November 22, 2015

His Steadfast Love Endures Forever

Speaker: Bret Rogers Topic: Thanksgiving Passage: Psalm 136:1–26

Sermon from Psalm 136 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on November 22, 2015, Thanksgiving Service

Thanksgiving often gets reduced to mere etiquette. That is, “thank you” is just the nice thing we tell people, when we benefit from something they’ve done—perhaps even if we don’t like it. So, you know, there are those times when you were unwrapping a gift from grandpa and grandma; and you have very high expectations, and then you find yourself with a pair of black socks. And with some level of disappointment, you say—or you’re forced to say—“thank you.” It’s a matter of etiquette, a respectful gesture.

But then there are those times when you’re the recipient of a gift. Somebody was thoughtful and blesses you with something that touches you to the core of your being. Or perhaps it isn’t that they gave you anything, but you feel so grateful that they’re in your life and committed alongside you. And in those moments, nobody has to tell you to do anything—thanksgiving wells up from inside. You’ve benefited in such a rich way, that you can’t help but utter the words—sometimes with laughter and sometimes through tears, “Thank you!”

It’s this kind of heartfelt thanksgiving that comes closer to what we see in Psalm 136. Psalm 136 calls every generation of God’s people to give thanks to God. And it’s really a bit stronger than that, because God is utterly unique. Giving thanks to God is not like giving thanks to another human, because no mere human stands as the source of all blessing and the sustainer and everything good (Jas 1:17). This is why many times you’ll find that the call to “Give thanks to the Lord” finds significant overlap with the vocabulary of worship, praise, and adoration (e.g., Ezra 3:11; Ps 35:18; 100:4). Many times you find thanksgiving and praise parallel to each other in the Bible.

When Psalm 136 says, “Give thanks to the Lord!” he’s essentially calling us to adore the one who is the source of all things good, to praise the one who is ultimately worthy of all our attention all of the time for every little thing in life. So what I want to do is let Psalm 136 call us to give thanks to the Lord, and I want to do that first by asking you to participate with me in reading through our passage. I’ll read the first part of each verse, and then I want you to follow me by repeating the refrain, “for his steadfast love endures forever.” The words will be on the screen, so we’re all reading from the same Bible translation, so here we go with verse 1…

1Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
2Give thanks to the God of gods,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
3Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
4to him who alone does great wonders,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
5to him who by understanding made the heavens,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
6to him who spread out the earth above the waters,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
7to him who made the great lights,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
8the sun to rule over the day,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
9the moon and stars to rule over the night,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
10to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
11and brought Israel out from among them,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
12with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
13to him who divided the Red Sea in two,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
14and made Israel pass through the midst of it,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
15but overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
16to him who led his people through the wilderness,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
17to him who struck down great kings,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
18and killed mighty kings,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
19Sihon, king of the Amorites,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
20and Og, king of Bashan,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
21and gave their land as a heritage,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
22a heritage to Israel his servant,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
23It is he who remembered us in our low estate,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
24and rescued us from our foes,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
25he who gives food to all flesh,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
26Give thanks to the God of heaven,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

You may have noticed a bit of repetition. This particular refrain, “for his steadfast love endures forever,” appears forty-one times in the Old Testament, and you just read twenty-six of them. It even gets inserted mid-sentence a lot of times, giving the impression that the worship leader can hardly finish his thought before the congregation erupts in celebration over God’s love toward them.

We’ll keep returning to this refrain as we walk through our passage. It’s the common thread holding the pieces of our passage together. Each section will come to us like four beautiful beads on a string, and the string holding them all together is the Lord’s steadfast love enduring forever. And by the end of today’s message, my hope is that you’ll walk out of here wearing that refrain closer to your heart.

Give Thanks Because of Who God Is

So, let’s walk through this Psalm, and start putting these four beautiful beads on our string. Each bead will represent why God is worthy of our thanksgiving. Beautiful bead number one: God is worthy of our thanksgiving simply because of who he is—that is, who he is quite apart from anything he has done. You will notice that verses 1, 2, 3, and verse 26 at the end—they each begin with the call to give thanks. They encapsulate the entire psalm. They’re like bookends, and they give us a framework in which to begin understanding the God of Psalm 136.

For instance, verse 1 tells us that God is good. We should give thanks simply because God is good. Now, when we think of God’s goodness we shouldn’t think of his goodness in very limited ways like we often do with people. Somebody might be a “good” painter or a “good” doctor, while at the same time being morally wretched. When we say they’re “good,” we mean that in a very limited sense—they’re “good” insofar as the services they render; or, they’re “good” only by comparison to other people.

