Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always, and Forever Love

Sermon by Wiley Lowry on March 8, 2020

Psalms 136

Well would you take your hymnals out and we’re going to turn to page 835 in our hymnals this morning. The Psalms are found in the back of our hymnals in a way that we can read them responsively. And this psalm has a refrain that runs throughout it and is actually the same refrain as a popular gospel song. It’s, “Lord, You are good and Your mercy endureth forever.” The best rendition that I heard of that gospel song was done a few years ago by a Japanese choir that really most of the choir members did not know much English but they sang those words with joy and with love. The reason why they were singing those words in English is that, you may know, that American gospel music has become very popular in Japan over the last several years. And actually, one of our missionaries in Japan right now became a Christian by joining to sing and to play with that gospel choir that I heard some years ago. It’s amazing to me to think about these old ancient truths, these ancient words, lyrics from the Psalms, that they can be refreshed in a new way and come to us in surprising contexts and still be the power of God for salvation to all who believe. And so we’re going to turn to Psalm 136 today because we need these old truths. We need to remember that God is good and that His mercy endures forever as we seek to live out today and all of our lives for His worship and praise.

So with that in mind let me pray and we will read this psalm together.

Father, we thank You for Your Word. We thank You for the blessing of Your presence, for the gift of Your Spirit to lead us in understanding, applying Your Word. We thank You that You have given us words to pray, words to sing; that we are not helpless, that we are not left to make it up as we go. But You teach us and direct us in how to praise You for Your glory. We were made for worship, we were saved to worship, so we pray by Your Word today that You would teach us more of what it means to worship You in Spirit and in truth. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Psalm 136 from page 835 in our hymnals. I’ll read the light print if you would read together with me the bold print:

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
     His love endures forever. 
Give thanks to the God of gods.
     His love endures forever. 

Give thanks to the Lord of lords:
      His love endures forever. 
to him who alone does great wonders, 
     His love endures forever. 

who by understanding made the heavens, 
     His love endures forever. 
who spread out the earth above the waters, 
     His love endures forever. 

who made the great lights – 
     His love endures forever. 
the sun to govern the day, 
     His love endures forever. 

the moon and stars to govern the night;
     His love endures forever. 
to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt
     His love endures forever. 

and brought Israel out from among them
     His love endures forever. 
with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm;
     His love endures forever. 

to him who divided the Red Sea asunder
     His love endures forever. 
and brought Israel through the midst of it,
     His love endures forever. 

but swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea;
     His love endures forever. 
to him who led his people through the desert,
     His love endures forever. 

who struck down great kings, 
     His love endures forever. 
and killed mighty kings – 
     His love endures forever. 

Sihon, king of the Amorites
     His love endures forever. 

and Og, king of Bashan –  
     His love endures forever. 
and gave their land as an inheritance, 
     His love endures forever. 

an inheritance to his servant Israel; 
     His love endures forever. 
to the One who remembered us in our low estate
     His love endures forever. 
and freed us from our enemies, 
     His love endures forever. 

and who gives food to every creature.
     His love endures forever. 
Give thanks to the God of heaven. 
     His love endures forever.” 

Amen. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever.

We’ll look at this psalm along three lines this morning. We’ll see how we are to remember the love of God, we are to rejoice in the love of God, and we are to recount the love of God.

Remember the Love of God 

First, this psalm is about remembering the love of God. We don’t need a commentary or a sermon, do we, to know what this psalm is all about. It’s very obvious to us. It’s about the love of God that endures forever. And the main word in this psalm is the Hebrew word, “hesed.” It’s found twenty-six times in these twenty-six verses of Psalm 136. The ESV translates that word as “steadfast love.” I really like the way the Jesus Storybook Bible translates that word as God’s “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love.” That captures some of the richness and the depth of this Hebrew word, and yet it might be a bit of a mouthful for us to say that twenty-six times throughout this psalm. But this psalm is a celebration in song of the steadfast love of God. 

And what’s significant about that is this psalm covers theology and history, but it’s not written as history or as systematic theology; it’s recorded as a hymn. It’s poetry. And technically speaking, poetry is unnecessary. Some English teachers might disagree with that, but one writer says this. He says, “The impulse to sing is natural to all of us, but the language and the form of poetry is not.” A poem is not the most efficient or most natural way to communicate information. You think about it. The doctors and lawyers and investors don’t write prescriptions and contracts and reports in poetic form. It’s all prose. In fact, I had a friend of mine who wrote a science paper in high school and he titled it, “There’s No Phase Like Prophase.” And he got a “B” instead of an “A” because the title was too poetic for our teacher! 

