For his mercy endureth forever, Ps. 136
The refrain “for his mercy endureth forever” is one of the most common refrains in the OT, and it is certainly the main reason given for why we should give thanks to God. “O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth forever” (1). Now technically, the flow of thought in the text interposes God’s goodness between our thanks and his mercy. I think the thought is this: we thank God for his goodness toward us. But how can we expect God to be good to us? And the reason for this is that the mercy of the Lord endures forever. That is the idea. So that at the end of the day, it is God’s mercy which secures the good which secures our thanksgiving.
Since this is the signal reason given for rendering thanks to God, I think it is worthwhile in this season of thanksgiving in our nation to pause and reflect upon this. Certainly, our giving thanks should be instructed and flavored and directed by the teaching of the Scripture. Let us therefore consider the goodness and mercy of God and how it ought to create in us thanksgiving to God. First, we want to consider all the ways in which God is good to us. Second, we want to grasp how it is that God’s mercy is the reason why we can expect good from God and that it is why we do in fact receive good from him. Finally, we want to see how these realities ought to create in us hearts full of thanksgiving.
For he is good.
The apostle James tells us, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (Jam. 1:17). On the other hand, God cannot be tempted by evil, neither does he tempt any man (13). This is because God is good and does only that which is good (Ps. 119:68). When our Lord came to earth, the apostle Peter described his ministry in this way: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed by the devil; for God was with him” (Acts 10:38). The Lord Jesus, the Son of the Father, does what his Father does: all their works are intrinsically and manifestly good.
Now in the Psalm that we are considering, there are three main areas in which God shows his goodness and mercy: in creation (4-9), in redemption (10-24), and in providence (25), although this latter category is really inseparable from the previous ones. For God is working out his plan of redemption in history, bringing about his redemptive will through his works of creation and providence.
Verses 4-9 deal with creation. These are God’s wonders (4): making the heavens by his wisdom (5), stretching out the earth above the waters (6), and in making the sun, moon, and stars (7-9). By the way, one of the really dumb arguments you hear nowadays is that the vast, seemingly uninhabited expanse of space, occupied as it is with millions of planets with no life, is somehow an argument, not only against God’s goodness, but against the wisdom and being of God altogether. But this is a very man-centered argument and only makes sense if you assume that God is supposed to only create stuff that we could use. On the contrary, the vastness of an unreachable space is not an argument against the wisdom of God, but according to the psalmist, it is an argument for God’s wisdom and power! “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1) and it is the blindness of modern man that we cannot see that. If God is infinitely and incomparably great, could we have expected less than the heavens that we see?
But the heavens not only tell of God’s greatness and wonders, they also tell, according to the psalmist, of God’s goodness and mercy. The physical creation does exist for our good. God has placed the sun and the moon at just the right places to give us the seasons and the tides. He has given us the earth and the flora and fauna upon it. Even the unreachable heavens are there for our good – how much of human flourishing has come about from looking up into the heavens? How much joy and pleasure there can be from just looking up into the Milky Way Galaxy on a clear night!
We need to be reminded of this. God is not someone separated, as the old Gnostics believed, from the physical creation. He is the creator. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” – everything that there is (Gen. 1:1). The dirt and the grass and the trees and the flowers, the animals and men, are all created by God. And in the end, God is not going to do away with the physical creation, but is rather going to renew it in a new heavens and a new earth.
In fact, the apostle Paul warns us against those who forbid to marry and command to abstain from certain types of food, “which,” he says, “God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:3-5). Did you hear that? Every creature of God is good. And the idea here is that it is good for us – don’t miss that! We are to enjoy the gifts of God’s creation.
Now of course we can turn these things into idols. We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to replace God with the creature, as Paul warns in Romans 1. That is why we receive these things with thanksgiving and remind ourselves that all these things are gifts from God. And this ought to remind us that God is the greatest of the gifts, for the Giver is greater – infinitely so – than the gifts themselves.
What are God’s works of providence? I like how the old Shorter Catechism answers that question: “God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions.” God preserves his creation, holding it in being, and governs all that takes place in his creation.
In order to truly understand and appreciate God’s providence, you have to understand its pervasiveness. It’s not as if God interposes himself here and there, at this time and then at that time. Rather, God is active in all that happens, and nothing can happen in this world apart from his will. Now, I’m not saying that God creates the moral evil in this world. God is holy and cannot do that. However, even the moral evil that happens, happens because God purposefully permits it to happen for eternally holy, wise, and good reasons. Nothing takes God by surprise: “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (Isa. 46:9-10).
In Psalm 136, you see the pervasive providence of God. He smites the firstborn of Egypt and brings about the plagues and rescues his people from slavery. He is the one who commands the Red Sea to part and overthrows Pharaoh’s army in the midst of it. He is the one who led Israel through the wilderness and gave them victory in battle. He is the one who “giveth food to all flesh” (Ps. 136:25), from the sparrow in its nest to the lion on the hunt to the farmer plowing his field – to idiots like me who are so reliant upon the grocery store. God is everywhere in the pages of Scripture because he is in fact everywhere. And he is everywhere for the good of his people: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). How do we know that all things work for our good? Because God’s providence – his “purposeful sovereignty” as John Piper puts it – is everywhere, working in all things for his glory and the good of his people.
