Don't Forget His Benefits
Passage: Psalm 103:6-14
Hopefully, you recall that this summer, we are studying an example of each type of psalm. The past two Sundays, we studied Psalms 96 and 150, which are hymns of praise. Two features dominate hymns of praise. First, they rehearse God’s attributes and mighty deeds, such as creation and national deliverance. Second, they call on the congregation to worship God in response to his attributes and deeds.
This morning, we are going to look at an example of a similar genre, the hymn of thanksgiving. When we read through Psalm 103 in a moment, you’ll notice that it sounds fairly similar to a hymn of praise. Thanksgiving psalms also are characterized by reflection on God’s character and deeds and the need to respond with joyful praise. But they are distinguished by the fact that they are much more personal. While hymns of praise reflect broadly on God’s mighty works like creation or the exodus from Egypt, hymns of thanksgiving reflect on what God has done for me or for my community. Because of that, while they have a joyful tone, they also speak to the hard realities of life. They talk about God’s deliverance from my trials, my sorrow, and my sin. They don’t just call on me to praise God; they call on me to praise him for the grace he has given me in my pain. And so these psalms are very comforting, but that are also instructive. They remind us to remember God’s blessings, and they give us an example of how we ought to practice thanksgiving.
Psalm 103 is one of the preeminent examples of a hymn of thanksgiving (Read). As a preacher, it’s very nice when the writer tells you what his main point is. The psalmist does that for us through the introduction and conclusion to this psalm. You may have noticed that the psalm begins and ends with a three-fold summons to “bless the Lord.” In other words, this psalm is a call to praise the Lord with joyful gratitude for all he has done. Notice that this call is deeply personal. He addresses the call to “my soul” and “all that is within me,” and the final line of the psalm repeats the first line. In other words, he is calling on his entire person from the depths of his heart to every other part to praise the Lord.
But the psalmist isn’t just concerned for his own worship. Verses 20–21 call on the angelic realm to join the psalmist in praise. And if you look through the psalm, you will notice a lot of second person pronouns (e.g. vv. 3–5). Based on the presence of these second-person pronouns, most scholars believe this psalm was written for a congregational setting. Some have speculated that Psalm 103 was written for use at a thanksgiving feast. Quite possibly, a soloist would sing it to the congregation in order to stimulate them to praise.
And the way the psalm stimulates praise is stated in v. 2. He calls on the congregation to remember God’s benefits. And so the purpose and plan of this psalm is pretty basic. The body of the psalm reflects on the many blessings God gives, and the introduction and conclusion call on the congregation to thank and praise God in response.
One other thing we need to note is that this call to praise is not addressed to mankind in general but is specifically for God’s covenant people. The entire psalm is written from the perspective of the Israelite nation. Verses 11, 13, and 17 restrict this psalm to those who fear God, and v. 18 to those who keep the covenant and obey God’s commands. God’s blessings in this psalm are pretty incredible, but they don’t belong to everyone. They only belong to those on whom God has set his love and who respond with obedience and fear.
With that in mind, let’s dive into the benefits the psalmist highlights. As we consider these benefits, we should respond by remembering the similar benefits we have received and join the psalmist in blessing the Lord. There’s too much here for us to cover it all today, so we will just look at the heart of the psalm, which is vv. 6–14. My outline today consists of five benefits God has given his covenant people. The first of these is…
God is faithful to vindicate his people (v. 6).
It’s very helpful for understanding this psalm to recognize that the psalmist uses Israel’s exodus from Egypt as a backdrop to the blessings he recites. We know he has this in mind based on vv. 7–8 which cite statements from God’s interaction with Moses following Israel’s sin with the golden calf. Therefore, we should read v. 6 in light of Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery. Israel was God’s chosen people, and God had promised them the land of Canaan. Despite this promise, Israel had to endure great hardship. They lived as foreigners in Egypt for 435 year, and for much that time they were slaves. When the story of Moses begins, the Jews were completely insignificant from a human standpoint. They were just a ragged group of slaves. But while the world hardly noticed them, God remembered his promise, and he was faithful to his promise. He did what was righteous or just based on the covenant he had made with Abraham.
