Galileans that Pilate murdered who were in the very act of worship? Jesus said, I will up you one, what about those in Jerusalem on whom the Tower of Siloam fell? If, in the minds of Jesus’ detractors, the slaying of Galileans argued for their own righteousness and God’s justice, how could they explain the tragic end of those in Jerusalem at Siloam?
If believers never suffered, it would be easy to explain tragedy. Also, there would be no unbelievers. Jesus said to His listeners, the Galileans did not perish like they did because they are worse than you. Those in Jerusalem did not die because they are worse than you. We could add, Trayvon did not die because he is worse than you. George Zimmerman did not shoot him because he is worse than you. 33 Christians did not die last year in Jos, Nigeria, when a car laden with explosives crashed into their church because we are better than them or because God loves us more. Unless you repent, however, you will die unprepared to meet God.
The Context of Our Praise is a Fallen World
You are right to ask the question, What has this to do with Psalm 103. It is a psalm of praise! The context of praise is a tragic world. To this point, this is the only context in which we have praised God. The psalmist is not praising God from the context of a world gone right, but rather a world that is wrong. In a perfect world, you don’t need sins forgiven, diseases healed, from the pit redemption, crowning, and satisfaction. In a perfect world, our days are not oppressed, and we are not like dust and grass.
Our tragic context skews our perspective of God, His love for us, and His dealings with us. When someone belittles God or denies His existence because of what’s wrong in the world, they have adopted an inconsistent worldview. First, I want to take their position and follow it through for a moment. What are you complaining about? If there is no God, then it is not wrong to adulterate, fornicate, murder, steal, oppress the poor and weak, abandon your children, leave your wife or husband. No argument can be offered to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. North Korea and Iran ought to be applauded or bombed or both. It does not matter because there is no God. On and on, I could go. In fact, if you think there is no God, when someone assaults you or steals from you or takes your wife, don’t complain. Let the globe plunge into anarchy and cheer for it not bemoan it.
The Context of our Praise is a Fallen world in which God has powerfully intervened.
Second, I want to answer the God belittler by saying you have taken a Christian position to decry violence and all that is wrong in the world. This sense of right and wrong is evidence that God is revealing and communicating His character and glory in the world. You, too, have never lived in a world without the grace of God restraining sin and evil. God, through the evil around you, is calling you to repentance. Every tragic headline is a message calling for repentance.
Yes, something is wrong in the world. It is sin. It is all that is contrary to the character of God. When we bemoan evil, we argue from the assumption that the world should be perfect or could be perfect. Sin entered the world through one man, and death came through sin. Death spread to all men because all sinned. From Adam, the head of human race, we inherited sin and death.
The last Man, Christ, came without sin. Like the first man, He is the head of a race, and new race. Unlike the first man, who brought sin, He brought the free gift of grace. The first man’s disobedience to God brought sin and death and all that accompanies such things—violence, war, murder, adultery and every dis-function in society. The second Man’s obedience, his righteousness, leads to justification and righteousness. By placing your faith in Him alone, your heritage changes. You are brought into a new race with Christ as the head where grace reigns because of His righteousness that leads to eternal life. No longer are there distinctions of black, white, yellow, and red, high class and low class, but rather we are one in Christ.
Psalm 103 is about the powerful, redeeming love of God in His dealings with His people. It is about God’s redemptive activity in a tragically fallen world where we are all plagued by sin—our own sin and weakness and the sins of others. God is to be praised because of His intervention on our behalf. The psalmist grounds his argument in the sovereignty and steadfast love and mercy of God; i.e. in the character of God (v1, 4, 8, 11, 17, 19).
Because we are sinful and our vision of God and His kindness is skewed, the psalmist calls on us to remember God’s sovereignty and steadfast love and mercy that brings to us the experience of God’s goodness. In a world gone wrong, we need to be called on to praise God. We need to be reminded of how God deals with His people in love, we need to be assured in a world of oppression that God works justice and righteousness, we need to know that God answers our weakness in mercy and kindness, we need to be comforted in the truth that though our lives are temporary, God is eternal.
