Psalm 136:1-24.
Give Thanks to the One True God

American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
Copyright © 2017, Dr. John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV


There are several of the Psalms that are quite well-known and often repeated by the faith community, and one of these is Psalm 136.  This Psalm has no title or prescription, so we do not have firm knowledge of either its author, its historical context, or the time of its writing.  Its content is a celebration of the goodness, love, and mercy of the LORD as the author brings to mind God’s interaction with His creation and those whom He has created.  The writer begins with a call to thanksgiving, and follows God’s works from His creation of the universe through the Exodus of Israel from Egypt and through their possession of the Promised Land of Canaan.

The structure of the Psalm makes use of an antiphonal sequence of twenty-six short single-line declarations of the nature and works of the LORD, with each followed by the refrain, “for His mercy endures forever.”  It is likely that this Psalm was used as a song or a responsive reading with one group or individual speaking or singing the declaration and another group repeating the refrain.

Since each declaration is followed by a declaration of God’s “mercy” it is imperative that we have some understanding of the Hebrew word that is used.  The word is also rendered, “love” in some modern translations.  Like many words in the ancient Hebrew language, there is an intended wider range of meaning than any single English word can render.  However, if we combine the ideas of God’s unconditional and perfect love with the idea of mercy we find that the former, love, is the reason for the latter action, mercy.  This word refers to both the nature of God and His works that are consistent with that nature, a nature of goodness and love.  Consequently, His works are works of goodness and love, and for that the writer is overwhelmed with thanksgiving to the LORD.  This Psalm is an effort by the writer to communicate this goodness of God and provide a means for others to repeat his declaration in a means that they might remember much of it.

GIVING THANKS

Psalm 136:1.  O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever. (fhmef.)

The writer starts with an imperative to give thanks to the LORD.  We know that every blessing, every good and perfect gift comes from the LORD.[1]  Every breath we take is a gift from Him, since He is the power behind our very existence.  The writer of this Psalm is about to provide us with a list of many of the wonderful things that the LORD has done for him, for his nation, and for us.  The LORD deserves thanks for these works of goodness and mercy.

Note that the writer refers to goodness and mercy as a part of God’s nature.  The LORD is good.  The writer does not state that the LORD was good, or will be good, or is good in response to some situations.  The LORD simply is good, and His mercy is a fruit of that goodness.  Since this goodness is a part of God’s nature, and His nature is also eternal, then His goodness and mercy are eternal.  They “endureth” forever.  God’s nature, hence His goodness and mercy, will never change.

Psalm 136:2.  O give thanks unto the God of gods: fhmef.

As the Creator of the universe and all that is in it, God is its sole spiritual authority.  The ancient culture within which the author is immersed is defined by people’s veneration of thousands of mythical gods to whom they assign a great myriad of powers.  The writer understands that this pantheon of gods is entirely formed by the imagination of those who created them.[2] They are visualized by the creation of icons and idols that receive the worship of those who venerate them.  This same form of worship still exists today in eastern religions that are characterized by the placement of idols in temples of worship that are worshipped and venerated by those who enter, bringing gifts, burning incense, and chanting prayers.

However, though these gods are mythical, the people, in their ignorance of the One True God, sincerely believe in these deities.  These gods are real to their adherents.  The writer notes that since God has authority over all of the universe, He is also the ultimate authority over these mythical gods that the people venerate.

The writer calls upon the readers (or singers) to give thanks to the True God, and not to the false gods of the pagans.  It is God who blesses us.  Since the mythical gods do not exist, they provide nothing, and there is no rational reason to give thanks to something or someone who does not exist.    

Psalm 136:3.  O give thanks to the Lord of lords: fhmef.

In addition to their veneration of false gods, the ancients also held leaders and kings in very high regard.  They knew kings who wielded great power and authority, and many demanded that they be worshiped and venerated by their subjects.  However, even the lords over the people are utterly and entirely subject to the authority of the LORD. 

The LORD who deserves our thanks holds ultimate authority over all spiritual and human authorities, and unlike the violent and hateful characteristics of most of these worldly deities, the LORD is characterized by uncompromised and unending goodness and mercy.

GIVE THANKS TO GOD, THE CREATOR

Psalm 136:4-5.  To him who alone doeth great wonders: fhmef.