My friends, God works for the good of his people. And we are not to think that we are on our own until we die and reach glory. This world is God’s world, as the hymn puts it, “This is my Father’s world.” He is doing good to you in a million ways, both seen and unseen. And even in the hard things, the very hard things, God is acting for your good. We may not see why, but we can be sure that God will not let one drop of suffering or softness come into our lives if it is not for our good and his glory.
In verses 10-24, the psalmist is highlighting the redemptive story of Israel, how God brought them out of Egyptian slavery and into the Promised Land. But this is but a picture of a much greater redemption story, not a story about earthly bondage and temporal rescue, but a story about bondage to sin and Satan and how God through his Son saves his people from their sin: “For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7).
And just as the story of Israel’s redemption was not primarily about deliverance from Egyptian bondage, but rather about God taking them as a people for himself (16; cf. Exod. 19:3-6; 20:1-2), even so the story of the redemption purchased by Christ is not primarily about God getting us out of addiction or debt or sadness or one of the many other symptoms of begin fallen and sinful people living in a fallen and sinful world. Rather, it is primarily and fundamentally about God making us a people for his own possession (Tit. 2:13). It is, as the apostle Peter put it, for this reason: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but quickened by the Spirit (1 Pet. 3:18). As it is put in the terms of the New Covenant, “I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be my people: and they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (Heb. 8:10-12).
The greatest of all gifts is God himself. Every other good is there to be enjoyed, yes, but fundamentally to point us to Christ from whom all blessings flow. And every good is only properly enjoyed in relation to God. This is one of the reasons why it is so important for us to understand that God is independent of his creation – he does not depend upon it for his being or his joy or fulfillment or whatever. The creation depends upon God, not the other way around. Where then does God get his joy? Not from creation, but from within the eternal fellowship of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit. But here is the amazing thing: through salvation, which only comes through the redemption accomplished by Christ upon the cross and for all who receive it by faith, we are out of sheer mercy and grace ushered into the very fellowship and love of the Trinity. If the Bible didn’t say it, I wouldn’t dare to, but there it is in John 17, where our Lord prays to his Father: “And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world” (22-24). Which means that our greatest joy can only come from immediate fellowship with God. But this is what happens for redeemed sinners; it’s what the apostle John celebrates in his first epistle (1 Jn. 1:1-10). This is the greatest good, the summum bonum.
For his mercy endureth forever.
Now these are tremendous blessings. But the reality of our sin interposes to threaten our enjoyment of these goods. How can we have any expectation that God will bless us with good? This is where this part of the verse is so important: God’s mercy endures forever, that’s why. This tells us something about God’s heart that encourages us to expect to receive good from him.
What is mercy? It is lovingkindness to the miserable, to the destitute. Now I know that many modern versions translate this word differently here. For example, the ESV puts “steadfast love” for mercy. And I do think that’s an excellent translation. However, “mercy” still gets at the heart of the meaning of the Hebrew word. In any case, it was translated “mercy” (eleos, Gk.) in the Septuagint by the Jewish community in Egypt in the second century before Christ, and I figure they probably knew a thing or two about Hebrew.
There are at least two sorts of people that this Psalm speaks to, people who may have lost all hope that they could see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
The first is the person who sees their sin and the weight of the guilt and understands that they deserve nothing but the judgment of God. And this is right! For sin brings upon us the just wrath of God. Thus the awareness of our sinfulness and our corresponding guilt can prevent us from feeling that we could ever receive good from God. Now redemption in any meaningful sense is redemption from sin: from its penalty, power, and presence. But still, we can wonder if we can hope for redemption from sin. Could it be that we are too far gone, that we have messed up too much? Could it be that there is no hope for me after all? Can I in fact be redeemed?
Now this is where we need to hear our text. God shows mercy and mercy is something given to the ill- deserving and undeserving, not to those who think they have it together. Mercy is for those who, like Jacob, say: “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies [same word as in Ps. 136], and of the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant” (Gen. 32:10).
But how can we know that we can receive God’s mercy,? For the reality is that God’s mercy is not indiscriminate. In other words, we shouldn’t look at verses like this and think that I am automatically going to get mercy because that’s just the way God is. That’s not what the Bible says. The apostle Paul writes, quoting from the book of Exodus, “For he [God] saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Rom. 9:15). God is sovereign in the dispensing of mercy. Mercy is not something owed to you or me or anyone. Mercy can only come in the form of grace freely given. I don’t think it’s for no reason that when Paul greets the churches in his epistles he almost always wishes them both the grace and the mercy of God, for they naturally go together.
