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A PSALM with a familiar refrain (comp. Psalms 118:1-4, Psa 118:29; 2 Chronicles 5:13; Ezra 3:11) at the end of each line. In the main Psalms 134:1-3; follows the line of Psalms 135:1-21, calling upon Israel to praise God, and basing the call upon his glorious manifestations of himself in nature (Psalms 135:5-9) and history (veto. 10-24), repeating in the latter case the very same facts. Metrically, the psalm is arranged, till near the end, in a series of triplets, but concludes with two stanzas of four lines each (Psa 135:19 -22 and verses 23-26). It is conjectured to have been written as the anthem called for in Psalms 135:19-21 (Kay).
Oh give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth forever. Identical with the first verse of Psalms 118:1-29, which is probably a very ancient formula, and one used at the erection both of the first (2 Chronicles 5:13) and of the second temple (Ezra 3:11).
Oh give thanks unto the God of gods: for his mercy, etc. The phrase, "God of gods," occurs first in Deuteronomy 10:17. It was one very familiar to the Assyrians and Babylonians. In the Bible it is used by Joshua (Joshua 22:22), Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:47), Daniel (Daniel 11:36), and this psalmist. It sanctions a secondary use of the word "God," such as is found also in Psalms 82:6; Psalms 96:4; Psalms 97:7, Psalms 97:9; Psalms 138:1.
Oh give thanks to the Lord of lords. "Lord of lords" occurs also first in Deuteronomy 10:17. It is used likewise by St. Paul (2 Timothy 6:15) and St. John (Revelation 17:14; Revelation 19:16). For his mercy, etc.
To him who alone doeth great wonders (comp. Psalms 72:18). For his mercy, etc.
To him that by wisdom made the heavens. Creation is the work, not only of God's power, bat of his wisdom also. Things were made as they are by the exertion of his forethought and understanding (comp. Proverbs 3:19; Ephesians 1:11). For his mercy, etc.
To him that stretched out the earth above the waters (comp. Isaiah 42:5; Isaiah 44:24; Psalms 24:2). For his mercy, etc.
To him that made great lights (see Genesis 1:14-16). For his mercy, etc.
Psalms 136:8—The sun to rule by day (comp. Genesis 1:16). For his mercy, etc.
The moon and stare to rule by night (Genesis 1:16, Genesis 1:18). For his mercy, etc.
To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn. The parallelism with Psalms 135:1-21, here becomes very close, and so continues till the end of verse 22. Five verses, however, are expanded into thirteen. For his mercy, etc.
And brought out Israel from among them (see Exodus 12:51; Exodus 14:19-31). For his mercy, etc.
With a strong hand, and with a stretched-out arm (comp. Exodus 6:6; Deuteronomy 7:8, Deuteronomy 7:14; Nehemiah 1:10, etc.). For his mercy, etc.
To him which divided the Red Sea into parts; literally, into section—cut it, as it were, in two (see Exodus 14:21). For his mercy, etc.
And made Israel to pass through the midst of it (see Exodus 14:22, Exodus 14:29; Exodus 15:19). For his mercy, etc.
But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea (see Exodus 14:27, Exodus 14:28; Exodus 15:1-10). That the Pharaoh's death in the Red Sea is not necessarily implied has been shown in the comment on Exodus. For his mercy, etc. Severity to their adversaries was "mercy" to Israel, who could not otherwise have been delivered.
To him which led his people through the wilderness (Exodus 13:20-22; Exodus 40:36-38; Deuteronomy 8:15). For his mercy, etc.
To him which smote great kings (see the comment on Psalms 135:10). For his mercy, etc.
And slew famous kings. Oreb, Zeb, Zeba, Zalmunna, Agag. For his mercy, etc.
Sihon King of the Amorites (comp. Psalms 135:11). For his mercy, etc.
And Og the King of Bashan (Numbers 21:33; Psalms 135:11). For his mercy, etc.
And gave their land for an heritage (see Joshua 12:1-6). For his mercy, etc.
Even an heritage unto Israel his servant (comp. Psalms 135:12). For his mercy, etc.
Who remembered us in our low estate. When we were brought low. The time meant is probably that of the Babylonian captivity, which is the subject of the next psalm. For his mercy, etc.
And hath redeemed us from our enemies; rather, and redeemed us—or, "snatched us"—from our enemies. For his mercy, etc.
Who giveth food to all flesh. Has a care, i.e; not only for man, but also for animals (comp. Psalms 104:27; Psalms 145:15; Psalms 147:9; Jonah 4:11). For his mercy, etc.
