Psalm 136 - Part 2
I received an excited and emotional call from one of our former members on Wednesday. After years of struggling with their son’s special needs and brain issues which caused violent, unpredictable seizures, a recent brain scan came back all clear. God had done what doctors and medicines said couldn’t be done. The parents know it, and I know it too. No, this doesn’t mean the pre-teen is totally fine, because his cognitive issues are complex, something akin to the proverbial onion skin. However, as a parent of a special needs son myself, I know how this one amazing scan is as if the parents have just crossed the Rubicon valley in a jeep lacking four-wheel drive. It is an outright divine move on a miraculous scale, and the father just called me to share their joy and do what any maturing believer does when God works in his life: he gave thanks to God . . . and believe me we did as we prayed on the phone.
This little family is not out of the woods, to be honest, but they aren’t lost in the woods either for the Lord is going before them. This spectacular movement of the Almighty, for whatever His sovereign purposes are in this boy’s life, needs to be a point of praise for years to come within the confines of this family and their new church. Why? Our worlds are full of reasons for hopelessness, despair, frustration, and the like, so when God gives us a major cause for praise we should set up some metaphorical memorial stones and refer back to this event to gain strength, hope, joy, and peace as we continue to face the ups and downs of life.
Put in our vernacular, next time you face insurmountable, seemingly impregnable odds stacked against you, next time you think there is nothing positive in the sea of so many negatives, next time you hear the voice of the Devil whispering to you that God has completely forgotten about you, think back and praise God for those unusual times when He left you absolutely no doubt He is not only with you by doing something off-the-charts in your life. Do this and not only will God put some much needed wind in your limp sails, but God will get the praise as He rightfully should. Tough, trying, testy times can suck the praise right out of our lives (I speak from personal experience); however, a life focused on the reason to praise God based on His past actions is one well-equipped to live a life of victory, not defeat.
So, what about it? Is your life a life of praise when God gives you something praiseworthy? Praise, after all, is what God created each of us for. In this unique, inspiring Psalm, the Holy Spirit, by way of divine inspiration, drives home this main theme for followers of God:
Public Praise For God’s Provision Should Be Our Lifestyle (Psalm 136)
By way of review, structurally we encounter what I call the Call to Thanks (Psalm 136:1-3). Here the Spirit leaves us no doubt how our lives are to be praiseworthy of the Father, regardless of what or who we are up against. Praise, not complaint, not griping, not arguing with God should be how we naturally roll because we know the living God is with us.
With verses 4 through 25 we readily see what I call . . .
The Cause of Thanks (Psalm 136:4-25)
Within these verses, the divinely inspired author reminds Israel of four major historical episodes when God provided for and protected them with a view of challenging them to praise Him. Why did he do this? God knew there would be difficult and demanding times for His people, personally and nationally, and He knew these times would tempt them to fold like the proverbial lawn chair. By focusing on praising Him for specific past actions of protection and provision, they not only fulfilled their calling to praise Him (vv. 1-3), but they were equipped to take on the giants of their day.
What was true of Israel is certainly true of us in our difficult day. So, as we work our way through their four historical snapshots realize these probably won’t be yours. Granted, you can, and should, learn from these episodes; however, you should also give some adequate time and attention to identifying, say, four major time periods in your life when the living God showed up big-time to show Himself strong to you. What amazing things occurred in the various time sectors of your life: Birth to sixth grade, junior high through high school, college, marriage, grad school, the twenties through your thirties, the forties through the fifties, and sixties to the seventies, the eighties to the nineties, and so forth. Isolate those divine moments, praise God for them, and remember them next time your life goes south.
Snapshot Exhibit #1 (vv. 4-9). These five verses remind us how praiseworthy the Creator of the complex and beautiful cosmos really is. Whether you look up with a telescope or look down with a microscope, God’s fingerprints are everywhere. Wise people see this and praise Him. Wise people also gain strength through this praise for it helps keep them focused on the God who is with them no matter what.
The second snapshot is most enlightening:
Snapshot Exhibit #2 (vv. 10-15). What does this picture show us? It reminds us of the
great God who supernaturally freed Israel from the iron-fisted grip of Pharaoh.
10 To Him who smote the Egyptians in their first-born, for His lovingkindness is everlasting, 11 And brought Israel out from their midst, for His lovingkindness is everlasting, 12 With a strong hand and an outstretched arm, for His lovingkindness is everlasting; 13 To Him who divided the Red Sea asunder, for His lovingkindness is everlasting, 14 And made Israel pass through the midst of it, for His lovingkindness is everlasting; 15 But He overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, for His lovingkindness is everlasting.
When Israel never thought they, of all people, would be able to escape the brutal slavery they endured in the most powerful nation on the planet, Egypt, God had other plans He would execute.