5To him that by wisdom made the heavens: fhmef.

Though the biblical narrative contains many examples of the wondrous and miraculous works of God, perhaps the most dramatic of these is His creation of the universe.  Since mankind has had the ability to look up at night, he has been intrigued by what he can see.  Earliest historical evidence indicates that man first thought the world to be flat, and the sky was an opaque surface with holes through which some outside light shown.  Our ability to observe the universe has improved dramatically over the last few centuries, and our understanding of the properties of the universe are greatly improved and its known vastness challenges our imagination and comprehension.    

The Hubble telescope alone has allowed us to observe and record the position of over 100 million galaxies that are now within our view.[3]  An average galaxy, such as our own Milky Way, contains about 100 billion stars,[4] with a vast majority of these capable of containing their own solar systems of planets.[5]  At this point in our ability to observe, the width of the expanding universe is so vast that it would take about 160 billion years for light to travel from one end to the other.[6] This is a distance of about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or one septillion miles. 

Our sun is a relatively small one when compared with many others.  Approximately 5,000 light years from earth is a star that has been named “Canis Majoris” which is Latin for “Big Dog.”  Its diameter is about 1,970 times greater than our sun, about 1.2 billion miles.  If it were in the place of our sun, its surface would reach well beyond the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and Jupiter, approaching the orbit of Saturn.[7] Yet, as large and massive as we might perceive this star, there are stars that are so much more massive than Canis Majoris that they reside at the center of a galaxy as their gravitational pull controls its entire rotation.  These stars are so massive that even light cannot escape their gravitational pull, so we refer to these as “black holes.”

The vastness of these numbers is probably difficult for us to fully comprehend, but they work together to illustrate one simple point:  God created all of this for His own pleasure, and He called it “good.”[8]  As we attempt to absorb some understanding of the vastness of God’s creation, we may find ourselves also challenged to understand the vastness and greatness of the God who created it.  And yet, this universe is our home, a blessing from the LORD, a product of His love and mercy..

Psalm 136:6.  To him that stretched out the earth above the waters: fhmef.

Bringing things a little closer to home, the writer considers the creation of the earth, the home that God formed for the people who He has created.  Though modern science has probably served to prove to us just how small the earth is when compared with the universe in which it floats, the ancients still perceived the earth to be immense beyond their imagination.  The writer clearly states that, as this earth is our home, it is a blessing from the LORD, a product of His love and mercy.

Psalm 136:7-9.  To him that made great lights: fhmef:

8The sun to rule by day: fhmef:

9The moon and stars to rule by night: fhmef.

The nature of the sun, moon, and stars was well-defined and well-understood by the ancients as being the expression of their pagan gods.  There are no fewer than 37 known major mythological systems of deities that included a sun god.  Ra was the primary sun god of the Egyptians, and held the position of the highest god in their system of belief.[9] Some of the Greek sun gods include Athena, Apollo, Alectrona, Eos, and Helios.  Ancient human civilizations created a pantheon of literally thousands of gods that they ascribed as given some form of authority through or by the sun, moon, and stars.

However, all of these gods are fabrications of creative imaginations.  There is only one God and it is He who created the sun, moon, and all of the stars.  As their creator, it is He who has authority over them, and any blessing that we might receive from them in the form of light or heat, is a blessing from God, provided by His great love and mercy.

The writer’s statement is a clear and powerful testimony to the reality of God, His true authority, and His demonstrated creative power.  His testimony nullifies that of all who ascribe any power or authority to their mythical deities.[10] 

GIVE THANKS FOR GOD’S PROTECTION OF HIS PEOPLE

Psalm 136:10-16.  To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn: fhmef.

11And brought out Israel from among them: fhmef.

12With a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm: fhmef.

13To him which divided the Red sea into parts: fhmef.

14And made Israel to pass through the midst of it: fhmef.

15But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red sea: fhmef.

16To him which led his people through the wilderness: fhmef.