Oh give thanks unto the God of heaven, "The God of heaven" is a favorite designation of God in the Books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel (Ezra 1:2; Ezra 5:11, Ezra 5:12; Ezra 6:9, Ezra 6:10; Ezra 7:12, Ezra 7:21; Nehemiah 1:4, Nehemiah 1:5; Nehemiah 2:4, Nehemiah 2:20; Daniel 2:18, Daniel 2:19, Daniel 2:37, Daniel 2:44). It was a phrase known to the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians. For his mercy endureth forever.
The Divine constancy.
The refrain of each verse of the psalm may supply us with a guiding thought in our treatment of it. From the first beginnings of creation (as we are affected by them) to the last hour of human experience, we have evidence of the goodness, the "mercy," of the Lord. It has endured through all generations, is with us now, will attend our race (we are sure) to the end of time. We find it—
I. IS THE DIVINE PROVISION. God gave us sun, moon, and stars at the first. These have been giving light to men everywhere and in all ages. They have been regulating the seasons of the year and the tides of ocean, and they have been counting time for us with unbroken constancy. Seed-time and harvest have not failed; food has been given to all flesh, to man and beast, through all the centuries (Psalms 136:25). If the earth has been barren in one part, it has been fruitful in another. Nothing has been needed to supply all mankind with the necessaries and the comforts of life but man's own diligence, enterprise, and economy. God has supplied his part. His kindness is constant.
II. IN DIVINE RETRIBUTION. (Psalms 136:10-15, Psalms 136:17-20.) No doubt this recurring sentence, "His mercy endureth for ever," is written by the psalmist from Israel's point of view. That is quite obvious from the words with which these verses are connected. The destruction of Israel's enemies meant the deliverance, in mercy, of Israel itself. But we may pause to remember that all righteous retribution is a part of Divine goodness. No greater calamity could befall us than Divine indifference to sin and unlimited permission to indulge in it; no more serious injury, therefore, could be done us than the withholding of Divine penalty when sin and wrong are done by us. That would inevitably issue in the loss of all real reverence for God, and of all respect for ourselves. It would mean the simple annihilation of human character, of human worth, of the distinctive excellency of human life. God's abiding hatred and punishment of sin is an element of his constant kindness to our race, as well as a permanent feature of his own Divine character.
III. IN DIVINE COMPASSION AND REDEMPTION. God has ever been pitiful, and his compassion has called forth his power to save.
1. There are two notable instances of this in Hebrew history—the deliverance from Egyptian hardship and bondage (Exodus 3:7, Exodus 3:8), and the restoration from captivity in Babylon (Ezra 1:1-11.). God "remembered them in their low estate," and "redeemed them from their enemies."
2. There was one culminating and transcendent illustration of this in the advent of our Lord. He saw us in our "low estate." The world was sunk in superstition, in vice, in violence, in misery, in spiritual death. No "estate" could be lower than that of the human world when Jesus Christ came into it; and then he accomplished that work which is to issue in its "redemption."
3. We have individual-illustrations of it now. The eye that looked down in pity on the earliest sorrows and struggles of his children regards today with tender commiseration the sufferings and the trials of his people. In all our affliction he is afflicted. He is "touched with the feeling of our infirmities" (Hebrews 4:15). He is mindful of our danger when in the midst of temptation, and, in answer to our prayer, redeems us from the power of our adversary. To the latest hour of individual life, to the last hour of time, we shall be able to look up with holy confidence for sympathy and succor; "for his mercy endureth for ever."
HOMILIES BY S. CONWAY
Repetitions many, but not vain.
Over and over again the refrain comes, "His mercy endureth for ever." But it is never a vain repetition, unless the mind, by its heedlessness, makes it so. It is like the German piece of music which is called 'The Fremensberg,' which tells one of the old legends of the region—how "a great noble of the Middle Ages got lost in the mountains, and wandered about with his dogs in a violent storm, until at last the faint tones of a monastery-bell, calling the monks to a midnight service, caught his ear, and he followed the direction the sounds came from, and was saved. A beautiful air runs through the music without ceasing, sometimes loud and strong, sometimes so soft that it can hardly be distinguished, but it is always there. It swung grandly along the shrill whistling of the storm-wind, the rattling patter of the rain, and the boom and crash of the thunder; it wound soft and low through the lesser sounds, the distant ones, such as the throbbing of the convent-bell, the melodious winding of the hunter's horn, the distressed bayings of his dogs, and the solemn chanting of the monks; it rose again, with a jubilant ring, and mingled itself with the country songs and dances of the peasants assembled in the concert-hall to cheer up the rescued huntsman as he ate his supper, imitating all these sounds with marvelous exactness. The solemn chanting of the monks was not done by instruments, but by men's voices, and it rose and felt and rose again in that rich confusion of warring sounds and pulsing bells, and the stately swing of that ever-present enchanting air, and it seemed to me that nothing could be more divinely beautiful" (Mark Twain). So the sweet refrain of this psalm is heard amid all variety of circumstances, and is never absent, but investing with its own charm every one of the manifold statements which the psalm contains. But wherefore all this repetition?
