Psalm 136 - Part 1
When someone does something for you, what is the natural, prudent, and courteous thing to do? Yes, you got it. Take a second to say “Thank you.”
While shopping with Liz the other day, I opened the door for her at a store and she walked in. Seeing another lady waiting to exit, I did the gentlemanly thing by keeping the door open for her to slip by me. Within a few seconds she did go briskly by me, but she did it without a word. “Really?” I thought to myself. My carnal, sinful self wanted to loudly say, “Hey, you are welcome,” but I restrained myself. I guess some folks have a sinful “serve-me” mentality.
What is true on an earthly plane about expressing thanks is more true on a spiritual plane as we see in Psalm 136. If we should offer heartfelt thanks to those who help us with various practical needs, we, by definition, should offer the living God a constant flow of thanks for how He cares for and blesses our lives. Should that thanks be private? Absolutely because there are some things He does for you which are between you and Him. Conversely, thanks should be public so He receives praise and glory for assistance which others can readily identify with.
For ancient Israel, public thanks was purposefully woven into their corporate worship at the Temple. This particular psalm in question is a case in point. By employing four Hiphil imperatives/commands (Psalm 136:1, 2, 3, 26), the divinely inspired unknown author informs believers they have an ongoing obligation to express thanks to God while gathered with other believers. How this occurred at the temple is showcased in this musical number. The worship leader would either call the saints to give thanks (vv. 1-3, 26), or he would give the reasons for divine thanks, and each statement was followed by an antiphonal response from the people: For His lovingkindness is everlasting. Join me in giving this a try. It really is quite beautiful and worshipful:
1 Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting. 2 Give thanks to the God of gods, For His lovingkindness is everlasting. 3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords, For His lovingkindness is everlasting. 4 To Him who alone does great wonders, For His lovingkindness is everlasting; 5 To Him who made the heavens with skill, For His lovingkindness is everlasting (Ps. 136).
By the end of the vocal psalm experience every worshipper would know one thing:
Public Praise For God’s Provision Should Be Our Lifestyle (Psalm 136)
Structurally, this main motif is driven home in three, clear steps. First, there is the Call to Thanks (vv. 1-3). Second, we encounter the Cause of Thanks, which is rightly the lengthiest part for it details the numerous reasons why thanks should be rendered to God (vv. 4-25). Finally, and third, we close where we started with another Call to Thanks (v. 26). As we move through this inspired structure for divine thanks, I challenge you to stop and ask yourself a couple of personal questions. “Am I really a thankful person?” Show me a person who is thankful toward others they see, and I’ll show you someone who is most likely thankful toward God, whom they don’t see. Two, “What specifically do you need to give God thanks for? What items would be included in your list?”
Yes, I know it has been a tough, trying year, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to let up as we head into Christmas season. Should you get the jab and keep your job or should you stick to your convictions and retire or move to another job? With so many cargo ships parked for weeks off our coasts, will there be mass shortages just around the corner? With so many nurses and doctors losing their jobs because they won’t get vaccinated, which is their personal choice as Americans, what will happen when you have a medical event? Will anyone be there? With Southwest airlines shutting down last week because of the “weather,” even though this weather didn’t impact other airlines, will you be able to take they trip you had planned? With inflation going through the roof, and our government seeking to saddle us with even more outlandish and unnecessary spending, how will we make it from check to check? With China flying countless sorties into Taiwanese airspace, does this mean war is imminent?
You quickly get the picture, don’t you? It’s tempting to look around and get worried, frustrated and fearful, but this is not to be our approach to life as saints of the living God. We, on the other hand, are commanded by God to give adequate time and attention to the various reasons (and there are always reasons) for giving Him thanks for opening the door for us, as it were. So, let’s stop and take a much needed deep spiritual, mental breath today and switch gears from the negative to the positive, and from the propensity to be fearful and unthankful, to the wonder of pinpointing God’s provision and offering public thanks so He and He alone is adored and worshipped.
For Israel, and for us by proxy, verses 1 through 3 help reorient our thinking in tough times by calling us to a different mindset:
The Call of Thanks (Psalm 136:1-3)
These opening commands are general in nature:
1 Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; for His lovingkindness is everlasting. 2 Give thanks to the God of gods, for His lovingkindness is everlasting. 3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for His lovingkindness is everlasting (Ps. 136).
