Today begins a break from John’s gospel as we turn our attention to the Holidays. For the next two weeks we’ll cover two Psalms of Thanksgiving and then for the remainder of the calendar year we’ll enjoy our annual advent celebration. So as Thanksgiving approaches don’t you think there’s something ironic about it? Most people think of family, football, Turkey, Ham, dressing, naps, pies of all various sorts and sizes, unhindered indulgence, and gargantuan gluttony. I’ve often found the absent menu item for many is what the holiday is named for – giving thanks!
Do you think I’m overstating my case here? That I’m just using the name of this holiday to give you guys a break from John’s gospel and focus on something else for a moment? Or maybe you think I’m overstating my case because you think you don’t have to be explicit in thankfulness to be thankful on thanksgiving, no, can’t we just go about the holiday in a general spirit of thankfulness and gratitude? Perhaps you might even be thinking, ‘C’mon Adam, isn’t there something in our lives we can just do without having to make God the focus?’ To which I reply, ‘No!’ You know the long list of heinous immoral sins in Romans 1 that people often go to to point out the reality of our depraved condition? You know what’s in this list: homosexuality, idolatry impure lusts, shameful deeds, murder, maliciousness, slander, and pride. Near the end this list even includes ‘haters of God’ and ‘inventors of evil.’ You know what’s at the top of that list? Romans 1:21-22a says, “Although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools…”
Giving thanks isn’t only to be the main menu item present at our thanksgiving feasts, it’s to be a main ingredient to the Christian life. So to remind us afresh of this reality we turn today to Psalm 136, and Lord willing, we’ll turn next week to Psalm 138.
Psalm 136 is a grand catalogue of God’s benefits, leading to a grand chorus of God’s praise. As we’ve seen in reading it, a grand chorus of praise centered on one repetitive theme, the steadfast and enduring love of the Lord. Could there be a sweeter or more sacred lyric? Should we object to such repetition as if it were tiring for us to read, recite, or sing? 26 times the Psalmist answers ‘No.’
The five stanzas of this Psalm form what feels like five movements from a mighty symphony…we’ll take them one at a time.
God’s Good Hesed (v1-3)
At first glance you may think these three verses are saying the same thing, but notice that as the Psalm begins here, each of the first three verses contains a different name for God. v1 gives thanks to Yahweh, v2 gives thanks to Elohim, and v3 gives thanks to Adonai. Don’t stop just noticing this, ask why this is so. Why does the Psalmist do this? Generally speaking we can say that by whatever name God is known He is worthy of highest praise. His name is independent self-existence, His name of covenant bond, or His name of rule and authority, there is no God but our God. More specifically we can go further. I think v1-3 is a pleading, a threefold pleading to give thanks, give thanks, give thanks to God, not just for one work He has done, not just for one wonder He’s performed, and not just for one attribute present in His Person, but rather a thanksgiving which takes all of us is to be given in response to all that God is in Himself. There are many lords throughout all the earth, but there is only one Lord who reigns over them. Men and women from many nations bow down before many gods, but there is only one God who stands above them. There is one God only and He is the LORD, He is good, and is in Himself and His character the very definition of goodness. To this God, to our God, we give a wholehearted thanks for “…His steadfast love endures forever.”
Continuing on we come to that which is repeated 26 times in this Psalm. The phrase ‘steadfast love’ can be translated in many different ways: loyalty, kindness, devotion, faithfulness, love, or even as the ESV does it ‘steadfast love.’ But if we look at the Hebrew word behind this phrase, which is ‘hesed’, we see more. This word ‘hesed’ is one of the most important words in the entire Old Testament. It is used in multiple ways throughout the Old Testament. At times it’s used to describe certain men and women, who are faithful or devoted or loyal to God. At other times this word is used in regards to men treating other men with faithfulness or devotion. It’s also used at times when a one person or a nation enters into an agreement with another person or another nation that obligates them to do certain things or live in certain way with those involved in the agreement. But when this word is used in regard to God (which happens frequently in the Old Testament) the meaning is always clear: God is ‘hesed’, or God is faithful, and His ‘hesed’, His faithfulness, is everlasting. Because of this God treats mankind with ‘hesed’ or faithfulness not just in general but in the context of covenant. Which means from front to back, because of the repeated refrain, Psalm 136 is all about the covenant faithfulness of God to His people.Solomon led the people in this refrain in 2 Chronicles 7 when the temple was finished, encouraging the people to remember God’s present faithfulness in their midst. Jesus came to prove this very refrain, that God keeps His promises and by sending Him in the flesh all His promises have reached their fulfillment. In this ‘hesed’, in this covenant faithfulness, in this steadfast love, we rejoice still today. God will always remain faithful to the covenant He made with His people, despite the unfaithfulness of His people, so we praise Him, confess Him, acknowledge Him, and give thanks to Him!
