Poetry in the Psalms
One of my favorite classes at seminary was Old Testament Poetic and Prophetic literature. I already loved the book of Psalms, but learning about Hebrew Poetry only deepened that love. My eyes were opened to new vistas of God’s glory and beauty as I saw parallel passages amplify one another. Admittedly I am a left brain type person, so the Psalms force me use my the right half of my brain by engaging God’s beauty and creativity.
One of the professors at seminary, Graham Cole, would say “The Bible is the book that knows me.” In other words, when he would reflect on his own life experiences, the challenges, trials, sufferings, joys, he discovered that the Bible described the exact same realities. The Bible does not minimize challenges or turn a blind eye to personal pain. In Psalms we are confronted with life in its rawest form. In the Psalms we have every human emotion on display.
Most of the Bible is God speaking to us. But the Psalms is God speaking for us. This Old Testament book gives us words that we can pray back to God when we don’t have the words. And one Psalm that has helped me do that more than any other is Psalm 103. I believe this Psalm is designed to encourage followers of God with the knowledge of God’s unlimited forgiveness, so that we are led to give thanks and worship to the Lord.
1 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
2 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
David, multiple times in these first verses speaks to his own soul. He exhorts himself to bless God. To “bless” the Lord involves thanking God for what He has done, and praising Him for who He is. David does both. He thanks God and He praises God.
It is easy to miss but this whole Psalm is essentially David speaking to himself. He talks to himself when he says, “bless the Lord oh my soul.” The fact of the matter is that all of us talk to ourselves all the time. We may not do it out loud but everyday there is an inner dialogue happening in our life.
If we were better observers of our own life we would realize we do more talking to ourselves than we realize. Christian author and counselor Paul David Tripp says “The most influential person in your life is YOU. Because no one talks to you more than you do. We are always telling ourselves some kind of gospel.”
In this same vein, the great preacher David Martin Lloyd Jones reflects on statements of self-talk in the Psalms and says,
“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them but there they are talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this: instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says, “Self, listen for moment, I will speak to you.”
And that is exactly what David does in Psalm 103. He begins to speak to remind himself of the good things God has done for him. He begins to list, one by one, each of the good things God has given him, and the list is long! He gives thanks to God for healing, for redemption, for satisfaction and so much more. But there is one thing David thanks God for that trumps everything else. There is one thing that David thanks God for that if he lost it, would make all the other blessings worthless. And that one thing is forgiveness.
8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
13 As ra father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
Every time I read verse 10 I have a hard time believing it is true. “He does not deal with us according to our sins.” Really? God does not deal with us according to our sins? The simple fact is that everyday I deal with myself according to my sins. I will berate myself and beat myself up for my sin. But here, in Psalm 103:10 we are told that God “does not deal with us according to our sins.”
For people who have put their faith in Jesus Christ this verse is true. This is a picture of unlimited forgiveness. But for the believer in God living in the Old Testament this had to be a disturbing verse. How is it, that God can be both totally just, punishing sin, and yet forgiving? How can God be both of those things and remain righteous? That is a tension that the Old Testament does not fully answer. This tension is ultimately resolved at the cross of Jesus Christ.
How can God be both just and forgiving? The New Testament answers this very question. The apostle Paul says in Romans 3:25-26 says that God gave Jesus as “a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
God is both “just,” dealing with sin on the cross, and the “justifier,” forgiving the sin of those with faith in Christ. At the cross of Jesus Christ, where God poured out His wrath upon Christ for the sins of the world, we see how God can be both just and forgiving. The cross shows us how Psalm 103:10 is true! The cross shows us how the unlimited forgiveness described in Psalm 103 is true.
But if you’re anything like me you are tempted to play on repeat the sins of your past. You have the sneaky suspicion that God will deal with you according to your sins. It is like Psalm 103 anticipates that objection and strains the human language to describe the greatness of our forgiveness.
Take a closer look at Psalm 103:12. It says that as far as the East is from the West so far does God remove our transgression from us. Do we get how amazing that is? People smarter than me have pointed out that this verse doesn’t say, “As far as North is from South, so far does He remove our transgression from us.” That would be pretty far, it’s approximately 12,500 miles from the North Pole to the South Pole. But that is not what the text says. The verse says that as far the East is from the West. There is no East pole and there is no West pole. You can keep traveling East and never reach West! That is an infinite distance! God has removed our transgressions that far from us!
Not only that, but Charles Spurgeon pointed out that this infinite distance is too far for Satan to travel! Not even the Devil can make the journey from East to West in order to uncover our sin and bring it back to us. It has been totally dealt with. And like the infomercials we watched as a kid, the Psalmist says “but wait, there’s more!”
The Hebrew word for “transgressions” in verse 12 is a very specific Hebrew word, pesha. This is the most serious kind of sin in the Old Testament. This is a criminal act of rebellion against God. This kind of sin could only be atoned for on one day out of the year, the day of the Atonement when the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies.
It is easy to read this verse and think of your own sin and situation as somehow being exempt, the exception to the rule. “Surely if God knew my sin He could not forgive me like this!” But David is saying that even the worst kind of sin, even pesha (transgression) can be forgiven by God and forgiven in full! That is truly unlimited forgiveness from an eternally good God!