I. BECAUSE WE ARE SO APT TO FORGET THE TRUTH IT TELLS OF. Is not this so? "The ox knoweth its owner," etc. (Isaiah 1:1-31.).
II. BECAUSE IT IS A TRUTH SO UNSPEAKABLY IMPORTANT. We repeat messages to those who we know are liable to forget, and we do so the more according to the importance of the message. And none can be more important than this, consider it how we will. Who is there that does not need to remember it, that is not every way the better for the remembrance of it?
III. BECAUSE, WHEN IT IS REMEMBERED, BELIEVED, AND REALIZED IN THE HEART WE CANNOT KEEP SILENCE ABOUT AT. "I believed, therefore have I spoken," said St. Paul; and it has ever been so. He who wrote this psalm believed this most blessed truth of God's mercy enduring forever, and he could not keep silence; nor shall we when we in like manner believe.—S.C.
Does his mercy endure forever?
How many voices there are that seem to deny the blessed declaration which is repeated in every verse of this psalm, and in so many other psalms and Scriptures beside!
I. THE VOICE OF EARTHLY SORROW SEEMS TO DENY IT. "What!" says one, "his mercy endureth for ever? And I, once so happily placed, and to whom all life was bright, and now so utterly poor, a ruined man: how can his mercy endure forever? I cannot believe it." And here is another who has been bitterly bereaved, the light of his home gone out. And another whose heart smarts within him from a sense of cruel wrong which has been inflicted on him, and which has embittered all his life. And another whose existence is one long pain. And another racked with anxiety. Oh, how many such there are to whom the talk of God's mercy seems as an impossible and an idle thought!
II. AND THE VOICE OF THE POPULAR THEOLOGY HAS PRACTICALLY DENIED IT. For it represents God as a moral Governor who has attached a tremendous penalty to sin—a penalty at the very thought of which the heart shudders, and who would inflict this on mankind generally, for that all have sinned, only that mercy interposes, and by the sacrifice of Christ opens a way of escape for all who will believe. Now, in this representation there is very much that is scriptural and true, but it errs in representing the foundation of the Divine character as that of the magistrate rather than of the father. As if his great purpose were to maintain a law rather than to train and to teach, to restore and to redeem. And hence they limit this salvation to the baptized, or to the elect, or to those who dwell in Christian lands. And they limit it likewise to the present life. Thus, practically, they seem to deny the ever-enduring character of God's mercy.
III. AND THERE IS MUCH IN SCRIPTURE THAT SEEMS TO SUPPORT THIS DENIAL. Certainly there are no direct statements that teach that outside the limits of faith in Christ, and of the present life, there is yet salvation, and there are many which seem to distinctly say there is not.
IV. AND THERE ARE AWFUL FACTS IN LIFE WHICH POINT IN THE SAME DIRECTION. Men, many of them, do, so far as we can see, die in their sins, having no part nor lot in the kingdom of God.
V. BUT, IN SPITE OF ALL THIS, GOD'S MERCY ENDURETH FOREVER.
1. It must be so because of his declared character. God is love. He is our Father. His mercy is not an attribute external to himself, something that he has assumed; but it is what he is in his own inherent nature. Therefore so long as God exists, his mercy must exist likewise, that is, must endure forever.
2. Because of his declared purpose. He has no pleasure in the death of him that dieth. He will have all men to be saved. He gave his only begotten Son to die for us all, and to him every knee shall bow. "The Son of God was manifested that he might destroy the works of the devil." Can his purpose, then, be forever thwarted?
3. The manifest design of all his dealings with us. His perpetual goodness. The afflictions and sorrows he sends, they are for good, not ill; for healing, not harm. And the punishments he inflicts, they are not in vengeance, but to subdue the perverse will Love is at the heart of things, the ultimate reason of them all.
4. What he has already done. The most stubborn wills he has subdued, and does subdue day by day. The resources of his mercy are not exhausted or exhaustible.—S.C.
Psalms 136:1-26 (every verse)
The Church's antiphon.
