Psalm 103: 1-2, 11-12, 19-20
This week’s responsorial psalm is from Psalm 103, a praise of divine goodness that begins and ends with a summons to bless the LORD.
Bless the LORD, O my soul;
Although the word “bless” is often used as a prayer for God’s presence or a grace for the future, in this case, it’s 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,” which immediately follows.
and all my being, bless his holy name.
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 psalmist wants to bless God for all the good things he has received from him, without forgetting a single one.
For as the heavens are high above the earth, so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him.
The psalmist begins to enumerate the reasons for his call to praise God, beginning with a description of the breadth of God’s devotion.
The psalmist employs two images for this description. 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 second image used to describe the extent of God’s covenant commitment is the area between east and 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!
The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all. Bless the LORD, all you his angels, you mighty in strength, who do his bidding.
Finally, God’s universal and cosmic dominion is sketched. God dispenses his mercy and justice from heaven like a king who rules over all. Therefore it’s fitting that the inhabitants of heaven be summoned to bless the LORD.