Pastor Joshua Pegram
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God’s compassion should make us feel safe and loved. Yet, we don't feel that way because our failures cause us to doubt the love of God.
David’s psalms are often filled with personal notes of lament or praise in relation to the circumstances of his life. His words are deeply personal and passionate. Psalm 103 is different from many of David’s psalms in that it is a public affirmation of the character of the Lord. He remembers the work of God in the Pentateuch, and he celebrates the goodness of God to Israel. Today, we can enjoy this passage as the people of God. Psalm 103 is like David’s other psalms in that it highlights God’s relationship with and care for humans. God is not some distant clock winder. He is actively engaged in the workings of our world. He takes an active and benevolent interest in the lives of His children. God is most clearly revealed by His workings with and for men.
This psalm gives us a picture of Fatherly care to help us understand God’s care for us. Who doesn’t understand the compassion of a father for his child? Even those who haven’t experienced such care long for it when they see it in others. If you know this kind of love—either as a father or as a child—then you begin to catch a glimpse of God’s care for His people. If you haven’t experienced such love, then you can, by God’s grace, seek to model the gentle compassion of God to others.
God’s compassion should make us feel safe and loved.
This passage teaches us of God’s fatherly compassion. We’ll first consider the nature of God’s children and then the nature of God Himself: (1) Unruly children; (2) Kind Father.
1. Unruly children
- Oppressed (6)
i. Explanation: The words righteousness and justice in verse 6 are actually plural: righteous acts and deeds of justice. The Psalmist is stressing the caring activity of the Lord in behalf of His people. We can take great confidence in David’s words here. He reminds us in v. 7 of the Lord’s acting in behalf of Moses and Israel. There is perhaps no more gripping story of God’s kindness and a people’s unworthiness than the story of the Exodus. God delivered His rebellious, ungrateful people from the tyranny of Egypt and led them to the land of promise. It’s no accident that David remembers Moses, not Joshua, Samuel, or Samson. The rescuing activity of God in the Exodus is a great picture of God’s kindness in liberating oppressed people.
ii. Explanation: Lest we be tempted to think that the kindness of God was just for Israel, v. 6 promises righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. We often picture God’s righteousness and justice as demanding standards which we cannot keep. In this case, though, God’s justice is a haven, a place of deliverance for weak, oppressed people. God is not merely a god of the powerful; rather, He gives power to the powerless and strength to the weak.
iii. Application: God’s justice can be a great comfort. He will justify His people. They might suffer discrimination, or wrongfully be punished or accused, or be oppressed by an authority in the workplace
- Sinful (9)
i. Explanation: The text speaks of God’s chiding us and being angry with us. We deserve to be chided, deserve God’s anger because we’re sinful. This is perhaps one of the most difficult verses of this psalm to understand. When does God chide? When is He angry? There’s one sense in which God is never angry with His children: judicially, His anger has been satisfied in Christ. Scripture teaches, though, that when God’s children sin, they receive His relational displeasure (2 Samuel 11:27). The text highlights the generosity of God vs. the heavy-handed vindictiveness of man. We love to hold a grudge or keep a quarrel going. God doesn’t deal with His children that way. When David speaks of “chiding,” the language is that of a courtroom. God doesn’t accuse us as we deserve. He also doesn’t stay angry with us. God is justly angry at sin, but His anger toward His children is mollified by His fatherhood.
ii. Application: Perhaps something else that will help us here is a brief discussion of the difference between punishment and discipline. God punishes/judges the wicked. He disciplines/chastens His children. Consider Hebrews 12:5-7.
iii. Application: Are you vindictive and smoldering in your anger against those who wrong you? God is infinitely wronged by our sin. One sin against a holy God is enough for Him to justly condemn us to eternal torment, with no hope of mercy. Yet He is a gracious forgiving God who disciplines His children in love. How does your life model that sort of forgiving spirit?
iv. Text: Psa. 103:10 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
v. Explanation: There are times when we want to cry out for justice. When we think of the death of millions of unborn infants through institutionalized and legalized murder, we rightfully expect and demand justice. What about the mother who has committed this grave sin and put her child to death, only to be haunted by her heinous deed? What about those of us who have committed grievous secret sin against the Lord in the past week? What does God’s justice do for us?
