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“This Psalm,” says Perowne, “is little more than a variation and repetition of the preceding Psalm. It opens with the same liturgical formula with which the 106th and 118th Psalms open, and was evidently designed to be sung antiphonally in the Temple worship. Its structure is peculiar. The first line of each verse pursues the theme of the Psalm, the second line, ‘For His loving-kindness endureth for ever,’ being a kind of refrain or response, like the responses, for instance, in our Litany, breaking in upon and yet sustaining the theme of the Psalm: the first would be sung by some of the Levites, the second by the choir as a body, or by the whole congregation together with the Levites. We have an example of a similar antiphonal arrangement in the first four verses of the 118th Psalm; but there is no other instance in which it is pursued throughout the Psalm. The nearest approach to the same repetition is in the ‘Amen’ of the people to the curses of the Law as pronounced by the Levites (Deuteronomy 22:14).”
The Subjects Mentioned as the ground of the praise of the eternal mercy of God have so frequently engaged our attention in previous Psalms as to require but little additional illustration.
MERCY IN GOD AND IN CREATION
I. Mercy in the Divine Being and Character (Psalms 136:1-3). We have here—
1. A revelation of God in the names applied to Him.
(1.) “O give thanks unto Jehovah.” Jehovah = ὁ ὤν = the Self-Existing, the Continuing, the Permanent, the Everlasting.
(2.) “O give thanks unto the God of gods,”—the Most High God, the Supremely Powerful, who is far above all that is called God or worshipped as God.
(3.) “O give thanks to the Lord of lords,”—the Ruler of rulers, whose authority is supreme over all governors, princes, and kings. Such, then, are the ideas of God embodied in the names which are applied to Him by the poet—the Self-Existing, the Supremely Powerful, and the Supremely Authoritative.
(2.) A revelation of God in His character. “O give thanks unto Jehovah; for He is good.” (See Hom. Com. on Psalms 106:1; Psalms 135:3.) He is good both in Himself and in His dealings with His people.
3. A revelation of God in His relation to men. “His mercy endureth for ever.” Mercy is a modification of goodness. It is goodness in its relation to the sinful, the ill-deserving, and the miserable. To men “God is rich in mercy.” He delights in showing mercy to them. Connect the mercy of God with those aspects of His Being which are brought into view in the names applied to Him. “Jehovah,” the Self-Existing, is essentially merciful. His mercy is eternal as His Being. “The God of gods,” the Supreme Deity, the Omnipotent, is merciful. We cannot reverence mere power. Might is sometimes terrible. But the Most High is as tender as He is strong. He is infinite in mercy as in power. “The Lord of lords,” the Supreme Ruler over all kings and magistrates, is a merciful Being. His compassion is as wide and deep and lasting as His authority. For these reasons let us praise Him.
II. Mercy in the Divine work in Creation (Psalms 136:4-9). To the Psalmist the universe was neither eternal, nor self-originated, but a creation of God.
1. Creation is a work of wonder to man. “To Him who alone doeth great wonders.” The contrivances and constructions of the universe are wonderful in their skill and in their strength. The more thoroughly man becomes acquainted with the heavens and the earth, the more astonishing are the evidences which he discovers of infinite intelligence in designing and almighty power in creating them.
2. Creation is an embodiment of the wisdom of God. “To Him that by wisdom made the heavens.” The scientific student discovers design and the most benevolent and beautiful adaptations in every department of nature. Only a being of infinite intelligence could have designed the universe with its indescribable wonders, beauties, and utilities.
3. Creation is an expression of the mercy of God. It exhibits the benevolence as well as the wisdom of the Creator. In the devout student it excites not only wonder and admiration, but gratitude and praise. His mercy is manifest in the heavens. In their order and harmony and beauty, and in their benign influences, we discover indications of His mercy. It is manifest also in the earth. In making the earth fit for human habitation, and a pleasant habitation; in making it so fruitful, so safe, and so varied and beautiful in appearance, we see His kindness. It is manifest in the sun and the day. The sun is the source of light, warmth, life, and beauty. The reign of darkness would soon lead to the reign of death. By its light and warmth the sun sustains life and promotes joy. In a great measure the beauties of the universe are produced by his influence, and without his light no gleam of beauty would be discernible. So we see in the sun and the day the kindness of the Creator. His mercy is manifest in the night and the moon and stars. Night with its darkness and silence so eminently adapted for sleep and rest, with its enchanting and refining beauties of moon and stars in the heavens, and their reflection on the rippling surface of rivers and the restless waves of the sea,—for these we have felt deep thankfulness times innumerable. But the Psalmist represents the sun as ordained “to rule by day,” and “the moon and stars to rule by night.” (a.) They rule by determining the duration of day and night. (See Hom. Com. on Psalms 104:19-23.) (b.) Their rule is an illustration of the principle taught by our Lord that he who is chief in service shall be chief in sovereignty,—the true ruler most diligently and heartily serves those whom he governs. (Luke 22:25-27.)