In all of God’s dealings with us is in this tragic world, we must preach the gospel to ourselves, others, and all created order as the summons and basis for all heartfelt praise. (VV1-5, 20-22)
The psalmist calls on himself to bless the Name of God in heart felt praise (vv 1-2, 22). The gospel is grounded in the very character of God. He intends to do His people good through the gospel. This is who He is.
The Character of God is the Ground of all Praise. (v1, 22)
The ground of all praise is the self-revelation of God. When the psalmist calls on himself to bless the Name, he is reflecting on Who God has made Himself known to be for His people. God revealed His Name to Moses at the burning bush. Moses wanted to know how to answer when the Israelites would ask, Who sent you? God said, I Am Who I Am (Ex. 3:14). I Am is a form of the to be verb that is related to the Name Yahweh. In asking God His Name, Moses was asking God about His essential nature. This Name of God suggests that He self-existent without need of anything, that He is immutable in His being and character, and that He is owed all praise and the deepest adoration. To feed his affections for God and direct his praise, the psalmist is recalling the gracious self-revelation of God to Moses
Moses experienced a revelation of Yahweh that was unprecedented. In Exodus 6, when Moses came to realize that Pharaoh was not going to topple over so easily, he cried out to God. The LORD responded, I am the LORD, I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my Name the LORD I did not make myself known to them (Ex. 6:2ff). It is not that Abraham did not know the Name Yahweh. It is that Moses is finding out the extent to which God will go to uphold His Name, even among the Egyptians, and to keep His promise that He made to Abraham.
We can let the wrongs of this world crowd praise out of our lives when what is wrong ought to lead us to praise because we know that God is for us. The psalmist is not calling on himself to get out of bed and go to church. He is setting his affections on God. He is in the congregation of God’s people, and he is calling on himself to pour out heart felt praise to the Holy Name of the LORD (v1).
Often it seems that our affections for God are no more tended to than our affections for other people. In our culture particularly, love is something that people fall into and out of. I have heard both husbands and wives confess, I don’t love my spouse any more. I have fallen out of love. I would better guess, you have fallen into sin. You are no more going to be able to love God than you are going to love your mate unless you fight to love them. Command your affections for God. Pray about your affections for God.
The psalmist not only calls on himself to praise God, he calls on the congregation to praise God. He moves from the talking to himself in vv1-5 to exhorting the congregation in vv6-14. Praise is infectious. So is the unwillingness to praise God. When we praise God, we are inviting and exhorting one another to praise Him. When, however, I withhold praise, I am inviting others to the do the same. Nobody wants to stand alone.
Again the psalmist expands the call to praise God to all of the created order (vv20-22). There is a missiological element to praise. The goal and fuel of missions is worship. When we preach the gospel to others, we are calling on them to give God glory. The psalmist calls on all that exist to praise the LORD.
B. What God has done for us in the gospel flows out of His Character and evokes our praise.
Because our vision of God is tainted by sin and our understanding of the world to come is warped by this imperfect world, if we are to praise God, we must preach the Gospel to ourselves and to each other. In the flow of the psalm, the psalmist is preaching the gospel in ever widening circles. He calls on his own soul to bless the Lord and forget not all his benefits (v2). He calls on the congregation and all creation to praise the LORD. Notice the use of the word all (v 1, 2, 3, 6, 21, 22).
The idea of benefits in verse 2 is God’s treatment of us. The psalmist was thrilled to the core of his being when he considered the dealings of God with him. He found to be true of God what Moses found—that God is a God of steadfast loving-kindness and mercy.
We must never forget that we were owed only wrath.
We not only deserve hell for our general bent toward sin. We
deserve hell for some of the thoughts that have, perhaps, passed through our minds while we have been sitting in here. Thankfully, we have not gotten what we deserve.
We must never forget that as His people we receive nothing but good from His hands.
All God does, He does for His glory and our good. There is never a contradiction between these two things. There is never a time when God does something for His glory that is bad for us. There is never a time when His goodness to us reflects badly on Him. Notice in the text (vv3-5) what brings Him glory and how it is good for us. Notice how doing good to us evokes praise.
