In this Part Two of the Heart of Blessing we begin looking at the second of the alls Psalm 103 presents, namely the all of the character and nature of the God of Israel. Surely David understood as well as any man that no language can fully convey what the human mind can only partially perceive. He also seemed to realize that the various formal aspects of poetry could provide him the best tool through which to intertwine verbal expression with nonverbal or spiritual thought, so he drew on that skill in the intricate crafting of this psalm. Within that framework, we now begin to look for the heart of this praise song by mining the mother lode of verses two through five.
Here in simple declarative clauses, set out as parallel statements, David describes the I AM– the God who names Himself with and as a verb–by His generous acts. Drawing on Alter’s translation, we see that He:
- forgives all our wrongs;
- heals all our illnesses;
- redeems our life from the Pit;
- crowns us with kindness and compassion;
- sates us with good while we live;
- renews our youth like the eagle.
In this extraordinary series we find the nexus where an ancient worship poem, the prophetic and the messianic become inextricably bound. David sets forth the rudiments of the faith of the believers of his day, notably beginning with the theology of forgiveness, and his words presage the fundamental aspects of the earthly ministry of Jesus and the full work of the Cross. Many other translations use the word sin in place of wrongs, and I find it helpful to think of both; for our sins are, after all, wrongs against God.
David’s six statements are the same truths that we encounter regularly and frequently throughout Holy Writ. Here in Psalm 103 the deliberate form by which these familiar principles are straightforwardly communicated amplifies their truth, or rather contributes to our understanding of them.
The simple parallel construction that characterizes verses two through five implicitly asserts that each of the clauses, every verb and object combination, has equal value and shares equivalent weight and significance. So do the attributes they describe. It also presupposes that taken together, and only taken together, can the whole picture of Him whom we worship– the all of Him– be discerned.
It would be easier, more comfortable perhaps, for modern readers to toss away the supposition that underlies this parallelism and to regard the list of the aspects of the Lord’s character as an a la carte menu from which to choose. But entertaining the notion that that might be the case leads right down the path of “forgetting” some of His benefits. David seemed cognizant of such a dangerous temptation, which is probably why he so adamantly cautions (verse 2) that we not take that turn.
At this place in Psalm 103 we encounter the God of whom the patriarch Moses and the prophets, most notably Isaiah, spoke. We meet the Messiah who walked among the people and ministered in Galilee — that is, the forgiver, healer, redeemer, source of compassion, giver of all good things, satisfier of every want and need. The picture that David puts forth in this psalm, the theology he presents, is a radical view of a radical God and the radical promise to all who put their faith in Him.
Radicalism by its nature challenges, and to us citizens of this modern era it may lead us to ask honestly how we can ever accept all of that and attain that kind of perfect faith. My response is that we cannot. We cannot attain it, that is, achieve it in the same manner we achieve our goals, aspirations and accolades within the framework of our earthly value system. However we can obtain it, exactly as God so clearly desires for us and as He and He alone has made possible. [This is not an exercise in semantic acrobatics but a way of trying to express the same fundamental principle we find articulated in the words of invitation from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: “This is a true saying worthy of all to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Received, not achieved.]
The psalmist tells us, after all, that the source of this fulfillment is not our actions but His “generous acts.” He, above all, is the Giver, the great bestower of all good things. Our part is only to receive and accept. And it is this “only,” it seems to me, that often poses the stumbling block. Why is it that only believing in the allness of the One True and Holy God all the time should be so difficult? It is a question that I ask myself in every instance in which I sense doubt or confusion or even complacency creeping in.
Our African brethren have a wonderful, antiphonal chant and greeting: “God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good…because that is His nature.” I find in that not only a joyfully stated credal proclamation but also a subtle warning against confusing His nature — that is, the essence of His Being — with His methods, actions, timing and ways. The latter are the hows of God, not the Who with which this portion of the psalm is concerned.
Why am I making reference to those hows when David does not mention them in the psalm? I do so precisely for that reason. The basis of our faith should not rest on the method, means or timing He might choose to fulfill His promises. His “ways,” His word makes clear, are inscrutable (Job 11:7 and Rom 11:33). These are the marvelous mysteries that are the bulwark underlying Jewish and Christian faith. Of these mysteries of God and of His discernment of our human limitations David declares in Psalm 139:6 “Such knowledge too great for me; I cannot attain to it.” And there is that word attain again, but with a twist. “Attain to” nuances the concept in such a way as to acknowledge that we cannot achieve an understanding of it through rational thinking; we only receive it on a spiritual level and through trust in the Mysterious One.
Too often, I find I want to confine the Almighty One’s actions and abilities to those ways that I believe I can find out and to that time frame that I comprehend. That, of course, denies His preeminent wisdom and defies my (and our mortal human) place in the created order — as well as robbing me of my security within it and of the full blessing of entrusting myself and my life into His hands.
Before we close I would like to turn to the last item in the parallel series (“he renews our youth like an eagle”). That final “generous act” of renewal is the only one that relies on a simile to complete its meaning. For that reason, and as the first image in the poem, it calls out for attention. I would like to turn my poet’s eye to trying to unravel it.
The image of the eagle is common in Scripture, occurring more than 30 times. One of most familiar is Isaiah 40:31: “…they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles…” In this instance the eagle is mature and soaring; it is the eagle’s strength, exerted in flight and the chasing of prey for sustenance, that needs renewal. The psalmist’s image uncharacteristically pictures an eagle whose youth, not strength in maturity, is renewed. Fledgling eagles pass through five stages of preparation before they are ready to assume that majestic soaring and self-sufficiency. For a period of months the immature birds molt one type of feathers. These are replaced, five times, by entirely other types of plumage, until the eaglet reaches maturity. Literally, the young eagle is renewed, through no power or practice of its own, until he or she is equipped to mount up and soar.
Renewal at every stage of our walk of faith is necessary. David, the keen observer of nature, saw in the mere shedding of feathers an image through which to grasp the power and character of the God on whom he could depend. The God of All Creation, he professes, will work to renew and equip us with precisely what we need for every stage of the maturation process– and for every trial that besets us.