Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Byron Center Protestant Reformed Church in Byron Center, Michigan.
“But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children.”
The context in this beautiful and familiar psalm is a vivid description of the frailty of man: “…we are dust. As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more” (Ps. 103:14-16). The life of every human is as weak as the grass and as brief as the flower. We may think that we or certain other humans have a large and important place in time, but that is not true. Every human is so weak that man cannot be compared to an oak—but to grass.
Man’s brevity and frailty are contrasted to God’s mercy and righteousness. Man’s frailty is met by God’s mercy and righteousness. God’s answer to those who know their human frailty and weakness is to declare that He gives mercy and righteousness. Our human nature never wants to admit to our weakness. But the psalmist makes clear that apart from God we are as the grass. No matter how important we think we are or what other humans think of us, we are still grass. What emphasizes our lack of importance and insignificance is the statement that, after we are gone, our place will know us no more. A generation or two after our death we will be nothing more than a name in an old record and on a gravestone—forgotten and unknown.
But Jehovah and the gifts of His mercy and righteousness are constant. Who we are and what we accomplish on the earth fades away, but Jehovah’s mercy is everlasting.
What does Jehovah give? First, this passage speaks of His mercy. Mercy is God’s powerful pity for miserable, pitiful objects, whereby He condescends to deliver them out of their misery and make them blessed. Directed to an object in misery, mercy reveals itself as God’s affection and compassion, powerfully able to transform its object from being absolutely miserable into being blessed, and able to experience this blessedness.
This psalm describes the misery of the psalmist in two ways. First, as a member of the fallen human race, man is full of weakness. He may appear to be flourishing and strong for a while — in his youth; but in reality man is full of weakness—as the grass. The death of teenagers and of men in their twenties demonstrates the truth of Isaiah 40:30, “Even the youth shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall.” Second, the misery of man is that he is a sinner before the just God, full of sins and iniquities and transgressions (Ps. 103:10-12). Every sinner stands before the living God as the object of His wrath and justly receives death as the wages of his sin.
God’s mercy is obviously a most wonderful and completely undeserved gift. Jehovah is merciful, compassionately and powerfully condescending to the miserable sinner and delivering him out of that weak and sinful state and giving him to be blessed, as God Himself is blessed. God was pleased to give mercy to the psalmist. Instead of being frail and insignificant, those who receive mercy are eternally the objects of God’s love.
In this passage the inspired psalmist makes God’s righteousness parallel with God’s mercy. While righteousness is an attribute of God, it is also a gift from God. This text presents “His righteousness” as a gift that is given “unto children’s children.” God’s righteousness is His virtue according to which all His willing and all His actions are in harmony with His perfect holiness. God’s giving of righteousness means two things. One, God imputes righteousness to an elect sinner, translating that sinner from a state of guilt for violating His holy standard, into a state of justification, i.e., judged by God as having legally met the standard of God’s holiness. Two, God imparts righteousness to every elect sinner, actually giving Christ’s righteousness, so that the sinner is forgiven, worthy of eternal life, and able to walk in righteousness.
God’s mercy is the source of the gift of righteousness. His compassion for those in Christ is powerful to declare them to be forgiven and to enable them to walk in all good works. They have the right to an eternal standing before the holy God. They will live forever in God’s family.
God gives His mercy “from everlasting to everlasting” (literally, “from age to age”). There is no age in which God does not bestow mercy. Divine mercy has no beginning and no ending.
While God’s mercy comes to us in time, its origin is in the eternal God. God’s mercy is not of this world nor of this world’s time. Mercy is eternal because it is of Him who is the eternal One. It is the “mercy of Jehovah,” the eternal I Am, who inhabits eternity and is thus transcendent above time. Thus God is unchanging in His attitude toward His people. Immutably He knows them and loves them in His mercy.
How can God’s mercy be eternally given to God-fearers when they live on this earth for only a brief span of time? The answer is found in the mind of God. God’s people are eternally with Him. He eternally willed to have a people who would experience His mercy. He eternally determined to deliver these people out of their deepest woe and give them to rejoice in His glorious holiness.
This means that God’s mercy is sovereign. God did not become merciful after man sinned. He was merciful before Adam fell. God’s mercy is not evoked by our misery. That is how we express ourmercy. God’s mercy has been functioning from everlasting and will continue to everlasting.
Parallel to God’s everlasting-to-everlasting mercy is His gift of righteousness “unto children’s children.” Man’s days may be “as grass” and “as a flower of the field” and his place may know him no more, but God’s righteousness continues. Our days on earth may end, but God’s gift of righteousness continues in one’s generations. What a remarkable perspective!
That God’s righteousness goes unto children’s children speaks of the fact that the spiritual seed of Christ is usually found in successive generations. This does not mean that absolutely every child and every grandchild of believers is automatically given this righteousness. Rather, it speaks of the fact that God usually is pleased to use the parents’ attitude of the fear of Jehovah and their instruction about this fear to communicate the same to their children.
What are the implications of God’s mercy being everlasting and His righteousness continuing to children’s children? This is very, very good news! Those who fear God in this life experience the miseries of a life that is as the grass: weak physically and spiritually, anxious and in anguish, tried and tempted, troubled. That God’s mercy is everlasting means that all our experiences in time are accompanied by mercy. Our faith must see our present afflictions in light of the fact that God is always crowning us with tender mercies (Ps. 103:4). Faith must constantly grasp the truth that “Jehovah is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy” (Ps. 103:8). When we remember that “as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him” (Ps. 103:11), then we can better deal with all the weaknesses of this life. This means that every moment of earthly life is characterized by God’s ever-faithful mercy. Consider that God’s forever enduring mercy was present at creation, in delivering Israel out of Egypt, and most obviously in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ (cf. Ps. 136). God mercifully enters our hearts and speaks the good news of merciful forgiveness. That God’s mercy is constant gives us to know joy in the midst of the miseries of this life. We may know that in His mercy He will never leave any of His children, even unto the end of the ages.
God’s mercy and righteousness are “upon them that fear Him.” These gifts of God are not common or general. They are to a particular people, limited to those who fear Him.
Because we have learned that God’s mercy is from everlasting, we must be careful that we do not conclude that our fear of God is first, and is the cause of His mercy. Such cannot be the case. God’s everlasting mercy works the fear of God in His people. It is because of His mercy that we believe, that we repent of our sin, that we turn to Him for the experience of enduring mercy.
What is this fear of Jehovah? It is a reverent and loving awe of Jehovah God. The recipients of Jehovah’s mercy and righteousness are moved to have an awe of God. Those who fear God are not those who have no sin, but they are sinners who are increasingly amazed that they can be the recipients of the forgiving mercy of the holy Majesty. The recipients of divine mercy and righteousness do not take the attitude that they may take advantage of His unchanging mercy by living as they please. Rather, they are awed by His awesomeness and moved to want to keep His commandments. Daily conversion is an important evidence that one is receiving Jehovah’s mercy.
No wonder the psalmist begins this psalm, “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.”