For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 103. I have two items.
1. Psalm 103 talks a lot about God’s forgiveness and mercy. The Psalmist appears to have Exodus 33:12-34:7 in mind. In Exodus 33:12-23, Moses is pleading for God to go with Israel on her journey to Canaan, when God is still upset with Israel on account of the Golden Calf incident (see Exodus 32). Moses asks for God to show him God’s way in Exodus 33:13, and God’s glory in Exodus 33:18. God responds by declaring that God is merciful, forgiving, and slow to anger, yet does not acquit the guilty.
In Psalm 103:7, we see the idea that God showed his ways to Moses and his deeds to Israel, which is similar to Moses’ request that God show him his way in Exodus 33:13. And Psalm 103:8-14 builds on God’s declaration to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7 that God is slow to anger and forgiving.
At first sight, Psalm 103 appears to slight the part of Exodus 34:7 that says that God does not acquit the guilty. And yet, my impression is that God’s justice is still an important element of Psalm 103. Psalm 103:6 says that God executes righteousness and judgment for the oppressed (to draw from the KJV’s phraseology), and that (to me) implies that God punishes oppressors. Psalm 103:11 and 17 say that God’s mercy is for those who fear God, and v 13 affirms that God’s pity is for those who fear him. Psalm 103:18 says that God’s righteousness is shown to those who keep God’s covenant and commandments. While Psalm 103:10 states that God has not rewarded us according to our sins and iniquities, the passage does not necessarily say that God has not punished those sins and iniquities at all, for it could mean that God has given us less of a punishment than we deserve. And Psalm 103:9 says that God will not be angry forever, which may imply that God has been angry at sin in the past, or may even still be angry.
There is a sense in which God takes sin seriously in Psalm 103, and so Israel needs to be committed to God and to God’s way to receive God’s mercy. And yet, Psalm 103 depicts God’s mercy as quite liberal. God in Psalm 103 is slow to anger and abundant in mercy, and Psalm 103:14 affirms that God remembers that we are dust. Some interpret this to mean that God recognizes that we are flawed human beings and make mistakes, whereas another view is that God is merciful because God realizes that we (as dust) live short lives, and so God is hesitant to snuff people out when they sin. Either way, one could argue that, in Psalm 103, God’s punishment of sin is not a first resort, but rather a last (or later) resort. And yet, even in Psalm 103, God punishes sin.
Is God in the Bible really slow to anger? In some cases, yes, for, in the Hebrew Bible, God puts up with a lot of Israel’s sins before God finally steps in and sends a devastating punishment. And yet, God’s punishment of Israel for the Golden Calf incident (and also God’s punishment of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram) was rather quick. There may be times when God feels that God can work with Israel, or at least plead with her. And there may be times when sinners cannot be persuaded and so God needs to step in quickly with more drastic action. (Or does God need to do so? Couldn’t God have put them into a deep sleep during their rebellion, and sought to persuade them in their dreams that their way was wrong while God’s way was right?)
God forgave Israel for the Golden Calf incident, and that was due in large part to Moses’ intercession on her behalf and Moses reminding God of God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These things had nothing to do with Israel’s repentance. But my impression is that Israel’s repentance was still a part of the equation, for Israel was chastened and broken, and she was quite generous when it came to the construction of the Tabernacle. Israelites would sin again, but they were at least trying to be on the right path soon after the Golden Calf incident, and that may have been one reason that God forgave her.
2. Psalm 103 appears to manifest a realized eschatology, if you will. God right now judges for the oppressed. God right now heals diseases. God right now renews people’s strength such that they’re like eagles. God right now is forgiving. God right now has a kingdom that rules over all. In the prophetic writings (and I include in this category the Book of Daniel), God will do these sorts of things in the future, when God restores Israel. In Psalm 103, that is presented as present.
Or is Psalm 103 describing what will happen in the future, while using the language of the present? Perhaps. The thing is, Psalm 103 appears to be telling people to praise God for things that God presently does. There are times when the Psalmist does not feel this way—-when the Psalmist feels that evil is triumphing and God does not appear to be awake on God’s throne. But there are other times (like in Psalm 103) when the Psalmist feels that God’s kingdom is present and active—-that God is doing what God has said God will do: executing justice, healing, forgiving sins, etc.