Psalm for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Psalm 103: 1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12

This week’s responsorial psalm is from Psalm 103, a praise of divine goodness. The psalmist begins with a summons to bless the LORD, praising God for his personal blessings; he then extols God’s mercy toward all the people.

Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all my being, bless his holy name.

Although the word “bless” is often used as a benediction, a prayer for God’s presence, or a grace for the future, in this case it is a call to praise or thank God for blessings already received.

The call to “bless the LORD” is normally addressed to someone other than the psalmist; here, it is a self-address. The Hebrew word translated “soul” (nepesh) comes from the word for breath. It yields over twenty meanings, chief among which are life-breath (or soul), life, and living person. The reference here is probably to that center within the person from which all one’s life forces flow. This is not merely a spiritual or immaterial reality; it encompasses every aspect of the person. This understanding is corroborated by the phrase “all my being.”

In the biblical world, a person’s name was an expression of that person’s unique identity. In many ways, names held more significance for people than they do today. It was believed that one could exercise power over another simply by somehow controlling the name of that person. There were times during Israel’s history when, in their attempt to show great reverence for God, the people paid homage to God’s name rather than directly to God (Deuteronomy 12:11, 21; 14:23f; 16:2, 6, 11). Even when they did this they were careful to avoid using the divine name itself.

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.

The reason for praising or thanking God, the benefits to which the psalmist refers, is God’s willingness to pardon, to heal, and to redeem or save.

He pardons all your iniquities, heals all your ills.
He redeems your life from destruction, crowns you with kindness and compassion.

He will not always chide, nor does he keep his wrath forever.
Not according to our sins does he deal with us, nor does he requite us according to our crimes.

These are all acts that flow from God’s lovingkindness (hesed) and compassion (răhamîm). It is out of this mercy God acts, not requiring the harsh punishment the sins of the people would warrant.

For as the heavens are high above the earth, so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him.

The passage ends with the use of two images to describe the breadth of God’s devotion, both denoting immeasurable distance. First is the expanse between the heavens and the earth. The heavens could refer either to the sky, the height of which is incalculable, or the dwelling place of God, which is an entirely different realm than the home of human beings.

As far as the east is from the west, so far has he put our transgressions from us.

The extent of God’s covenant commitment is further sketched in the figure of speech “east to west.” Human eyes can only envision a fraction of the stretch that lies between the horizons. What is perceived is only infinitesimal; the reality is beyond comprehension.

Using these images, the psalmist is claiming the same limitlessness for God’s lovingkindness. Our of covenant love, God puts our transgression so far from us that the distance cannot even be imagined.

This is ample reason to praise and bless the LORD!

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