The psalmist marks God’s good dealings with him with a series of participles. In these verses the psalmist is still talking to himself. He is preaching the gospel to himself. He says to his soul, He forgives all your iniquities, heals all your diseases, redeems your life from the pit, crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, and satisfies you with good to renew your strength (vv3-5).
A sermon could be preached just on the participles of verses 3-5. I’ll try not to. Are you plagued by sin? He forgives all of them. He removes everything that separates us from Him. Do you need healing? He heals all our diseases. He redeems us from death. He crowns or surrounds us in mercy. He satisfies us—fills us to the saturation point—with good to renew our strength.
This is gospel, and we must preach it to ourselves because we live lives plagued by sin, disease, death, exposure, and weakness. The basis of all praise is the powerful intervention of God into our tragic lives with gospel mercy. Every man owes God praise, but the gospel is the foundation of all praise. We cannot even give God glory without the gospel. How can we approach God, even to give Him praise without One who stands as our righteousness?
In all of God’s dealings with us in this fallen world, God Works Righteousness and Justice for us (sinners) vv6-14.
If the psalmist is preaching to himself in the context of worship in verses 1-5, he shows his solidarity with the congregation in verses 6-14, calling on them to praise God with him (us 10; our and we v14).
God’s dealings with the psalmist recited in vv1-5 have called to the mind of the psalmist, His dealings (deal in verse 10 is the same as benefit in verse 2) with Moses and the Israelites at an interesting and instructive point in history. When we read verse 6, The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed, we may think of the Exodus and Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Israel had an oppressor worse than Pharaoh. Sin.
The psalmist is not thinking about the Exodus but Sinai and particularly God’s dealing with Israel related to the golden calf. While Moses was on Mountain receiving the 10 Commandments, Israel was in the valley below breaking them. Exodus 32-34 recounts the story. In the absence of Moses, the people convinced Aaron to make a golden calf. The text says, They rose up early …offered burnt offerings and …peace offerings. And sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play (32:6). In almost comic relief, God and Moses exchange your peoples (32: 7, 11). The play on words between nakedness (Gen 3) and the people running wild or breaking loose (32:25) (Sailhamer, Pentateuch as Narrative, p313) shows the utter sinfulness of the people.
God did not rescue a godly, deserving people out of Egypt. The text would not have us understand that God rescued them because they were slaves and oppressed and somehow deserving. God did not spare them because they were less guilty than the Egyptians. He did not spare them at Sinai because of the intercession of Moses although Moses interceded (32:11ff). He was gracious to them to be true to His own character. God was being true to His own promise (32:13).
Because of the overwhelming kindness of God, Moses said to God, Show me your ways (33:13), and Please, show me your glory ( 33:19). God said to Moses, I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘the LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy (33:19).
When God made His glory pass before Moses, He said, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands (of generations), forgiving iniquity, 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.(34:6-7)
This event is what the Psalmist is thinking of. What we learn from the golden calf event is not that God and Moses killed a few unrepentant pagans, but that God is merciful and full of loving kindness. The psalmist tells us of the kindness of God to sinners using both negative and positive statements and a series of similes.
Negatively, God does not deal with us according to our sin.
God made his ways known to Moses and Israel (v7). He is merciful and
gracious and does not deal with us according to our sin.
We deserve the undiluted wrath of God
Notice the way the text contrasts the mercy and wrath of God. He is
much more gracious than wrathful (vv 8-9). The world is guilty of reading texts like Exodus 32-34 and characterizing God as a tyrant. If you read, anything other than grace in this story, you have missed the point of the text and misjudged the dealings of God with sinners.
Take note, however, that if you are unrepentant, God is your enemy. His wrath does burn against you. You by your unbelief are pushing God into a corner. Don’t let His reluctance to destroy you color your thoughts of His Character. He will at some point break out of that corner and defend His glory. He will be right in doing so.
We have all seen some nice kid backed into a corner by a bully who mistakes his reluctance to defend himself as weakness. If you are like me, I am saying, Punch him in the nose. What a sense of justice we feel when the bully gets his due. You can only push God so far. His refusal to judge you to this point is His own goodness calling you to repentance. If it can be good and right for a bully to get a bloody nose, how much more is it good and right for God destroy sinners who bully Him.