That’s the introduction; let’s now see how this plays out through the rest of the Psalm.
Hesed in Creation (v4-9)
v4 begins this next thread when it says, “…to Him who alone does great wonders…” Don’t read this too quickly. Did it say to Him ‘along with all the other gods or lords who make wonders?’ Or does it say to Him ‘does great wonders?’ No. You’ll find it says, “To Him alone who does great wonders.” There is nothing of wonder in anything found in any idol or god of our own making, as hard as we might try or as desperate as we may want it to be true. Only with God is there strength to make wonders, only with Him is there might to create everything from nothing. In fact, it is a thing of wonder that so many run after false gods and idols and dig into empty wells and forget the God who alone can do wonders. Only He is wonderful, and only He does great wonders. Well, what wonders? Beginning with the heavens and descending to the earth v5-9 describe the wonders of creation.v5, God made the heavens by His wisdom and understanding, the skies, the clouds, an atmosphere suitable for a world of men. v6, God spread out the earth above the waters, forming a home fit for men. v7, God made the great lights. Which lights? v8, the sun to rule the day and v9, the moon and stars to rule the night.
No hour of the day is left un-ruled by God. When the great minister of the sun is hidden out come many minor comforters singing a soft song to comfort us in the darkness. So too when Jesus Christ the Dayspring or SonRise from on high is hidden from us by sin and despair, out come many brothers and sisters in Christ to remind us of His great gospel light.
Who else could’ve done these things? Who else can form the heavens, the skies, the clouds? How can we not before Him bow? Who else can make land and lights by strong hand and great might? Only God! Rightly does Psalm 19 proclaim, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork. Day unto day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” In all these wonders of creation the covenant faithfulness or the ‘hesed’ of God is made clear. And from beholding the wonder in all of creation all the creatures in creation should be moved to declare the wonder of the wonder making God.
Some of you are going to have remember that by saying all this about creation to us, the Holy Spirit wasn’t aiming to teach us astronomy.He wasn’t teaching us that the sun and moon rule by exercising a governmental or kingly rule over the day and night, but that they shine the brightest in the day and night. And the Spirit wasn’t aiming to teach us about the size and brightness of all the planets, for there are planets bigger and brighter than the moon, but from man’s viewpoint here on Earth there are two great lights: the sun first and the moon second. No astronomical facts are in view here. No, the Spirit intends something higher to be revealed to us here. What does He wish us to know? That there is an order to creation that will never break loose as long as God is. All creation is the theater of the glory of God, it is a work of His hesed, and in it His hesed is made known because just as He created it, so too will He keep, uphold, and sustain it.
Hesed in Redemption (v10-15)
The next movement of this great symphony summarizes the redemption of Israel from Egypt. We’ve seen the glory of creation, we now see the glory of redemption, as God continues creating by rescuing a people from slavery. v10 brings up the last and final plague against Pharaoh which all the previous nine plagues led to and culminated in. “…to Him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt…” What was the result this? v11, Israel was led out from among them with, v12, God’s strong and outstretched arm which, v13, cared for them by dividing the Red Sea making it possible for them, v14, to walk through on dry land, ensuring victory, v15, by overthrowing the Egyptian host, and keeping them secure. At every step of the way His steadfast love, His covenant faithfulness, His hesed was strong for them because it endures forever!
In view here is both matter and manner of redemption. The matter in that God redeemed them, the manner in that God did it by His strong arm. Egypt, Pharaoh, and all their host was strong in their own right and strong in their slavery over God’s people. But who is stronger?! God is, in every imaginable way. All of Israel was enslaved and at the proper time God set all of them free, not weakly, not by the skin of His teeth, but strongly. After all the plagues the whole host of Egypt was glad to see Israel leave, and leave they did, plundering them and carrying out treasures of all kinds as they went…and even as they went a new direction they had not gone before as they neared and the stood on the shores of the Red Sea there seemed to be no way, but God wasn’t aloof, His faithfulness endured and He made a way for them through the Red Sea. And again, terror followed them into the sea as Pharaoh and his host followed them in. But even there at the sea bottom God was faithful and strong for them as He wielded the waters that saved Israel against Egypt and led them out into freedom.
