The “Pillars of Hercules,” which flank the entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar between Africa and Europe were from Roman times associated with the Latin phrase ne plus ultra, meaning “No More Beyond.” Certainly no one dared question the prevailing belief that there was nothing beyond the horizon. That was until 1492 when Christopher Columbus boldly sailed westward and discovered the New World. On his return, Spain celebrated with a new national logo. Coins were struck with two words: plus ultra meaning “More Beyond”. If you have experienced bereavement recently you know that ‘out of sight’ does not mean ‘out of mind’. But is there more beyond? More than simply the act of remembering the past? The Christian hope is that there is a new world beyond our horizon. Our Psalm this evening teaches us to look beyond our limited horizon, beyond what we can see, feel or touch. Psalm 103 inspires us to feel the heart beat of God’s love and realise there is indeed yet ‘more beyond’ our horizon to discover. More of God’s character to understand. More of his purposes to discover.
More of his love to experience. More of his commission to fulfil. More of his justice to proclaim. More of his love to share. More of his glory to praise. Psalm 103 inspired Henry Francis Lyte to write one of the most opopular hymns in the English language “Praise my soul the King of heaven”. No wonder. 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. There are three sections to the Psalm.
God’s personal blessings (Psalm 103:1-5)
God’s Covenant Mercy (Psalm 103:8-18)
God’s Universal Dominion (Psalm 103:19-22)
Let us consider them in turn and discern whether there is indeed “more beyond”
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)
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 five kernels of corn upon each empty plate before their “thanksgiving” dinner was served. Each member of the family would pick up a kernel and tell what they were thankful for. These five verses are like those five grains of corn, designed to ensure we are thankful and “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 sealed by God the Holy Spirit in our hearts. That is surely sufficient reason to praise God for. But there is more. Not only the kernel of forgiveness.
1.2 The Kernel of Healing
“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 slow but 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 death. When Christ died on the cross in our place, he redeemed us. He paid the price to set us free from eternal separation from God. God has not only forgiven our sins, he has also given us eternal life. This is the Christian hope. Death is not the end of our journey. We were created for eternal life. That is why we have this deep sense that death is wrong, this deep longing to be reunited with those we love. The kernel of forgiveness, the kernel of healing, the kernel of redemption.
1.4 The Kernel of Love and Compassion
“and crowns you with love and compassion” (Psalm 103:4b)
Those God forgives, heals and redeems, he also 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 way every year, an eagles 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 five personal blessings. Five kernels to shape our thanksgiving. Five benefits to remember. Five blessings to praise God for. 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. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. As for mortals, their days are like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children— 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. God cares passionately about all his people.
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. 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. 17But 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 psalmist speaks of:
The Frailty of Life: “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 fear God. They are intended to create fear in those who do not. What do they say to you this evening? 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. Praise the LORD, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will. 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 hand of God in the beauty and complexity, the wonder and awesomeness of creation? Do you see his hand transforming society, raising up leaders, inspiring heros? Do you see God growing his church, extending his kingdom? Or do you see the Church in retreat? a minority? Something slightly odd or eccentric in our sophisticated secular world? Or do you see your friend or neighbour who does not worship the one true God as the odd one out? 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.”
These three concentric circles revolve around our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who declared,
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
Do you believe this? Christopher Columbus, paced his faith and hope in the Lord Jesus. He believed there was more beyond our limited horizon and as a consequence, he literally changed the map of the world. Are you willing to do the same today? Which phrase best reflects your world view? ‘ne plus ultra‘ or ‘plus ultra?’ – ‘No more beyond’ or ‘much more beyond’?
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 he prayed this prayer:
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 Name 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.