vi. Explanation: The irony of this passage is that there is a sense in which we are all oppressed and are all oppressors. Thus, we should all receive God’s judgment as oppressors. Which of us has never been unmerciful? Which of us has never been unkind? Which of us has never said or thought a cruel oppressive word against another person made in the image of God? God’s people, though, exist in an unbelievably comfortable relationship to God’s justice. The implication is that we have all sinned, that we have all committed iniquity. Even we, the oppressed ones, are guilty of unrighteousness. God, though, does not deal with us according to our sins. Further, some prefer to translate v. 10 something like this: “He punishes us for our sins and wrongdoings, but never as much as we really deserve.” That doesn’t seem to be what’s going on here, especially since other parts of the passage speak of God removing our sin from us.
vii. Gospel: How can a God of righteousness justly ignore our sin? How can God not deal with us according to our sin? The answer lies in God’s dealing with someone else according to our sin. Christ received God’s justice in our stead. All who have turned from sin to Christ receive God’s compassion, rather than His judgment. The great exchange of 2 Corinthians 5:21 has taken place—All who are outside of Christ, who have yet to cry out in faith and repentance for rescue, will receive God’s justice. For those of us who are in Christ, God looks at us and is pleased as though we were righteous. Christ bore our sin in His body on the tree, and He has made us the righteousness of God. God deals with us, not according to our sins, but according to Christ’s righteousness. If you do not know Christ in this way, if you have yet to place your faith in Him, I’d invite you to do that now, to turn from your sin to Jesus.
- Weak (14-16)
i. Explanation: These verses make it clear that God understands the weakness and frailty of humanity. The fact that God understands this is of great comfort. God expects and demands obedience, yet He knows that we are weak. Our hope lies not in our grit and effort but in God’s kind sustaining providence. Against the background of human weakness, we see God’s love and compassion highlighted in a poignant way.
- Condition: fear the Lord (13)
i. Explanation: Not everyone receives God’s compassion. Oh yes, there is a sense in which God loves all men, but this kind of fatherly care is particularly reserved for those who fear the Lord. Children are often unruly, but if a parent is doing his job, the child knows the voice of his parent. The children of God fear Him. It is His unique relationship to them that allows Him to show compassion to them in ways they do not deserve. Psalm 2:4-5 gives us a vivid picture of how the Lord treats those who do not fear him. If we do not fear God, we do not receive God’s compassion. The children of God know Him and fear Him. Though they are oppressed, though they are sinful, they are recipients of His mercy because they fear Him and verses 17-18 further highlight that truth.
ii. Application: God doesn’t just say that sin is ok. We shouldn’t treat unruly sin from children or from each other as though it’s ok. We might be tempted to walk away from this passage thinking that we should “sin so that grace may abound.” The passage itself, though, warns against that. Fear God. Live a spiritually fruitful life. Demonstrate that you’re God’s child. Oh yes, God won’t remember your sin against you, but if you’re a child of God, you will fear Him. If you’re sinning repeatedly, unrepentantly, then the promises of this passage aren’t for you. These promises are for God’s redeemed people who lovingly submit to Him as their heavenly Father.
God’s compassion should make us feel safe and loved.
We’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about what this passage says about God’s children. This will help us appreciate what David teaches us about the Father. The great focus of Psalm 103 is the gentle compassion of our Heavenly Father. So secondly, we’ll consider the Kind Father.
2. Kind Father
- Righteous and just (6)
i. Explanation: After the beautiful opening lines of praise and blessing, v. 6 introduces us to the compassion of the Lord by highlighting the righteousness and justice of God. V. 19 highlights the sovereignty of the Lord in ruling over all. Sometimes we’re tempted to separate the attributes of God, to set them in contradistinction against one another: e.g., love vs. holiness, righteousness vs. mercy. But none of His attributes can be separated from another. One writer notes, “The procedure of [God’s] righteousness is regulated not according to our sins, but according to His purpose of mercy.” (K&D)
ii. Application: It may seem at times like the wicked go unpunished, that the heathen prosper. God’s saints throughout history have asked why God can allow the wicked to prosper. David, Habakkuk, and others in the Scripture wonder why God would seemingly allow wickedness to go unpunished. Such thinking, though, is sinful and finite. God will punish all wickedness. In working justice for the oppressed, He will set right all the wrongs committed in this world. Every crime against God’s righteousness is punished. God will vindicate His cause. Abraham recognized God’s compassion for the righteous and condemnation of the wicked at the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 18:25). Whatever may appear to be so in our eyes is not truly so. The Lord will see right prevail for His children.