There can be no doubt that this psalm was sung antiphonally in the Jewish temple, some of the priests reciting or chanting the first portion of each verse, and then the whole congregation responding, "For his mercy endureth forever." But this oft-repeated declaration belongs not to the Jewish Church alone, but to the whole Church of God throughout all the ages and in all the world. "One February night, A.D. 358, the great church at Alexandria was bright with lights far into the night, and still the congregation did not disperse. The Bishop Athanasius was there, and the service was to be prolonged till morning; for next day the Holy Communion was to be celebrated, and it was the frequent custom among the early Christians to spend the preceding night in prayer and singing hymns. All knew that further troubles were hanging over their beloved bishop, and that the time of his presence with them would probably be very short. Suddenly a clashing noise broke the stillness. The church was surrounded by armed men. With calm presence of mind, Athanasius rose and gave out the hundred and thirty-sixth psalm, which has to every verse the response, For his mercy endureth for ever. The whole congregation joined in thundering forth those grand words, when the door was burst open, and the imperial envoy, at the head of a body of soldiers, walked up the aisle. For a moment the soldiers drew back in awe at the solemn sound of the chanting, but again they pressed on, and a shower of arrows flew through the church. Swords flashed, arms rattled, and rough shouts interrupted the music. Athanasius retained his seat till the congregation had dispersed, then he too disappeared in the darkness, and no one knew where he was gone. He found a refuge among his old friends the hermits of Egypt" (quoted from Perowne). The blessed truth it declares is—
I. THE EXPLANATION OF ALL THAT GOD IS AND DOES. After each recital of what God is or of what he has done, it is added, as if by way of explanation, "For his mercy," etc. And it is declared, not in connection alone with statements as to the holiness, the greatness, the majesty, and the love of God, not alone in connection with his acts of creation and of beneficence, but with those of judgment and awful punishment as well All are included. And they all must have some explanation. The psalm gives this, "For his mercy," etc. Can any one find a better, or one that so meets the manifold aspects of the problem of human life? Even his judgments, his "strange work," have mercy at the heart of them, as a little reflection will perceive.
II. THE CLAMANT NEED OF ALL THE CHILDREN OF GOD. For who is there of woman born that does not need mercy, that can say he has no sin, that God has nothing to accuse him of? Where, but for God's mercy, should any of us have been? And not only do we need mercy, but enduring mercy. We can give God no guarantee that if he forgive us we shall need his forgiveness never more. Alas! it is our daily need. Even as we are taught to ask day by day for daily bread, so also are we to pray daily, "And forgive us our sins."
III. THE INSPIRATION OF ALL THE SERVANTS OF GOD. "The love of Christ constraineth us," said St. Paul; and as it was with him so is it with all God's servants. It is not the lack of fear, the goading of conscience, the command of duty, that impel the servant of God, but the inspiration of the love this antiphon declares.
IV. THE GLAD CONFESSION OF ALL THE REDEEMED OF GOD. They confess it here on earth; in heaven, "Worthy is the Lamb," which is but another form of this same blessed truth, is the perpetual theme of the ransomed there.
V. THE ENCOURAGEMENT FOR ALL WHO DESIRE TO RETURN TO GOD. See the prodigal. it was the memory of his father's house that determined him on returning home. He felt sure that his father's love would not fail him. And so still, it is the proclamation and the belief of the mercy that endureth forever which emboldens the contrite heart to cast itself upon God (Psalms 51:17).
VI. THAT WHICH THE BELIEVER KEEPS TELLING OVER AND OVER AGAIN UNWEARIEDLY. See in this psalm how perpetually it is repeated, and this is but an example of what the heart of God's redeemed people ever delights in. What are the favorite hymns, the most blessed portions of Scripture, but those which tell most clearly and fully of the mercy that endureth for ever? And when we come to die, there is nothing else that so soothes and strengthens the departing soul as this same truth as it is seen in Jesus Christ our Lord.—S.C.
The great wonders of God.
I. WHAT ARE THEY? They are seen in nature; in providence; and especially in grace. The whole purpose, plan, and accomplishment of man's salvation is full of them.
II. GOD IS EVER DOING GREAT WONDERS. It is not that he once did them and has now ceased, but he is ever doing and will continue to do them. Hence we may expect them in regard to others and to ourselves.
III. No ONE ELSE DOES THEM.
1. In Nature we see this plainly. No one thinks that he can do her works.
2. In providence we see this partly. Men are apt to think that they themselves are the authors of the good that comes to them.
3. In grace men are slow to see this at all. They persist in thinking they must bring something, do something, or else they cannot be saved. They haggle over God's free gift.