The answer is that God has made it very clear in the Bible that his mercy is on all those who belong to his Son. In other words, we don’t have to wonder on whom God will show mercy because he’s told us. God’s mercy comes to us freely through Christ and in Christ: “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace ye are saved;) and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-7). Which brings us to the question: how do you know that you belong to his Son? And the answer is: do you trust in him? For Paul goes on to say, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (8-9). We become possessors of the righteousness of God in Christ through faith. In other words, the mercy of the Lord that endures forever is not for everyone but for those who have put their faith and hope in Christ.
This is the best of news because this means that we do not make ourselves worthy of God’s mercy but we receive it as a gift on the basis of the righteousness of Christ.
Mercy is for sinners who hope in Christ. Mercy is for those who have made a wreck of their lives. Mercy is for people who are ashamed of themselves and just want to hide from everyone. Mercy is for people who feel worthless. Mercy is for people like King David, whose sin made him feel dirty and miserable. But he called out for mercy and God gave it to him: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:1-3).
But there is no mercy outside of Christ, no hope apart from him. If you insist upon meeting God on your own terms and not in Christ, go for it; but I can guarantee that it will not end well for you. The only hope for sinners is for people to approach God’s throne saying, as in the words of the hymn:
Nothing in my hands I bring, Simply to thy cross I cling. Naked come to thee for dress, Helpless look to thee for grace Foul I to the fountain fly: Wash me, Savior, or I die.
But mercy also points us to the fact of our fragility. You don’t have mercy on those who have it together. You have mercy on people who are falling apart, who don’t have it together. People who are hurt and sad and broken from any number of causes are often what we would consider to be the proper objects of mercy. The psalmist refers to God’s mercy on Israel when they were in a “low estate” (ver. 23).
So this text also addresses the person, who, though a follower of Jesus, yet whose life has become a graveyard of hopes because of all the difficulties and disappointments they have had to navigate. As a result they are broken. They are tremendously aware of their fragility and their need for mercy, but they are losing hope that there is mercy and goodness for them. They want to be able to say, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life” (Ps. 23:6), but they have stopped believing that it is possible for them.
What does the Bible have to say to this person? It says that the mercy of the Lord endures forever. Not just that it exists, but exists forever. Your suffering cannot outlast God’s mercy. For suffering saints, it tells us that no matter how from together to apart our lives have become, we should never give up hope in the mercy of God. It doesn’t matter how bad things have become, it is no indication that God’s mercy has expired for you. His mercy is forever. In other words, we can be tempted to think that God has abandoned us. But the fact that the Bible says that God’s mercy endures forever should keep us from going there.
Now we know that this does not mean that if you have enough faith, the suffering will just go away. That is not the way it works. The way we should arm ourselves against despair with this verse is to remind ourselves of three things. First, that our misery will end in mercy. And when it ends, it will end forever in incomparable glory. Our suffering doesn’t just end; it ends in glory (Rom. 8:18). This is mercy, great mercy, everlasting mercy. With the psalmist, every believer can say, “Hope in God, for I shall yet praise him” (Ps. 42). Why? Because God’s mercy is forever. Second, that the sufferings of the present time are working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory (2 Cor. 4:18). For the believer, even though the sufferings we endure are not good in themselves, yet they are producing good for us, eternal good, and this is again great mercy. Third, that in all that we go through, God is towards us in a posture of mercy and steadfast love, not judgment. I think one of the mindsets that we can easily fall into is the mistake of thinking that God is against us. But my friend if you are in Christ that is impossible. God is everlastingly for you and nothing can be successfully against you. God is merciful; his steadfast love endures forever. Let us not forget that. Let us not misjudge our Father in heaven.
If you belong to Jesus today, this verse should prevent you from living in fear – from fear that God will one day take away his mercy from us. No, he will not, for his mercy endureth forever. We are not intended to go through life afraid that our Father is going to leave us behind or stop loving us. He will not. His ways toward us are mercy, mercy in every gift which we should enjoy, and mercy in every trial from which we should grow and learn.
Give thanks unto the Lord
Let us therefore gives thanks. Give thanks for all his good gifts: in creation, providence, and salvation. Give thanks to him because his good gifts are not anchored in our worthiness but in his grace and mercy. The one thing that could separate us from all God’s good gifts is our sin, but that has been everlastingly dealt with in Christ, so that if we have received his righteousness by faith, we receive with it all God’s mercy and grace.
Let us give thanks for everything (1 Thess. 5:18), knowing that there is nothing that is happening apart from God’s good and holy and wise purpose for us. Let us give thanks at every moment, knowing that rivers of God’s mercy never run dry. My friend, God is good. This is not a cheap appellation, but an eternal reality in Christ. And the good he will do to us is a blessing that makes rich without any admixture of sorrow and regret (Prov. 10:22). Every gift is safeguarded, not by our merit but by his mercy. Every gift is sweetened and secured by the grace of God in Jesus.
Can you give thanks to the Lord in this way? Can you have this confidence? All who entrust themselves to Christ as Lord and Savior may do so and may join the psalmist and say with hearts overflowing with true joy and gratitude, “Give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever.”