The emphasis in these verses in on the fact that God providentially and powerfully worked to break the iron-fisted grip Pharaoh had on His chosen people by means of slavery. Ironically, He used a former “Egyptian” to defeat the Egyptians. He used a vile decree to kill male Israelite babies to place one baby in the power structure of Egypt. He used an old man to gain a victory over a young man. He used ten plagues to overcome the plague of slavery. He used a ruthless plan of Pharaoh to kill all Israelites babies to be the catalyst to judge all Egyptian firstborn babies (lex talinonis). He who is true God put down the false gods with little to no effort. He strategically placed His people in a weak position so He could show Himself strong. He made a way of escape through water, not through a canyon or a valley, but through water piled up on the left and the right (Ex. 14:29-30). With an average depth of 1,640 feet that must have been some sight! He allowed His people to walk through a dried up sea-bed, not a muddy one, but He made the wheels come of the Egyptian chariots when they attempted to slaughter the Israelites (Ex. 14:25). How ironic. Chariots could not go where sandals had just dared to go.
What did this divine deliverance show? God had heard the cry of His people. God had seen their suffering. God was aware of injustice. God had not forgotten about His people. God knew of the sins committed against His people. God had not forgotten them. God did love them. God waited until all the historical puzzle pieces lined up to act in a never-to-be-forgotten manner, and, then, bam . . . the living God moved to bring freedom to slaves so He could forge them into His people. All of this, of course, is just a historical data point of the utter love of God for His people. Divine love sees injustice and acts. Divine love sees oppression and then delivers. Divine love reaches down from heaven and saves those who don’t seem “saveable,” if I can coin a word.
No doubt, we, in the New Testament age can praise God for saving Israel, and we should. But we, also, must ask ourselves: What is my second historical snapshot? More precisely, what is my Exodus experience?
- Opioids where my slave master until God saved me.
- Sexual sins ruled my life until God saved me.
- False ideologies I picked up in college shackled me until God saved me.
- Atheism acted like iron chains on my mind until God saved me.
- The love of money had me in chains until God saved me.
- The love of power and prestige held me in bondage until God saved me.
A wealthy, highly successful Italian man we will call Lucias asked me years ago to train his children in how to find good mates according to biblical principles. It was an interesting request since he was a devout atheist. So, I taught the teens privately . . . one on one. Years later, Lucias’ mother died, and he asked me to perform her funeral. I did and he heard the gospel, again, but to no avail. Years after this loss, however, Lucias contracted terminal cancer. Instead of turning from God, this slave of sin, turned to God and found salvation at the feet of Jesus, the Christ. Until his death, Lucias became one of the profound and passionate witnesses northern California had ever seen for the power of gospel of Jesus to free a slave to sin. This is the second snapshot for Lucias. What is yours and do you, will you, praise the Lord for it? Did God place you up against the Red Sea with no way out before He miraculous parted it for you, as it were? How could you forget this? How can you not praise Him for it?
Turning now to the third snapshot, we are given even more precise reasons for praising God.
Snapshot Exhibit #3 (vv. 16-22). With these verses we cover Israel’s forty years in the wilderness to the years it took them to take possession of the land promised them by God. All throughout this tumultuous, trying, terrible time, God showed His loyal love for His people by guiding, providing, and protecting them. Here is how the Psalmist recounts this period of divine love:
16 To Him who led His people through the wilderness, for His lovingkindness is everlasting;
Literally, God led His people through the shifting, blistering hot desert sands of Sinai. Moses reminds us:
21 And the LORD was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. 22 He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people (Exod. 13).
Having grown up in the desert, I can say how easily it is to get lost because every canyon and gulch looks the same. God’s people, however, never had to worry for He placed a cloud over them every day, a cloud which moved to God’s intended locations. No need for a compass. No need for a satellite uplink. All you needed was the unusual cloud. Wherever it moved, you moved and you knew it guided you where God wanted you to go. And if you feared the dark, or animals which might enter the camp once the sun set, fear dissipated with the arrival of the whirling pillar of divine fire. Can you say miracles to beat all miracles? Can you say these two expressions of divine love? Can you say these are two reasons to praise God?
Has not God given you a cloud and a pillar? Indeed, He has. It is called His Word. As I’ve journeyed to Canaanland through the wilderness of life, I must say it is God’s Word which has shown me where to walk and how to walk. Moving here from California almost thirteen years ago to the day, I sensed the cloud and pillar as I, together with my wife and son, sought to follow God’s lead to His will for us. That cloud and pillar called us to take up our crosses and follow Christ. That cloud and pillar guided us to leave the familiar for the unfamiliar. That cloud and pillar guided us to leave behind friends and family for new friends and a new family. That cloud and pillar worked in and through the pastoral search team, many of which have moved away now. Yeah, I’ve seen that could and pillar and they are spectacular as they jump off the pages of Scripture. They also humble you and move you to praise God because you know God has, indeed, showed up in a profound fashion.