But when we speak of God’s goodness, there are no such limitations, because his goodness extends to his entire being and to all he does in relation to his creation. Moreover, being God means that he has no other competitors by whom we can measure his goodness. Rather, he defines goodness—meaning all he is and all he does is worthy of our approval. And so the psalmist calls us to give thanks to the Lord.

He is also the only one worthy of our worship. Verse 2 says that, “he is God of gods.” That doesn’t mean that there really are other gods in the universe besides the true God, and he just happens to be the one Israel thought was greater than all the others. We’re told elsewhere in Scripture that the Lord alone is God, and besides him there is no other god (Isa 45:5; cf. Deut 10:17; 1 Cor 8:5).

So what we’re getting here is a reference to the perceived gods in relation to human beings. That is, humans create for themselves gods out of all kinds of stuff that are ultimately not really gods at all. They just worship them as gods. For God to then reveal himself as the “God of gods,” is for him to say he alone is the supremely worthy one. He alone stands in transcendent uniqueness. He is supreme over everything that could be worshiped and called a so-called “god.” We give him thanks, because he’s worthy of it.

And then verse 3 adds that he is also sovereign—“Give thanks to the Lord of lords.” He has total dominion and complete control over all who hold power. There’s not a king or government on earth that moves an inch apart from the lordship of Yahweh. He’s even sovereign over the armies of angelic hosts whether good or evil. Verse 26 says that he is God of heaven. Ultimately, nobody functions outside his lordship.

He is good; he is worthy; and he is sovereign—and therefore, he deserves all our thanksgiving. Such a vision of God really presses home to us that God is worthy of our thanksgiving, even when we don’t get what we want, does it not? That he shouldn’t be thanked only when things are going our way; that he shouldn’t be thanked only when we’re happy, healthy, wealthy, and safe. God deserves our thanksgiving simply for who he is—he is good, he is worthy, and he is sovereign.

But we also shouldn’t miss that the refrain has already begun, hasn’t it? Even as he calls attention to who God is—good, worthy, sovereign—we hear three times over, “for his steadfast love endures forever.” There’s a relationship to this God at the heart of their song. This God who is wholly good; this God who is supremely worthy; this God who is sovereign Lord—this God chose to love them.

The worshiper in this Psalm can’t help but tie God’s essential character into the way he has found himself loved. He isn’t just rehearsing abstract theological ideas about God. He has personalized every one of them in relation to God’s steadfast love, and the way God’s character informs that steadfast love enduring forever. God’s love endures forever, because it’s rooted in the God who is good forever—there won’t be a point where he turns bad on me. God’s love endures forever because it’s rooted in the only true God, who doesn’t have any competitors to his glory. It endures forever because God alone rules, and can’t be robbed of his dominion by some external authority or force.

This is like Romans 8 Old-Testament style: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Why? Because of who God is—he good, worthy, and sovereign; and this compels us to give thanks.

Give Thanks Because God is the Creator

The Psalm then goes on, but it shifts a bit in the remaining verses. Now he builds his case for thanksgiving on what God has done. As is the case in many places in Scripture, we understand who God is based on what he has done to reveal himself (e.g., Exod 6:7; 33:13). In verses 4-9, we see what God has done to reveal himself in creation. And this is our second beautiful bead going on the string of God’s steadfast love: God is worthy of our thanksgiving because he is the Creator.

In verses 4-9 of our passage, it’s as if the Psalmist has tuned-in to what the heavens and the skies announce about God (cf. Ps 19:1); and he invites us to come and listen. For starters, he acknowledges God’s power as Creator. Verse 4 says, “to him who alone does great wonders.” The great wonders he has in mind are the Lord’s creative acts, where he calls into being a universe that once did not exist, and then fashions that universe according to his purposes.

And many of these wonders he pulls right from Genesis 1, the first account in our Bibles of God creating the universe. The heavens, the earth above the waters, the sun, moon, and stars—they all reveal something about God’s unique power. For example, Isaiah 40:26 says, “Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these [stars]? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing.” The stars are not self-existent; they come and go at the Lord’s command. And that says something about his power.

Or Hebrews 11:3 tells us that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. Nobody has that kind of power except God. So, things like a Grand Canyon, or a Mount St. Helens, or the Pacific ocean, or a Pistol star glowing with the energy of 10 million of our suns, or the fact that if you were to count every single solitary grain of sand on every beach, that even that wouldn’t equal up to the number of stars in our galaxies—these kinds of things in creation, they’re a window to God’s creative power.

