Psalm 103: From Everlasting to Everlasting
One of history’s greatest voyages of discovery began this day in 1492. On the 3rd August, Christopher Columbus set sail from Palos de la Frontera with a crew of 88 on board three ships, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. His very name Christopher, which means Christ-bearer, he understood as a title of his destiny to carry the message of the gospel to far-off lands. He diligently searched the Scriptures and thought he found assurance for a call to sail to the far reaches of the globe with the Christian message. Zechariah 9:10 said that " He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
Columbus was inspired by Isaiah 49:6 “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” His desire was to spread the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in India. Instead he found the Americas. At that time Spain controlled both sides of the Straits of Gibraltar between Africa and Europe. Known as the “Pillars of Hercules,” from Roman times, the location was associated with the Latin phrase ne plus ultra, meaning “No More Beyond.” Some claim the words were chiselled into rock to warn sea farers. Certainly no one dared question the prevailing conviction that there was nothing beyond the Western horizon. Columbus thought differently. After he discovered the New World, Spain introduced a new national logo.
Coins were struck with a simple Latin slogan, two words: plus ultra meaning “More Beyond”. On this anniversary of Columbus’ historic voyage, there is still many people who cannot or will not see beyond their limited horizon. They only believe in what they can see, feel and touch.
Our Psalm this morning teaches us to look beyond our horizon. Psalm 103 inspires us to feel the heart beat of God’s love.
To understand His rescue mission for our world, and like Christopher Columbus, to let it shape our wills and become our driving, life-long, passion. From everlasting to everlasting. Psalm 103 teaches us there is plus ultra - “more beyond”. There is indeed yet ‘more beyond’ our horizon to discover. More of God’s character to discover. More of his purposes to understand. More of his grace to experience. More of his commission to fulfil. More of his wrath to warn. More of his justice to proclaim. More of his love to share. More of his glory to praise.
Psalm 103 is, as John Stott says,” undoubtedly, one of the best loved psalms, just as Henry Francis Lyte’s free paraphrase, “Praise my soul the King of heaven” is one of the most popular hymns in the English language. No wonder Lyte was so inspired. We have here in Psalm 103 the authentic utterance of a redeemed child of God, who piles up words to express his gratitude to the God of grace. His praise extends in three concentric circles. First, he addresses himself and seeks to arouse himself to the proper worship of God:
“Praise the Lord my soul” (verses1-5). Next, he recalls the mercy of God to all people of His covenant “so great is his love for those who fear him.” (verses 6-11). Finally, he summons the whole of creation to join in the chorus of praise: “Praise the Lord, all his works, everywhere in his domain.” (verses 19-22).” Let’s consider the three sections.
1. God’s personal blessings “Praise my soul the King of Heaven”:
“Praise the LORD, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. 2 Praise the LORD, my soul, and forget not all his benefits— 3 who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, 4 who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, 5 who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Observe how the first five verses of this psalm are very personal, conversational, motivational. The psalmist reminds himself of five incredible personal blessings. Although Christopher Columbus was the first to discover and claim the Americas, it was 128 years later in 1620 that the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth Rock. “During that first long winter at Plymouth Colony, seven times as many graves were made for the dead as homes for the living… Touching indeed is the picture of William Brewster, rising from a scanty dinner, consisting of a plate of clams and a glass of cold water, to thank God
“for the abundance of the sea and the treasures hid in the sand.” The Pilgrims didn’t have much, but they possessed gratitude… They developed a custom of putting 5 kernels of corn upon each empty plate before their dinner of “thanksgiving” was served.
Each member of the family would pick up a kernel and tell what they were thankful for. These first five verses are like those five grains of corn, designed to ensure we “forget not all his benefits.” (Psalm 103:2)
1.1 The Kernel of Forgiveness
“who forgives all your sins.” (Psalm 103:3) Our greatest need is forgiveness. Promised by God the Father in Scripture, provided by God the Son on the cross and personalised by God the Holy Spirit in our hearts. That is surely sufficient reason to praise God for. But there is more. The kernel of forgiveness.
1.2 The Kernel of
“who heals all your diseases.” (Psalm 103:3b) Clearly the Lord does not heal everyone but he can by His Sovereign power. He is the Great Physician. Every recovery from sickness, or injury or surgery, whether instant or more likely progressive, is the result of the healing power that God has built into our bodies. Medicine, surgery and therapy are merely extensions of God’s healing power. In the sign miracles of the Prophets, Jesus and the Apostles we see a foretaste of the day when there will indeed be “no more death, or mourning, or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4). The kernel of forgiveness, the kernel of healing.
1.3 The Kernel of Redemption
“who redeems your life from the pit.” (Psalm 103:4a) The psalmist is referring to the grave. To death. When Christ died on the cross in our place, he redeemed us. He paid the price to set us free. God not only forgave our sins, he also gave us eternal life. Not content with saving us from sin, disease and death, he has lavished positive blessings on us as well.
The kernel of forgiveness, healing, redemption.
1.4 The Kernel of Love and Compassion
“and crowns you with love and compassion” (Psalm 103:4b) Those he redeems, he adopts into his family. He makes us children of God and, wonder of wonders, he makes us co-heirs with Christ. (Romans 8:16-17). And the fifth kernel?