IV. AND THEY ARE GREAT WONDERS. Not common and ordinary.
1. It was to be expected that they would be. For they are the works of God.
2. It was necessary they should be. For how else was man to be saved?
3. They have all the conditions of greatness. Rarity; transcendent power; wisdom; grace.
V. THEY DESERVE AND DEMAND OUR PRAISE. Of the heart, the lip, the life.—S.C.
From Egypt to Canaan.
Almost every reader of Israel's history has seen, as surely it was intended that there should be seen, the pattern and picture of the soul's journey cut of the misery and bondage of sin into the glorious liberty wherewith Christ doth make his people free. It is a long and arduous journey, but blessed are they which take it. These verses imply or state its chief stages.
I. THE PREPARATION FOR THIS JOURNEY. This is not stated, but implied. We know the weariness and distress, the hard bondage and the cruel oppression, which led Israel to cry out unto the Lord. And the like of it the soul knows in its more than Egyptian bondage and oppression through sin. And ere the actual deliverance comes there has been the cry unto the Lord.
II. ITS DIFFERENT STEPS.
1. Believing in God. This was shown by their obedience to the command as to the Passover. Unbelief might have caviled and objected, but the spirit of faith was given, and all Israel kept the Passover. And ere deliverance comes to the soul, there is and must be faith in Christ our Passover; the definite trust in him as our Savior.
2. The breaking of the oppressor's power. (Psalms 136:10.) That which in the consciousness of the redeemed soul corresponds to what this verse tells of is the suspension of the power of sin. Whether permanently or not, for a time that power seems paralyzed, as was the power of Pharaoh when the firstborn were smitten. We are under its cruel compulsion no longer.
3. The actual deliverance. (Psalms 136:12, Psalms 136:13.) They went out of Egypt; so does the soul abandon its old ways, and start for the promised possession.
4. Complete consecration. It seemed as if Israel were to be dragged back again into slavery there at Pihahiroth—as if the old misery were to come over again. How often the soul has found the like of that! But the command came to Israel to "go forward." It seemed impossible, but they obeyed, and lo! the Red Sea parted asunder (Psalms 136:13, Psalms 136:14). St. Paul speaks of this as their being "baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea." It was the type of the soul's complete consecration. It will obey God, cost what it will; though it be like plunging into the sea, yet it will obey. That is what we must do. Then comes:
5. Further and complete deliverance. (Psalms 136:15.) When the soul thus resolves to obey God at all costs, even if it be like going straight to death, then, behold! the way will be opened, and what seemed like death will prove to be life, and our enemies trouble us no more. The soul's self-surrender to God is the destruction of its foes.
6. The wilderness trial and training. (Psalms 136:16.) The Law was given, and then came the tests of obedience. Israel was tried by providential circumstances, by evil example, by fierce attacks of mighty kings. The redeemed life must be a tried life; but, if we be really of God's Israel, it will be an overcoming life.
III. ITS BLESSED END. (Psalms 136:21, Psalms 136:22.) And so the soul shall come into its heavenly places in Christ (see the Epistle to the Ephesians). It shall gain its inheritance and keep it, in the rest which remaineth for the people of God, of which Canaan was the earthly type.—S.C.
Remembered of God.
We were so; for—
I. WE WERE ALL IN "LOW ESTATE."
1. By inherited nature inclining us to sin.
2. By our own actual sin.
3. By our subjection to earthly care and sorrow.
4. By death overtaking us all.
II. BUT GOD REMEMBERED US.
1. He might have acted far otherwise. Condemned us all to death, or forgotten us and left us to go our own ways.
2. But he remembered us. Indeed, though it seemed to our eye as if we had but just come into God's mind, we had, in fact, never been absent from his mind. (See the evolution of man's redemption from the first purpose of grace in God down to our own individual redemption.) On and on the blessed work proceeded.
3. And he remembers us still.
III. THE EXPLANATION OF THIS IS THE NEVER-FAILING MERCY OF GOD.
1. For think of God. Could he, being so great and gracious as he is, do other than give this redemption to us?
2. Of the gift itself. Could we by any acts of our own purchase or procure it? Was it not utterly out of our reach?
3. Of ourselves. Not only are we lacking in great amount of merit, but in all merit. How but by God's mercy can we be saved?—S.C.
HOMILIES BY R. TUCK
The enduring mercy.
This is very evidently a psalm arranged for alternate singing in the temple service. One section of the singers gives the sentences, and the other section answers with the ever-recurring refrain of the psalm, "For his mercy endureth forever." It is a refrain which has peculiar point and interest when regarded as sung by the returned exiles in their restored temple. They felt very deeply what it was to be "monuments of God's mercy," and that sense of God's mercy to them enabled them to read aright the story of the ages old and hoary, and to anticipate aright the ages that were yet to be. God's mercy evidently had been upon his people from everlasting, and that was the best of guarantees that it would be unto everlasting. Let any man worthily apprehend God's mercy to him, and that man will be well assured that God's "mercy endureth for ever."