God forgives the totality of human sin
As is often the case, words for sin are piled up to show the
righteousness and justice of God in relation to human sin (sin, iniquity, transgression vv10, 12). This is what the psalmist meant in verse 3 when he said, He forgives all your iniquity. God does not deal with us according to our sin.
Positively, God deals with us according to His Own gracious Character (vv 11-14).
If God does not deal with us according to our sin, iniquity, and
transgression, how does He deal with us? He deals with us according to His loving-kindness. The psalmist uses 3 similes as points of comparison to show us the gracious character of God in dealing with sinners.
The first and second similes show how God’s loving-kindness toward sinners is related to the removal of our sin by the illustrations of immeasurable distances (v11 and 13). First, the love of God that is the basis of the self-sacrifice of His Son can no more be measured than the farthest reaches of the edge of the universe from the earth. Those who know such love are those who fear him.
The gracious Character of God in loving sinners has been most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who kept the law perfectly and bore the wrath of God due sinners in our place. He died for our sins. He arose for our justification, so that God now justly pardons sin and counts us righteous in Christ. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life (Jn. 3:16).
Second, as immeasurable as is the east is from the west, so immeasurable is God’s removal of our sin from us. God removed our sin in the death of His Son. That any other death could be like the death of the Son of God is infinitely beyond comprehension. Jeremiah saw a new covenant reality in this text (Jer. 31: 31-34). The writer of Hebrews agrees (Ch 8). When we looked at Psalm 32, I argued that if sin, iniquity, and transgression are forgiven, covered, and not counted to us, someone must carry that sin. Someone must bear the wrath that those who commit such acts deserve.
Third, God has compassion on us as a father has compassion on his children. You may have had a compassionless father or no father at all. That does not mean that you cannot understand this text. None of us have ever had a father like God. If, however, you can conceive of what real compassion is like in a father, you can understand this text. The most compassionate father pales in comparison to God. God knows how we were formed, he knows all the details of our lives, and he remembers that we are dust.
How can God work righteousness and justice in forgiving sinners (v6)? He so works because of Christ.
In all of God’s dealings with us in this tragic world, He Rules over our lives and every square inch of the universe. (vv15-19).
In this world plagued by tragedy, God rules. What is wrong with the
world does not indicate in anyway that God is not the absolute sovereign over all. What is wrong in my health, my family, politics, the economy, and on and on does not mean that God has been toppled off of His throne.
To illustrate the point the psalmist contrasts the temporary nature of our lives and the eternality of God. As for man, the psalmist says, he is like grass. Our lives begin and end so quickly. The span of our lives in no way dampens the love of God for us. He loves us from everlasting to everlasting. He does not just love the memory of us after we are gone; He loves us. That the generations of God’s people come and go does not mean that God does not love them. Rather the generations of God’s people show the steadfastness of His love.
Three times in this psalm the steadfast love and mercy of God is toward those who fear Him (v11), to those who fear Him (v13), and is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him (v 17). A characteristic of those who know God’s steadfast love and mercy is that they fear God.
Verse 17 in interesting. That we fear the LORD is evidence that He has set His love on us from eternity. He determined our lives and pursued us by grace and taught us to fear Him. What He said to Moses is the reality of grace that has pursued our souls and taught us to praise God. I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘the LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy (Ex. 33:19).
This text says that His love is set on those that fear Him, His righteousness to those who keep His covenant and do his commandments. You may say, I fail in every category. The fear of the Lord comes to those who know the Lord Jesus Christ. By union with Him through faith, He is our righteousness and He in our behalf kept the commandments for us.
As we come to the Lord’s Table, again the gospel is being proclaimed to us. Christ died for us. Summon yourselves and those around you to give Him glory. It is by His righteousness that we come to the table. Our dependence is not on ourselves but on Him. We come to the table remembering all of God’s benefits to us and anticipating the future grace of God toward us when we gather with Christ at His table in His Kingdom.