God’s Covenant Faithfulness: Psalm 136

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Psalm 136 (NIV)

1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His love endures forever.
2 Give thanks to the God of gods.
His love endures forever.
3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords:
His love endures forever.

4 to him who alone does great wonders,
His love endures forever.
5 who by his understanding made the heavens,
His love endures forever.
6 who spread out the earth upon the waters,
His love endures forever.
7 who made the great lights—
His love endures forever.
8 the sun to govern the day,
His love endures forever.
9 the moon and stars to govern the night;
His love endures forever.

23 He remembered us in our low estate
His love endures forever.
24 and freed us from our enemies.
His love endures forever.
25 He gives food to every creature.
His love endures forever.

26 Give thanks to the God of heaven.
His love endures forever.

Sing this psalm with the Seedbed Psalter today! Visit the resource here.

CONSIDER THIS

Psalm 136 was quite obviously written for a public act of worship, whereby the worship leader would make an affirmation and the congregation would respond with the refrain, “His love endures forever.” This refrain occurs twenty-six times in the psalm. It is crucial to recognize that the word love used in this refrain is the Hebrew word hesed. This is a word that can be translated “covenant faithfulness” or “covenant loyalty.” (For more on this term, see the extended reflection on the term found in the meditation on Psalm 107). To say, “his love endures forever” is not primarily an affirmation about how God feels about us in any emotive or sentimental sense. Rather, it is a declaration of his steadfast faithfulness to the covenant. This is very important to understand, because modern Christians have been so influenced by the wider, more general, use of the word “love” in the larger society that we can no longer make sense of Psalm 136, which clearly celebrates acts of God that we would not put under the rubric of love. This psalm confesses that it was an act of God’s love when he “struck down the firstborn of Egypt” (v. 10) and when he “swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea” (v. 15). God’s covenant love was being expressed when he “killed mighty kings” (v. 18) and “freed us from our enemies” (v. 24). When the Scripture speaks of God’s love, it normally refers to his faithfulness to the covenant and his mighty acts to rescue and defend his people.

The recurring refrain “His love endures forever” presents all of the acts of creation and Israel’s history as expressions of God’s hesed love, his faithful covenant love that never fails. To sing of this enduring faithful love is to be reminded that every purpose of God toward his people is fueled by this covenant loving-kindness. It is love that formed the earth and sky; it is love that placed the sun and moon; it is love that acted to redeem; it is love that set us free; it is love that provides for our every need. Even God’s acts of judgment upon idols and pompous oppressors are acts of love on behalf of his covenant people, the ones who have put their trust in him and placed their lives in his hands.

Biblical love is not like the wavering flood of emotion that overtakes humans in some romantic surge; the love that God defines is a resolute disposition that acts on behalf of another, and does so relentlessly and redemptively. This is the faithful, covenant love of God that is celebrated with every phrase of remembrance and declaration in Psalm 136. What may strike us on a first read as endless or even needless repetition is actually a powerful, steady reminder of God’s covenant love in and through the whole of life. So, let us say with ancient Israel, “His love endures forever!”

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Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.

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