The mercy of God which is manifested in creation is eternal. “His mercy endureth for ever;” literally: “For unto eternity His mercy.” When the heavens and the earth shall have passed away, the mercy which was manifested in them shall continue. We shall need mercy throughout this life, in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment; and mercy will still endure and meet our need. The generations that shall tread this globe in the future will need mercy as much as we do, and for them also mercy shall remain as free and plenteous as ever. “Unto eternity is His mercy.”
“Make life, death, and that vast for-ever,
One grand sweet song”
of praise to Him whose mercy, like Himself, is eternal.
MERCY IN THE REVOLUTIONS OF PROVIDENCE
There is no difficulty in discovering the kindness of the dealings of God with Israel. But where is mercy manifest in His treatment of the people of Egypt, of Pharaoh, Sihon, and Og? This we will endeavour to show. There was—
I. Mercy in the judgments upon Egypt. “O give thanks to him that smote Egypt in their firstborn; for His mercy endureth for ever.” The Egyptian oppression of the Israelites was unjust, wicked, cruel; they had reduced them to slavery; they treated them with brutality; they refused to liberate them, although the command to do so was authenticated by extraordinary wonders and signs; judgments of less severity had produced only a transient and brief effect upon them; and so the Lord brought upon them the severe stroke of the death of the firstborn, both of man and beast, and of small and great. It is not only right but merciful to compel the strong to respect the rights of the weak, if they will not do so without compulsion. It is merciful to insist upon the doing of justice amongst men.
II. Mercy in the destruction of tyrannical kings. “O give thanks to Him who overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea; for His mercy endureth for ever. To Him who smote great kings,” &c. (Psalms 136:15; Psalms 136:17-20). (See Hom. Com. on Psalms 135:8-11.) We hold that it is in mercy that tyrannical and oppressive rulers are swept from the earth.
1. It is a mercy to themselves.
(1.) Supposing there be no retributory state in the future, then it is a mercy to terminate their existence; for their life must be tormented by the passions which they cherish in their breasts. Ambition, lust of power, cruelty, impoison their life at its very springs.
(2.) Supposing there be a retributory state in the future (and the evidence for the existence of such a state is to us irresistible), then it is a mercy to terminate the earthly existence of the incorrigibly evil; for while it continues, they are increasing their guilt, and “treasuring up unto themselves wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” For them prolongation of life in the present will involve corresponding increase of misery in the future, therefore it is merciful to them to cut short their wicked career.
2. It is a mercy to mankind. The existence of cruel and tyrannical oppressors afflicts humanity like some terrible nightmare. When they are removed the race breathes freely once again. Such ambitious tyrants, if unchecked, would convert the fair world into a slaughterhouse reeking with human gore. The peace and progress of mankind unite in demanding the removal of ambitious tyrants and cruel oppressors from the face of the earth. To destroy such men is a mercy to the entire human race. Therefore let us “give thanks to Him who smote great kings; for His mercy endureth for ever.”
III. Mercy in the history of Israel. It was manifest—
1. In their emancipation from Egypt and its bondage. This was not accomplished by a single act or effort. It involved a series of Divine interpositions. The poet here mentions:—
(1.) Their deliverance from slavery and from the land of Egypt (Psalms 136:10-12). It was in mercy to them and to mankind that the Israelites were rescued from the crushing burdens which their oppressors imposed upon them. The greatness of the mercy may be approximately estimated by the severity of the sufferings from which it rescued them, and by the persistency and power exerted in doing so. Blessings have flowed to the entire human race through the deliverance of Israel from Egypt.
(2.) Their deliverance from peril at the Red Sea (Exodus 14:0). Point out their extremely perilous position. Can they be rescued from it? And how? Jehovah answers (α.) By dividing the waters of the sea. “To Him that divided the Red Sea into parts.” (β.) By nerving them to pass through the watery walls. “And made Israel to pass through the midst of it.” He manifested His power over the waters in dividing them, and over the hearts of the dismayed people by giving them courage to travel through a passage so unprecedented, and apparently so perilous. (γ.) By the destruction of their enemies by the same sea. “And overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea.” Thus the Lord completely and gloriously delivered them from the hands of their enemies, and conspicuously displayed His mercy to them.