This would all be seen again when the fullness of time came as the true Israel of God, Jesus Christ, redeems the people of God from a greater Pharaoh in Satan, out of a greater slavery in sin, into a greater freedom through the bloody waters of His cross and death. This also wasn’t done weakly but strongly as He burst forth from the greater tomb of the sea of death in His resurrection plundering the enemy for good by taking His treasured people out to Himself once and for all, simultaneously giving His people the greatest of all treasures in Himself! His hesed endures in slavery, His hesed endures in rescue, and His hesed endures at the bottom of the sea. Lesson? His steadfast love, His covenant faithfulness, His hesed endures forever!
Hesed in Conquest (v16-22)
As triumphant a high note as v1-15 led us to, v16 seems strange. Does it halt our trajectory of praise and thanks? Not at all. Look at it. “…to Him who led His people through the wilderness…” In all this repeated faithfulness, they had to go through a barren wilderness? Yes. Wait, doesn’t God’s faithfulness mean He’ll keep us from hard times? No. God knew what His people needed, and whatever God ordains is right. But be sure to note, He not only led them to the wilderness, v16 says He led them through it. This was nothing more than sheer mercy, you know why? Almost at every turn what did Israel do? Complained, grumbled, and fought against God, and while they occasionally were severely punished for it, by and large their many sins were overcome by God’s greater mercy. Or to say it another way, their faithfulness failed, God’s faithfulness endured.And sure enough, when they drew near the Jordan to cross it they learned – God had brought them out to bring them in. Out of slavery, into salvation. Out of Pharaoh’s fortress, into promised freedom.
Did God’s hesed end there? No. Once in the land God’s covenant faithfulness endured. Enemies surrounded them: kings, nations, and armies both vast and grand, yet, none were able to stand. Sihon king of the Amorites in v19, Og king of Bashan in v20. Two of the many kings representing two of the many peoples God plundered in the Canaanite Conquest proving to us that all thrones before God will fall.
(Covenant promise fulfilled here. Genesis 15:16)
Not all Israel believed this…that God could conquer these enemies. Did they not remember that God made everything from nothing? Did they not remember what God did to Pharaoh and all Egypt? Did they forget all the miraculous wilderness provision? Perhaps they did, and for this reason the conquest remained only partially complete, some of these nations remained and would be thorns in there side. But no surprise here, Israel was always a mixed bag. The disciples also feared greatly as Jesus approached the king of this world to do battle with Him in His life and ultimately in His death on the cross. And again, no surprise, we do the same thing. Don’t we remember how God made the world? Don’t we remember what God did for Israel? What God did through Jesus? What God did when He saved us? Why do we fear sin? If all thrones before Him will fall no sin, however ingrained in your DNA, can ultimately keep any believer from God. And more, just as God’s faithfulness endured then for Israel, His faithfulness continues still today. Do you think God is content to let sins of various kinds continue to enslave His free children? No. He will complete the work He began, we can be sure of that. How can we be sure? Because His covenant faithfulness, His hesed endures forever.
It’s like Val Kilmer. Ghost and the Darkness, know the movie? He was determined to see to it that those lions would be killed. So too, in a much greater manner, God sees to the great enemy of our souls and the sins that plague us, determined to rule over them, defend us, and restrain and conquer all His and our enemies.
Conclusion:God’s Enduring Hesed (v23-26)
It now turns personal…no longer looking back but saying ‘us.’ The Psalmist applies these things to his audience saying this same God in His covenant faithfulness who has created, redeemed, and cared for Israel remembers us in our low estate, rescued us from our foes, and cares for us as well. God was faithful then, what is our conclusion here today? “Give thanks to the God of heaven, for his steadfast love endures forever.”
What the Psalmist does leads us to what we’re to be doing now. This is the grand lesson for us today as we approach this thanksgiving holiday. Remembering the great and mighty acts of God in behalf of Israel, remembering the greater mighty acts of God through Christ, and remembering the great and mighty acts of God in His fatherly care over us should lead us to one thing: a gratitude filled praise…Israel had much to be thankful for, and so do we. If you’re content to allow your thanksgiving to be about football and turkey, you may truly be having a gathering, but you’re not doing thanksgiving. And if you do truly give thanks this week, may it not just be this week. May a gratitude filled praise ever be the posture of your heart before God in this life. Here, there is no danger of excess, we’re free and encouraged to indulge in this, for by so doing our souls will feast on God forever.