(10) He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
(11) For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him;
(12) as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
Psalm 103:10–12, NIV
Lord our God, we lift our hearts to you, for you have given great promises to those who fear you. Let your Word strengthen us in faith, patience, and hope. Be with all those who call upon you, pleading for help in our time. For these times must work for our good, and in spite of sin, death, and all evil we can find joy in what you are doing. We call to you, O Lord our God. Let your hand be revealed, that something may be seen besides human striving and the efforts of human hands. Let the work of your hand be visible to many, to all peoples on this earth. May your name be honored, O Lord our God, your kingdom come, and your will be done on earth as in heaven. Amen.
The context of the words of Psalm 103:10–12, NIV
Psalm 103:6–19 reflects on the Lord's benefits to Israel. Deuteronomy 6:1–15 contains the Lord's promise to bless the people of Israel if they would obey him. Psalm 105 and 106 are companion psalms that stress the Lord's goodness to Israel.
Psalm 103 praises God for what He has done. This includes celebration of His personal influence, as well as the way God has blessed the nation of Israel. David encourages praises from himself, from the people in general, and even from the angels and hosts of heaven.
Meaning of the words
"He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities"
This verse contains a strong admission of Israel's sin and guilt as well as a tribute to God's forgiveness. If God punished every sinner as that sinner deserves to be punished, no sinner would be allowed to enter heaven. Even worse, the Bible says, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Humanity getting what we deserve would mean every single one of us being separated from God, forever.
The Old Testament prophet Ezra understood that God does not punish us to the extent we deserve. He said, "And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved" (Ezra 9:13). Contrary to punishing us as we deserve, God loved us and gave His Son for us (John 3:16–17).
Jesus took the full punishment for our sins by dying in our place on the cross. Romans 5:6 announces: "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Romans 5:8 says "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Those who accept this are saved (John 3:16–18), but those who reject it are not (John 3:36).
"For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him"
David describes the Lord's unfailing love for those who reverence Him. This is an example of how Scripture uses the concept of "fear" somewhat differently from the modern world. This is not an abject terror, or a panic-inducing dread. Rather, this is the healthy and humble respect that comes with recognizing that God is God, and we are not.
Scripture says the Lord's love is as high as the heavens are above the earth. It was common for David to gaze up at the heavens and marvel at the Lord's creative power (Psalm 8:3–4; 19:1). He spent much of his life in the open outdoors, both as a shepherd caring for his father's sheep and as a fugitive from hateful Saul. David probably didn't understand the mind-boggling distance from earth to the stars, as we do today. Yet he recognized them as extremely distant from the earth, and knew God's love for His people stretched even further.
The death of Christ on the cross for us is the best measure of God's love for us. John 3:16 tells us God's love was potent enough that He gave His only Son. Furthermore, no power on earth can destroy His love for us. Tribulation, distress, persecution, nakedness, danger, and sword cannot divide us from God's infinite love (Romans 8:35–39). Those who accept Christ are saved (Acts 4:12), and those who reject Him are lost (John 3:18; 3:36).
"As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us"
In love and mercy, the Lord has removed His people's sins from them. He doesn't simply move our sins onto our doorstep or a mile away; God moves them as far from us as the east is from the west.
This is an especially profound analogy. North meets south at the South Pole, and south meets north at the North Pole. East and west never meet—there is neither an east pole nor a west pole. A person who follows a straight path north will eventually begin moving south. But no matter how far one travels east, they will always be moving east. North and south are definable points, but east and west are indefinitely far from each other. To say that God separates our sins "as far as the east is from the west" speaks of the absolute, irrevocable measure by which God forgives us.
On Israel's annual Day of Atonement the high priest killed a bull as a sin offering for himself and his household. He also sacrificed a goat for the people of Israel. A second goat became the scapegoat. The high priest laid his hands on this animals' head and confessed all Israel's iniquities, transgressions, and sins. Then he sent the scapegoat into the wilderness, where it symbolically carried the nation's sins over the horizon, never to return. Thus, the people's sins were removed far from them (Leviticus 16).
If we were to search for the sins the Lord has removed from us, we would never find them, because Jesus, the Lamb of God, has taken them far away (John 1:29) from those who come to Him in faith (John 3:16–18). When we turn away from that gift, we resign ourselves to bear punishment for sins ourselves (Acts 4:12; John 14:6).