2. In leading them through and supporting them in the wilderness. “To Him which led His people through the wilderness; for His mercy endureth for ever.” For the space of forty years He protected them from their enemies, provided for their necessities, and guided them in their wanderings by supernatural agencies; and He did this notwithstanding their oft-repeated unbelief and rebellion against Him. In His dealings with them in the wilderness, we have a most impressive display of His mercy to them.
3. In giving to them the land of Canaan for an inheritance. He “slew famous kings; and gave their land for an heritage unto Israel, His servant; for His mercy endureth for ever.” (See the Hom. Com. on Psalms 135:12.) The land had been defiled by the wars, the crimes, and the idolatries of the ancient Canaanites, so God overthrew and disinherited them, and gave their land for an heritage to the people of His choice. God manifests His mercy to His people by a special regard to their interests in His providential government of the world.
CONCLUSION.—Inasmuch as the mercy of the Lord is perpetual—
1. Let oppressors take warning. The constancy of His mercy towards His people is a pledge of the constant course of His justice against their enemies.
2. Let the oppressed and afflicted take encouragement. His mercy is far greater than their misery; it is infinite, and it “endureth for ever.”
MERCY IN HUMAN REDEMPTION AND PROVISION
The poet refers in the 23rd and 24th verses to the deliverance of the Jews from the Babylonish captivity. But this section of the Psalm may appropriately be applied to the spiritual redemption and sustentation of man. Consider—
I. The mercy of God in redemption (Psalms 136:23-24).
1. The need of redemption. This arose from
(1.) Man’s depressed condition. “Our low estate.” From his high estate man fell by sin; the crown and glory of his being are gone; the completeness of his moral power is broken; he is a degraded, ruined being.
(2.) Man’s oppressed condition. He is troubled from without as well as from within. He is begirt by “enemies.” The Chaldeans had taken the Jews into captivity and oppressed them. Man is enslaved by sin, led captive by the devil; his spiritual enemies are many and subtle and strong; and he is unable to cope successfully with them. He needs an emancipator, a redeemer.
2. The stages of redemption. The poet mentions two steps in the process of the redemption of man.
(1.) The exercise of Divine thoughtfulness. He “remembered us in our low estate.” It is unspeakably assuring and encouraging to know that the Lord thinketh upon us in our helplessness and need. He is interested in us. He careth for us. We never pass beyond His kindly notice and care.
(2.) The exertion of Divine power. “He hath redeemed us from our enemies.” He set free the Jews from their captivity in Babylon. He has redeemed sinful and lost men by the power of His love, manifested in the teaching and work, the life and death, of the Lord Jesus Christ. “Ye were redeemed with the precious blood of Christ.” “We have redemption through His blood,” &c.
3. The source of redemption. “For His mercy endureth for ever.” In the heart of God our redemption took its rise. The streams of mercy by which we are refreshed, strengthened, and saved, flow from the throne of God. Our redemption must be traced to the loving-kindness of the Lord God. “O give thanks unto the Lord; for He is good; for His mercy endureth for ever.”
II. The mercy of God in provision. “He giveth food to all flesh; for His mercy endureth for ever.” “At length,” says Calvin, “He extends the fatherly providence of God indiscriminately, not only to the whole human race, but to all animals, so that it might not appear wonderful He should be so kind and provident a Father towards His own elect, since He does not reckon it a burden to provide for oxen and asses, ravens and sparrows.” (Comp. Psalms 104:27-28.) Two inquiries may fairly be proposed here—
1. If He giveth food to the beasts, will He be unmindful of the needs of man who is made in His own image? “How much then is a man better than a sheep?” “Ye are of more value than many sparrows.” (Psalms 34:9-10.)
2. If He provides food for man’s bodily necessities, will He not much more provide for His spiritual needs? He who has redeemed us from sin has also promised us strength to empower us for life’s duties, and grace to sustain us in life’s trials. “The Lord will give grace and glory; no good will He withhold from them that walk uprightly.” The mercy to which we owe so many and great blessings, both in the past and in the present, will never fail us. Through all eternity it will continue to enrich us with purest and most precious treasures. “O give thanks unto the God of heaven; for His mercy endureth for ever.”
HUMAN WRETCHEDNESS AND DIVINE COMPASSION
Any one would remember us in a high estate; but Jesus remembers us in a low one.
I. To take a view of the wretched condition of mankind, in consequence of their apostacy from God.
Language does not afford a more emphatic description of complete wretchedness than to say of a man that he is lost—a captive—a subject of corruption—dead!