- Merciful and gracious
i. Explanation: David certainly knew the Pentateuch well. In v. 8, he quotes from Exodus 34 and the covenant renewal at Mount Sinai (verses 6-7). The revelation of the Lord to Moses is rehearsed throughout the Old Testament: Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2. David was certain of God’s compassionate nature. We too can be confident of God’s kindness. These words reveal that God “is emotionally moved towards us (compassionate), [that He ]reaches out to us in spite of being undeserving (gracious).”
ii. Explanation: The words “steadfast love” are the well-known Hebrew word hesed. The same word appears in vv. 4, 11, and 17. Hesed indicates God’s faithful covenant love, that He will not abandon His word. God is always faithful in His love.
iii. Greatness of the Father’s compassion (103:11-12)
1. Explanation: The imagery of vv. 11-12 is vast and expansive. God’s love is so great that it’s impossible to even comprehend such a thing. How far are the heavens above the earth? God’s steadfast love (hesed) is that big and more. The book of Genesis uses the word “great” in speaking of the flood (Genesis 7:24) The imagery is vast, overwhelming—the flood of God’s love is so great that we can’t comprehend it!
2. Explanation: How far is the east from the west? You’re probably familiar with the idea that as far as you travel in one direction or the other, you can never stop going east or going west. [I’m not sure that David was thinking of the shape of the globe when he wrote this under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but the point is nevertheless true.] God’s removal of our sin is as dramatic as a never-ending trip in one direction. You can keep looking for your sin, cringing as though you’ll find it around the next bend in the road, but you never will. God removes our willful rebellion from our account. He has hidden our mutinous crimes so far under Christ’s blood that they never can be found. God has cast our sins as far as the east is from the west, and we stand before Him now as though we’d never sinned.
“Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast unmeasured, boundless, free!
Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!
Underneath me, all around me, is the current of Thy love
Leading onward, leading homeward to Thy glorious rest above!”
iv. Closeness of the Father’s compassion (103:13)
1. Explanation: One author notes, “If immeasurable differences are one way of expressing immeasurable love and mercy …, the intimacy of a family is another.” (Kidner) This is the only place in Scripture where we find the word father linked with this verb “to have compassion.” The same verb is used twice in the Old Testament in reference to a mother’s love in Isaiah 49:15 and 1 Kings 3:26. Both other times it is used it describes an intense emotional passion. God is passionately concerned for His children. Like the mother in 1 Kings whose son was condemned to be divided in two, God fervently cares for His children.
2. Application: How do you view God’s relationship with you?
3. Application: How do you relate to your children?
4. Application: How do you relate to other children of God?
5. Illustration: “It’s so hard to put a parent’s love into words.” “You have such a different compassion.” LP
6. Illustration: Child playing with matches in closet (Chris Barney); child running toward the street; parent running after the child; sometimes God’s compassion is a chastening love; this is no less loving than what feels kind
- Patient (103:8-10)
i. Explanation: Part of God’s mercy is His patience with His children. He is slow to anger, and He doesn’t stay angry with His children. It doesn’t seem normal that a God who is righteous and just would also be kind and patient. God is not merely the judge of the oppressor; He is a gentle Heavenly Father. He is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. All of these things move God to patience with weak sinful children.
ii. Application: Do you deal with others as though there’s no margin for error, no room for mercy? I hope not! We should let God’s patience inform our dealings with other people. God doesn’t deal with us this way; we should be patient and gracious to others.
iii. Illustration: Child learning to ride bike. Only one chance?
- Thoughtful (103:14)
i. Explanation: What is it that motivates God to be patient? Of course His character is patient, but Psalm 7:11-12 tell us that God is a righteous judge. What motivates God’s graciousness toward His children? He’s mindful of our weakness—“He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.” It might seem odd for God to “remember” something since He knows everything. The idea, though, isn’t that God forgot and then recalled something. Rather, the word indicates knowing. It means that God is mindful of the fact that we’re dust.
ii. Application: Do you reflect the compassionate thoughtfulness of God in dealing with other people? Do you remember that their frame is weak, that they are dust?
1. Waitress at a restaurant?
2. Children to parents?
3. Parents to children?
Conclusion: God’s compassion should make us feel safe and loved. Though God’s children are sometimes unruly and sinful, our kind Heavenly Father is full of compassion. The greatest demonstration of God’s love is the cross (John 3:16; Romans 5:8). Unruly children; kind Father. If you’re feeling defeated by the weight of the sin you’ve committed, or if you’re discouraged by the trials God has brought your way, then run to the kind Father who knows your frame, who remembers that you’re dust. [Remember the picture of a father and his child] Cry out to Him for help and compassion. Our Father delights in giving good things to His children.