I always enjoy reading the columns of George Will. He recently published a column in honor of the 40th birthday of his son, Jonathan, who has Down syndrome. In his customary style, George Will raises a very interesting contrast in this article. He writes about how his son’s life has coincided with “…the full, garish flowering of the baby boomers’ vast sense of entitlement, which encompasses an entitlement to exemption from nature’s mishaps, and to a perfect baby. So today science enables what the ethos ratifies, the choice of killing children with Down syndrome before birth. That is what happens to 90 percent of those whose parents receive a Down syndrome diagnosis through prenatal testing.” In contrast to the self-centered nature of an entire generation, Will says this about his son: “The eldest of four siblings, he has seen two brothers and a sister surpass him in size, and acquire cars and college educations. He, however, with an underdeveloped entitlement mentality, has been equable about life’s sometimes careless allocation of equity.” Here we have two visions of life: on the one hand, a culture of death that affirms that no Down syndrome baby has a right to disrupt my plans for life. I am entitled to live without the inconvenience of a handicapped child. On the other hand, a Down syndrome baby now grown up into manhood, living life joyfully because of his “underdeveloped entitlement mentality.”
What does an entitlement mentality have to do with Psalm 136? Precisely this: the more you feel entitled, the less you will be able to obey what this passage commands you to do: give thanks to the Lord. Those who feel entitled to something only raise their voices to complain when that something is missing. They do not give thanks when it is present, for it is theirs by right, not as an undeserved gift. This kind of mentality is a danger to your soul. Listen to Paul’s words in Romans 1:18-22: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” The rejection of God that Paul describes in this passage is characterized by what Michael Horton calls “a pathological inability to give thanks.” Thanksgiving is central to our recognition that God is God, and we are not. Refusal to give thanks, therefore, coincides with a rejection of God and an attempt to replace him with something else, usually ourselves.
And so gratitude is central to the Christian life. It is what arises naturally when we get other pieces of our theology in place. It arises from a proper view of God, first of all. We must recognize the biblical truth that God is sovereign over us, that God transcends all created things, that he is fully sufficient within himself and thus dependent on no one, and that he is completely unstained by evil and thus the very standard of holiness. Take that piece and put it together with a proper view of man: man is a creature of God, completely dependent on God for existence, life, and blessing, and yet who is, since Genesis, 3 by nature a rebel who wants to annihilate God and take over for him. Put these two things together, and you have a formula for divine judgment. But instead you get, of all things, grace. Surprising, unexpected, completely undeserved, utterly amazing grace. Not entitlement, grace! And the only proper way to respond to that is to give thanks.
The main idea of this psalm (which you will also find in Psalms 106, 107, and 118) is given to us in verse 1: “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” Note first that the psalmist gives a command: give thanks to the Lord. This command is repeated in verses 2, 3, and 26, but it is implied in every verse. Why should we give thanks to the Lord? Because he is good. In the context of this psalm, to say that God is good means that God is benevolent. He extends blessings to those who depend on him. In particular, what dimension of his goodness or benevolence is here being highlighted? It is his “steadfast love,” which, we are told 26 times in this psalm, endures forever. The idea of “steadfast love” clearly takes center-stage here, so it is important for us to get an understanding of what the steadfast love of the Lord is. Normally, I don’t make it a practice to teach Greek and Hebrew words to a congregation, but today is an exception. I want you to know the Hebrew word that is here translated “steadfast love,” because it is not a hard word to learn, and it is very prominent throughout the Old Testament. That word is hesed. This psalm celebrates the hesed of God. But what is hesed? It is best defined as the love of God that expresses faithfulness to a prior covenant commitment that God has made. In other words, it is God’s covenant loyalty. If God has made a covenant promise, he will certainly fulfill his promise out of loyalty to his covenant partner. That is hesed. To see how important that concept is, let me share with you a few examples where the word is used in the Old Testament.
