Adonai is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. God will not contend forever, or nurse anger for all time. God has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor has God requited us according to our iniquities. (103:8–10)
In Exodus, God told Moses:
Adonai! Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations. (Exodus 34:6–7)
The essential difference between these two passages is that the Exodus passage asserts that God might forgive most of the sin but nonetheless still requires punishment, even if the punishment is stretched out over generational time. The Psalm passage asserts the opposite, that God will not require punishment.
Our system of justice is based on the notion that most of the time, repentance and restitution is not enough. Crime demands punishment. Our prisons are full of people who committed relatively minor offenses which hurt no one, but violated the law. Mandatory sentencing guidelines take discretion out of the hands of judges. Even law enforcement officer body cameras, which we typically think of in terms of protection against officers abusing their authority, also result in officers being unable to use their discretion to ignore small offenses.
In communities of poverty, engaging in criminal activity and serving time in prison is generational. Children who grow up with a father – or sometimes both parents – in prison are likely to end up in prison themselves. This is an Exodus vision, in which children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are stuck in a cycle of punishment that began with the sins of their ancestors.
The vision of Psalm 103 is that of a society in which we find a way to guide those who violate the law towards repentance and restitution without recourse to excessively harsh punishment. If we change the culture of communities in which children grow up without any hope that they can escape the pattern of their parents and grandparents, then we can make the psalmist’s vision a reality.