This semester our Chapel sermons are structured around the theme of the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:22‐ 23): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self‐control.
In the first sermon in the series we considered the second part of Galatians 5, in which Paul lists the nine ‐fold fruit of the Spirit. In the Chapels to follow I shall take each of the attributes which Paul lists in turn, but speak on them from other parts of the Bible. The aim is that reflecting on the nine‐fold fruit of the Spirit will help us to display these attributes more consistently in our own lives.
In this sermon we consider love, and take as our text Psalm 103, a psalm which focuses on God’s love, compassion and commitment.
There is a clear movement in this Psalm: as the Psalm develops the writer’s perspective broadens. He begins by speaking mainly of himself (vv. 1‐5); moves on to speak of Israel in the past (vv. 6‐9) and then Israel in the present as well as the past (vv. 10‐14); finally he speaks of humanity as a whole (vv. 15‐18) and the heavens and earth and all they contain (vv. 19‐22). But though the perspective keeps broadening, God’s faithfulness, commitment, and love are like threads that run through each of these sections of the Psalm and unite its separate sections.
The writer begins (vv. 1‐2) by challenging himself to ‘bless the LORD’, to worship God; that is, to acknowledge God for who he is, the Holy One, the Creator, utterly distinct from everything he has made. Already in these verses there is a challenge: is worshipping God a priority with us?
Do we worship God with ‘all that is within us’, heart and mind united in worship? Is worship something that engages our whole person?
But the writer is more concrete than that. There is a parallel between vv. 1 and 2: the two verses begin the same way (‘Bless the LORD, O my soul’), but then go in different directions: ‘all that is within me bless his holy name’ (v. 1b); ‘and do not forget all his benefits’ (v. 2b). We must not forget God’s dealings with us, for thinking of these things can and should be a spur to worship.
In vv. 3‐5 the writer reflects on God’s dealings with him personally. He speaks of God’s deliverance and God’s generosity: on the one hand, forgiveness of sin, healing from illness, rescue from death, even (‘the Pit’, Sheol, perhaps a life‐threatening illness or experience); on the other, the way in which God adorns his live and gives freely of his blessings, God’s ‘commitment’ (‘steadfast love’) and ‘mercy’ (both important words in this Psalm), the way in which God renews and restores him, opening up new possibilities in life. We all know the feeling of recovering after an illness. We know, perhaps, what it is to be delivered from a difficult situation, a situation from which there seemed to be no escape.
We all know what it is to feel forgiveness, whether from another human or from God. We all know what it is to experience restoration. These are the things the writer first reflects on as he urges himself to worship God. He has begun by speaking of God’s ‘holy name’, but what he goes on to speak of is not, as we might have expected, God’s remoteness, but how God reaches out, saves and blesses him.
The Psalmist now broadens his perspective (vv. 6‐9): he has described his experience of God’s mercy and commitment, but he realises that he is not unique. On the contrary, that is the kind of god the LORD, the God of Israel is: a God who rescued his people when they were oppressed and slaves in Egypt; a God who is committed to bringing about justice, and showed that by bringing them out of Egypt and leading them through the waters of the Red Sea.
God showed his mercy, too, when his people rebelled against him in the wilderness. The description of God in v. 8 (‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’) reminds us of the incident of the golden calf, when at a key point in the account God revealed himself to Moses in precisely those terms (Exodus 34).
You know how the account goes: as Moses was receiving the Ten Words at the top Mt Sinai, the people were breaking them at the bottom of the mountain, worshipping the image they had made. You might have thought that they disqualified themselves immediately by this action, breaking the covenant as soon as they had entered into it. But God, through Moses’ intercession, forgave them and continued with them on the journey towards Canaan; he did not disown them as his people. God, as v, 9 of the Psalm puts it, is a god who can ‘let anger go’: he will not ‘keep his anger for ever’.
In vv. 10‐14 the Psalmist keeps his eyes on God’s dealings with Israel, but brings what he says down to his own day: ‘He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities’ (v. 10); no longer is he thinking of Israelites in Moses’ day, but of Israelites in every generation.
God’s commitment to his people far outstrips anything they can imagine. God is as far above our ways of thinking as the heavens are above the earth (v. 11). Israel began life as people in need of God’s forgiveness, as a people whom God could justly have abandoned… and that has continued to be the case throughout Israel’s history: ‘as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us’ (v. 12).
John Goldingay comments: ‘For the ancient reader, the height of sky over earth and the span of east from west suggests the greatest imaginable distance. For the modern reader, the comparison is even more striking because we know that the distance between heavens and earth and between east and west is actually infinity’ (Goldingay, Psalms, Vol. 3, p. 172).
When was the Psalm written? Before exile? During the late monarchy? After the exile? It does not matter: it would have been true at any time. Throughout Israel’s history there had been acts of rebellion, and those acts sometimes had severe consequences, but Israel in the writer’s day was still in existence, still God’s people, still the object of God’s love and mercy; the covenant still stood.
‘Israel is my firstborn son’, Moses was commanded to tell Pharaoh in God’s name (Exod. 4:21). Throughout their history, the Psalmist says, God has treated Israel with the compassion of a parent towards a child (v. 13). After all, God knows all about human frailty: ‘He knows how we were made, he remembers that we are dust’ (v. 14). As the hymn puts it, ‘Father‐like he tends and spares us, well our feeble frame he knows.’
With that, the author broadens his focus in vv. 15‐18 to speak not simply of Israel, but of humanity as a whole. In a dry land like Israel, grass can grow suddenly and quickly when rain falls. But if the water dries up, if a drying wind falls on this plant, it dies, and soon it is as though it had never been.
Our lives are like that. To quote another hymn:
‘To all, life thou givest, to both great and small;
In all life thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree,
Then wither and perish; but naught changeth thee.’
But the point is that, as in the last line of the hymn, our frailty, the brevity of our lives, must be set in the context of God’s commitment and faithfulness, which are eternal, ‘from everlasting to everlasting’. God has committed himself to purposes which stretch across many generations: God’s faithfulness will long outlast our lives and be experienced by generations yet unborn. God’s purposes are grander and bigger than our lives, than the lives of many generations put together.
Finally in vv. 19‐22 the picture broadens out so as to take in all of creation: we read of God as king over all creation, God’s angels, and the hosts of heaven. By the end of the Psalm, all of creation is praising God. This is a vision of a restored creation, a creation no longer spoiled by sin, but redeemed from sin and death, such that every part of it, animate and inanimate, human and animal, can in its own way and in its own voice give glory to God.
Many Psalms, particularly towards the end of Book of Psalms, end by looking forward to the day when all of creation and all nations will acknowledge God as king. But notice how the Psalm ends: ‘bless the LORD, O my soul’ – as though the writer tells himself: let me not forget to add my worship to this chorus of praise, in anticipation of that day. The Psalm, then, ends as it began, but now with a deeper sense of God’s love, hence with more reasons for the writer to worship than when he began.
Psalm 103 is a picture of the holiness, majesty and eternality of God; it is also a picture of God’s faithfulness, love and compassion. Somehow the two sides of God (if one can put it that way) belong together: the character of this God is revealed in how he reaches out to people like us, frail children of dust, shows us his love, calls us to play a part in his purposes, forgives us when we fall short or turn aside in perversity and rebellion.
The New Testament, of course, fills out this teaching about God’s love yet further: ‘while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him’ (15:20); ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ (John 3:16). The New Testament challenges Christians to respond accordingly: ‘owe no one anything, except to love one another’ (Rom. 13:8); ‘through love become slaves to one another’ (Gal. 5:13); ‘beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not loves does not know God, for God is love’ (1 John 4:7–8).
But perhaps if we stick with Psalm 103 and meditate on the picture which it paints of our Heavenly Father, then we will have incentive enough to seek to display this part of the fruit of the Spirit in our own lives.
Dr Philip Satterthwaite