Psalm 136: For his love has no end

In the first of a series of sermons we’re able to make available online, the Revd Dr Philip Jenson preaches on Psalm 136.

Preacher: Revd Dr Philip Jenson, Tutor in Old Testament at Ridley Hall, Cambridge
Date: 18th February 2017
Texts: Psalm 136; Matthew 6.25-34

‘For his love has no end’

Introduction

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his love has no end.

When I said that I would preach on the set Psalm for today I hadn’t quite realised that the OT reading was the majestic Genesis 1 – the great account of God’s creation of the world in seven days, one of my all favourite texts. But I have stuck with my decision, since I gather that here, as elsewhere, the Psalms have largely disappeared. It is one of my life goals is to reintroduce the Psalms into the lives of as many churches and individuals as possible. So I would like to try and give you a glimpse of their riches through Psalm 136.

For the Psalms do what no other book in the Bible does. They teach us how to pray. Other scriptures tell us what the Lord has done, or will do, or what we should do, or what to believe, or how to live wisely. Only the Psalms teach us how to speak to him – the amazing gift and privilege of prayer. Genesis 1 tells us how God created the world. Psalm 136 tell us how we should respond to the creator. How is that? In a word: praise!

The primacy of praise

Psalm 136 is one of the great praise Psalms. There are many laments in the Psalter, for we often need to speak to the Lord in our trouble and despair. But laments will need to wait for another occasion. Our concern this morning is with the serious business of heaven and the primary calling of the church: the praise of God. Three times in the first three verses, and then again in the final verse, we are called to praise:

O give thanks to the Lord
O give thanks to the God of gods
O give thanks to the Lord of lords
O give thanks to the God of heaven

The Hebrew word ‘give thanks’ belongs to the Psalter’s rich vocabulary of praise: confess, acknowledge, exalt, lift high, celebrate, sing – English runs out of words!

But this praise is neither straight forward nor undisputed. For there are many forces and powers who call upon us to admire and praise them. The world of our Psalmist was full of gods: the gods of Moab and Ammon, of Tyre and Egypt, of Assyria and Babylon. But for him, and for Israel, there was only supreme god – that is what is meant by god of gods; it is a superlative (so the Song of Songs is the greatest of Songs). For Israel there was only one incomparable god, whose name we acknowledge now to be the Lord.

Today in our world the gods may have moved into the background, but the same war is being waged. To whom will we give our ultimate allegiance, our admiration and devotion. The advertisers and politicians are the priests of these gods: here you are, they say, here is pleasure, beauty, security, power, health and wealth. But there is nothing new under the sun: these are the gods of old. And the Psalmist declares that they are all idols, whose end is disappointment and death.

There is only one god who has true creative power, with that power turned to the good of Israel. This is the one praised in each of the 26 verses of the Psalm:

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his love has no end.

Love

Here ‘love’ stands for a great Hebrew word: hesed – the translators despair at rendering it adequately: steadfast love, faithful love, lovingkindness, loyal love, mercy. It is an incomprehensibly gracious love and marks a commitment for which there is no prior reason. There was no reason why the Lord created the universe, but he did – out of pure gratuitous love. There was no reason why the Lord should continue to deliver a grumbling and sinful people. But he did. Incomprehensible, unmerited love

For the Lord is good, For his love has no end

And this remains just as true for us here this morning. The sun rose this morning, because the love of the Lord has no end. And we imperfect, flawed sinners gather here this morning, only because of the Lord’s gracious salvation.

This kind of love is so wonderful that it cannot be fully expressed. Or rather, it has to be expressed in every possible way. We might think that repeating the same phrase 26 times is excessive. But it is never the same: for the first part of each line sheds light on it from a different direction. The love of the Lord is like a great sparkling jewel, with facets and depths and subtle beauties that can never be exhausted. Indeed, 26 is just a start. The Psalms teach us how to pray, and I suggest that this Psalm invites us to add our own lines to the Psalm. All of us in our own way are called to proclaim:

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his love has no end.

His love in creation and salvation

As for the content of praise, it encompasses the two great themes of theology: that the Lord is creator, and that he is saviour.

After the initial call to praise the Psalm acknowledges the Lord the creator. He created all space:

5 who by understanding made the heavens,
6 who spread out the earth on the waters,

He also created the markers of our earthly time:

7 who made the great lights, (hear the echo of Genesis 1)
8 the sun to rule over the day,
9 the moon and stars to rule over the night,

Then second, he is Lord of history: we hear a recitation of the wonderful things that the Lord did in rescuing Israel from Egypt and bringing them to the promised land:

10 who struck Egypt through their firstborn,
11 and brought Israel out from among them,
13 who divided the Red Sea in two,
16 who led his people through the wilderness,
17 who struck down great kings,

It is a story that we could continue right to this present time. And indeed, this is just what we do, in the creed and then the Eucharistic prayer. For in these we celebrate that the love that has no end has come down to earth in flesh and blood, to die on the cross for our sins, and to rise from the dead to give us new life. We here this morning know something of height and breadth of God’s love that the Psalmist could never have imagined:

23 It is he who remembered us in our low estate,
24 and rescued us from our foes,
for his love has no end

Invitation to praise

This morning we are thinking mainly about creation, so let me ask you a question. When was the last time you looked at the sun and the moon, and remembered their creator? The other day, there was an extraordinary pink moon suspended above the horizon. I stopped, I marvelled, I was jolted out of my normal ‘what’s next on the agenda’ attitude. But to my shame I did not give thanks to the Lord who made the moon to rule over the night with light and splendour and glory. How forgetful we are to acknowledge that we dwell in a world that is charged with the grandeur of a God whose love has no end.

So here is a challenge. At least once this week (maybe even every day), stop, marvel at the sun or the moon, and praise the God of all power and love. Why not also join in the praise of the angels and all creation in those opening words of our Psalm:

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his love has no end.

Amen

Translating the untranslatable!

There are three main questions:

  1. How far should we echo the brevity and clarity of the Hebrew, which consists of just 6 syllables.
  2. How should we translate the rich theological term hesed?
  3. How do we translate the initial word, which might be ‘for’ or an affirmation (‘truly’)?

Here are some possibilities (number of syllables in brackets):

KJV, RV for his mercy endureth for ever. (9)
Net for his loyal love endures. (7)
Mess His love never quits. (5)
Wycliffe for his merci is withouten ende. (9)
Gelineau for his love has no end (6)
KJV for his mercy endureth for ever. (10)
ASV For his lovingkindness endureth for ever. (12)
NASU For His lovingkindness is everlasting. (11)
NKJV For His mercy endures forever. (9)
NRSV, ESV for his steadfast love endures forever. (10)
WEB for his loving kindness endures forever. (11)
NIV His love endures forever. (7)
TNIV His love endures forever. (7)
NIrV His faithful love continues forever. (10)
NLT His faithful love endures forever. (9)
CEV God’s love never fails. (5)
NCV His love continues forever. (8)
HCSB His love is eternal. (6)
NJB for his faithful love endures for ever. (10)
GW because his mercy endures forever. (10)
NJP His steadfast love is eternal. (8)

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