Psalm 136 – The Refrain of History

Psalm 136 is so simple and yet so profound.  Even the briefest reading of it will enable you to capture the central thought: ‘His steadfast love endures forever’.  Repeated as the second half of every single one of the 26 verses, it is clear what the Psalmist’s key theme is!

At one level the refrain of ‘His steadfast love endures forever’ is so simple.  Even young children can articulate the truth that God is a God of love.  And yet, at the same time, the refrain is so multifaceted that one could meditate on this for a long time and still find new depths and riches within it.  The fact that God’s love is described as steadfast tells us something of the tenacity and reliability of His love.  The fact that His love endures means that whatever history or circumstances seem to be prevailing under it all is a love which remains secure.  The fact that it endures forever gives us a glimpse into the infinitude of God, that He exists outside of time, and that the ongoing passing of the years does not, and cannot, jade, temper or diminish His love.  The fact that it is His love, and His only, that is being described means we are transported time and again to consider God alone.

Psalm 136 opens with a threefold encouragement to ‘Give thanks to the Lord…the God of gods…the Lord of lords’.  Our worship must be rooted in thankfulness, and our thankfulness rooted in who God is.  He is supreme, incomparable and above all others.  He is the source of steadfast enduring love.  And our marvelling at His love can only come about when our attention is fixed on Him.

In verses 4-9 the Psalmist moves his attention to the wonder of creation.  He describes some of the vast features of the universe and attributes their existence to the Creator.  This means that the opening chapters of Scripture where creation is described are actually the first accounts of the everlasting steadfast love of God!  No wonder creation is described as good (see Genesis 1:4,10,12,18,21,25,31).

The Psalmist then takes a foray into the history of Israel.  In verses 10-16 he describes the monumental events of the exodus where the nation is brought out of slavery in Egypt.  Described in the book of Exodus, these events include plagues and judgement upon Egypt and miraculous escape through the Red Sea for Israel.  The sequence of events provides a picture of salvation and redemption as the whole nation is rescued from slavery by God.  God’s love for Israel was so great and enduring that 400 years of slavery could not quench it and ultimately, having gone into Egypt as a family, He brought them out as a nation.

The Psalm continues (verses 17-22) with a reminder of how Israel’s enemies were overcome in order for them to live in the Promised Land.  The accounts of the two kings east of the Jordan River – Sihon, king of the Amorites and Og,king of Bashan – is detailed in Numbers 21:21-35 and illustrates how God divinely intervened in the dealings of Israel in order to bring about His purposes.

Psalm 136 concludes by describing how God in His love remembers us when we are far from Him, rescues us when oppressed and provides for our every need.  His grace toward us is extensive and available to all.

And so my hope is that Psalm 136 can provide a pattern for our worship.  Reflecting on who God is, His creation, salvation, intervention in history and grace towards us will surely cause us to give thanks and join in with the refrain of history: ‘…for His steadfast love endures forever’.

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