Reflection | Psalm 136 is a true, ancient hymn of the people of God. It is the only psalm in the entire book which contains a repeated chorus in every verse. If we survey our Bibles, we discover brief clips wherein we get to hear this classic refrain sung aloud during worship (see 1 Chronicles 16:34, 2 Chronicles 5:11-14; 7:1-3; 20:21; Ezra 3:11). With lavish instrumentation, we can envision the Levitical priests and the people chanting antiphonally – meaning the two groups alternated singing each line and the chorus.
Psalm 136, by itself or paired with Psalm 135, constitutes the Great Hallel or Song of Praise. In the Jewish tradition, the Great Hallel is sung on every Sabbath morning, on the night of the Passover celebration, and during the feast of Hanukkah. So once again, in reflecting on one of the greatest hits in the catalogue of the book of Psalms, we are immersing ourselves in a song that Jesus and His disciples definitely were singing as they celebrated the Passover in the Upper Room.
While several, related but distinct reasons for giving thanks to the Lord are provided, the unifying thread and repeated cause for our continual gratitude to God is “His love endures forever.” This refrain is repeated twenty-six times in the song. Sadly, the English translation fails to capture the full weight of what is being heralded. What is translated here simply as “love” is the Hebrew word “hesed.”
The “hesed” of God speaks of far more than mere sentimental love or whimsical adoration. This word, which also can be translated as “loyalty,” “steadfastness,” or “faithfulness,” implies a pledge or covenant of love. In other words, the “hesed” of God is promise-keeping love. It is a love that persists and remains – that continues to love – despite all circumstances and in the midst of any response or lack thereof. Hence this divine love is described in Hebrew as “‘olam,” or as being “everlasting, forever.”
The call to give thanks to the Lord begins with praising God for who God is – for the Lord’s goodness and for the God’s superiority to other gods, including lords (verses 1-3). Elsewhere, the Bible also declares the very nature of God is love (see 1 John 4:7-21). It is in perceiving God’s goodness that we recognize God’s love. If we do not believe God is good, then we will not receive the Lord’s movement and work in and through our lives as being loving. Instead of thanking the Lord, we will find ourselves repeatedly questioning the Lord – not for sake of growing in our faith but rather in order to become more entrenched in our doubts.
One of the ways we comprehend God’s goodness, and thus God’s love, is in witnessing the Lord’s great authority over all authorities. Since the source of all goodness is God, when lower agencies – both human and spiritual – exercise evil on creation, the Lord is committed to righting the wrongs and redeeming all things for good. It is because our Creator is the God of gods and Lord over all lords, that we are not promised but rest assured that love always wins.
God’s love for us is not ethereal. The tangibility of its existence is witnessed in its action. As the rest of this psalm purposes to make exhaustingly clear, God’s love always has a verb attached to it. We don’t just believe that God loves us, we have, and we can experience God’s steadfast devotion to us. And thus, our songwriter briefly takes us on journey of the various actions of the Lord’s redemption through human history.
Out of God’s love, the Lord created all life as we know it (verses 4 – 9). The “great wonders” – the mighty work of establishing the heavens and the earth, the sun, moon, and the stars, are alone by God’s authorship. They are a gift to us – an ever wide and opening space of potential which we have been invited to care for and fill with our Spirit-inspired imagination and ingenuity. Their collective depth and immeasurability are reflections of the limitlessness of God’s lovingkindness toward us.
Out of God’s love, the Lord rescued His people from slavery in the land of Egypt (verses 10-16). Our lyricist samples phrases from the original telling of this story of divine deliverance in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. One example would be in verse 12: “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm” (Compare with Deuteronomy 4.34). The great story of Israel’s redemption in the Old Testament foreshadows the Lord’s ultimate exodus of all humanity in the New Testament. For we have been rescued from our slavery to sin, death, and the devil through the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Out of God’s love, the Lord “led his people through the wilderness” and into the Promised Land (verses 17-24). No matter what Israel encountered as they traveled from Egypt to the land of Canaan, God was with them and guided them through every obstacle and challenge. When they were hungry and needed food, the Lord abundantly fed them. When they needed water, God made it flow from a dry rock. Both their clothes and their shoes did not wear out as they made this journey covering many miles and years.