And God never said that heading to Canaanland would be easy. Israel encountered their share of formidable, fierce enemies.
17 To Him who smote great kings, for His lovingkindness is everlasting, 18 And slew mighty kings, for His lovingkindness is everlasting: 19 Sihon, king of the Amorites, For His lovingkindness is everlasting, 20 And Og, king of Bashan, for His lovingkindness is everlasting, 21 And gave their land as a heritage, for His lovingkindness is everlasting, 22 Even a heritage to Israel His servant, for His lovingkindness is everlasting.
God promised Canaan to Israel through their forefather, Abraham (Gen. 12, 15). Because of hundreds of years of rejecting God’s natural revelation and eventually rejecting special revelation when Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived among them, coupled with devising worship built on perverted sexuality wedded to temple worship of a plethora of morally challenged false gods, God told Moses the land was ready to vomit out the wicked inhabitants (Lev. 18:28-29). In this vein, Israel’s “army” was commissioned to the be the judging hand of the Almighty, and they, in turn, would enjoy the land so long as they did not embrace the same sexual and religious deviancies of the nations. Here is God’s inexorable word to Moses:
29 "When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations which you are going in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, 30 beware that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, 'How do these nations serve their gods, that I also may do likewise?' 31 "You shall not behave thus toward the LORD your God, for every abominable act which the LORD hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. 32 "Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it (Deut. 12).
Based on this holy premise, Israel was called to rid these compromised lands of the wicked inhabitants and assume ownership of the land based on holy allegiance to God’s word and ways. The battles against the Amorites like Sihon and Og were just the start of the conquest we read about in Joshua. God even warned Abraham of the utter wickedness of the Amorites some 685 years before (This estimate is based on Abraham entering Canaan around 2091 B.C. and Israel beginning the conquest around 1406 B.C. God had certainly given these vile, wicked nations time to repent, hadn’t He?).
You will note how the Psalmist’s words note how God empowered Israel’s army to be victorious, and from what we know of the battle of Ai (Josh. 7-8), victory rested on the people following God’s orders to the letter with no deviation. In other words, they had to rely on His revelatory strategy, not their own. Based on this premise we can safely say Israel’s spectacular victories on the eastern side of the Jordan first against the mighty army of Sihon and then against the sixty fortified cities of Og only occurred because the people leaned on God’s leadership.
Israel’s defeat of the Amorites under the ruthless leadership of Sihon was so shocking, so unbelievable in the annals of warfare we read about all throughout the Old Testament (Num. 21:21; Dt. 1:4; 31:4; Josh 2:10; Judges 11:19-21; 1 Kings 4:19; Neh. 9:22; Jer. 48:45). Prior to Israel’s arrival in the Transjordan, Sihon’s forces had taken much land from the mighty Moabites, giving his people a swath of land extending from the Jabbok River in the north and the Arnon River in the south which was located about the mid-point on the western side of the Dead Sea. Israel offered him terms of peace initially. Their leadership said they would pass through his land heading north, and that they would not eat anything from their fields or vineyards and nor would they even drink the water (Num. 21:21-22). Sihon’s arrogance and hostility got the best of him (Num. 21:23), and this forced Israel’s hand. God, of course, enabled Israel’s rag-tag group of “soldiers” to fight and defeat on of the most formidable forces of the day (Num. 21:25-31).
Israel’s defeat of the Amorite, Og, was equally jaw-dropping from a military perspective. Og’s kingdom of Basham, located on the fertile plains due west of the Sea of Galilee, could not have been more fortified, nor his troops more seasoned and well-armed. And Og could not have been more foreboding and fearsome as a warrior/king for he was one of the last giants which came from the line of the Rephaim. If his bed was representative of his stature, he stood somewhere around 12 to 13 feet tall (Deut. 3:11). The six-foot width of his black basalt bed also attests to his tremendous girth. No wonder nobody messed with Og, nor his people . . . but old man Moses did, along with his idealistic, brave, somewhat green, and God-dependent warriors.
With all this in mind, we can readily see that outside the Exodus, these twin defeats served as national reminders of how God, despite the occasional sinful missteps of His people, showed His loyal love toward them by empowering them to do the impossible with inferior training, weapons, and stature. This Psalm rightly, therefore, became part of Israel’s worship for God did not want any generation, which sought to stand against powerful, seemingly invincible forces of evil, to fail to believe they could overcome superior forces of wickedness as they depended on the loving Lord who stood with them.