In Exodus 34, Moses is given a revelation of God’s glory like no one else ever received in the Old Testament. What actually happens in this revelation, however, is a proclamation of the name of God, which is this: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” In Numbers 14:18 Moses pleads with the Lord not to destroy Israel, reminding him of his self-revelation at Mount Sinai: “The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression.” At a very significant juncture in history, when God makes a covenant with David, he says this about David’s son in 2 Samuel 7:14-15: “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you.” In other words, God will discipline, but never disown, the house of David (as he disowned Saul) because God has made a covenant with David and will never go back on his word. Although examples could be multiplied, one more will suffice from Joel’s summons of Judah to repentance in order to avoid the judgment that was coming: “Yet even now, declares the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”
Robertson McQuilkin is the retired president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary. In 1981 his wife, Muriel, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Gradually her brain deteriorated to the point that, by 1990, she would live in fear and confusion every time her husband left home to go to work. She often walked down to the college looking for him. One day, Robertson noticed cuts on her feet from a barefoot excursion she had taken from their home. At that point he realized that she needed his full-time commitment. But he already had a standing full-time commitment to the college, where important work was going on. In the face of these two demands, what would he do? Actually, the decision was an easy one. He resigned his position as president of the college to devote himself to care for his wife, who would, over the coming years, lose all ability to recognize him and eventually, even to function at all. In a letter he wrote to the constituents of Columbia Bible College, he explained his decision with these words: “…recently it has become apparent that Muriel is contented most of the time she is with me and almost none of the time I am away from her. It is not just ‘discontent.’ She is filled with fear—even terror—that she has lost me and always goes in search of me when I leave home. So it is clear to me that she needs me now, full-time…The decision was made, in a way, 42 years ago when I promised to care for Muriel ‘in sickness and in health…till death do us part.’ So, as I told the students and faculty, as a man of my word, integrity has something to do with it. . . . Duty, however, can be grim and stoic. But there is more: I love Muriel. She is a delight to me—her childlike dependence and confidence in me, her warm love, occasional flashes of that wit I used to relish so, her happy spirit and tough resilience in the face of her continual distressing frustration. I don't have to care for her. I get to! It is a high honor to care for so wonderful a person.” That is what hesed looks like. What an amazing picture of the love of God for us! Even when she reached the point of having nothing left to give him, Robertson McQuilkin kept his word, not only because of his integrity, but because his wife delighted him. And if the steadfast love of a fallen, sinful man can last a lifetime, be assured that the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever! The word hesed give us a window into the very heart of God.
This psalm summons us to give thanks to the God of steadfast love. As we unpack that central truth today, we will see two reasons given in the body of the psalm that explain why we should give thanks to him. The first reason is this:
I. GIVE THANKS TO THE GOD OF STEADFAST LOVE, FOR HE IS GOD OF GODS (VV. 2, 3, 26).
Verse 2 reads, “Give thanks to the God of gods,” verse 3 echoes, “Give thanks to the Lord of lords,” and then verse 26 ends the psalm on the same note that it begins: “Give thanks to the God of heaven.” All three of these titles—God of gods, Lord of lords, God of heaven—communicate the idea of supremacy. God is supreme over all. As such, he has the power to do good to us. His benevolence is effective. He does not stand by frustrated, wishing he could do more but unable to achieve his noble ends. No, he is God of gods, Lord of lords, and the very God of heaven, reigning over every inch of creation.
But we must hold this truth in balance with the dominant idea of this psalm: hesed. God is not simply raw power, in which case we would need to cower in fear before him. Adolph Hitler held supreme power in his growing empire during World War II, but that did not mean there was any reason to give thanks to him. We must not think that God is absolutely free from all obligations, and thus unpredictable in his character like a dictator. To be sure, he is absolutely free from all obligations outside of himself. As the sovereign, self-sufficient Creator, he owes nothing to us, except what he has obligated himself to give us. In other words, God can only be obligated by his word of promise. And what has he promised? Nothing less than himself! In Jeremiah 30:22, God says of his people, whom he will restore after the exile: “And you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” Or consider Paul’s statement in Romans 8:31: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” I want you to pause and let three words sink into your mind: “God…..for……us.” The God of steadfast love, who is God of gods and Lord of lords, is none other than our God. He not only has the power to do good to us, but because he is a God of steadfast love, he also has the will to do so.