The first imperative focuses on the covenantal name of God, viz., the LORD (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 18). What kind of God is this who has established covenants with Israel (viz., Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Palestinian)? He is intrinsically good. Good in what way? Good in every way. While it is true He forms light and creates darkness, that he brings prosperity and creates disaster (Isa. 45:7), in all of these sovereign actions His ultimate aim to show himself good to His people. Granted, it is easy to say God is good when you get a promotion; however, how can you process loss as being good? Biblically, loss in Joseph’s case served to place him as the second in command of Egypt so he could, in turn, use his power and position to care for his large family (Gen. 37-50). Further, how can the author of Hebrews say this about Jesus, “2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. 12). How could the cruel cross be joy? Jesus knew from the pain and horror of the cross, which was the Father’s plan, would come the wonder and joy of the redemption of sinners.
Personally, here is how I process God’s goodness and the loss of my father to brain cancer. While his death was tragic and hard to watch and take, looking back now I see the utter wisdom of God. Since my father spent the majority of his life as a U.S. Custom’s officer defending our border from criminals and lawbreakers, I am thankful God took him home when he did because I don’t think his weak heart could have taken the purposeful dismantling of our border and the diminishing of our officers sworn to protect that border. Yes, I must say, God is good.
God’s goodness leads believers to conclude “His lovingkindness is everlasting.” The key here here is “lovingkindness,” hesed (חַסְדּֽ ), and it marks God’s loyal, unshakable love and commitment to His Word, His promises, and His people. Some people will desert you, but not God. His love and care for you will never run off, drift off course, be distracted, or reach a limit. His committed love for you is eternal because He is eternal. So, no matter what you are facing, be it good times are trying times, know that behind it all is the living God who loves you and is committed to seeing good flow (in due time) to your life (Rom. 8:28).
Further, we are commanded to thank God for there is no other god like Him. He is the “God of gods” and the “Lord of lords.” He is not saying God is the head of all known pantheons of gods, be they ancient (El, Baal, Ra, Zeus) or modern (Allah, Buddha, man as divine within the teachings of Mormonism and Scientology). God is quite clear about this:
10 "You are My witnesses," declares the LORD, "And My servant whom I have chosen, in order that you may know and believe Me, and understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, and there will be none after Me (Isa. 43).
This divine statement leaves absolutely no room for any other God besides the Hebrew God. He is the true God, and all other gods are false, by definition and by measurement against Him (Deut. 4:39; 6:4; Isa. 44:8; Mark 12:32; Eph. 4:6; 1 Tim. 2:5; James 2:19). Because He is the true, living God His loyal love toward His people is certainly not going anywhere. You, therefore, can hang your hat on the words of Christ, the true God (Heb. 1:1-3), “lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20), and “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). These divine data points give us all the reason we need to give Him thanks. When storms of life swirl around us like they did the disciples on many occasions, He is with us to say “Peace, be still” (Mark 4:39; John 30:26).
The psalmist’s command for us to thank God is, therefore, highly warranted based on His rich, spectacular, and lofty character. Who He is moves us to chant, “His lovingkindness is everlasting.”
Turning from the command for saints to publically thank God, the psalmist next waxes eloquent about the causes, or might I say, reasons for offering God your thanks. As we get a quick tour of Israel’s history as it relates to reasons for divine thanks, I challenge you to think about what historical snapshots would/should form your own “cause of thanks.” Identify those areas, those moments where you watched God work in and through your life, and earmark them and then share them with the body to give God the praise . . . and to encourage others in the process.
The Cause of Thanks (Psalm 136:4-25)
Since there is so much historical data here, I propose we divide it into its thematic sections and then make salient observations as we move along. Bear in mind, we could spend several weeks studying the depth and breadth of this history, so for our purposes we shall merely make strategic, practical statements at key junctures, will leaving further analysis to you. Also, as I said earlier, allow these snapshots from Israel’s rich salvation history to motivate you to devise your own hard copy of God’s provision and protection in your life.
Snapshot Exhibit #1 (vv. 4-9). The complex and beautiful cosmos above our heads tell us we have much to be thankful for because all of it points to a loving, loyal, and amazing God who has made it all just for us.
4 To Him who alone does great wonders, for His lovingkindness is everlasting;
5 To Him who made the heavens with skill, for His lovingkindness is everlasting;
6 To Him who spread out the earth above the waters, for His lovingkindness is everlasting; 7 To Him who made the great lights, for His lovingkindness is everlasting: 8 The sun to rule by day, for His lovingkindness is everlasting, 9 The moon and stars to rule by night, for His lovingkindness is everlasting.