I. THE PERSONAL SENSE OF GOD'S MERCY. There are some things, perhaps many things, which cannot be learned intellectually, which no man can know until he knows experimentally. He may know about them, and may be able to talk about them, but the knowledge is a surface-matter; it is not real, not spiritually effective, until it comes through personal experience. God's mercy is one of these things. There are elements in mercy which we can mentally apprehend, such as tenderness, considerateness, gentleness, pity; but there is an element which we can only realize by feeling in relation to it. A man must feel undeserving before he can know what God's mercy is. Then he gains a right sense of the "pitifulness of thy great mercy." The self-satisfied Pharisee never thinks that God's mercy concerns him. In that mercy the penitent publican finds refuge.
II. ITS RAYS THROWN BACK ON THE PAST OF DIVINE DEALING. Let a man feel thus in relation to God's mercy, and then he can look back over his own past, and back over the past of history, and find God's mercy, as bearing and forbearing, everywhere. So the returned exiles would be able to read their old history as a nation. What shone out to view everywhere was God's mercy. Man's waywardness and willfulness, and God's pitifulness and gentleness.
III. ITS RAYS THROWN FORWARD ON THE FUTURE OF DIVINE DEALING. It is alone on the basis of what God is to us that we can rest our confidence of what he is going to be. Our soul's argument takes this form, "This God is our God for ever and ever; he will be our Guide even unto the end." Because his mercy is our portion, we are sure that "his mercy endureth for ever." R.T.
God and other gods.
"Oh give thanks unto the God of gods." This expression appears to recognize other gods in order to make comparison with them of the One only, living, and true God. It is necessary to keep in mind that there are gods for whom their worshippers claim that they are verily and indeed gods. True, "the gods of the nations are idols (helpless vanities), but the Lord (Jehovah) made the heavens;" but that is the view which the worshippers of Jehovah take, not the view which the nations that serve these gods take. For us there is no comparison between God and the gods. And yet Scripture invites us to make comparisons. Some freshness may be gained by taking one point of view; but it must be regarded as a point of view, and in no sense a complete setting of truth in relation to this subject. Gods, as distinct from God, are always wrongly treated when they are regarded as distinct and independent deities. It may be the fact of history that to the mass of the people they become such; but that is their delusion. They never really are such; they are always either incarnations of God, in order to bear direct relation to human and earthly things, or they are guardian angels or patron saints. This may be clearly illustrated from the Hindu religion. Brahma is the one living god; but there are five cults of Brahma, according as he is presented incarnate in Vishnoo, 'Siva, 'Sakti, Gane'sa, or Surya. It might be said that these are gods, but the deeper truth is that they are no more than sensible helps to the apprehension of Brahma, and to right relations with him. This suggests interesting points of reflection.
I. THE SPIRITUALITY OF GOD IS OF SUPREME IMPORTANCE FOR MAN. Leave man alone, and anywhere and everywhere he will inevitably materialize God and give him some formal shape, either in act or thought. And then man deteriorates, because he puts the stamp of superiority on his bodily investiture instead of on his spiritual self. His god becomes a body, with passions to be indulged. Therefore God so jealously guards for the Israelites his unseen, spiritual Being, and forbids every attempt to make a likeness of him.
II. THE SPIRITUALITY OF GOD IS PRESERVED IN THE ONE INCARNATION IN WHICH HE HAS SHOWN HIMSELF. The "Man Christ Jesus" is the One and only true incarnation of God. It was a simple and genuine man's life, which soon gave place to a presence spiritually realized. The Christ we worship is no figure of a God. It is the God who was unseen passing by us and for a moment removing his hand and letting us see, and then passing into the unseen again.—R.T.
Wonders of creative power.
"Who alone doeth great wonders." "Jehovah is the great Thaumaturge, the unrivalled Wonder-worker. None can be likened unto him; he is alone in wonderland, the Creator and Worker of true marvels, compared with which all other remarkable things are as child's play. None of the gods or the lords helped Jehovah in creation or in the redemption of his people." As the theme of this psalm is the Divine mercy, we must find the merciful in the wonderful. This psalm recalls to our minds the first chapter of Genesis, which declares the absolute Creatorship of God. It does not consist of a precise, definite, and detailed account of the processes of creation, but contains a series of distinct and repeated affirmations of God's supreme relations to all forms of existence, in all their order, all their origin, all their growth, all their relations. It is designed to impress on us that the world was not created by chance, by self-regeneration, by impersonal powers of nature, or by many agents acting either in harmony or in antagonism. God is distinct from that he has made. God is the one primal Source of all things. God's will is represented in all laws that rule. God's good pleasure shapes all ends. This chapter impresses on mind and heart the existence, independence, and personality of one Divine Being, the universality of his rule, the omnipotence of his power, and the eternal persistence of his relationship to the world he has created.