The history and culture of ancient Israel cannot be separated from their experience of the Exodus from Egypt that took place around 1,450BC.  Though God has revealed Himself and His purpose to mankind from the moment that He breathed life into him,[11] none of those revelations of Himself so shaped the history, understanding, and faith of Israel as the miracles they witnessed when the LORD provided for their protection and sustenance during and immediately following the Exodus event.  Because of this comprehensive celebration of God’s provision during the Exodus, many hold that this Psalm was used during the three annual feasts that were held as remembrances of the that event.[12]  

First, the writer turns our attention from God’s goodness and the wonders of His creation, to His personal works for the benefit of Israel when He delivered them from their bondage to the Pharaoh of Egypt, an event that started with a sequence of ten plagues that served to demonstrate the powerlessness of the Pharaoh and their mythical gods.[13] This was most likely the first time that the Israelites had witnessed the power of God is so substantive a manner. 

The idea of the strong hand and outstretched arm is a reference to the demonstrated power of God that served to bring the nation of Israel out of Egypt.  As a nation, they all witnessed the profound miracle at the Red Sea when they were surrounded by imminent death: the sea in front of them and the advancing Egyptian army behind them.  When all hope was waning, the LORD caused the sea to part, dried its bed, and called upon Moses to lead the nation across the sea, only to turn back and watch it close in on and drown the army that followed them.  This one event would, like none other, cause the Israelites to know that the LORD God is a real God, and one who is working to protect them and provide for them.

Psalm 136:17-20.  To him which smote great kings: fhmef:

18And slew famous kings: fhmef:

19Sihon king of the Amorites: fhmef:

20And Og the king of Bashan: fhmef.

Israel was a nation of farmers, shepherds, and herders.  They were not a military force, nor did they carry with them the armaments of war.  Though they were great in number, they did not have the capability of waging war against the nations that they would encounter in the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt.  However, when the nation demonstrated its reliance upon the LORD to protect them, they again witnessed the miraculous works of God as the vying armies would find utter defeat at the hands of the Israelites.  In many of these battles, the Israelites did not even participate in the fight as they simply watched as their enemies were, “discomfited,” meaning that their opposing armies became confused and turned upon themselves, and annihilated themselves.  The examples that the writer draws from include king Sihon of the Amorites, and Og of Bashan.[14]  The Amorites were located on the border of Moab, close to their entry point into Canaan.  Sihon and Og would not allow them to pass through their lands and engaged this hapless Israel in battle, only to be utterly destroyed, resulting in the loss of their land to the Israelites.

Though these are only two examples, the advance of the Israelites up to and within the Promised Land of Canaan was characterized by this miraculous intervention of the LORD on the behalf of Israel’s military challenges.  The writer reminds Israel of the mercy that the LORD demonstrated on their behalf during this time.

GIVE THANKS FOR GOD’S REDEMPTION OF HIS PEOPLE

Psalm 136:21-24.  And gave their land for an heritage: fhmef.

22Even an heritage unto Israel his servant: fhmef.

23Who remembered us in our low estate: fhmef.

24And hath redeemed us from our enemies: fhmef.

Just as Israel is defined by the Exodus event, they are also defined by the heritage, or inheritance, of the land of Canaan that God delivered into their hands following His many promises to do so, starting with His promise to Abraham that took place almost 400 years before the Exodus.[15]  The writer notes the true humility of Israel:  what the LORD has done as He reached down from His unfathomable glory to touch the lives of all of us who do not deserve His attention in any way.  The LORD purposely demonstrated His love for us that, when we did not deserve anything at all, He works to redeem His people: to bring His people out of bondage to this godless culture, bringing them to Himself.[16]    

Psalm 136:25.  Who giveth food to all flesh: fhmef.

The word that is rendered “food” refers to more than what is placed on a table at dinnertime.  All life requires that some basic necessities are met, and the most obvious of these is food.  However, the idea here is that because of God’s love for the physical life that He has created, He provides for the basic needs of all life.  Even today, when we witness the destruction of life due to the lack of basic needs, these take place in environments where the sins of man have withheld them.  God has provided the resources to feed all of the people of this world, and if we were to develop, utilize, and distribute these with godly wisdom, we could do this while still serving as stewards of the remaining life on this planet.

Psalm 136:26.  O give thanks unto the God of heaven: fhmef.

This Psalm began with an imperative to give thanks to the LORD, continues by demonstrating the amazing reasons why we are in a position to give thanks, and then closes with another imperative to give thanks.