The cosmos is, by definition, a “great wonder.” Just the polar axis tilt of the earth at 23.5 degrees is a wonder in so far as this ‘leaning over’ is directly responsible for our wonderful seasons. And this tilt didn’t just happen. No. God’s hands lovingly positioned the planet just for us to enjoy seasonal change and all that this means. Travel across our vast Milky Way galaxy would take a whopping 100,000 years moving at the speed of light. And we are just one of millions of star-studded galaxies. Our cosmos is a great wonder and a clear sign of God’s love toward us. Who cannot look up while camping in the dark desert (as I’ve done many times) and not be overcome by all this intricate, endless beauty God has lovingly placed above our heads?
Who cannot study the heavens and not conclude, as the Psalmist did, they were fashioned not by chance, but by divine skill?
- Divine skill and love fashioned a dynamic universe where rotation is prevalent. On our planet, rotation on our axis creates a day/night cycle. Rotation of planets in the cosmos, coupled with the revolution of various moons, allows them to remain in place. With rotation and revolution gravity would draw them chaotically toward the center.
- Divine skill and love placed 100 billion magnificent stars in our galaxy, with an average distance between stars of a jaw-dropping 30 trillion miles. Scientists tell us if these stars were closer together planetary orbits would be negatively and tragically affected. The vastness of our galaxy alone tells us of God’s love for he has strategically placed us on an outer arm of the galaxy where it is relatively dark. Don’t tell me this placement happened by chance. Right. Logic says otherwise. Love put us where we are. This strategic placement permits us to gaze at the galaxy and actually see the stars He fashioned, stars which declare His brilliant glory (Psalm 19).
- Divine skill and love brought the land we enjoy out of the water so we’d have a wonderful place to live. Seventy-one percent of the earth vast surface is water, a precious commodity found in abundance only on our planet. With an average oceanic depth of 12,100 feet, ninety-eight percent of our planet’s water is contained in said oceans. All of this wonderful water, of course, gives life to fish, animals, plants, and mankind. Every time you take a drink or water your yard, you can’t help but see God’s love for He has provided for you. Good thing you don’t live on Mercury, which is the planet located closest to the sun in our solar system. With perpetual land mass and no water and a daily temperature of 801 degrees, I think you’d opt for the joy of our humid winters down here on earth, right? How about hopping over to Venus, the second planet closest to the sun, and a planet which is typically called Earth’s twin because of size and composition? Two thirds of the planet’s surface is composed of flat, smooth plains; however, a negative greenhouse gas effect traps carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and this, in turn, gives the surface a hellish temperature of 870 degrees Fahrenheit. Oh, while atmospheric pressure on earth is a comfortable 14.5 pound per square inch, on Venus it is 92, which is equivalent to the pressure you’d feel at 3,000 feet below the ocean. And forget air travel on Venus where upper air moves at a blistering pace of249 mph, which is faster than any tornado or hurricane winds on our lovely, comfortable earth. Ah, how God must have loved us to place us here where there is right balance between water and land mass.
- Divine skill and love gave us the great light we call the sun. Although it is 93 million miles from our planet, its massive size and precise placement holds our planet in orbit, and radiates light and heat which allows life to exist as we know it. If the sun were further away, we’d freeze, and if it were closer we’d fry. Isn’t God good? The location of our sun is no cosmic, evolutionary accident. Its light produces photosynthesis, which, in turn, causes plants to grow and flourish. Those tomatoes you just enjoyed this summer from your garden are all a statement of God’s love for you for they are intrinsically tied to the functioning of the sun. All of those plants the sun impacts also give us the oxygen we need to enjoy the planet. The rain we enjoy is all caused by the sun warming the earth, which, in turn, causes water vapor to mysteriously lodge in moving clouds, clouds which cover the land to refresh and replenish it. Every time it rains, you, as a God-fearing person, should stop with your umbrella and thank God for loving you to give you a sun which sets this life-giving rain in motion. Exposure to the sun’s rays is another gift of God to us. Ultraviolet B rays present in sunlight are responsible for our ability to secure much needed vitamin D through sun exposure. This coveted vitamin promotes the absorption of calcium, modulates cell growth, helps the immune system function, and helps to reduce inflammation. Vitamin D also helps in preventing type 1 and 2 diabetes, hypertension, and multiple sclerosis. Deficiencies of this vitamin thin your bones, causing them to be brittle and crooked. Thank God for those sunny days, especially in the dark, cold winter when you can take a quick trip to Florida to catch some much needed rays. Why all this talk about the sun? So we, unlike the story of the ten lepers where Jesus healed them all but only one said “thank you” (Luke 17:12-19), are not guilty of being unthankful and ungrateful. The nine lepers took the Lord’s healing power for granted, while only one turned back to say thanks. May you always pause and find reason for giving God thanks for giving us wonderful gifts like the sun.