1.5 The Kernel of Satisfaction and Renewal
“who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” (Psalm 103:5). This may be a reference to the seasonal moult of an eagle and how the plumage is renewed in the Spring. What ever the meaning, here, as in Isaiah 40:31, the eagle is used as a symbol of youth and strength. It is perhaps a parallel to Jesus own words when he promised “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).
God’s personal blessings. Five kernals to shape our thanksgiving. Five benefits to remember. Five benefits to praise God for. “Praise the LORD, my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” (Psalm 103:2) God’s personal blessings “Praise my soul the king of heaven.”
2. God’s Covenant Mercy “Well our feeble frame he knows”
“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. 9 He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; 10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. 13 As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; 14 for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. 15 As for mortals, their days are like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; 16 the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. 17 But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children— 18 with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts. (Psalm 103:8-18)
Notice that in these verses, the psalmist changes from the singular to the plural. From God’s personal blessings to the individual to God’s covenant mercy upon his people. God is not just concerned with individual salvation. God cares passionately about his people. You can be sure of one thing, the Lord does not tolerate injustice in his world.
His rule is characterized by "righteousness". He rights what is wrong – sooner or later. No one messes with the Church and gets away with it. I have been deeply frustrated and burdened by some of the media reports coming out of the Lambeth Conference. But as I studied Psalm 103, the Lord has helped me realize this is His Church. He is in control. If I do my part and remain faithful in my calling, I can leave the big picture to him. This is what history teaches us. The psalmist looks back to the promise God made through Moses. “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” (Exodus 34:6). To reinforce this in his generation, he makes two negative statements, uses three illustrations and concludes with a striking contrast.
“He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; 10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” (Psalm 103:9-10)
Stott observes that God has set limits to his own righteous wrath against sin. The first is a time limit on his wrath, he ‘will not always accuse’.
The second is a limit on the extent of his wrath, ‘he does not treat us as our sins deserve’. Then comes these three moving illustrations of God’s grace.
“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. 13 As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.” (103:11-14).
How high are the heavens? His love is as high as heavens for those who fear him; How far is the east from the west? His forgiveness removes our sins as far away as infinity; What greater love is there than between a parent and a child? God’s compassion is as tender as a father’s love for his children.
The mention of human weakness leads to this final moving contrast between human death and divine love. I say these words at every funeral I take. They are spoken as our human remains are being lowered into the ground.
“As for mortals, their days are like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; 16 the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. 17 But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children— 18 with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.” (Psalm 103:15-18)
The Frailty of Life: “As for mortals, their days are like grass.”
The Brevity of Life: “the wind blows over it and it is gone.”
The Destiny of Life: “But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’s love is with those who fear him.”
These words are intended to comfort those who
They are intended to create fear in those who do not.
What do they say to you this morning? For one thing is certain, we are all mortal. We are all going to die physically. But if we trust in Christ we can have the assurance of everlasting life.
God’s personal blessings “Praise my soul the
king of heaven.”
God’s Covenant Mercy “Well our feeble frame he knows”
3. God’s Universal Dominion “Dwellers all in time and space”
“The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all. 20 Praise the LORD, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. 21 Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will. 22 Praise the LORD, all his works everywhere in his dominion. Praise the LORD, my soul.” (Psalm 103:19-22)
In these closing verses the psalmist turns from the love of the Lord for his covenant people to his sovereignty over all creation. “The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.” (Psalm 103:19). That is why we do not worship a local tribal God or a national British God. That is why the entire universe is summoned to praise him. First, he addresses the mighty angels, also called his ‘heavenly hosts’ and ‘servants’ who do his will.
Then he turns to the created world, ‘all his works everywhere’ to worship him. Is this your worldview? Do you see the Church as a minority?
As something slightly odd or eccentric in our secular world? Or do you see the friend or neighbour who does not worship the one true God as somehow odd? As the foolish eccentric? Out of step with the entire universe?
The psalmist has drawn three concentric circles. The personal, the people of God and the universe.
God’s Personal Blessings “Praise my soul the
king of heaven.”
God’s Covenant Mercy “Well our feeble frame he knows”
God’s Universal Dominion “Dwellers all in time and space”
Those concentric circles revolve around our Lord Jesus Christ. They give us our mission mandate today.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations… 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
Today is a special anniversary for one person, Christopher Columbus, who obeyed Jesus and as a consequence, literally changed the map of the world. Are you willing to do the same today? What phrase best reflects your world view? ne plus ultra or plus ultra?
When land was finally sighted on October 12, 1492, in recognition of the divine aid in his voyage, Columbus named the land San Salvador, which means Holy Saviour, and prayed,
O Lord, Almighty and everlasting God, by your holy Word you have created the heaven, and the earth, and the sea; blessed and glorified be your Name, and praised be your Majesty, which has designed to use us, your humble servants, that your holy Names may be proclaimed in this [second] part of the earth.
This sermon makes extensive use of John Stott’s notes on Psalm 103 as well as Michael Wilcock’s IVP commentary, for which I am grateful.
 John Stott, Favourite Psalms (Word, 1988), p. 95