Of course, this was not the only time God’s people have faced unjust circumstances. Surely some of the people who originally sang this song were dealing with various forms of injustice. Maybe they were in slavery. Maybe they had been caught in an unfair business deal. Maybe the whole nation was facing enemy oppression. By reminding Israel of God’s past deliverance, the psalmist reminds them to thank to Lord that we serve a just God. Thank him for vindication that you have experienced, and thank him that he will ultimately vindicate the righteous.
But of course trusting God to bring justice isn’t always easy. When people mistreat us or slander us, we can really want to get our pound of flesh out even if we must sin to do. But sometimes, we just have to do right and trust the Lord with the consequences. It’s such a blessing to see God reward that kind of obedience because God is much better at fixing those things than we are. We ought to praise him when he does. But even if we do not experience any sort of vindication in this life, we will be vindicated in eternity. God will bring justice, and we ought to thank him for this certain hope and praise him accordingly. Maybe you feel oppressed today. Maybe you are facing unjust criticism from a family member, a coworker, or a neighbor. That’s hard, but be thankful that God knows even if no one else does, and he will make it right in his time. Trust him, and keep doing the right thing.
God deals with us mercifully (vv. 7–10).
Again, in order to fully understand vv. 7–8, we have to see them in light of Exodus 32–34. Exodus 32 records the story of how Israel violated the covenant by worshipping the golden calf. It was an awful act of rebellion that deserved their complete destruction (32:10). However, Moses plead for mercy and throughout the course of his conversation with God, God granted more and more mercy until he ultimately agreed to renew the covenant and completely forgive Israel. Part of this discussion that is especially important to our study is the request Moses makes in 33:13. Moses asks that God would show him “his ways.” This is the same phrase as is found in Psalm 103. Moses was asking God to confirm his commitment to Moses by revealing his glory. Jump down to 33:18–19. Again, Psalm 103:8 uses language from God’s statement in v. 19. God agreed to show Moses his glory as confirmation of his mercy on Moses and his forgiveness of Israel for their sin of idolatry. And so the point of the reference in our text is to call to mind God’s first great act of mercy toward Israel, which demonstrated that he is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.” What an awesome statement of God’s character, and praise the Lord that it doesn’t just describe God’s actions at one moment in history. Rather, God says that this is what he is. We serve a merciful, gracious God who is slow to anger. This is very humbling because I’m not always slow to anger. Sometimes, I jump to conclusions, and I get angry very quickly. But God never feels or expresses that kind of unfounded anger because he is full of mercy.
The psalmist goes on to note that we don’t just see God’s mercy in the fact that he is slow to anger; notice in v. 9 that when God does get angry, it does not remain.
This verse seems to continue the allusion to God’s forgiveness of Israel’s sin with the golden calf. God was justifiably angered by Israel’s rebellion. But when God forgave Israel; he truly forgave them. He rewrote the Law, and he continued to dwell in Israel’s midst. He acted as if nothing had happened. Verse 9 captures this incredible aspect of God’s mercy, which is again very different from how we often behave. I’m sure all of us have either been the perpetrator or the victim of the human tendency to hold onto hurt. Someone sins against us, and even if we say they are forgiven, we may hold onto anger for a very long time. Sometimes we do this even when the person who hurt us didn’t mean to do so. Sometimes he doesn’t even knows that he hurt us. Our hearts are just so wicked and deceitful but not God’s. Verse 9 says that God does not hold onto anger. Man, I’m I thankful for that because if God wanted to be bitter against me, he would have plenty of reason to do so. I’ve failed him many times. I’ve been dishonest, disloyal, disobedient, and on I could go, and so could you. What a blessing it is to know that God doesn’t hold onto anger.
Not only that, notice v. 10.
This is one of the simplest yet most humbling verses in the Bible. Similarly, Psalm 130:3 states, “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? The obvious answer is that no one could stand. Any sin against an infinitely holy God deserves wrath. Therefore, it’s frightening to imagine where we would be if v. 10 were not true and God did deal with us according to our sin and give us the judgment we deserve. This is a good time to remember that this passage is addressed to God’s covenant people. Psalm 103 does not teach that God doesn’t deal with anyone according to their sin; he only does this for his people. In the church age, this is everyone who has believed the gospel for salvation. If you are saved, then you ought to praise the Lord that you will never face the consequences for your sin that you deserve. How we ought to be thankful for God’s mercy.
In sum, vv. 7–10 call on the congregation to thank God for his mercy by reflecting on the mercy their ancestors received in the wilderness. Of course even if we’ve never done something like building an idol and worshipping it, we also are in desperate need of mercy, and we need to praise the Lord that he has not dealt with us according to our sin. God’s mercy may not be the first thing we think of when it’s time to give thanks, no other blessing would matter without because we would be in hell. Praise the Lord for his mercy.
The third benefit the psalmist highlights is…
God extends infinite loyal love (v. 11).
You may be wondering why I made v. 11 a separate point because it again mentions “mercy.” But the emphasis is different because the word translated “mercy” in v. 11 is the theologically rich term hesed. The OT uses this term frequently to describe Israel’s relationship with God. It has more meaning than any one English word can capture. First it describes God’s covenant faithfulness. God bound himself to Israel through the covenants he made, and no matter what Israel did or did not do he was committed to them. Hesed describes God’s faithfulness or loyalty to Israel. But it also speaks to God’s favor that comes out of this commitment. Hesed speaks of God’s kindness and love, which is why it is often translated as lovingkindess.
Verse 11 says that this kindness of God is great. And as David reflects on God’s goodness, he tries to come up with a way to describe its expanse. He compares it to the height of the heavens. This is the biggest illustration the psalmist could think of. You don’t need a telescope or the advances of modern science to know that the heavens are huge. The psalmist is trying to say as best he can that God’s loyal love is really, really big. There is no end or limit to God’s faithfulness and goodness.
As a fallen human being, that’s hard to comprehend because there is certainly a limit to my goodness. I can run out of patience and I am not always 100% faithful. Sometimes I’m selfish and put my interests wrongly of the interests of others. But there is no limit to God’s covenant love. You can’t use up the goodness of God. Our God is a God of infinite faithfulness and love.
Application: Remember that the point of all of this is to cause us to remember God’s benefits and thank him. What a blessing it is to know that God is committed to me. I don’t have to worry about him discarding me or losing my eternal inheritance. I don’t have to worry about exhausting his love. I can bank my eternity with confidence on the loyal love of God. Again, we better never use this as an excuse for spiritual apathy. This commitment belongs to those who “fear Him.” But for those who do fear God and have called on him for salvation, we live in a sphere of loyal love, and how we ought to thank God for the comfort this gives.
Verse 12 highlights a fourth benefit.
God forgives our sins (v. 12).
The idea here is very similar to v. 10, but the idea is slightly different, and v. 12 uses a new and powerful illustration. As in v. 11, we again find the psalmist searching for the biggest illustration he can find to describe God’s mercy. David compares God’s removal of our sin to the infinite distance between east and west. Since we live on a round planet, you could drive east forever and ever, and never reach an end point. Of course you could do the same going west. There is no end to either direction, and in a similar way there is no end to the distance God puts between his people and their sin when he forgives them.
This is an incredible gift because our sin deserves the eternal wrath of God. It ought to be a terrible burden. It ought to be a source of incredible pain and fear. All of us have probably had moments where we sensed that burden on a smaller scale in our human relationships. Last fall, we were over at the house trying to get it ready to move in. One morning, he was carrying a bag of pretzels in the backyard. I told him to be careful not to spill them, but he tripped and dumped the whole bag on the ground. All I said was “James,” but I said it with a clear sound of frustration in my voice, and he broke down in tears and started balling. He felt so bad that he had disappointed me, and of course, I felt very small.