1. Man has gone astray from the path of life and happiness. Apart from Revelation, human nature itself bears witness to itself by evident marks of degeneracy and corruption. The passions which enslave our minds; the diseases that afflict our bodies; the disorders in the natural and moral world around us; the various wretchedness of man; and the universal law of mortality, all proclaim that some unhappy change has passed on our nature since its original formation. Various conjectures have been formed to account for this state of things. But the Bible alone solves the appearances so difficult to be reconciled by unassisted reason. Here we are taught that man, by transgression, has debased himself below the rank originally assigned him in the creation of God; and that the consequences of the sin of our first parents attach to all their offspring, in the evils which arise from a sinful, sorrowful, and mortal condition. Our steps are now voluntarily turned far away from the only path of happiness. (See Job 21:14; Jeremiah 2:13; Romans 3:11-12.). For this is the habitual state of mind, not of the more grossly profligate and abandoned only, but of mankind generally, however improved by culture and enlightened by education—the active principle of rebellion against God, which Grace alone can subdue.
2. Man has not only left the path of life, but stands exposed to the fatal effects of Divine displeasure, by actual transgression. The sentence of the broken law holds in full force (Galatians 3:10; Colossians 3:6). And who knoweth the power of God’s anger? Who can imagine the judgments which God has in store against the enemies of truth and righteousness? (Job 34:29; Job 38:22-23; Psalms 39:11). If such be the effect of His fatherly chastisement under a dispensation of mercy, how dreadful must His fiery indignation be when Guilt has run its full course, and Justice is compelled to take its unrestricted sway! (Hebrews 10:31.). There is not a part of these fleshly tabernacles which He cannot visit with exquisite anguish; and if but a spark of His wrath fall upon the soul, how dreadful is the ruin! Witness Cain, Judas, Simon Magus, Ananias, and Sapphira.
3. That we are unequal to our own deliverance.
II. To admire the method of Divine compassion to man in his rescue from this state of guilt and misery.
1. By the incarnation and death of the Son of God. Throwing a veil over the dazzling glories of Divinity, He came among us in great humility, bearing the attractive character of a kinsman and a friend. He is a Physician to heal, a Shepherd to seek, and a Saviour to restore. (Luke 19:10.)
To see the nature and importance of His work, look back to the Old Testament. See what a space our redemption has occupied in the Divine counsels; see how all events in Providence were made to prepare for it; see what lofty representations are given of it by the ancient prophets; see how all the types and institutions of the law prefigured His approach, and how all these ancient prefigurations are accomplished in His death.
You become convinced of His high qualifications for this important work, when you observe the perfection of His mediatorial nature, blending the attributes of earth and heaven—all the tenderness of suffering humanity with all the glory of the unapproached Divinity. In magnitude the work of redemption has no rival; and none but the Lord of life and glory was equal to such a work. We know that Infinite Wisdom would not make choice of a weak and ineffectual instrument, or appoint to so important an office one unqualified to perform it. All objections vanish and all fears are banished when we read of Him as “Emmanuel, God with us.” (Matthew 1:23; John 1:14; 1 Timothy 3:16). You may see the ability of Christ to save in the high attestations He received. Thrice did the Voice from heaven proclaim, “This is My beloved Son,” &c. On the Cross, when He offered Himself a sacrifice holy and acceptable, all nature was convulsed, and the veil of the Temple was rent in twain. At His resurrection the stone was rolled away from the door of the sepulchre, and He was declared to be the Son of God with power. By His ascension He rose victorious to heaven, that he might fill all things. And He is now exalted at the right hand of power as a Prince and a Saviour. (Hebrews 7:25). Meditate much, therefore, upon His equal ability and willingness to save. As the merit of His atonement exceeds by infinite degrees the guilt of your sin, so does the power of His grace surpass the strength of your corruption.
2. By the work and agency of His Blessed Spirit. He who made your hearts can surely renew them; and He who glorified Christ in the days of the Apostles can glorify Him still in your experience, by applying the testimony of the Word, and raising you from the death of sin to the life of holiness. Commit yourself to Christ, therefore, as the great Physician. He will purify your souls by His Spirit, &c.
3. By the combined influence of His Providence and Grace. Christ is engaged to bring many sons to glory; and He overrules all the scenes of their earthly lot and mortal history, to guide their footsteps through time and discipline their hearts for the purity and bliss of heaven. (Isaiah 26:7; Psalms 16:11.)—Samuel Thodey.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Psalms 136". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18