In literature, including the Bible, repetition of a word or phrase is a way of giving emphasis to an image or an idea. Psalm 103 emphasizes some big ideas about God: “steadfast love” (vv. 4, 8, 11, 17). It emphasizes the deep inner call to the psalmist and worshipper: “O my soul” (vv. 1, 2, 22). It emphasizes the reality of divine anger (vv. 8, 9), human sin (vv. 3, 10, 12), and ultimately God’s compassion (v. 13) for God’s beloved children (vv. 13, 17).
But in this psalm about God’s unending mercy, there is one small word—a word so small we might not even notice it—that repeats more often than any other.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases…
The Lord works vindication
and justice for all who are oppressed.
(Ps 103:1-3, 6)
Psalm 103 looks back to remember God’s faithfulness in the past (v. 7), and to the future toward God’s faithfulness to coming generations (v. 17). It looks at every corner of existence, heaven and earth, east and west (vv. 11-12). It looks at the fleeting nature of earthly life (vv. 14-16) and the everlasting nature of God’s love (v. 17). And from beginning to end, Psalm 103 echoes with the reminder that God doesn’t do anything halfway. God is all in.
When our instinct is always to hold a little bit in reserve, just in case, God’s invitation to bring our all can be frightening. Maybe “all” is the only way we can begin to grasp God’s compassion for us: when we bring “all that is within” us, including all our delight, all our rage, all our wounds, all our questions, all our fears, all our faith, and even all our faithlessness.
When we have learned not to trust anyone totally, God’s promise to give God’s all can be hard to believe. Maybe “all” is the only way God shows compassion: offering “all his benefits,” without holding back. Maybe “all” is the only way God forgives and the only way God heals: setting us free from “all our iniquity” and curing “all our diseases.”
And when we look at the people around us and wonder who is welcome in God’s kingdom, all can be reassuring, but it can also be challenging. Maybe “all” is the only way God makes things right: completely and utterly for “all who are oppressed,” leaving no one behind.
- All can be an overwhelming idea. How do you feel about the possibility that you can truly bring all that you are to God? How do you feel about the promises that God works for the justice for all, forgives all iniquity, and heals all diseases?
- As you reflect on all, be honest about the ways you hold back from God. What keeps you from bringing “all that is within” you? Is there something about you that you hope God doesn’t notice? Is there something you are yearning to share with God?
- As you reflect on all, be honest about the ways you believe God is at work in the world. Are there times you think God holds back God’s compassion and mercy? Why? Are there people you think are undeserving, or sins that are too big, or problems that are too entrenched?
- How would your faith life change if you could truly grasp the all-ness of God’s mercy?
- There are even more “alls” in the final verses of Psalm 103 (not included in this week’s lesson). All God’s kingdom and all God’s works are called to bless the Lord. How do these “alls” provide a bookend to the opening verses of the psalm?
Nikki Finkelstein-Blair is the lead editor of Connections. She is a graduate of Samford University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary, and as a military spouse has had nine (at last count) different hometowns in the past 20 years. She and her husband Scott and sons Sam and Levi live in the Washington D.C. area. In recent years, Nikki has written Smyth & Helwys curricula as well as devotionals for d365.org and Baptist Women in Ministry. She weaves clergy stoles, knits almost anything, and dreams of making her dreadful novel drafts into readable books. She blogs about faith and making things at amovingyarn.wordpress.com.
For further resources, subscribe to the Connections Teaching Guide and Commentary. Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson.