This psalm rotates around the hesed of God, coming back to it every other line. This word hesed can be translated any number of different ways—kindness, faithfulness, covenant loyalty, tender-mercies, and the like. God is good to His people, all the time. The AV supplies the verb endureth every other line, but that is not in the original. The line literally is “for his hesed forever.”
This psalm was sung at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple (2 Chron. 7:3, 6), and it was also sung (with magnificent faith) on the occasion of Jehoshaphat’s great victory in the wilderness of Tekoa (2 Chron. 20:21). This is a true song of real triumph in times of conflict. In church history, one time during the rule of Constantius, Athanasius was attacked at his church in Alexandria by Syranius and his troops. A number of the saints were wounded and killed, but Athanasius simply remained in his chair and ordered a deacon to begin this psalm, and the people answered him—for his mercy endures forever. This is a psalm for an embattled people.
“O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: For his mercy endureth for ever. O give thanks unto the God of gods: For his mercy endureth for ever. O give thanks to the Lord of lords: For his mercy endureth for ever . . .” (Psalm 136:1–26).
Summary of the Text
So we have in this psalm a litany of gratitude, and each item in it is ascribed to the hesed of God. What we are going to see here then is how wide-ranging that beneficence of God actually is. We are going to have the privilege of seeing hesed on a throne, and how that throne marks the rule of all things.
The first is a summons to thank God for the goodness of God (v. 1). Give thanks to the God over all gods (v. 2). Give thanks to the Lord over all lords (v. 3). This mode of expression is a Hebrew superlative (as in, Holy of Holies). God alone is the great God of wonders (v. 4). He created the heavens in His wisdom (v. 5), and He spread the earth out over the waters (v. 6). He made the great lights (v. 7), meaning the sun to rule by day (v. 8), and the moon and stars for the night (v. 9).
God struck down the firstborn of Egypt out of hesed (v. 10), and delivered Israel from Egypt in consequence (v. 11). He did this with an outstretched arm as an act of strength (v. 12). We must praise God for His adverbs as well as His adjectives—how He delivers with an outstretched arm. He split the Red Sea in two (v. 13), making Israel to pass safely through (v. 14), but drowning Pharaoh and his army there (v. 15). We are talking about 2 to 3 million people walking for miles across the bed of the sea. That miracle was no trifle—people are still talking about it. And God led Israel through the wilderness, preserving them there (v. 16). He struck great kings (v. 17). He slaughtered famous kings (v. 18). Sihon of the Amorites was one (v. 19), and Og, king of Bashan was another (v. 20). God took land away from them and gave it to Israel for a heritage (v. 21), even a heritage for Israel his servant (v. 22). He remembered our low estate (v. 23), and redeems us from our enemies (v. 24).
God feeds all the living (v. 25), and we conclude by thanking Him again, thanking the God of heaven (v. 26).
Three Categories of Hesed
The first category of God’s hesed is found in the fact that He is the Creator God, and this means that He is the God over all creation (vv. 1-9). The second category is revealed in what we might call God’s political providence (vv. 10-24). And the last category is found in the fact that the God of Heaven is the God of ongoing providence—we live in a created order that feeds us (vv. 25-26).
God Takes Sides
The middle of this psalm makes it absolutely plain that God takes sides. His hesed, His mercy, is seen how He absolutely destroyed the Egyptians. Apart from the Passover blood, there was no Egyptian house without sorrow. God killed the firstborn of Egypt because of His hesed (v. 10), and He drowned Pharaoh and his army for the same reason (v. 15). God fed Israel from the sky during their time in the wilderness, but that wandering in the wilderness was bookended by two huge instances of national judgment. Egypt was that era’s superpower, and when God’s hesed toward Israel was done with them, they were little more than a smoking crater. Then on the other end of the forty years, God dispatched Sihon and Og both, and they were described as great and famous kings (vv. 17-18).
God took their land away, and bestowed it on Israel for their own heritage. This was no injustice to them because it was not taken away from them because Israel needed it now. It was taken from them because their iniquity had finally ripened. What had God said to Abraham centuries before? “But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full” (Gen. 15:16). God held back the military judgment delivered by Israel until the the giants richly deserved it.
“For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of giants; behold, his bedstead was a bedstead of iron; is it not in Rabbath of the children of Ammon? nine cubits was the length thereof, and four cubits the breadth of it, after the cubit of a man.”
Deut. 3:11 (KJV)
“Rise ye up, take your journey, and pass over the river Arnon: behold, I have given into thine hand Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land: begin to possess it, and contend with him in battle.”
Deut. 2:24 (KJV)
So the conquest of Canaan was in large measure an exercise in giant-killing, with the final stages of that particular warfare being accomplished by David (1 Sam. 17:49) and his men (2 Sam. 21:19).
But where did these giants come from? How did they make it past the Flood, which had been God’s judgment on the whole Nephilim project? The most reasonable answer appears to be that the DNA of giants was preserved on the ark through Ham’s wife, the mother of all the Canaanites, and Canaan is where the giants all were. This is the most likely, although there are other possibilities. The antediluvian sin of Gen. 6 could have been repeated, for example. Or the giants could have been ordinary humans on the large side, called by the same name that had been used for giants before the Flood. But when persecution in our day breaks out, make sure that this is not the doctrine you go to prison for.
This psalm foregrounds the doctrine of creation, and the goodness of God as revealed in creation. All attempts at evolutionary explanations are attempts (even at their best) to background it, to place it at a great distance from us. The more remote it is, the easier it is to take all these things for granted. One of the great blessings of believing in a young earth creation is that we are thereby confronted with the goodness of God. He actually spoke the world we live on into existence, and we are living on something that is still hot out of the oven. God fashioned the heavens and the earth, and we can see His exquisite design in all that He has made. For example, when the moon covers the sun in an eclipse, it looks like someone stacking a couple of quarters—like a key fitting in a lock. That’s not an accident, sorry.
We are taught in Romans that the two great impulses of the unbelieving heart are the impulse to deny God’s sovereignty (Rom. 1:21), and to deny our responsibility to be thankful to Him (Rom. 1:21). The invitation issued in this psalm confronts both of these unbelieving impulses.
Nothing But Hesed, Nothing But Mercy
As Philip Henry once put it, if the end of one mercy were not the beginning of a new one, we would be undone. We rely on God’s mercy, all the time. And no reason is given for mercy except mercy. This is simply the way God is.
So Christ is our fountainhead of the hesed of God, and this is a fountain that can never run dry.
When you are confronting your troubles, however great they may be to you, make sure to imitate our brother Jehoshaphat. Send your choir out in front of your army. And when your choir director asks you what they should sing as they march toward this great trouble, hand out this psalm. This is what we are to sing. Because, after all, the hesed of God is forever because Christ is the hesed of God, and Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.