Notice that he also hears the heavens declaring God’s wisdom. Verse 5, “to him who by understanding made the heavens.” God didn’t look around and get input from outside resources on what the best way to go about creating the universe would be; he just knows (cf. Prov 3:19). He is the source of all wisdom and understanding; and the creation stands as a testimony to his understanding.

And much of that we see in the order he gives to the universe. Verse 6 says that he “spread out the earth above the waters;” and the poetic imagery here is that he did it as a fine craftsmen. The earth was like a piece of hammered metal in the hand of a blacksmith—as he beat here and there, it took its shape above the waters. It functions just as he made it to function, and that includes things like the sun to rule over the day, and the moon and stars to rule over the night. Not an hour goes by where he isn’t personally involved with his creation and directing the course of every day.

So his creation reveals that he’s powerful, he’s wise, and he orders every day that passes. How does the refrain land on you now—“for his steadfast love endures forever”? Again, these aren’t abstract thoughts of a God far away; they come from a heart gripped by the steadfast love of someone no less than the Creator. And if this Creator loves you—if he’s committed to you—then his power and his wisdom in creation, and his ordering of every day is for you. You won’t find a better love than the Creator’s love.

Not a moment passes in the created order in which he is not committed to his people. He has so created and ordered and sustains his creation, that in every moment his people can truly say that God’s steadfast love endures forever. Never does an hour of the day pass without God’s power and wisdom working for the good of his people. God created this world so that everything in creation would be reason for his people to abound in thanksgiving to their Creator for his steadfast love.

He creates for Noah a rainbow in the sky, and gives him the seasons like summer and winter, and the day and night—why? To remind him of his commitment to his promises (Gen 8:22; 9:13). He gives Abraham the stars in the sky—why? To remind him of how many sons and daughters from all nations he will bless through Abraham’s seed (Gen 15:5-6). God created the universe for his people to enjoy his steadfast love.

And doesn’t Jesus make these kinds of connections, too? “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?...Why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (Matt 6:26, 28-30).

First Timothy 4:2 teaches that God created marriage and food good and “to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” God created the world in light of the steadfast love he would show his people. And therefore, every moment is one of thanksgiving. Every morning you have a heartbeat, every breath you take, every sun that rises, every spring that comes, every revolution of the earth around the sun—all of it is serving the delight of God’s people in his steadfast love.

Yes, we must still acknowledge that the world—as we know it—is currently broken, and it’s riddled with all kinds of pain. I’m not trying to paper over that reality, and neither is Psalm 136. We’ll see in a moment that he does expose our desperate condition and need for rescue. But seeing that God is powerful, wise, and ordering all things—while also being good and worthy and sovereign—should give us great hope in the midst of suffering, if he is the one who loves us and holds us dear to himself.

Only then can we, as Romans 5:3 says, “rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Only then can we say with Romans 8:28, that “we know that for those who love God all things [and it’s in the context of the broken created order] work together for good, for those who are called according to [God’s] purpose.”

We give thanks, because God is the Creator, and his steadfast love moves him to use his power and wisdom and ordering of all things for our good.

Give Thanks Because God Is Redeemer

The Psalm keeps going, but this time we see what God does to reveal himself in redemption. So, another beautiful bead sliding onto our string of steadfast love is this: God is worthy of our thanksgiving because he is also Redeemer.

With these two sections interwoven so tightly, I can’t help but consider that God created the world as one big stage for his love story to transpire. In other words, why make a world with bodies of water? To split the Red Sea in getting the people he loved out of slavery, and getting all the glory for it. God created the world as a stage on which to demonstrate his love for his people by redeeming them, so that they in turn would give thanks to him for it.

One picture of God’s redeeming work comes in verses 10-22. Let me read through verses 10-22 but without the refrain, and you’ll get a good idea of what his redeeming work includes. Verse 10,

…to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt…and brought Israel out from among them…with a strong hand and an outstretched arm…to him who divided the Red Sea in two…and made Israel pass through the midst of it…but overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea…to him who led his people through the wilderness…to him who struck down great kings…and killed mighty kings…Sihon, king of the Amorites…Og, king of Bashan…and gave their land as a heritage…a heritage to Israel his servant.

Three big things that we see here in God’s redeeming work: he delivers his people from slavery; he conquers their enemies; and he leads them into their inheritance. He delivers his people from slavery—he brought them out with a strong hand. He conquers their enemies—like striking down the firstborn in Egypt, tossing Pharaoh and his armies into the Red Sea, and killing the two kings Sihon and Og. And all along the way, he’s leading them into their inheritance—the Promised Land.