It’s not the most efficient way we communicate information, and for that matter, if we looked at Psalm 136 again it would be simpler and shorter for sure if we removed the refrain altogether. But that misses the point. What’s the point? It’s that Psalm 136 is poetry. It’s a work of literary art form. And the words and the structure are crafted with a goal in mind. And the psalmist is selective with the events that he chooses in order to engage our minds and our hearts in worship. He’s trying to capture our emotions and to provide us with the words for which we can praise God. See, this writer is intentional. He’s intentional to remember, to remember the love of God and to turn history and theology into song. 

Do we do that? Do we remember? Do we stop and remember the goodness of God? Oftentimes I find that we become busy with what we need to do today or tomorrow or we get used to a certain level of comfort and ease while at the same time looking elsewhere for something new and something better. Sometimes we find that it’s easier to complain about what’s wrong rather than to celebrate what’s right. We forget. We forget about the overwhelming goodness and love of God to us. Actually, that’s one of my favorite things about having the privilege of visiting with many members of our congregation is to stop and to talk, to take the time to hear about the stories of God’s goodness in your lives. God’s goodness has names and dates and addresses. We can point them out and name them one by one. The psalmist here is giving us a model for what it means to remember God’s mercy and for taking the time, focusing our attention on God and on His good gifts for us in our lives. 

For us, what does that mean? That may mean trying our hand at poetry. What would it mean for you to sit down and write a hymn of praise to God? We need new hymns and we need songs for worship. It would be a good exercise to write down in poetic form God’s goodness and love to you. It may mean keeping a journal where you can write down things that are significant to you, ways that God has blessed you. Or maybe it’s a prayer notebook and you can look back over time and see the ways that God has answered your prayer or He’s changed your heart, moved your heart into alignment with His will. We need to remember the steadfast love of God that endures forever.

And you know, we don’t even have to have a very good memory to remember His steadfast love because it’s right here; it’s right now. If we were just to stop and think about just this morning the blessings and mercy that God has poured out in our lives, we would go on and on and on trying to count them up. He’s given us the gift of life itself. He’s given us a new day, new morning mercies. He’s given us His Word. We’ve heard the good news of the Gospel. We’ve gathered together in worship and in fellowship with this body. His blessings go on and on and on just this morning. And it’s good for us to stop and remember those things. 

Rejoice in the Love of God 

The reason we need to remember those things is because remembering those things leads us to rejoicing in God and in His blessing. That’s the second thing I want us to see in this psalm is rejoicing in the love of God. I got an email a few weeks ago from an RUF intern who had been a student of mine at Belhaven a few years ago. And the subject of her email was “Psalm 136.” And she said that she was listening to the worship team prepare for the large group meeting that night and she opened her Bible to Psalm 136 and this is what she wrote to me. She said, “I remember one day where you read aloud Psalm 136 and had us respond with the refrain, ‘For His steadfast love endures forever.’ I can’t tell you how much I’ve thought about that in the last year and a half of ministry, just that His steadfast love truly does endure forever. After that class, it was ingrained in me.” 

I didn’t really remember that class and reading through that psalm in that way, and it’s amazing how God’s Word is living and active and it sticks and it gets down deep into our hearts and it can be applied in new ways over the years. But here’s the reason why I read a psalm that day in class, and every day when I teach at Belhaven. It’s because I want to choose a psalm that deals with the history or the theme that we’re studying from the Old Testament that day and to communicate to the students that the Old Testament is not about, just merely about history and laws and facts to remember for a test, but it’s meant to drive us to worship. The Old Testament is meant to lead us to praise for God. That’s what the Psalms are all about because He is good and His mercy endures forever. That’s what the Old Testament is all about; that’s what the Bible is all about – that God is good and His steadfast love endures forever. 

And the psalmist here wants us to join in, in praising God. And you see that three times at the beginning of this psalm. There’s this call to give thanks to God – verses 1, 2, and 3 – give thanks to God; give thanks to the Lord. And then at the very end of the psalm it says, verse 26, “give thanks to the God of heaven.” Again, it closes with a call to worship, praising God. And that word, “give thanks,” could also be translated as “give voice to God” or “praise God.” It’s actually the same word from which we get the name, “Judah.” Judah’s name means “praise.” When he was born, where it’s recorded in Genesis 29, Leah said, “This time I will praise the Lord.” So this word that’s translated as “give thanks,” it means more than that. It also means “praise and worship.” 

And this is an obvious psalm of praise, isn’t it? In fact, in Jewish tradition this psalm is called the “Great Hallel,” or it’s the great psalm of praise. It’s almost as if this psalm caps off all of the other psalms of praise and it’s all about praise. You noticed that, didn’t you, as we read through it, that there’s no request, there’s no lament, there’s no instruction in this psalm; it’s all about praise. Derek Kidner says that where have those commands, those four different calls to give God thanks in those verses. It actually could be implied through all of the psalm and every verse is a call for us to give thanks and to praise God. 