How is this applicable to us today? We certainly are not on a physical war-footing like ancient Israel, but we are called to stand against and oppose the forces of wickedness for evil leaders like Sihon and Og still walk the planet. Paul reminds us of the spiritual, not the physical struggle as we head to our heavenly version of Canaan (Heb. 4):
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. 11 Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil.
12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places (Eph. 6).
Our armor consists of God’s timeless truth, righteousness, the gospel, faith, salvation, and the power of the very Word of God, which acts like our sword (Eph. 6:14-17). Added to this is the weapon called prayer (Eph. 6:18-19).
Additionally, Paul reminds us in his second letter to the Corinthians how our current battle in our own “Transjordan” consists in identifying false systems of thinking/teaching and using reason, logic, and the Word of God, as our Lord did, to destroy these seemingly invincible sinful fortresses designed to deceive mankind, rationalize and codify sin, and to perpetuate outright evil.
3 For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, 4 for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. 5 We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, 6 and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete (2 Cor. 10).
If any age needed brave Christian spiritual warriors, preachers, teachers, professors, law enforcement, doctors, nurses, bankers, car mechanics, athletes, artists and so forth, it is, indeed our day where modern versions of Sihon and Og wield their wicked power at so many levels, in so many places, and in so many types of people. What the misdirected and misinformed sinners need to encounter are Christians sold out to God, God’s Word, to truth which corresponds to reality not to the individual feeling of the person in question, and to the belief that as we lean on God, as we seek to walk obediently before Him, His loyal love will always (you might need to read that word again, especially if you are discouraged in dark days) be with us, resulting in jaw-dropping, shocking victories along the way.
I, like Moses of old, know the way is hard. I know we seem outnumbered (and we are). I know it seems like the wicked get away with most of what pleases them. I know it feels like the social and moral fabric of our nation, our families, and our friendships is unraveling at an alarming rate with no stoppage visible on the horizon. I know it seems like Sihon and Og are formidable foes. Yet, let us know forget who is with us. Let us never forget His loyal love is with us no matter how trying and tumultuous the times. And let us never fail to give Him praise for the victories He does, in fact, give us as we follow His leadership and command to be salt and light to this sin-stained world. Truly, His love endures forever and it will be that love, coupled with His holiness, which will, in due time, usher in the King of King and Lord of Lords (Rev. 19).
Snapshot Exhibit #4 (vv. 23-25). Here the Psalmist back up and gives us a spy satellite view of God’s dealings with His people in history:
23 Who remembered us in our low estate, for His lovingkindness is everlasting,
24 And has rescued us from our adversaries, for His lovingkindness is everlasting;
25 Who gives food to all flesh, for His lovingkindness is everlasting (Ps. 136).
These words could readily apply to any time in Israel’s history.
- When they were nobodies held in captivity in Egypt, the Lord compassionately remembered them.
- When they failed Him many times in the wilderness, the Lord compassionately remembered them.
- When they failed to root out all the wicked nations in the Land of Promise in the period of the Judges, and when they, also, at this time continual reverted to choosing sin over their Savior, the Lord compassionately remembered them.
- When the kingdom split in two under Rehoboam in 930 B.C., and then continued to fight each other for the next 208 years (subtracting 722 when the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians from the split of the kingdom in 930 B.C.), the Lord compassionately remembered them.
- When their leaders frequently leaned on pagan nations for military support during the period of the kings instead of the Lord, the Lord compassionately remembered them.
- When they were outnumbered by the forces of the Assyrians in King Hezekiah’s day, the Lord compassionately remembered them.
- When the nation fell to the Babylonians in 586 B.C., and they were hauled off into captivity for seventy years, the Lord compassionately remembered them.
- When they returned to the land and then spent more time rebuilding their homes than God’s Temple, the Lord compassionately remembered them.
Yes, when they temporarily forgot God, He didn’t forget them because He loved them, and this love moved Him to always rescue them. The same is true for you today. If you are a child of God, know His love rests on you no matter what. And when, not if, you momentarily stray, He, like the Good Shepherd, will come for you (John 10; Luke 15:4). From a worldly perspective, you might be a nobody, a person of low estate; however, as God’s child you are somebody and a person of high estate. All of this means that He who is sovereign over all the world, He who holds the entire cosmos together, He who provides life to all mankind, whether they love Him or not, has a special love for you, a love which always moves Him to rescue you when you drift from Him.
Has He rescued you lately? If so, I know what you need to do. It’s time to give Him thanks.
The Call of Thanks (Psalm 136:26)
Rightly does the Psalmist close where he started:
26 Give thanks to the God of heaven, for His lovingkindness is everlasting (Psalm 136).
What is a maturing Christian look like? He/she is constantly thinking about giving God thanks, and he/she knows why thanks is in order: God is full of an unshakeable, loyal love for His saints.