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. The AV supplies the verb endureth every other line, but that is not in the original. The line literally is “for his hesed forever.”
“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 of them 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.
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). God alone is the 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 the firstborn of Egypt out of hesed (v. 10), and delivered Israel from Egypt in consequence (v. 11), with an outstretched arm as an act of strength (v. 12). 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). He led Israel in the wilderness (v. 16). He struck great kings (v. 17). He slaughtered famous kings (v. 18). Sihon of the Amorites was done (v. 19), and Og, king of Bashan was another (v. 20). God took land away from them and gave 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 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. He 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 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).
“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).
“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).
The conquest of Canaan was in large measure an exercise in giant-killing, with the final stages of that 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 was 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 psalm foregrounds the doctrine of creation, and the goodness of God as revealed in creation. All attempts at evolutionary explanations are attempts (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 confronted with the goodness of God. He 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.
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.