As we enter the season of Advent, we are walking through different genres of the Psalms to encounter the hope of Emmanuel—God with us. The Psalms are Hebrew poems and songs that articulate a wide range of human emotion and serve different purposes in Scripture: praising God in his faithfulness, expressing deep fear and desperation, and remembering and reciting the Lord’s salvation and his provision throughout Israel’s history. Just as Jewish people meditated on and learned from the Psalms, the collection of songs is instructive for us, as modern readers.
Last week, we worked through a Psalm of thanksgiving. This week, as Advent begins, we look at a psalm that traces the loving, redemptive work of God throughout history. Throughout the series, we seek to study faithfully, pray expectantly, and love God deeply through his Word.
Psalm 136 is set apart from the other psalms by a unique distinction: a repeating refrain that occurs 26 times in 26 verses:
“For his steadfast love endures forever.”
Repetition can trigger an apathetic response in us—eyes glazed over, brain on autopilot—because we’ve heard it before, again and again. This especially happens at Christmastime, doesn’t it? While we love our traditions, when we hear the opening lines of Luke 2, or those same Christmas carols, we often tune out because we’ve heard it all so many times. It is because we are so prone to let truth become rote, and to become numb to the wonder, that we must take care to “remember the deeds of the Lord”—to ponder, meditate, and reflect on who he is and what he has done (Ps. 77:11–15).
In Psalm 136, the psalmist begins with thanksgiving, as we also saw in Psalm 138 last week. But before giving thanks for what God has done, we see the psalmist thanking God because of who he is:
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever;” (vs. 1–3)
God’s goodness and transcendence are the first focus of this hymn, and this is where we must always begin: turning our gaze upward in reverence and awe. Only then, rightly oriented, can we begin tracing the thread of what God has done throughout history, beginning with the wonder of creation (vs. 4–9), and then to the deliverance of his people:
“To him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt, for his steadfast love endures forever; and brought Israel out from among them, for his steadfast love endures forever; with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, for his steadfast love endures forever; to him who divided the Red Sea in two, for his steadfast love endures forever; and made Israel pass through the midst of it, for his steadfast love endures forever; but overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea, for his steadfast love endures forever; to him who led his people through the wilderness, for his steadfast love endures forever.” (vs. 10–16)
Israel was, as we are now, living in the tension of the “already but not yet.” God had shown himself mighty to save—delivering them spectacularly from the grip of slavery and tyranny (Ex. 3–13), making a way where there quite literally was no way (Ex. 14–15), vanquishing their enemies (Ex. 14:26–15:12), and faithfully continuing to lead and provide for his people even after their deliverance from Egypt (Ex. 16–17). God had proved himself faithful again and again, but at the time of the exodus and at the time this psalm was written, Israel wasn’t living in the fullness of his salvation yet—and neither are we. Israel looked back at God’s faithful deliverance, yet ahead to the first advent of the Promised Savior and the greater deliverance he would bring (Is. 11; 9:2–7). Now as God’s people we look back both at God’s faithful deliverance of Israel and at the fulfillment of his promises in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, yet ahead with anticipation to his second advent, when all will be set right and our Prince of Peace will reign for eternity (Heb. 10; Rev. 21:1–6).
After the psalmist calls God’s people to remember historic feats (creation and the exodus), the focus shifts to God’s more recent and ongoing works: striking down pagan kings (vs. 17–20), leading Israel into the Promised Land (vs. 21–22), and his continuing care and provision for their needs (vs. 23–25). When we are tempted, as Israel was, to waver in our faith that God will indeed do all that he has promised, we must “repeat the sounding joy”—continually looking back and reminding ourselves how God has never wavered in his faithfulness and steadfast love. That is how we know we can live now and look forward with confident assurance. God's Word is true, and we can trust him without reservation—not because of our merit, but because of who he is, for his steadfast love endures forever.
This is a simple but powerful reminder to us in the season of Advent. Paul David Tripp writes in Come Let Us Adore Him, “The Christmas story is one big, beautiful promise. The fulfilled promise of Jesus’ birth guarantees that God will, in his perfect timing and in his wise way, fulfill every other promise he has ever made to us. Past grace is your guarantee of present grace and of all the future graces you will ever need. And at the very center of the guarantee is the promise of God’s eternal love. God sent his Son to us because he loves us. His Son now lives within us because God loves us. And we will live with him forever because God loves us.”
Psalm 136 closes with another call to “give thanks to the God of heaven” (vs. 26)—the call which echoes throughout the psalms, intertwining praise tightly with thanksgiving. But immediately following this exultant conclusion of Psalm 136 are words of deep lament opening Psalm 137, another theme woven tightly throughout the hymnbook of the psalms. Next week we will examine a psalm of lament, and the place lament has even amidst a season of celebration and expectation.
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