Psalm 103 is designated a psalm of David. Though there are no clear internal clues, for linguistic reasons, the consensus is that it is a later psalm. The hymn of praise is known for its personal tone.
Walter D. Zorn (b. 1943) lauds:
Little wonder that of all the psalms, 103 is one of the most loved. Even the person who is reading it for the first time will surely gather that the soul of the author is speaking, and that what he says reveals much about himself. (Zorn, Psalms Volume 2 (The College Press NIV Commentary: Old Testament Series), 255)The powerful personal testimony is part of a psalm of individual thanksgiving. Geoffrey Grogan (1925-2011) describes:
This is explicitly a psalm of praise in Psalm 103:1-5 and Psalm 103:20-22, but it is implicitly so throughout, as we see from its inclusio form plus its exposition of God’s loving faithfulness to his people. (Grogan, Psalms (Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary), 172)John Eaton (b. 1927) communicates the psalm’s structure:
This beautiful psalm takes the form of a hymn, consisting of calls to praise and reasons for praise. But a distinctive feature, imparting a heartfelt warmth, is the casting of the opening lines (Psalm 103:1-5) in the form of exhortation to the singer’s own soul, resumed only in the final phrase (Psalm 103:22b). In the rest of the psalm the expressions are those of the usual congregational hymn. (Eaton, Psalms: A Historical and Spiritual Commentary with an Introduction and New Translation (Continuum Biblical Studies), 358)David Noel Freedman (1922-2008) and David Miano (b. 1966) add, “Psalm 103 has the earmarks of a standard alphabetic poem. It has 22 lines, corresponding to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Its syllable and stress count also conforms to the pattern (Peter W. Flint [b. 1964] and Patrick D. Miller [b. 1935] , “Non-Acrostic Alphabetic Psalms”, The Book of Psalms: Composition and Reception (Supplements to Vetus Testamentum), 90).”
The hymn’s core focuses on divine forgiveness, assured to those who “fear the Lord” (Psalm 103:6-18). James Luther Mays (b. 1921) designates:
Three times the psalm says that the steadfast love and compassion of God are for “those who fear him” (Psalm 103:11, 13, 17). “Those who fear the LORD” is a designation used in the psalms along with the righteous, the faithful, and the servants of the LORD for those who seek to make the LORD the decisive orienting center of their lives (e.g., Psalm 25:12, 14, 31:19, 34:9, 85:9)...The fear of the LORD is simply reverence practiced in trust and obedience. (Mays, Psalms (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 329-330)In describing God’s relationship to humanity, the psalmist invokes a comparison to paternal love (Psalm 103:13).
Just as a father has compassion on his children,Though older translations render the Hebrew racham “pities” (ASV, KJV, NKJV, RSV), more recent translations use more complimentary terms: “has compassion on” (ESV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NLT, NRSV), “feel for” (MSG), “are kind to” (CEV). This compassion stems from the paternal relationship between God and humanity. Artur Weiser (1893-1978) explains:
So the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him. (Psalm 103:13 NASB)
He chooses a simile from the sphere of man’s personal life which Hosea (Hosea 11:1-4) has portrayed in the most beautiful colours, that is, the picture of God’s fatherly love. Just as true fatherly love never deserts the child but guides him with a strong hand and does so even when the child does wrong, and just as his compassion proves itself to be greatest in precisely this latter case, so is God’s love for the man who fears him. (Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary (The Old Testament Library), 662)The pity discussed in the psalm is not typically associated with masculine figures. John Goldingay (b. 1942) reasons:
Although showing compassion might seem a distinctively female quality, it being related to the word for “womb,” the psalm presupposes that it is equally natural to a father. Fathers by their nature are motherly in this respect. They can thus provide an image for Yhwh as a motherly father. There is nothing distinctively Israelite about the point; Ugaritic stories characterize the senior Canaanite god El as the compassionate one. Even when confronted by his children’s rebellions, a father shows compassion. Indeed, it is their rebellions that test the reality of his compassion. (Goldingay, Psalms, Volume 3: Psalms 90-150 (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms), 172)This paternal imagery is rare in the Old Testament. Fisher Humphreys (b. 1939) chronicles:
There are a few other passages in the Old Testament that speak of God’s having a child, and they are about kings of Israel...The Old Testament teaching about children of God is wonderful, but in it the idea that God is Father and that each of God’s people is a child of God is very limited compared with New Testament teaching. (Humphreys, I Have Called You Friends: New Testament Images That Challenge Us to Live as Christ Followers, 161)As Humphreys alludes, Jesus frequently spoke of God in paternal terms. He instructs:
Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. (Matthew 23:9 NASB)Do you associate compassion or pity with a specific gender? What does it mean to you that God loves you like a father? How can people who have had a bad relationship with their father relate to this verse? Were you to describe your relationship to God with one analogy, what would it be? Is it ever good to be pitied? Do you want God to pity you?
Though people tend to deflect pity, in this case it is a wonderful sentiment. The compassion of God the Father assumes a caring God who is active in the world. Mark Bredin (b. 1963) explains:
In Psalm 103:13-14 God is a compassionate Father who knows how all things were made. This very father is the one who remembers that all are dust [Psalm 103:14]. “Father” suggests that God continues to be present for his whole creation in contrast to the clock maker who stops caring about the clock once it is ticking. (Bredin, The Ecology of the New Testament: Creation, Re-Creation, and the Environment, 87)Have you accepted the pity of God? Do you extend the same compassion to others?
“A pity beyond all telling
Is hid in the heart of love.”
- William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), “The Pity of Love” (1892)