This Psalm is not so much about the glory and majesty of God, nor the amazing immensity and significance of His creation, nor the provision that God has granted through the creation of this earth and its resources, nor the protection that He has provided for His people, nor even for the work of redemption that God has done.  It is about giving thanks to Him for His goodness, His love, and His mercy that is demonstrated through all of these things.

Do we take the time and effort to really explore the blessings that the LORD has given to us, and to give to Him the thanks, the thanksgiving, that He truly deserves?  Sometimes our inflated opinion of ourselves, and our deflated opinion of the nature of God can lead us to take the LORD for granted, and then fail to celebrate what He has done for us through the works of thanksgiving.  Let us take this moment to set aside those prideful impediments to our faith and truly give thanks to the LORD in a manner that is befitting His majesty, His glory, and the miracle of His love and grace toward us that, not only does He reveal Himself to this rebellious people, but offers to us an eternal, personal, relationship with Him. 

His promise to Abraham and to us is simple enough for a child to understand, yet powerful enough to redeem the toughest person: “Place your faith and trust in Me and I will redeem you for myself.”  This redemption is the product of His love for us: utter forgiveness of our sinfulness for those who turn to Him in faith and trust.

Still, the cost of that forgiveness was high.  The LORD of Creation, YAHWEH, came to us in the form of a man, Jesus Christ, who took upon Himself the punishment that we deserve for our sinfulness that, through Him, forgiveness is found.  Since all people will find themselves before the LORD in the final judgment, all “religions” lead us to God.  However, only those who come to Him with the forgiveness that is found through the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross of Calvary, will receive His promise of eternal salvation.  All others will stand before Him unforgiven, and will be separated from Him in eternity.

This is great cause to give thanks unto the LORD for what He has done, as He provided us with life, a place to live that life, and then provided us with eternal life, and a promised place to live that life: with Him in eternity.   

Let us never fail to give to God the thanks that He truly deserves.
 

[1] James 1:17.

[2] Isaiah 37:19.

[3] https://www.space.com/25303-how-many-galaxies-are-in-the-universe.html

[4] www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space.../How_many_stars_are_there_in_the_Universe

[5] https://www.space.com/24894-exoplanets-habitable-zone-red-dwarfs.html

[6] www.cnn.com/2004/TECH/space/05/24/universe.wide/index.html

[7] The radius of Canis Majoris is about 614 million miles.  The radius of Jupiter’s orbit is about 483 million miles, and the radius of Saturn’s orbit is about 869 billion miles. 

[8] Genesis 1:3.

[9] Egyptian mythology also included at least 11 lesser gods who were also related to the sun, including Bast, Horus, Amun, Atum, Aten, Khepri, Nefertem, Sekhmet, Sopdu, Ptah, Khnum.

[10] One way to understand the creation and impact of these ancient deities is to observe the parallel that we have today in the “alternate universes” of Star Trek, Star Wars, the superheroes in the Marvel Comics such as Ironman, Spiderman, DC Comics’ Superman, Batman, etc.  These are mythological creations of human imagination that we have created entire worlds around.  Modern man’s education allows him to be entertained by these, fully aware that they are not real.  However, to the uneducated ancients, these mythological superheroes became very real in their beliefs.  The efforts and sacrifices that the ancients went through to worship and appease these ancient gods defined their culture.

[11] Genesis 2:7.

[12] Pesach (the Passover feast), Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks), and Sukkot (the Feast of Booths)

[13] Water into blood (דָם): Ex. 7:14–24, Frogs (צְּפַרְדֵּעַ): Ex. 7:25–8:15, Lice (כִּנִּים): Ex. 8:16–19, Mixture of Wild Animals (עָרוֹב): Ex. 8:20–32, Diseased livestock (דֶּבֶר): Ex. 9:1–7, Boils (שְׁחִין): Ex. 9:8–12, Thunderstorm of hail (בָּרָד): Ex. 9:13–35, Locusts (אַרְבֶּה): Ex. 10:1–20, Darkness for three days (חוֹשֶך): Ex. 10:21–29, Death of firstborn (מַכַּת בְּכוֹרוֹת): Ex. 11:1–12:36.

[14] Numbers 21:21-35.

[15] Genesis 17:7.

[16] Romans 5:8-9.