- Divine skill and love gave us one amazing moon. Sure, who doesn’t take the moon for granted? Yeah, it’s up there, but it’s time to tune into a World Series play-off game, so sit down and focus. Ah, but the focus for the saint should be upward, for that crater-pocked glowing mass we see on clear nights is a constant testament to the love God has for us. Without it, our wobbly tilt would push the planet all the way over, leaving us with extreme differences between temperatures and daylight in a given day. Without it, flowerless plants like the Mormon Tea (Ephedra foeminea), could not pollinate. In the moonlight, the cones of this plant create droplets of fluid to enable its pollen to stick on insects which happen to pass by. As the moonlight hits these little plants, the droplets glitter like disco balls, causing nocturnal insects to investigate . . . wherein they become pollinators (And we just evolved at this complex level? Right). Without it, we wouldn’t have tidal change. Not only would surfers suffer, so, too, would all kinds of sea life which depend on these tides. For instance, sand hoppers (Talitrus saltator) would dry out on the beach or be eaten quickly by predators if predictable tidal pools formed by the moon were non-existent. These fascinating little creatures have a sun compass planted, by God, in their little brains and they possess a moon compass in their small antennae. All of this enables them to stay buried in beach sand during the day and emerge at night to forage for food at low tide. Without it, tides and currents wouldn’t exist like they do, resulting in ocean water becoming stagnate and deadly to marine life. Without it, many animals and birds would not know when they migrant nor how to navigate correctly and precisely. Without it, our axis would change and occasionally be straight up and down, giving us either really long nights or days, while also wiping out the gorgeous seasons we so enjoy. Without it, extreme weather would plague us, too. And you thought snow-mageddon was bad. Thank God for the presence of the moon. I thought mowing a lawn in high school while living in the Imperial Valley was bad when the temps hit 132 degrees. If there were no moon, the mower would probably melt. Without it, and planets like Jupiter and Saturn, earth would be more prone to taking deadly and destructive hits from incoming asteroids, meteorites, and comets. Thank God for the moon above our heads. Its presence makes life possible, and beautiful. Put differently, the Lord God gave us the moon so we could thrive on this planet. When’s the last time you thanked Him for loving you enough to give you the moon? Ah, and you thought your husband or wife gave you the moon. Better think again.
Like the lady walking quickly by me in the doorway of a department store, we take so much for granted in this life, don’t we? Sadly, this easily translates over into our daily walk with God. We so busy, so worried, so tied up, so frustrated, so fearful, so booked, so bogged down, do distracted, so consumed with what’s going on around us we forget the love God has embedded in the world we live and move in.
So, here’s some much needed wrap up counsel.
Stop for a moment and realize you are created to publically give God praise for all those “mundane” cosmic things you simply and easily take for granted.
This week Captain Kirk, or should I say ninety-year-old William Shatner, became the oldest human to ever be shot into space in a rocket. He was one of four passengers who enjoyed a ten minute and seventeen second rocket ride into space aboard the New Shepard Spacecraft.
What did he say when he returned to earth? “What you have given me is the most profound experience I can imagine.” He, then, added to Jeff Bezos, his benefactor, “I am so filled with emotion about what just happened . . . You’re looking into blackness, into black ugliness, and you look down, there’s the blue down there—and the black up there—and it’s just, there is Mother Earth. That is life and that’s death, and in an instant, you know—whoa—that’s death. That’s what I saw.”
I’d dare say Captain Kirk needs not only a faith relationship with the Creator, but he needs to dig into the antiphonal construction of Psalm 136. Sure, there is plenty of blackness out there in space, but that’s not the whole story. That blackness is packed with all kinds of proof of the magnificent love of God as one considers what the blackness holds. The stars, in and of themselves, which float in the ominous, spine-stiffening black vacuum of space, tell us that God is a God of glory and He wishes to share that glory with us when, one day. As Jesus promised:
41 "The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, 42 and will cast them into the furnace of fire; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 "Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear (Matt. 13).