Psalm 103:12, “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
This is a glorious statement of God’s grace toward us; beautifully summarizing the gospel. God placed our sins on Christ so that, in our place, he could bear the wrath we deserved. Psalm 103:12 paints a word picture to help us understand what that means.
But, what exactly is Psalm 103 saying? What’s the word picture being painted? Pastors explain this imagery most often by contrasting east/west to north/south. The north/south distance limits the distance sin could be from us. If you travel far enough north, you will eventually end up going south when you make the turn at the north pole and start heading back down the other side of the globe. We can measure that. On the other hand, if you travel west then you just keep going to the west and you’ll never start traveling east. Eastward travel and Westward travel continue without end. So, they make their point: there is an infinite distance between east and west. God chose east/west instead of north/south, they say, to show that he put the greatest distance possible between you and your sin.
Of course, technically speaking, if you go far enough east you actually end up where you started. Which could also mean our sins eventually come back to bite us. In other words, if we’re going to make our point based on the spherical shape of the earth giving an advantage to east/west over north/south for the distance of our sins - then we also have to accept the “what goes around, comes around” reality as well.
Therefore, the fact that moving around the globe eastward is an infinite distance compared to moving north, probably isn't the point of the text. So, then why east/west and not north/south? What is the point?
The Old Testament, and the Pentateuch in particular, often uses movement eastward to symbolize movement away from God’s presence and/or people. When Adam and Eve sin in the Garden, God sends them eastward (Gen. 3). After Cain kills Abel he “went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16). When the people decide to rebel against God and make a tower to show how great they are, they migrated to the east (Genesis 11:2). When Lot separates from Abraham, the blessed one, he chooses the land of the east - away from God’s chosen man (Gen. 13:11). Finally, when Abraham sends the sons of his concubines away from his promised son, Isaac, he sends them to the east country (Gen. 25:6).
So, if movement east represents movement away from God and separation from his people, then perhaps that’s the imagery of Psalm 103:12. Maybe the point is not the infinite distance between them, but the biblical imagery of being removed from God’s people and the land of promise. He removes our sin from us, just as he removed sinners from his promised land, to purify us.
The illustration is not as convenient and takes a little more work, but it uses biblical imagery that seems more fitting.