The 13 attributes of mercy – Psalm 103

The 4th book of Psalms

This psalm and the three following ones are hymns, songs of praise to God, and bring the fourth book of psalms to a conclusion. This psalm has 22 verses, the same as the number of verses in the Jewish alphabet, though not an acrostic, as many of these kind of psalms are. It is also a circular song, ending with the same word that it starts.

A coloured caption reading, "Discovering God and his mercy".

The 4th book of Psalms, those 17 religious songs between psalms 90 and 106, have a theme, God is above us.

The layout is like this:

Book 1: Psalms 1 – 41: God is beside us.
Book 2: Psalms 42 – 72: God goes before us
Book 3: Psalms 73 – 89: God is all around us.
Book 4: Psalms 90 – 106: God is above us.
Book 5: Psalms 107 – 150: God is among us.

Book 4 answers the questions of Books 1-3 with the message that God is king.

1 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
    who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
    who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.


The Lord works righteousness
    and justice for all who are oppressed.


He made known his ways to Moses,
    his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
    nor will he keep his anger for ever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
    so far does he remove our transgressions from us.


13 As a father shows compassion to his children,
    so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
14 For he knows our frame;
    he remembers that we are dust.
15 As for man, his days are like grass;
    he flourishes like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
    and its place knows it no more.
17 But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
    and his righteousness to children’s children,
18 to those who keep his covenant
    and remember to do his commandments.


19 The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
    and his kingdom rules over all.


20 Bless the Lord, O you his angels,
    you mighty ones who do his word,
    obeying the voice of his word!
21 Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
    his ministers, who do his will!
22 Bless the Lord, all his works,
    in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul!

Psalm 103 ESV UK using paragraphs from NIV

I have read through a few commentaries on this psalm, and I am flabbergasted by how literally many of the Christian commentators take this, a piece of poetry. I could be forgiven by reading them for missing just how Jewish this psalm is, built as the central part of the psalm is on the Rabbinic 13 attributes of mercy.

The 13 attributes of mercy are based on Exodus 34:6-7 after the Israelites had built a golden calf to worship whilst Moses was up Mount Sinai getting the ten commandments. These are 13 things that God taught Moses for the people to pray when they needed divine compassion:

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Exodus 34:6-7

These are the 13 attributes:

  1. The Lord. (Adonai)–God is merciful before a person sins! Even though aware that future evil lies dormant within him.
  2. The Lord! (Adonai)–God is merciful after the sinner has gone astray.
  3. God (El)–a name that denotes power as ruler over nature and humankind, indicating that God’s mercy sometimes surpasses even the degree indicated by this name.
  4. Compassionate (rahum)–God is filled with loving sympathy for human frailty does not put people into situations of extreme temptation, and eases the punishment of the guilty.
  5. Gracious (v’hanun)–God shows mercy even to those who do not deserve it consoling the afflicted and raising up the oppressed.
  6. Slow to anger (ereh apayim)–God gives the sinner ample time to reflect, improve, and repent.
  7. Abundant in Kindness (v’rav hesed)–God is kind toward those who lack personal merits, providing more gifts and blessings than they deserve; if one’s personal behavior is evenly balanced between virtue and sin, God tips the scales of justice toward the good.
  8. Truth (v’emet)–God never reneges on His word to reward those who serve Him.
  9. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations (notzeir hesed la-alafim)–God remembers the deeds of the righteous for thebenefit of their less virtuous generations of offspring (thus we constantly invoke the merit of the Patriarchs).
  10. Forgiver of iniquity (nosei avon)–God forgives intentional sin resulting from an evil disposition, as long as the sinner repents.
  11. Forgiver of willful sin (pesha)–God allows even those who commit a sin with the malicious intent of rebelling against and angering Him the opportunity to repent.
  12. Forgiver of error (v’hata’ah)–God forgives a sin committed out of carelessness, thoughtlessness, or apathy.
  13. Who cleanses (v’nakeh)–God is merciful, gracious, and forgiving, wiping away the sins of those who truly repent; however, if one does not repent, God does not cleanse.

This Psalm is a sandwich, the filling being a poetic retelling of the Rabbinic 13 attributes of mercy which themselves are based on scripture, sandwiched in praised for God. I have included the attributes in full above for you to meditate on if you so wish.


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