And yet, if you’re like me, there can be a challenge. There’s a challenge in taking up this psalm as our psalm, as our song of praise. And I think one of the reasons why that’s a challenge is because of the separation that we have between these events and our own lives. I’m pretty sure that none of you have ever mentioned Sihon and Og in your prayer life. We don’t sing about that in our hymns, do we? And for that matter, we really don’t think that much about pharaoh king of Egypt. Those victories for Israel were so far ago, so long ago that they may not grip our hearts and our imaginations the same way they gripped the heart and the imagination of the psalmist. Not to mention these are old covenant realities; we live in the new covenant. These are types and shadows and figures that are pointing us to Christ, to the One who will give us the ultimate deliverance from slavery and bondage to sin. The One who brings us into the presence of God forever and gains the inheritance of His blessing. 

And then I think there’s also those things in this psalm that we frankly take for granted. The psalmist talks about the sun and the moon and the stars and those things are so reliable; they’re every day for us. We don’t even think about how they are a blessing to us. And there’s daily bread. Most of us have never had to worry if our next meal would come. And sure, we give God thanks for this day and for daily bread, but oftentimes we do it out of habit, don’t we? Looking around as we sing the doxology this morning, how many times do we sing the doxology and say, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” and we sing it with a pained look on our face? We sing it like we’re at a funeral or something. Our bodies, our faces don’t match the words that we’re saying – “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” There are blessings on top of blessings that God gives to us. 

Now the blessings that we have in our lives, the blessings listed in this psalm may not make the list that we would record, but think about this. The realities that Psalm 136 is meditating on are the most important things in life because the psalmist is talking about God and creation and salvation and security and provision. Al Mohler, when he talks about what it means to formulate a worldview, the questions that everyone, every person has to answer and think about are, “Why is there something rather than nothing? What’s broken with this world? Can it be fixed? And where is the future headed?” 

Well those are the exact same questions that the psalmist is contemplating in this psalm. There is nothing more important than starting with God, the one true God, the Lord of lords, and moving on to grasp the wonders of His creation – that He has created all things by His wisdom and His power. And then he goes on down and he talks about God’s plan of salvation as it unfolds in Israel and leading them out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land. And to have a confidence that God will provide in times of trouble, that God will provide what we need for each day. This psalm is about those things that are central to every human life, and every person has to come to terms with these same things – no matter how old or how young you are, no matter what background you come from. And that’s why the psalmist is praising God. That’s why he rejoices in this psalm. In each of these major categories of our lives, he can see and point out the steadfast love of God on display. And as he starts with God, he can say, “God is steadfast love.” God, in and of Himself is love. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are in a fellowship of love from all eternity. Even before there was man or woman, God is love.

And then he goes on and shows how the creation, the creation is the stage for which God displays that steadfast love to His people. And the regularity of day and night and the boundaries of heaven and earth, that’s the context for which God shows mercy to His people. One theologian even says that all of time and history, from the time of the fall into sin until now, can come under the category of God’s patience, of His mercy. We see His steadfast love in the creation, in history. And then His favorite, Israel, that’s spelled out for us in these verses. It was not because they were worthy; it was not because they were better or stronger than any other nation. No, they deserved the same judgement as the Amorites, as Egypt, and as Bashan. But God chose to love them because He loved them and He chose to set His steadfast love on them. A steadfast love which carries out His promises to Adam and to Abraham and to Moses and to David and leads all the way to Jesus; a steadfast love which sent His own Son to live and to die and be raised again for His people, for us, to rescue us from bondage to sin, and to give us an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and that does not fade away. That’s where this history is headed in Psalm 136 – that Jesus came into this creation and He came into this history to give His life and to be raised again, to bring about all of the blessings of God. That blessing to Israel in Psalm 136 is actually blessing to the nations, to everyone who trusts in Jesus for salvation.

And then there’s the last part about providence. The psalmist is not just thinking about what God has accomplished in the past. He’s thinking about what He does right now, today. He protects us. He gives us new morning mercies, that every day is a testament to God’s never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love. And it’s all pointing to Jesus. You think about those questions that Mohler gives to us. Why is there something rather than nothing? It’s Jesus. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Without Him was not anything made that was made.” And John goes on to say that, “What do we do about this world that’s broken? Can’t it be fixed?” “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” And what about the needs for today? What does Paul say in the book of Romans? “He who did not spare His own Son but freely delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” This is all pointing us – these major categories of life that the psalmist is dealing with – is all pointing us to God’s love for us in Jesus. 

