For the Love of God, Volume 2/November 6
From Gospel Translations
2 Kings 19; Hebrews 1; Hosea 12; Psalms 135—136
SOME PSALMS GIVE US A glimpse of ancient Israelite worship, and Psalm 136 is one of them. Probably this was sung antiphonally: either a restricted part of the choir, or one part of the congregation in the temple would sing the lead line of each cycle, and the whole congregation would burst out and respond with “His love endures forever.” Comparing 136:18-22 with 135:10b-12 suggests that some other psalms were sung this way too. In Jewish tradition this psalm is known as the Great Hallel, “the Great Psalm of Praise.” The refrain itself celebrates God’s “love”: the Hebrew word is hesed, notoriously difficult to render consistently by one English word. The King James Version opts for “steadfast love.” It is bound up with God’s faithfulness to the covenant, and in various contexts might properly be rendered “grace,” “love,” even “covenant-fidelity”—with overtones of a reciprocal obligation.
What makes this psalm so thought-provoking is not the compactness of the refrain but its connection with a vast grounding of evidence—evidence that God’s love endures forever. The psalm speaks of God’s character (136:1), the sweep of his sovereignty (136:2-3), his creative power (136:4-9), the extraordinary displays of his might when he redeemed his people from Egypt (136:10-22), and his mercy displayed alike to his elect and to every creature under heaven that needs food (136:23-25). Contrast this specificity with more than a few contemporary praise choruses that endlessly exhort us to praise the Lord, without telling us why we should praise the Lord, or perhaps giving us only a reason or two. In the choruses, the emphasis tends to be on worship; here, the emphasis is on the One who is worshiped, such that the worship has the flavor of being no more than the inevitable response to so great a God. The one focuses on what we do, the other on who God is and what he has done.
Some final reflections: (1) The expression “Give thanks” that opens the first three verses and the last suggests more than a casual “Thanks a lot.” It has to do with “confessing” (in the old-fashioned sense), “acknowledging” (with thoughtful God-centeredness), with grateful worship. (2) This God brooks no rivals. He is the God of gods, the Lord of lords (136:2, 3). (3) Informed as they are by pluralism, our ears find it strange to append the refrain “His love endures forever” to such lines as “who struck down great kings” and “[h]e swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea.” But these actions were expressions of God’s elective love for his chosen people. The notion that God loves all people exactly the same way and in every respect finds little support in Scripture.