As Christians, we are going to have similar moments of shame in our walk with God. We sin, and we feel awful about it. We may be so ashamed that we can’t even bear to ask for forgiveness. And even after we ask for forgiveness, we have a hard time believing v. 9, that God does not “keep his anger forever.” In those kinds of moments, what a blessing it is to rest in the truth of this verse. When God forgives a sin, he doesn’t say it’s forgiven but hold onto it. He doesn’t hold a grudge or remain bitter. No, it is gone. Not all Christians are this way, but I’m sure there are some people in this room who really struggle to accept God’s forgiveness. There are times when you don’t pray or come to church because you are ashamed of your sin. Your entire relationship with God is clouded by guilt and shame. You need to believe what God says in this verse. When God forgives, which he promises to do, it is gone. That may sound too good to be true, but it is true. If you are a Christian, you ought to thank the Lord for his forgiveness. Your sin is so awful that it deserves eternal hell, and required the death of Christ. But God has taken it out of the way. It’s gone. Praise the Lord for his forgiveness.
Verses 13–14 then add another wonderful benefit.
God deals with us with the compassion of a father (vv. 13–14).
Verses 11–14 use some powerful illustrations. God’s care is compared to the expanse of the universe and the infinite distance between east and west. Verse 13 adds a more intimate illustration but one that is equally powerful. It compares God’s love to the compassion of a father. It’s interesting that the word translated “pity” pictures a mother’s womb. That’s of course a powerful picture of compassion. A good dad shares in this same care and compassion. If you are a parent, you understand the powerful feelings your children give you. Every night before Heidi and I go to bed, we always go into James’s room and look at him. We don’t do it out of concern for his safety; we just enjoy looking at him. Even as he nears his third birthday, I still often stare at him amazed that he is my son. Parental love is powerful isn’t it? How incredible then is it that God tells us hear that he loves “those who fear him” with this kind of love? If you are a Christian, God looks down from heaven on you with the same intense love that a parent feels for his child.
Verse 14 then tells us why he looks at us with such compassion. The terms “frame” and “dust” both call to mind Genesis 2:7, which states, “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground.” The idea in our text is that God has compassion on us because he understands we are just made of dust. This is an awesome picture of love because it is not based in merit. When I say that I love ice cream, I mean that I enjoy it for how wonderful it is. But that’s not how God’s love for me is. God does not love me because I am so wonderful; he loves me because he understands my weakness. Again, we can appreciate this best by thinking of a parent. Think of how a mother responds when her child is sick. From a logical standpoint, that child is less loveable at that moment. A child with the flu doesn’t smell very good, he may be making some disgusting messes, he isn’t very playful, and he requires a lot of work. But rather than being driven away, a mother is driven toward her child in that moment and gives more care and love than normal. Of course, today is Father’s Day, and many of us can be thankful today for dads who gave us this kind of love. This love is powerful.
And if you are a Christian, this is the kind of love that God has for you. Our weakness and inability to do right does not turn him away from us. Instead, it turns him toward us with grace and compassion. God loves us with a special, grace-driven love. Again, we ought to thank the Lord for this great love. We ought to praise him that we aren’t required to earn his love, but that we can instead simply rest in the knowledge that it is there on our good days and on our bad days.
This morning, we have considered five rich benefits that God gives his people. Let’s be careful to never lose sight of the truly great things about our faith and of what are God’s truly great gifts. God’s mercy and grace are incredible. And let’s respond to them appropriately. The psalmist is very clear about what he wants us to do. We must remember these benefits, and we must praise God for them.
But before I close, I want to again emphasize that these incredible benefits don’t belong to everyone. They only belong to those who have a relationship with God. The NT is clear that in our day, the benefits of this psalm belong to those who believe on Christ alone for salvation. If you have never believed on Christ for salvation, this passage should be sobering because it doesn’t skirt the issue about the seriousness of our sin and the consequences we deserve, that you deserve. No one should want God to deal with them “according to their sin” because all of us fall short. But if you will come to Christ for salvation and become a child of Christ, this passage will go from being frightening to joyful. I hope that you will call on the Lord today for salvation.