1. The chapter declares God's unique relation to every part of creation. We may conceive of no created thing, no existing thing, to which the assurance is not attached—God made it, God ordained it, God arranged it. The chapter includes all the components of the earth's crust; all the treasures of the mighty deep; all the elements of the atmosphere; all the hosts of heaven, from the ruling sun to the faintest distant star; all the multiplied forms of vegetable life; all the higher forms of animal life; and all the yet higher forms of human life. And the declaration of God's creation includes all the natural laws and forces that act in creation. These things may be illustrated.
2. The relation of God as Cause and Arranger to all the changes of creation. One living God is at the beginning of all changes, designing all change, and presiding over all change.
3. The relation of God as Cause and Controller to the entire range of development in creation. Tell us of millions of bygone ages: God was there. Show us a thing: God made it. Describe a change: God ordered it. Talk of immeasurable distances, in which the stars swing free: God set them there.—R.T.
Psalms 136:10, Psalms 136:11
God's judgments are two-sided.
"To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn; … and brought out Israel from among them." Much misapprehension of the Divine dealings follows from fixing attention too exclusively on one side of the Divine judgments. We readily see what they are to those who suffer under them, but we do not sufficiently see what they are to those who are delivered through them. God smote Egypt, but the smiting was a delivering of his people; and if we would understand his doing we must see it on both its sides. Suppose that God designs to discipline a particular race for a great world-mission which he purposes to entrust to it, then the presence of Israel in Egypt is explained. And when the time has come for that race to go forth and accomplish its mission, the ordinary difficulties of getting a great part of a nation's population safely away had to be dealt with, and the special complications arising had to be mastered. So deliverance had to take the form of judgment. There are two possible explanations of Divine judgments.
I. THE EASIER EXPLANATION: THEY VINDICATE THE DIVINE RIGHTEOUSNESS IN THE PUNISHMENT OF WRONGDOERS. This is familiar truth. Some time or other the cup of a man's, or a family's, or a city's, or a nation's iniquity becomes full, and then the Divine judgments must descend. The world before the Flood, the cities of the plain, the Egyptians, the Israelites, Nineveh, and Babylon illustrate this. Egypt was smitten for its national sins. We see one special feature of that sin; it was Pharaoh Menephthah's treatment of God's people, in spite of all warnings that were given him. "Is God righteous who taketh vengeance?" Certainly he is. He would be no righteous God if he did not.
II. THE PEEPER EXPLANATION: THE LAW OF VICARIOUS SUFFERING APPLIES EVEN IN THE CASE OF DIVINE JUDGMENTS. We have yet to apprehend that all moral and spiritual laws are as absolute, universal, and unchangeable as all natural laws. Vicarious suffering is absolutely universal. Nobody ever gets any good without somebody suffering loss. Egypt must suffer if Israel is to be delivered. An adequate impression of the Divine power must be made on Israel as a basis of its belief in God, and Egypt must suffer that God's power may be shown. It is a thrillingly interesting view of one of the supreme mysteries of human life, that on one side of them God's judgments should be apprehended as vicarious sufferings for the sake of others.—R.T.
Overcoming natural obstacles.
"Divided the sea in sunder." The peculiarity of the account given us of this miracle wrought for the deliverance of Israel is that it gives so distinctly the natural agencies by which it was wrought. A certain natural obstacle had to be overcome, and it was overcome by such forces as man would have used if he had had the nature-forces in his control. We can distinctly recognize the suitability of the agencies. But here the true miracle comes in. There was no manufacture of new forces; there was absolute control of existing forces. There was no accident of wind and tide; there was the Divine using of wind and tide. When God made natural forces he did not loosen them from his control. He is always controlling them, and we are made to feel sure that he is, by some such extraordinary cases of controlling as we have in this crossing of the sea. Geikie says, "Ebb and flood tide, in the narrow northern ford especially, are greatly affected by the wind prevailing at any given time A violent north-east gale blew all night, and drove the waters before it, at ebb-tide, into the south-west ford, till the sandy ridge of the ford was laid bare, the shore-waters thus becoming a wall or protection to the Hebrews on the right, and those of the open sea on the left hand. The storm prolonging the ebb, delayed the flow of the tide, and thus before morning the whole of the Hebrews were able to reach the east shore."