Failure to give thanks to God for his supremacy and steadfast love indicates your refusal to own him as your God, your refusal to receive his word of promise. If your heart has no gratitude to the God of gods, it is because you have displaced him in your affections with something or someone else. You have exchanged the glory of the Creator for a mere creature. Let God be God. Give thanks to the God of gods whose steadfast love endures forever.
II. GIVE THANKS TO THE GOD OF STEADFAST LOVE, FOR HE IS A GOD WHO WORKS WONDERS (4-25).
In this section we have an introductory statement in verse 4, followed by a celebration of three categories of wonders. The introductory statement upholds God as he “who alone does great wonders.” The word “alone” sounds like a jab at the gods of the nations who are powerless to do anything, and yet who constantly tempted Israel to break faith with their God in the pursuit of the perceived blessings that could be gained by placating the various gods in charge of the various spheres of life. These gods did not make comprehensive demands for holiness or exclusive devotion, as Israel’s God Yahweh did. It has always been much easier, and in some ways, more fun, to pursue the path of paganism. But can the pagan gods of the nations work wonders as Israel’s God has done? And if they are powerless to do so, how will they show the same kind of hesed that God has shown to Israel in his determination to be their God forever?
The three categories of wonders that follow this introductory statement are the wonders of creation, the wonders of redemption, and the wonders of providence. The wonders of creation are presented in verses 5-9, which celebrate God’s creation of the heavens and the earth (vv. 5-6) and then his creation of the great lights that rule day and night (vv. 7-9). This is a way of picturing God’s lordship over both space and time. He is unrestricted in his domain, not tied to any geographical territory like the gods of the nations, for he is the supreme Creator and Lord of all.
Verses 10-24 then speak of the wonders of redemption, focusing on God’s great acts of deliverance for his people Israel. The first wonder of redemption is the exodus event (vv. 10-16), consisting of the Passover, the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the guidance of his people through the wilderness. When you first read a verse like verse 10, it might come as something of a shock: “to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt, for his steadfast love endures forever.” Is the psalmist really describing this act of killing as an act of steadfast love? Well, it is certainly not an act of steadfast love for the Egyptians, but it is for Israel, for it is the wonder that finally breaks Pharaoh’s will and leads to Israel’s liberation. God judges Egypt in the same act in which he delivers Israel. We see the same principle in verses 13-15, where God led Israel safely through the waters of the Red Sea but overthrew Pharaoh and the Egyptians. We see it again when the author moves from Exodus to conquest in verses 17-22, where he celebrates God’s victory over the transjordanian kings: Sihon King of the Amorites and Og king of Bashan, delivering their land to Israel as a promised heritage.
What we see from these mighty acts of redemption on behalf of his people is that God’s acts of judgment and salvation always go together. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there is no salvation in the Bible that does not include judgment. In this fallen world, there is no new life where there is not first death of the old. And God is the one who kills and makes alive. And through these acts of judgment and salvation, God demonstrated his hesed, for it was in fulfillment of his promise to Abraham that he acted to deliver the multitude of Abraham’s descendants and give them the land he had pledged to them. After Israel had taken the land, the book of Joshua summarizes in 21:45: “Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to Israel had failed; all came to pass.” His hesed endures forever!
But as the psalmist writes this song, many years after the events it celebrates, and as Israel sang the song in worship, did they celebrate the steadfast love of God that remained in the distant past and had no more effect on their lives? No, not at all. In verses 23-24 the psalmist links the present generation to the past deliverances of the Lord: “It is he who remembered us [not “our fathers,” but “us”] in our low estate [of slavery in Egypt], for his steadfast love endures forever; and rescued us from our foes, for his steadfast love endures forever.” To be an Israelite is to be one who has been delivered by God, even if you personally were not there when it happened. It is their identity from generation to generation.
And if Israelites, generations after the exodus, could celebrate the steadfast love of the Lord, so can we. In fact, we have even more reason to do so, for we understand from the whole teaching of Scripture that the exodus and the conquest of the land were events that were merely types, foreshadowing a greater act of deliverance to come. Where Israel languished under the oppression of the pharaoh, we all live under the dominion of death, with our accuser, Satan, known in the New Testament as the “ruler of this world,” hanging the accusations of the law over our heads, demanding our destruction and seeking to effect it. But thanks be to God that our Lord, when he knew that he would shortly be nailed to a cross to endure the judgment we deserve, said in John 12:31: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.” The author of Hebrews would later write in Hebrews 2:14-15: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might 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.”
