I was reading Psalm 103 from the lectionary and was particularly struck today by verse three. It contains a pretty big, bold sounding statement that without looking I’m sure has probably been seized upon by prosperity preachers. Now, I would be the first to tell you that I think health-wealth and prosperity preaching is a blight. But, I would be lying if I said there wasn’t potential fodder for it in the Bible, especially when not read properly (and even sometimes when read properly, but I’m not an inerrantist). If verse 3 from today’s reading was used as fodder, it would, I think, be a case of not reading properly.
The text reads as follows:
He pardons all your iniquities,
he heals all your ills. (NAB)
Heals all your ills? Awesome! Because my upper back has really been hurting. I’m being sarcastic, of course (though not about my back hurting). This is the kind of phrase along with ones like “by his stripes we are healed” (if that is a proper textual reading at all) that is seized upon by health-wealth preachers. “You see, it says right there that God promises to heal all our ills/diseases. All you have to do is believe and lay hold to that promise … And, oh yeah .. give me all your money.”
Now, many of us from life experience simply know and accept that the health-wealth understanding of this verse is not true. We have prayed for a loved one believing full-well God could heal that person if he wanted to … Then nothing happens (and I’m not just talking about terminal illness here). For most of us that life experience teaches us that we are not reading this particular text properly. But, for some that will not be satisfying. So, how does one approach Psalm 103.3 if confronted by … I don’t know … let’s say Benny Hinn?
How to Read Psalm 103.3
I would say that like most occasions the context helps tremendously here. I would read the second part of Psalm 103.3 either as a synonymous parallel with the first the first part of the verse or read it as an exaggeration in light of verses 15-16. If the second part of verse three is a synonymous parallel with the first part then the healing of ills is a metaphor for the healing of iniquities. I won’t go into this too much since parallelism in Biblical Hebrew poetry sometimes doesn’t really fit that easily into categories. And, I don’t think this explanation is necessary, though it is possible.
I think the second possible route works even better. I would read the second half of 103.3 as an exaggertation in light of verses 15-16, which read as follows:
- Our days are like the grass; like flowers of the field we blossom.
- The wind sweeps over us and we are gone; our place knows us no more. (NAB)
Apparently, the statement “he heals all your ills” is made even in light of the fact that the author has a clear understanding of the idea that everyone will die … swiftly. Well, I suppose if we’re all going to die God won’t heal all our ills. Everyone uses the word “all” in exaggerated ways from time to time and poetic usage probably lends itself to this. I may say, “I go eat sushi all the time.” If one takes that statement to a literal extreme, then they will have to fashion me a liar. If I ate sushi all the time, I would die from a lack of sleep. In the same way, from verses 15-16 one can argue that at least in this Psalm God, doesn’t heal all our ills, and not even the biggest, most scary one for most people, namely death. “All” here simply does not mean what a health-wealth preacher would take it to mean.
Other Posts of Psalms: