Psalm 136, Verses 1 to 16 then 26.
What is it all about?
Some commentators wanting to provide a ‘peg’ on which to hang this psalm refer to it as ‘For His loving-kindness endureth forever’. Others use the ‘peg’, ‘The Great Hallel Psalm’. Hallel? It means saying someone is great. ‘Hallel’ will be familiar to us by the extension of ‘hallel’ as ‘halleluiah’ used to express our thanks to God. Both ‘pegs’ are right because of the repeated line as a refrain, a chorus, in every one of the psalm’s 26 verses. It is the only psalm in Psalter where such a thing occurs.
However, with the first ‘peg’ there is a problem regarding the translation of the Hebrew word which has been translated as ‘loving-kindness’. There is no equivalent in English of the Hebrew word which could be translated as out of the love in our hearts any or all or more of the following:
- we go not just the extra mile but the extra mile; or,
- from the wealth we have – possessions, money and the like – we give to others without looking for a return/interest/being paid back on our giving; or,
- allocating time we can ill-afford to care or show concern for another;
The off-repeated refrain ‘For His loving-kindness endureth forever’ indicates that the composition, as it stands, was used liturgically i.e. in religious worship, that is as a kind of ritual in the Temple services. In the Jewish tradition the ‘Hallel Psalm’ was sung at the beginning of Passover and it was a favourite Temple song. One group of people, or perhaps even a soloist, sang or read the first line of each verse, and the congregation responded with the refrain. (We only occasionally use a prayer requiring a repeated refrain like, ‘Lord in your mercy [i.e. loving-kindness] hear our prayer’. Denominations, for example Anglican, Roman Catholic and there are others, use such responsive elements more frequently.)
Depending which version of scripture you read, you will note that the word ‘Lord’ is sometimes printed in capital letters viz: LORD, or with the first letter as a capital viz: Lord, and sometime with a small ‘l’ i.e. lord. There is a difference between the two: LORD, in capital letters is the covenant name for God, whereas lord with a small first letter ‘l’ applies to those with power over others e.g. rulers, monarchs, temple authorities and the like. There is the same difference where you read God, with a capital ‘G’, and gods, with a small initial letter. LORD or God is a demonstration that he is over/above priests, spiritual rulers, those in power, including kings and magistrates. Magistrates? Those who make judgements based on evidence presented to them according to the Law [of Moses] and the civil law. The LORD is the ruler over all the rulers of the earth.
Depending on the translation you use this mistranslation issue always occurs in verse six where you may find ‘oceans’ or ‘seas’ or ‘waters’. And the correction proves an interesting aside.
In other places in the Hebrew scriptures refer to a sea below the earth, another sea on the level of the earth and a third above the earth or above the firmament. The word should have been translated as ‘waters’. And if so what a difference it makes. There is ‘water’ beneath the earth we stand on, after all we can dig wells. There is ‘water’ at earth-level in the oceans and seas. And, there is ‘water’ above which comes down as rain! If you then take on this mind-picture you can understand praise being given to a God who has provided life-giving ‘water’ below the ground, at ground level and down from above the ground.
When you read scripture you can be faced with troubling passages. Psalm 136 is no different. Why would the people praise God for destroying the first-born in Egypt? You could come to a conclusion that our God lacked ‘loving-kindness’. That is until you remember the total story. It’s worth an aside to recall that story.
The first-born who died were Egyptian, not Hebrews. They died because the Egyptians, whose land was extremely fertile and the country was the ‘bread-basket’ for the surrounding nations, misused and abused the land and the waters which provided the fertility. The consequence of their actions was what we know as the 10 plagues. (One plague was the result of the one before.) Because the people ruined the land the people died. Why not the Hebrews? Because they followed the Law [of Moses] they had cared for their small-holdings and the like, husbanded their livestock &c and survived. Their praise, therefore, was because God had shown his ‘loving-kindness’ through the Law and obedience to the Law. Recognition of this ‘loving-kindness’ resulted in the Hebrews to being ‘thrown-out’ of Egypt and make the journey to the Promised Land.
So we have a passage of scripture which is looking at oneself and an individual’s relationship with God who acts.
What has this got to do with us today?
It isn’t too difficult to imagine how Psalm 136 might have been invented. And we could do the same exercise.
Imagine a group of people sat round a table. One in the group says to the others, ‘Let’s make a list of all we have received from and been given to us which has made our life the richer.’ There will be those who will not give credit to God. However, not to do so is because they credit everything to chance, and worse still to man’s ‘stewardship’ of the world.
And one in group who have God as the centre of their being starts off with, ‘because he is good.’ Good start and his neighbour comes up with ‘a God above all gods.’ ‘Yes,’ says another, ‘and that is because ‘the Lord is the greatest lord.’ ‘And,’ says another, ‘Do you remember the miracles we have been shown like, the escape from Egypt, the food [manna and partridges] we were fed with on the journey and our arrival in Canaan.’ From these ‘starters’ the rest followed. ‘We would not have a fertile land without water.’; ‘We would not have survived exile in Babylon without God’s concern and care.’ As you build up the Psalm you can’t but appreciate how the Psalm was constructed.
What’s this to do with us today? We can undertake the same exercise today. Don’t get clever, just start with whatever you are most grateful. It is rare for us today to use the exclamation, ‘Praise the Lord!’ However, it isn’t unusual for us to start or end a sentence with, ‘Thank God!’, even when exasperated and a proverbial penny drops, ‘Hallelujah! You’ve got it at last.’
Your start point will be different from whoever you are sat next to. My grandmother-in-law was always grateful for clean water out of a tap. You can only have that water if there is water under the earth or in reservoirs which is replenished. (Yes, you often wish that God would be a bit more sparing with rainfall but we have experience, not as severe as others, of drought which makes our appreciation of water the greater.) Now, take your thankfulness a step further. Rain and sunshine go together. Thank God for both. Together they result in abundance of crops and livestock – food. And so our version of Psalm 136 is gradually built-up.
Allow yourself to move on to other parts of your life you value, for example relationships. Very few of us have not been in the situation where we have offered up what is in fact a prayer, ‘Thank God for (enter a name)’, who helped us through a testing time, or have a bond which been there for us through the proverbial thick and thin. As you focus on people then your thank you names family members, acquaintances, colleagues etal who have had a positive shaping of our lives.
Using your imagination you then begin to thank God for the less intimate. Ever listened to a piece of music and been moved? Thank God for the composer and performers. Ever been somewhere and marvelled at the sight? Thank God for the view which we see before us. Ever found a tear in your eye by a report on television? Thank God for the response the report generates in people.
All the responses shown to you by others and you show to others are because hearts are moved to make a response. We do so because we have in our hearts a loving-kindness which is planted there because of the loving-kindness our God has for his chosen people. But it comes with a price.
The price of being able to ‘Thank God’ can only be so if we are truly stewards of a world able to feed the whole world; and, have relationships with our fellow humans which add to life and not take away from life.