Donald Whitney has written a helpful book about prayer. It’s called Praying the Bible. One of the comments he makes at the very beginning of that book is that oftentimes the things that derails or stumps us in our prayer life, he says is, “We find ourselves praying about the same old things in the same old way.” And he offers to us the suggestion go pray Scripture and that Scripture, if we pray the Bible, it actually gives us an endless variety of ways to pray for the same old things. Well there’s a sense that, if we could say it reverently, that the things for which we praise God are for the same old things. We praise God because He is God. We praise God for His creation. We praise God for His work of salvation. And we praise God for providing and for protecting us. And yet there are an endless number of ways for which we can rejoice and praise Him. And each reason displays the steadfast love of God. We can never ever run out of reasons to praise and worship God for His steadfast love. So this psalm is a guide for us. It’s a guide for us to remember, to remember that steadfast love and to rejoice in that steadfast love. But it’s also a guide for us to recount that steadfast love.

Recount the Love of God

And here’s what I mean by that. The psalmist doesn’t keep his praise to himself; he writes it down. And these words are meant to be shared, to be retold. This psalm has been a part of the worship of God’s people for thousands of years. It’s a part of Scripture that is to be read and reread and shared from generation to generation. Others need to hear what the psalmist records in these verses. And I have a friend who encourages me. He says, you know, we have a supernatural religion and God is doing supernatural things among us, in our lives and in the church, and yet we really don’t hear about it enough. That’s one of the things we love about the Missions Conference, isn’t it? That we hear about the work of God’s supernatural grace in the lives of unbelievers around the world. But we’re not always very good about sharing it with each other and telling our friends about it. 

In Mark chapter 5, you remember where Jesus casts out demons from the man called Legion. And Legion wants to come with Him and follow after Jesus but Jesus turns him away and He says, “Go home and tell your friends. Tell them how much the Lord has done for you and how He has had mercy on you.” He wants Legion to recount the mercies and love of God to those around him. And I’ve heard that same friend that encourages me about how we have a supernatural religion and a God who does supernatural things, he encourages others in his same stage of life. He says, “Tell your grandkids about your testimony. Tell your grandkids how God has worked and brought you to Himself. How did that happen? Make sure they know about it. Don’t keep it to yourself.” And that could go for any one of us in any stage of life. There are people near us, close to us; they may not have any idea how God brought us to faith and how we first believed in Christ for our salvation. We need to share that and to recount that message to others because His steadfast love is something to be retold over and over again. And if we did that, I imagine that we could also have in our lives that same refrain that the psalmist has that, “His steadfast love endures forever.” It would be for me:

“I was born into a Christian home, for His steadfast love endures forever. And I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t trust in Jesus for salvation, for His steadfast love endures forever. And God has kept me and cared for me throughout my life by His mercy and His grace, for His steadfast love endures forever. And He’s put godly influences in my life every step along the way, for His steadfast love endures forever. And He continues to provide undeserved blessing after undeserved blessing, for His steadfast love endures forever.”

And I could go on and on, and I’m sure you could too. If you’ve been saved by God’s grace then you could say the very same thing about your own life and we could repeat that refrain much more than the twenty-six times that we read it in this psalm and it would not be monotonous our repetitive; it would be overwhelming because God’s steadfast love is free and it’s undeserved. And yet, it’s ours. It’s ours and abundant and it’s ours every step of the way, whether it’s in times of suffering or times of trial; if it’s in times of being afraid of uncertain about the future. Or if it’s in a time of God’s chastising hand in your life, we can be confidence that His steadfast love will not fail, because His steadfast love endures forever.

Someone told me just this week that he was looking for love in all sorts of different experiences and from all sorts of different relationships and nothing lasted, nothing satisfied him. But then he realized that he was looking for cheap love in all sorts of places when the whole time God was offering him true, real love in Jesus Christ, His only Son. And he found in Christ that love which lasts forever. That love is worth remembering, it’s worth rejoicing, it’s worth telling others about. And if you’re looking for that love anywhere else, it will fail. But the God who made you and the God who sent His Son for you and the God who provides every good gift in your life, His love is forever. And it’s yours, today, if you would turn from everything else and receive the forgiveness and the love of God that’s offered to us in His Son, Jesus Christ. Would you do that today? And if you’ve done that, would you rejoice in that today?

Let’s pray.

Our Father, we thank You for Your steadfast love. We thank You that Your love is never stopping, it never gives up, it never breaks, it’s always and forever. Would You give us hearts that are steadfast in praising You. Would You give us lives that are steadfast in faithfulness to You. And give us a boldness and a courage to live distinctive lives and to have lives which are ready to share and to tell others where to find such steadfast love that endures forever. And we pray all of this in Jesus’ name, amen.

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