George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 5

Psalm 136

It has been pointed out that this psalm is called “The Great Hallel” (although sometimes that designation is applied to all of 120 through 136), and that it was customary to recite it at the conclusion of the Passover.

1. Structure

Give thanks unto God
The wonders of His creation
The marvels of deliverance in Egypt and the wilderness
The prospering of Israel in the conquest of Canaan
The marvel of a more recent deliverance
Give thanks unto God

2. Links with Psalm 135

Psalm 135

Psalm 136
Exhortation to praise
Creative wonders
Deliverance from Egypt
Deliverance on journey to Land
Gift of the Land
Goodness to His people
False gods: a help to none/the true God: food for all
Praise and thank Him

3. The psalm’s history

It was written for the service in David’s tabernacle (1 Chron. 16:34,41).
It inaugurated Solomon’s Temple (2 Chron. 5:13).
It was included here in Hezekiah’s expanded Psalter.
It dedicated the holiness of Jehoshaphat’s campaign (2 Chron. 20:21).
It was prominent in the Second Temple (Ezra 3:11).
It will also have a prominent place in Christ’s New Temple (Jer. 33:11).

4. The Refrain

To the modern ear this 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 our AV — 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, associated with the twin crises of Hezekiah’s reign, is adequate to account for this repetitious yet unquenchably exuberant praise.

His mercy (chesed). The Old Testament 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; 2 Sam. 7:15; 1 Kings 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 New Testament 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.

Endureth for ever. Note the italics. The ellipsis is admirably filled in as to the sense, although repetitive reading does lessen the effect.

For ever demands from the reader an eager anticipation of what will surely be the greatest example of all God’s “mercies”, in Messiah’s Kingdom.

5. The development

O give thanks. This is renewed in v. 26, but obviously needs to be read into every other verse as well. The sequence of divine names is impressive:

Yahweh/Jehovah is the Covenant Name, rightly to be associated with his mercy.

God of gods might mean: the One who has countless angels to do His bidding; or, the God who is infinitely superior to any of the “gods” men can invent (Psa. 135:5; 86:8; 96:4).

Lord of lords is the Hebrew Adonai. Thus this expression is similar to (equivalent to?) ‘King of kings’. But see the context in Deut. 10:17. Here is a title of God which is later applied to Christ also (Rev. 17:14).
To him who alone doeth great wonders (Psa. 72:18). Which great wonders? Verses 5-9 specify... the heavens... the earth... sun... moon... stars. This theme of Creation, wherever it occurs in the Psalter (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”.
To him that by wisdom made the heavens: Prov. 3:19; 8:22-31; Jer. 10:12; Psa. 104:24.
To him that stretched out the earth above the waters. This is quoted in Isa. 44:24, in an intended contrast with the “gods” of the heathen; and also in Isa. 42:5.
To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn. In Hezekiah’s day, such an emphasis on deliverance of Israel from Egypt was appropriate because:

(a) the alliance which Hezekiah’s politicians made with Egypt proved utterly fruitless (Isa. 30:1,2; 31:1), since the Egyptian army was completely routed by Sennacherib at El Tekeh; and

(b) the besieging Assyrian army was destroyed outside Jerusalem, at the time of the Passover, by the same “Destroying Angel” who smote the firstborn in Egypt.

And, to believers today, such emphasis upon the Passover is still appropriate (1 Cor. 5:7; 10:1-13).
With a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm: Isa. 51:9,10; Psa. 77:15; 89:10.
But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea. The “experts” say that Pharaoh did not perish with his army. The Bible says he did. “Overthrew” is the s.w. as “tossed” in Psa. 109:23 — used of locusts blown about by the wind. If all the inhabitants of the world are as grasshoppers (Isa. 40:22), then may even a mighty Pharaoh be as a locust! (Note that Psa. 136:10-22 = Psa. 135:8-12.)
Great kings... famous kings. Were Sihon and Og as great as all that? Then does this perhaps refer to their physical size (Deut. 3:11)? Or do these expressions anticipate the destruction of the Assyrians and their allies (v. 24)?

Smote great kings is given here as an instance of God’s mercy! Interesting. How very much these matters are affected by one’s perspective (see Par. 6).
Even an heritage unto Israel his servant... And hath redeemed us from our enemies... Who giveth food to all flesh. These expressions bring the psalm’s history (and reasons for praising God) down to the present time for the writer; they are particularly appropriate to the blessings of the Jubilee in Hezekiah’s reign (Isa. 37:30,31).
How fitting this call to give thanks rings out again at the end, as at the beginning of the psalm.

The God of heaven. Here is another divine name, emphasizing His might and overall majesty. A sincere and serious contemplation of God’s awesome might leads one to be all the more awestruck at His mercy.

6. A strange “mercy”!

“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:

‘Oh! give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good;
for his mercy endureth for ever.
‘To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn;
for his mercy endureth for ever.
‘To him that smote great kings;
for his mercy endureth for ever.
‘And slew famous kings; for his mercy endureth for ever.
‘And gave their land for a heritage;
for his mercy endureth for ever.’

“And of the future we might say —

‘To him that destroyed the Roman Empire;
for his mercy endureth for ever.
‘To him that uprooted the Papacy;
for his mercy endureth for ever.
‘To him that broke the Russian armies;
for his mercy endureth for ever.
‘And scattered the power of the Turk [and Arab!—G.B.];
for his mercy endureth for ever.
‘Who broke in pieces all nations;
for his mercy endureth for ever.
‘In order to establish his kingdom;
for his mercy endureth for ever.
‘Who uprooted the wicked from the earth;
for his mercy endureth for ever.
‘And made it the abode of the righteous;
for his mercy endureth for ever.’ ”

(G.F. Lake)
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