Crowned with mercy! What is revealed to us about God’s mercy (And about Confession) in Psalm 103?

My thinking about God’s mercy has been incredibly inadequate. His mercy is so much more than most of us realize.

I love the Psalms! In a way that’s distinct from the Gospels, the Psalms are a window to the love, compassion, and tenderness of God and a peek into the treasury of his character.  They make me think more deeply about God and the depths of his person.  

Last night I came across Psalm 103 and read it prayerfully.  If I had ever read it before, I’d forgotten it, and so this reading was like a fresh discovery. And in that discovery, a revelation unfolded that I wanted to share with you.

While the entire Psalm is beautiful, verses one through four are the most powerful to me.  And as I read them, the Holy Spirit made one line—the last line of verse four—stand out particularly boldly.

“Bless the Lord, my soul;
All my being, bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, my soul;
And do not forget all his gifts,

Who pardons all your sins
And heals all your ills,
Who redeems your life from the pit,
And crowns you with mercy and compassion….”

The mercy of God! I’m always reaching for it through regular visits to the confessional. But there are moments when I question or doubt God’s mercy.  Often how I feel about my experience with God’s mercy can be analogized by my experience with pencil erasers: They erase mistakes, but they never erase them completely.   There’s always a “ghost” of your error left on the page, even after an eraser has done its best work to undo it. “Forgiven. But not really.”

Sometimes, though, by God’s abundant grace, my faith in the cross of Christ gets me to a point where I feel the eraser has perfectly cleaned the page and left no ghosts of my errors behind. “Forgiven. Seriously! Move on.” (Or to put it more scriptural, “Neither do I condemn you. Go therefor and sin no more”)

More often than not, I feel “reset” by God’s mercy. Like the page of my lived experience is refreshed, and the error-laden lines on the page are re-prepared for me to continue writing to them—hopefully with fewer errors this time. But I now realize that my thinking about God’s mercy has been incredibly inadequate. God’s mercy isn’t a whitewash over our sins, nor is it even a reset. God’s mercy is much more than all of that.

Psalm 103 shows a whole dimension of the mercy of God that I had never thought of before. It compares God’s mercy to a crown and the compassionate bestowing of God’s mercy to a crowning. It shows us that God’s mercy is far more significant than a reset or whitewash. It’s life-changing, just as a crowning changes the life and status of the person being crowned

A crown first and foremost has material value. It’s expensive. It’s ornate and made of precious materials. A crown is part of the treasury and riches of a kingdom.

But aside from the material value of the crown itself, a crown also has symbolic value. It says something about the person wearing it, that they are at the top of a hierarchy, that they are important enough to be set apart (to be made holy is literally to be set apart!).

The images of a crown and a crowning in Psalm 103 remind me of something we see in the story of the prodigal son.  After squandering his inheritance in “reckless living,” the prodigal son comes to his senses and decides to return to his father to ask for mercy and to be restored. “I have sinned against Heaven and against you….” He says. And more gravely, “I no longer deserve to be called your son.” 

But how does his father react to this?  “Filled with compassion,” his father embraces him and tells his servants, “Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.” (Luke 15:11-32)

The prodigal son is given not just any robe but the finest robe. Not only that but he’s also given a ring for his finger. The significance of the ring isn’t that it’s an ornament or decoration. This compassionate father isn’t putting a ring on his son’s finger for vain reasons. The ring, like a crown, has both a material and symbolic value in this story. A ring symbolizes a sort of preeminence and a change or upgrade of one’s status (think of a wedding ring, a super bowl ring, or the ring worn by a bishop or pope). Particularly in the ancient world, those who wore rings were important or set apart in some way. Rings, like crowns, were not mere ornaments of the body.

The robe reminds me of the fine robe given to Joseph by his father out of his great love for him (Genesis 37:3). The “coat of many colors”, as it’s often referred to, was ornate and had both great material and symbolic value.

Bringing this back to Psalm 103, God doesn’t just give us his mercy, he crowns us with it.  There is something preeminent about God’s mercy that escapes our understanding, and there is a renewal—not just a restoration— happening when we receive it.  Not being content with simply picking up a fallen sinner from the ground or just lifting him out of a pit, God goes above and beyond.  He puts a crown on that person’s head!  He adorns him and sets him apart. He does infinitely more for us than we deserve by crowning us with his mercy.  He does more, perhaps, than we would even think to ask for when we go to confession.  

Honestly, I have no words to express how awesome this is. What a great and compassionate father our God truly is.  His love and compassion are unimaginable and escape human understanding.  Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His mercy endures forever.

Ave Maria, Virgo Fidelis!

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