The following paper was prepared for Dr. Steven McKinion’s Hermeneutics class, with the constraint that it be between 600 and 625 words.
The meaning of the text
In Psalm 103, David spirals out from a poetic meditation on Yahweh’s self-revelation in Exodus 34 into reflection on man’s finitude and a call to worship. He opens and closes the psalm with the refrain, “Bless Yahweh,” directing the call to praise to his own soul, the angels, the mighty ones who do Yahweh’s word, Yahweh’s hosts, Yahweh’s ministers, and ultimately to “all his works in all places of his dominion”—that is, to everything, everywhere.
Yahweh is worthy of worship by all—by men, by angels, by all his works—in light of his character, his steadfast love, and his righteousness.
Intratextual connections fall primarily into two categories: a particular refrain taken up by the Psalms immediately following this one, and broad thematic content taken up by a host of other Psalms throughout the book.
Psalm 103 opens a series of Psalms that enjoin the reader to “Praise Yahweh,” each one basing that call on a different aspect of God’s work. Psalm 103 serves as an introduction to this section, providing an overview of Yahweh’s nature as merciful, gracious, patient, righteous, covenant-keeping God who abounds in steadfast love (echoing Exodus 34; see below). Psalms 104–106 then apply these themes to specifics: 104 to God’s creative power and rule over nature, 105 to God’s work with the patriarchs, Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, and the Exodus, and 106 to Israel’s transgression in the wilderness and God’s ongoing mercies.
This Psalm is one of many that quote, echo, or allude to God’s dramatic self-declaration in Exodus 34. Accordingly, similar references to God’s mercy, steadfast love, covenant-making and -keeping, and faithfulness to many generations can be found throughout the book, as in Psalms 25:6, 51:1, 57:10, 86:5,15, 89:1–2, 108:4, 11:4, 112:4, 116:5, 119:90 and 145:8.
The two other themes taken up throughout the Psalms that figure prominently here (see verse 19) are God’s enthronement in the heavens (Psalm 2:4, 11:4, 29:10, 47:8, 93:2) and his kingship over all the earth (Psalm 47, especially verses 2, 6–8).
These same themes drive the majority of intertextual connections, as well. First and foremost are the many direct links to God’s self-revelation in Exodus 34, which is referenced directly in verses 3, 7, 8, and 17. Thus, the Psalm also connects to the many other places throughout Scripture that reference the same event (Numbers 14:18, Deuteronomy 7:9, Jonah 4:2, Nehemiah 9:17, 2 Chronicles 30:9, Joel 2:13, and the Psalms listed above). The covenant’s extent—to all generations—is picked up in Deuteronomy 5:10, 7:9, and (quoting Deuteronomy) Luke 1:50.
Isaiah 6:1–6 and 66:1 both famously picture Yahweh enthroned, as do Hebrews 12:2, Revelation 7:10, 17, and Revelation 22:1–3. Daniel 4:17, Zechariah 14:9, Malachi 1:14, and the “kingdom of heaven” language used throughout the Synoptic Gospels all point to Yahweh’s kingship over all the earth.
Finally, Isaiah 38:17, 43:25, and Micah 7:19 follow David in noting how God removes transgression from his people, while Ezra 9:13 and Romans 3:26 explicitly take up the theme of God’s overlooking his people’s iniquities.
The significance of the text
David calls us to fear Yahweh, keep his commandments, and bless his holy name. In the context of the New Covenant, this means trusting in Christ and obeying his word (see Matthew 7:24–27 and Luke 6:47–49; c.f. Romans 2:13 and James 1:22). This is not legalism but a delighted response to the faithful God whose steadfast love endures to all generations, who keeps his covenant even with men whose lives are but a breath, who passes over transgressions and forgives iniquities. We obey because he is worth our obedience, and we obey not begrudgingly but with hearts singing praise.