Photo copyright 2014-2015 by Randall J. Ehle. All rights reserved.
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”
So begins Psalm 136…and then continues for twenty-six verses with the same refrain: “for his steadfast love endures forever.” This was never one of my favorite psalms. I always thought it was too choppy and repetitive, not flowing well in my prose-centered, Western mind. The only words that stood out to me were those repeated lines. Okay, I get it already. “The steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.” Next psalm. Or do I get it? I never took the time to analyze the psalm because it’s a song—emotional, not intellectual. Shouldn’t poems and songs simply float into our minds, their meanings gently wafting into our subconscious with hardly a notice from us? Or, as Archibald MacLeish penned, “A poem should not mean | But be” (Ars Poetica).
Only when I took the time to read between those obnoxious, repetitive lines in Psalm 136 did I notice what this psalm is doing. It is not merely a call to gratitude, though it is that. The first three verses and the last all begin with, “Give thanks to….” Give thanks to the Lord, the God of gods, the Lord of lords, the God of heaven. He is the object of our gratitude, the Source of all we have and are. He is above everything we worship or serve, like money and security and family and even health; yet He is at the same time a personal God with a personal name (Yahweh or YHWH, also written as LORD). Give thanks. A good and needed reminder. But there is more.
It is also not simply a mantra of God’s love, though it is most certainly that. His steadfast love endures forever. We Westerners—and certainly we Christians—are not accustomed to mantras. These repeated words used as aids in meditation stem from the Eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism; since we have lost the art (and meaning) of meditation, we run from anything that resembles it. (Don’t get me started on Christmas trees and Hallowe’en.) Yet repetition runs throughout Scripture and church history, and we do well to employ it in our communion with God.
Between the exhortation to gratitude and the mantra of God’s steadfast love, Psalm 136 simply tells a story: God’s story. Israel’s story. Our story. Each line is a reminder of who God is or what He has done: He made the sun, moon, and stars (verses 7-9); He rescued Israel from Egypt (10-16); He led them to victory in battle (17-20) and gave them a homeland (21-22); He remembers and watches over His people (23-25). And at every step of creation, salvation, destination—at the very core of who God is and what He does—is His steadfast love.
It’s easy to breeze right through the Psalm and miss its depths and richness, to let the repeating words slip across the tongue without ever digesting them. But don’t. Instead, sit and soak in this Psalm as in a hot tub, basking in its truths and comforts, remembering God’s presence and activity…and His steadfast love. And someday—some quiet, rainy day with a cup of coffee by your side and a pen and journal in hand—write out your own story, then go back and insert this lines between each event:
“…for the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.”