I said earlier that God’s judgment and salvation always go together. Nowhere is this more clear than in the cross and empty tomb of our Lord. By his death and resurrection, Christ has stripped our enemy of his greatest weapon: the power to accuse us before God. “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies. Who is to condemn?” In delivering us from Satan’s accusation, Christ has broken the curse of death that hangs over us and attained for us the promise of a new creation, of which the land of Canaan was but a down payment. If Israel celebrated the steadfast love of the Lord in the events of the exodus and conquest, we who have died and been raised with Christ have ten thousand more reasons to give thanks. Israel’s deliverance, as wondrous as it was, was but a faint shadow of what God planned to do for the nations in Jesus Christ. Our possession of the land God has promised is right now the possession of a future inheritance, not a present reality. We are, at this stage, wandering through the wilderness of this present age. But if God’s hesed endures forever, can there be any doubt that he will make good on what he has promised? Can there be any doubt to you who hope in Christ that one day you will enter the gates of the New Jerusalem, where the dwelling place of God will be with man forever?
Having seen the wonders of creation and of redemption, we must not miss one more wonder the psalmist mentions near the end. In verse 25, he identifies God as “he who gives food to all flesh, for his steadfast love endures forever.” At first sight, this verse doesn’t seem to fit the context. Why mention God’s provision of food to all flesh right at the end, after you have already spoken of the wondrous events of the Passover, the Red Sea, the conquest? Doesn’t it seem a bit mundane to start talking about an ordinary, everyday thing like food? But I think that is precisely the point. We should not be thankful only for the spectacular things God has done. We should recognize his wonders in the constant provision of the daily blessings that we receive. Think about how clearly God showed up in the event of the Exodus: there were miracles on a grand scale taking place on a daily basis. But the daily provision of food to all flesh, though certainly less spectacular in our eyes, is no less a wonder of God’s power. Even though we have a scientific understanding of where food comes from, our ability to explain it in scientific terms is by no means an ability to explain it away as an act of “nature” that is independent of God. This is my Father’s world, governed by the power of his word. Whether spectacular or ordinary, every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
But is it fair to say that God’s provision of food to all flesh is an expression of “steadfast love,” or loyalty to his covenant? What covenant commitment has God made that is fulfilled by his provision of food to all flesh? In Genesis 8:21-22, when the flood had subsided and Noah offered sacrifices to God, God declared his intention to preserve his fallen creation perpetually: “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” God promised to uphold this broken world until he had brought to completion his redemptive purpose. And to this day, he has kept his word. His steadfast love endures forever.
Now, as we reflect on the God of steadfast love, who in his covenant loyalty has delivered us from death, promised us a new creation, and daily sustains us in this world until we reach it, you must understand that a fully developed entitlement mentality, as is characteristic of our age, will obscure your view of these glorious truths. Think about this question: what are you entitled to?
If you are not a believer in Christ, you are entitled to nothing but Hell. Your sins have offended God, and the threat of his judgment now hangs over your head. But the good news is that in love for sinners, God sent his son to die in the place of all who would believe in him, passing through the final judgment in their place. And on the third day God raised his Son from the dead, declaring him righteous, so that all who are joined to him by faith have passed through the final judgment with him and entered into the life of the age to come that Christ now possesses by virtue of his resurrection. Forgiveness of sins is now proclaimed to you in the name of the risen Christ, enthroned as king over all creation. He offers forgiveness to you now, during the time of his patience, before he comes to subdue all rebellion against him. Come to him in faith, and declare your faith publicly through baptism, so that you may enter into the joy of sins forgiven and the hope of eternal life.
If you are a believer in Christ, you too are entitled to nothing but Hell, except for God’s promise freely given to you in Christ. Come take hold of that promise again as we come to the table together to partake of his body and blood. Throughout the history of the church, this meal has long been known, fittingly, as the eucharist, a word that means “thanksgiving.” You who are believers in Christ, members in good standing with an evangelical church, come, eat and drink with us now, giving thanks to the God whose steadfast love endures forever. Amen.