His Love Endures Forever (Nov. 25, 2020)
His Love Endures Forever
(Thanksgiving Eve Worship)
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My hope today, by the time we are finished with this service, is to explode your dinner table tomorrow!
Here’s what I mean. You maybe know that a cartridge of ammunition – a bullet – has a casing that is filled with gunpowder. But you don’t directly ignite the gunpowder. You actually hit a little primer – small in comparison to the whole thing. But that primer is the start of a chain reaction that results in an explosion. The same thing holds true on a large bomb or nuclear weapon. It’s not the impact with the ground that causes everything in the bomb to go. It’s actually a little “primer” that starts the explosion.
We have today, in this Psalm, the “primer” that you are probably very familiar with. Many of you use it in your homes multiple times a day. It’s the refrain of this Psalm: “for his mercy endures forever.” Today we are going to take a detailed look at this Psalm so that tomorrow at your dinner table, as your are giving thanks to God for all that he has given you, when you say that phrase, “O give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his mercy endures forever” (Ps 136:1), this whole Psalm will explode in your mind and flood your heart with all the goodness and love of God.
The structure of the Psalm itself is quite special. It uses something called “inclusio”. Which means, what is stated at the beginning is summarized in the end. It wraps up the Psalm into a nice and neat package. So, the opening verses of praise are echoed in the last verse. Then the role of the Lord in nature – verses 5-9 – are recaptured in verse 25. And finally, the role of the Lord in delivering – verses 10-22 – are emphasized again in verse 24. So the whole Psalm looks like a series of bookends. Or like a nesting doll.
It’s also probably no coincidence that the refrain is repeated 26 times. You could do a deep dive into the numerology of the Old Testament writings. It’s something that they did intentionally. Not to decode secret messages, but there are many symbolic things that show up in the numbers. It also, helped in memorization during a time when books or scrolls were not widely dispersed to common people. So if you were reciting this Psalm, you could remember, “Ok, there’s 26 phrases… I’m at 25, what’s the last one?”. The importance of 26, though, is that if you add up the name for the LORD “Yahweh” (every Hebrew letter was assigned a numerical value), you get 26.
Alright, let’s dive in. It starts off with the first three verses. They remind us of the Lord’s superiority over all imaginary gods. And the phrases “God of gods” and “Lord of lords” do not imply the existence of other gods. Rather, they proclaim the overwhelming greatness of the Lord. They form the superlative – there is nothing greater!
The next verses, verses 4-9 tell of the first important demonstration of God’s goodness. The story of creation is the story of God’s love. He made everything in the universe for the good of his people! Yes, the whole human race rebelled against him, but the Lord continues to provide sun and rain, food and life for both the good AND the evil. “He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt 5:45). Although God gives daily bread even to the ungrateful, HIS people gladly acknowledge that the preservation of the earth and its blessings is a continued display of God’s love. Because of his love for all creation, you can be confident that if the Lord watches over every sparrow, he will continue to provide for his people.
Finally, as far as the content, we get to verses 10-22 which tell of the second important demonstration of God’s goodness. His redeeming goodness. The Lord redeemed his people from slavery in Egypt but the power he displayed in the plagues. He led them safely through the wilderness and gave them victory over kings. Only a couple kings are mentioned, Sihon and Og. But the defeat of these kings always held a special place in Israel’s historical memory because it was the beginning of the conquest of the Promised Land. It was Israel’s Lexington and Concord. Their Bunker Hill. The Lord gave them victory over the kings and peoples of Canaan. When the Lord finished his victory, Israel was secure in the land which had been promised to Abraham.
And although it does not mention deliverance through Christ Jesus – obviously, Jesus was not even born yet – the whole account of deliverance from Egypt by God and entering the Promised Land foreshadows deliverance from our slavery to sin and entering the promised rest of heaven. The writer to the Hebrews says in chapter 4, “If Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his” (Heb 4:8-10) after creation.
The conclusion of the psalm restates the Lord’s redeeming and creating love in general terms. He “remembered us in our low estate” (Ps 136:23). When we were slaves to sin, when we listened to and followed the ways of Satan – ignoring the way of God – when we were subjects of death, he redeemed us from these enemies, defeating them on the cross and at the empty tomb. There was no way we could do it on our own. No way we could throw off our oppressors, journey safely through the wilderness of a sinful world, rise again from death and enter into eternal rest if it were not from God. “He has freed us from our enemies” (Ps 136:24). On top of that, he daily and richly provides all we need for our body and life.
This whole Psalm is summarized by the repeated refrain – perhaps sung antiphonally (responsively) by a choir. The refrain itself hinges upon one word – my favorite Hebrew word: Hesed. It can mean simply “love” or “mercy”. But it’s not the general word for love. A more complete translation of this word would be something like “faithful love” or “steadfast love”. It is practically and emotionally equivalent to the word grace in the New Testament. This whole Psalm summarizes the Lord’s covenant faithfulness to his people and his people respond with praise! Although this Psalm does not contain the word hallelujah, Jewish tradition calls it the Great Hallel – or, the great song of praise.
But understand this one point, and I’ll underscore it. God’s love and mercy are not a result of his covenant obligation. His covenant obligation is a result of his love and mercy. What I mean is, it’s his heart, his nature, that drives his faithfulness to the covenant, not the covenant that drives his faithfulness to love us. God is love. He embodies it, is the perfect example of it, cannot do anything other than love. And you are the object of his love! About ¾ of the occurrences of hesed in the whole Old Testament have God as the subject and man as the object. God loves you with a faithfulness that cannot be shaken. And because he wanted you to know that love, because he wanted you to be confident of it, he declared it in a covenant – not to obligate himself to follow it, but to clearly convey that his love will not fail you. So, unlike you and I who might feel compelled to do something only because we’ve signed a contract, God signed a contract with you (his covenant) because it is a natural result of his hesed – his faithful love. Because he is love, he upholds his covenant in all he does.
And, Ci, the word that begins the refrain “His love endures forever” (Ps 136) could be causal: “because his love” or “for his love”. But it can also be emphatic. “Indeed!” We like that right! It reminds us of Easter when we say, “He is risen!” “He is risen indeed”. It reminds us of his Covenant of salvation fulfilled and kept with the proof of an empty tomb. So, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. Indeed! His love endures forever!” (Ps 136:1). This Psalm, which begins with the creation of the vast reaches of the universe, ends at the dinner table of a Christian family as they receive their daily bread. It echoes in your homes at every meal. For all this we sing: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever. Amen”