Along the way, as the psalmist records (verses 17-20), when there were several kings who considered them to be a threat and tried to stop them, the Lord fought for His people. Even as Israel struggled through the growing pains of being a nation, including the consequence of her exile, God “remembered us in our low estate…and rescued us from our foes.” No matter how prodigal Israel became, despite all of her arrogant foolishness and massive failures, the Lord never gave up on His people. He continued to love them even when they made themselves unlovable.
Again, Israel’s story is the story of all humanity. Therefore, God’s loving faithfulness in the past assures us of the Lord’s presence and guidance in our present wilderness and before the challenges in our current journey of faith. Part of what Jesus reveals to us through His own forty days in the desert is that God will never allow us to be tempted beyond what we are able to bear and will lead us through to victory on the other side.
With each temptation, while the Lord will not necessarily take away our peril, God always will give us the grace and the strength to endure whatever we face. And even when the trouble we find ourselves in is of our own cause and making, the Lord will not leave or forsake us. As we discover in Jesus Christ, God will do whatever it takes – even if it means coming down and taking on all our sin and debt, our failure and our death in order to bring us back home to Him. For the love that God has for us, the love that is God is unconquerable.
Moving away from the historically specific, the psalm closes with the general recognition that the Lord daily provides for His people. “He gives food to every creature. His love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of heaven. His love endures forever” (verses 25-26).
This closing reminder that we perceive God’s love with the provision of each meal we enjoy and therefore ought to express our gratitude, aligns well with today’s holiday, our national day of Thanksgiving. Taking a moment to give thanks for a plate of food is a simple but significant way of acknowledging a greater reality – that all that we have and all that we are is because of the One whose love for us endures forever.
Psalm 136 begins and ends with a call to give thanks. To give thanks, at its most basic level, is to confess, to acknowledge and publicly declare what God has done. In this sense, the evidence of the testimony of God’s ever-enduring love goes well beyond the original lyrics of this song. The “great wonders” borne of God’s love for humanity extend further than the days of Moses or Joshua, David or Elijah or even the last prophet of Israel. Such wondrous love as this expands even beyond the coming of Christ, the atoning sacrifice of the Cross, and the death-defying triumph of the Resurrection. On the other side of the Cross and the Resurrection, thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Church exists to add its ongoing testimony, its own lyrics to this song of thanksgiving.
God’s steadfast love endures forever as the Gospel and the Body of Christ both continue to spread and reach the ends of the earth. The eternal love of God that conquers every principality and power, that breaks through and resurrects the human heart, that never fails even when we do, persists through the witness of your life and mine. Not only on this day of thanksgiving but every day of our lives, we can and should identify our own individual and collective stories within the outline of this song. Let us then echo the truth found in this psalm and contribute our own pages, proclaiming alongside the saints through the ages, God’s faithful and enduring love to us, which will continue on into Christ’s coming and His eternal rule forever and ever. Amen.
Consider & Discuss | Looking back over your life, in what ways has God demonstrated His love for you? How has the Lord shown His loving kindness to you through His creation, deliverance, guidance, protection, and provision? How are you thanking the Lord for His everlasting love? In what ways might you regularly recount these “great wonders” in order to be witness to others of the truth and reliability of God’s steadfast love – particularly in Christ? How can you translate your gratitude to God into acts of love done for others in Jesus’ name?
Prayer Focus | The Book of Psalms is a songbook. The various tracks serve as both models and outlets in expressing our own personal prayers and songs. Psalm 136 is a perfect example of this. With a little reflection, each of the verses of Psalm 136 can be personalized for each of us to offer our own expression of thanks to God. Use the prompts below to create your praise song to the Lord. Don’t forget the chorus with each verse you write: “His love endures forever!”
My Lord and my God, thank You that You are ________.
Creator of All That is Good, thank You for the beauty of Your creation in _________.
My Deliverer and Redeemer, thank You for rescuing me from __________.