The Agora
Bible Commentary

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Psalm 136

Psa 136:1

PSA 136: "The Great Hallel", recited at end of Passover. Written for the service of David's tabernacle (1Ch 16:34,41). Inaugurated Solomon's temple (2Ch 5:13). Dedicated the holiness of Jehoshaphat's campaign (2Ch 20:21). Prominent in the second temple period (Ezr 3:11). Future: a prominent place in Christ's new temple (Jer 33:11).

HIS LOVE ENDURES FOREVER: "For his mercy endureth for ever" (Psa 136:1, KJV). "His love endures forever" (NIV).

This refrain was probably intended to be sung or spoken as an echo by a chorus. And in our modern congregational reading the same pattern might be followed with profit.

To the modern ear the KJV phrase, uttered verse after verse, is ponderous and wearisome. Then why was it not so to Israel in ancient days? For one thing, the phrase is much briefer in the Hebrew ("ki leolam chasdo") than in the KJV ("for his mercy endureth for ever") -- only six syllables compared to ten. An English equivalent might be: "For his love has no end"; see how much more easily this phrase flows, verse after verse, than does "For his mercy endureth for ever".

Secondly, such a refrain -- whether short or long -- was surely not tedious when the psalm was first composed, because of the intense relief and thankfulness which the latest mighty deliverance inspired in the minds of its singers. Only the tremendous experience of disaster and divine salvation is adequate to account for this repetitious yet unquenchably exuberant praise.

LOVE: His "mercy" (chesed). The OT uses this word in the modern sense of forgiveness of sins only very rarely. Rather, it is to be seen as a kind of religious technical term, with special reference to God's Covenants of Promise (Psa 6:4; 18:50; 115:1; 2Sa 7:15; 1Ki 8:23; etc.). It is translated "lovingkindness" and "steadfast love" -- this second alternative gives some sense of the sureness of God's commitment to His Promises. In this sense, of "covenant love", the word is often associated with another technical term -- "truth" (Gen 24:27; 32:9,10; Mic 7:20; Psa 40:10; 85:10; 89:14,24,28,49; etc).

"Chesed" emphasized God's special gift of deliverance from tribulations because of His promises. In the NT the function of "chesed" is more or less taken over by "grace". Of course, forgiveness of sins is involved in the term, because the Promises are outstanding in their assurances of forgiveness: how can Abraham and his multitudinous "seed" inherit any land for ever if they do not have eternal life? and how can any man have eternal life without having his sins forgiven? (The associated word "bless/blessing" has this idea also: Acts 3:25,26; Gal 3:8.)
Similarly, the technical term "truth" emphasizes that the fulfillment of the Promises is certain. God has sworn; nothing can impede the completion of His work

Psa 136:4

GREAT WONDERS: Which great wonders? Verses 5-9 specify... the heavens... the earth... sun... moon... stars. This theme of Creation, wherever it occurs in the Psalms (Psa 8; 19; 33; 104; 147; 148), invites the believer not to wrangle with his fellows over cosmological theories, but to delight in his environment -- known to him as no mere mechanism but as a work of "covenant love".

Psa 136:5

Pro 3:19; 8:22-31; Job 39:26; Jer 10:12; Psa 104:24.

Psa 136:6

Quoted in Isa 44:24, in an intended ct with the "gods" of the heathen: and also in Isa 42:5.

Psa 136:10

In Hezekiah's day, (a) the alliance with Egypt proved worthless (Isa 30:1,2; 31:1), and (b) the besieging Assyrian army was destroyed at the time of Passover, by the same "Destroying Angel" who smote the firstborn in Egypt.

Psa 136:12

A MIGHTY HAND AND OUTSTRETCHED ARM: Isa 51:9,10; Psa 77:15; 89:10.

Psa 136:13

TO HIM WHO DIVIDED THE RED SEA ASUNDER: Or "divided the Red Sea in parts": the sw as "parts" here appears only in Gen 15:17: the "pieces" of the sacrifices. And so the Egyptian soldiers were the "sacrifices" (or the "covenant victims") by which God "sealed" His covenant with Israel (cp Jer 34:18)!

Psa 136:15

SWEPT: "Overthrew" (AV), sw "tossed" in Psa 109:23: used of locusts tossed about by the wind. Even men may be "grasshoppers" (Isa 40:22).

Psa 136:26

"The 'mercy' of the natural mind is an indiscriminating benevolence, shown alike to the wicked as to the good. The mercy of God is not so. It is a rich and abounding goodness, having its source in that love of God which no man can fathom or understand, but in its ultimate form, it is shown to those only whom He has decreed shall share it, and upon the conditions which He has decreed. And so it is written 'I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy.' This seemingly arbitrary arrangement is shown to be just and good when the nature of the 'mercy' is understood.

"By sin, man is estranged from God. Being created 'very good', and in the image of God -- given the privileges of a son, and of close communion with the Father of lights; he fell. From being a son, he became an alien; instead of goodness, he manifested evil; and from his former state of close and loving intercourse with God, he fell to that of being 'afar off, without God, and without hope'.

"Those then, of whom God has said 'I will have mercy', are those who are called to leave this sin-stricken condition to again become the sons of God, and so we read that God 'called' Abraham to leave -- what? -- a nation who were aliens and strangers to the covenants of promise. He called him to 'receive the adoption'; he who was 'afar off' was 'brought nigh', and made a recipient of that 'mercy to Abraham' which God has sworn unto the Fathers from the days of old. The same 'mercy' was shown in the sending of His Son in the flesh, for we are then told that He had 'visited and redeemed His people'. The same mercy was shown to the Gentiles, for we read that God hath visited the Gentiles to take out from among them a people for His name. This mercy then being shown to those who are called out and delivered from a certain state of things, naturally involves the destruction of that state of things from which they are called out. And when we thus understand the method and reason of God's dealings with men, we can appreciate -- yea, we can rejoice in -- Psalm 136, although its tenor is so repugnant to the unenlightened mind" (GF Lake).

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