So, now we’re actually seeing what it means for the good, worthy, sovereign, powerful, wise Creator to love you. We’re watching it play out here with Israel. When this God commits himself to you, nothing can stand in the way of his love. I mean he even turns the created order against Pharaoh and Egypt, while it works in favor of his people. Think of the plagues—water into blood, frogs, gnats, flies, livestock die, boils on the skin, hail, locusts, darkness—he sends it all against Egypt while keeping Israel safe. That they would know the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel (Exod 11:7), that he’s chosen to love Israel.

He makes water stand up for his people—only the creator can do that—and then he causes it to come crashing down on Pharaoh and his armies. The idea goes like this: “You got shackles in Egypt? I’ll crush them! You got armies standing between me and you? I’ll wipe them out! Is there a desert between you and the inheritance, I’ll be your sustenance along the way and I’ll get you there.” At every turn, God the Creator’s love works to redeem the people he’s committed to.

And isn’t this what we see in our redemption too? I mean, a virgin conceived and gave birth to a Son—only the Creator can call such things into being. God took on humanity. And all throughout Jesus’ ministry, we see him telling creation what to do and it obeys him—“who is this man that the wind and seas obey him?” He makes the lame well and the blind to see. He proves that he is Lord of lords as he casts out demons and tells the disciples of his betrayal even before it happens. Not a single authority would lay a hand on him apart from his sovereign permission.

And in the midst of all of it, Jesus is heading to the cross in steadfast love. God’s steadfast love takes his only Son to the cross where he becomes our redemption. Just like God’s love delivered Israel from slavery, so God’s love delivers us from slavery—slavery to sin—and he does this by crucifying Jesus. Jesus is our Passover Lamb. His blood was spilled in our place, that we might escape the shackles of sin’s power, and experience freedom in a new relationship with God.

Just like God’s love conquered Israel’s enemies, so God’s love conquers our enemies in Christ. Before he died Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31). He died on the cross to strip the weapon of guilt from the hands of our enemies; and then he rose from the grave three days later to destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Heb 2:15). And one day, he will come again to punish our enemies once and for all.

And just like God’s love led Israel to their inheritance, so God’s love is leading us to our inheritance. Ephesians 1:14 says that the Holy Spirit is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it. He lives in the saints now to sustain us until we get to our final home with Jesus. We, too, can rehearse the refrain, “for his steadfast love endures forever.” At every turn, God’s work in Christ demonstrates his love for us and his commitment to us. His love for us will never tire, because he is not a God who grows tired in redeeming his people. He comes to their aid.

Give Thanks Because God Still Comes to the Desperate

And he still comes to their aid, which leads me to the last beautiful bead on the string of God’s steadfast love: God is worthy of our thanksgiving because he still comes to the desperate. Notice the important shift in verses 23-24—it comes with the word us. “It is he who remembered us in our low estate…[and] rescued us from our foes.”

That’s a remarkable statement, because the people singing this Psalm were generations removed from the events just mentioned. How can they say, “God remembered us in our low estate…and rescued us from our foes,” when they’re so far removed these events? They can say it, first of all, because they see themselves as one with God’s people throughout all the ages. But they can also say it, because God never changes towards his people throughout the ages. From age to age his steadfast love towards his people remains the same.

And that’s especially true for us who have seen the climax of his steadfast love in Christ. You can say that God remembered you in your low estate, can you not? Ephesians 2 speaks of our low estate: “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph 2:1-3).

You can’t get any lower than that. And yet God remembered you; he came to rescue you from your foes—sin, death, and the devil. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:4-7).

And so we sing the refrain as well—“for his steadfast love endures forever” and we give him thanks. He still comes to the desperate. Every day his mercies are new. Every day we are dependent on him for life and breath and everything. Every day he comes to our aid, protecting us from the evil one, driving away our sin, conforming us to Christ’s image, nourishing our soul with his presence. He is our help, and he will lead us to our inheritance. But until that day comes, give yourself to the word of God, and see that there’s never a moment in creation and redemption where he’s not worthy of our thanksgiving and when he’s not pursuing us with his steadfast love.

At every turn in the journey of God’s elect, God’s steadfast love endures forever. It’s unyielding, it’s indestructible, it’s boundless, because it’s all bound up with the one true God, who reveals himself in Jesus Christ.