I. NATURAL OBSTACLES STILL HINDER GOD'S PEOPLE. Such natural obstacles as are related to the circumstances of God's people nowadays. They often appear as bodily frailty, or as sickness of those to whom we are bound in duty, or in limitation of means, or insufficiency of premises for Christian work, or hindering distances from fields of labor, or strange enmities that seem to check us in every enterprise. And it is not altogether easy to associate God with such material things, and to realize that he is actually working for us in the control or removal of them. And yet just that is the lesson for the ages to be learned from God's removal of the hindering Red Sea.
II. NATURAL OBSTACLES DO BUT REPRESENT THE SPIRITUAL OBSTACLES OF GOD'S PEOPLE. "We wrestle, not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers." The spiritual weaknesses of ourselves, the spiritual forces of evil. Of our spiritual enemy we may say, "We are not ignorant of his devices." Nor is God. Nor does he fail to master these obstacles or to counteract his devices.—R.T.
"Which led his people." The addition, "through the wilderness," is significant and suggestive, because a wilderness is distinctly a pathless region, in which mere human skill is baffled. And it reminds us that Israel was provided for and guided for thirty-eight long years in such a region. Surely Israel ought to have said, "God's providence is mine inheritance." Is it a gain or a loss that we have ceased to recognize or to speak much of God's providence? It was a very real thing to our fathers; it is not very real to us. At least, this might appear to be the fact. We are, however, disposed to argue that the truth and fact are as truly preserved and valued as ever they were, only they have gained a new setting and new shaping.
I. THE IDEA OF PROVIDENCE FITTED THE OLDER CONCEPTION OF GOD. It belongs to the apprehension of God as Creator, Sustainer, Ruler. He is Lord of the whole world of things, and is thought of as controlling all things in the interest of his own special people. He is the Universal Provider, and our fathers delighted in stories of remarkable providential interpositions, guidances, and arrangements. And still no man can read his own life, or watch the lives of others, without being impressed with the wonder-working ways of Divine providence, which make the "unexpected" the thing that happens. Constantly in life we find things are brought round for us which we could in no way have mastered or arranged.
"There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will."
II. THE NEWER CONCEPTION OF GOD GLORIFIES HIS PROVIDENCE. Christ has brought to men a comprehensive name for God. It includes the very essence of every previous conception and name, but puts man into a new and more directly personal and affectionate relation with God. He is our Father. And his providence is his fatherly care of our every interest. Has a child any such providence as his father is to him? And yet a child never thinks of, or speaks of, his father as providence. And in the measure in which we can enter into the idea of God as our Father, we shall find that we lose out of use the term "providence," but keep all the reality of it, and indeed glorify it, as we lose the impersonal and therefore cold element, and see it to be the wisdom and power and activity of our Father, which is beautified and sanctified by his love for us his sons.—R.T.
Psalms 136:21, Psalms 136:22
Fulfillment of race-missions.
"And gave their land for an heritage." The Amorites had their race-mission; when it was fulfilled they had to pass away, and their land had to be occupied by another race, which also had its peculiar mission. It has been pointed out that no absolutely original and independent race ever existed on the face of the earth. No race has a simple beginning, and no race can unfold without streams of life pouring into it from outside and modifying its character. This may be strictly true, but nevertheless the fact remains that distinct races of men can be discerned in actual existence, as well as in the records of ancient history. Explain it how we may, qualify the statement how we may, it remains the fact that God has been pleased to separate humanity into races; and this division is even more important than that into nations. Families and races are Divine divisions; nations are purely human arrangements, which God may be pleased to use, but cannot be said directly to arrange. Races are differentiated with a Divine purpose, and each race should be regarded as entrusted with a Divine mission. It is well to bear in mind that by God everything is done or borne with a view to the ultimate well-being of humanity. God always has the whole in view, and deals with every part in the interests of the whole. The Israelitish race attracts great attention, but it was not the only race placed under Divine commission. What we so clearly see was true of it—was true of every other race, and its mission was but an illustrative mission. The better we understand the peculiarities of the races that have had their day and ceased to be, and the more fully we understand God's educative purposes for humanity, the more clearly shall we apprehend that every race has had some imperiled truth to preserve, and some active witness to make. God has commissioned them all, and worked by means of them all, just as truly as by the Hebrew race; and every race is immortal till its work is done; then it passes and gives place to the new race with the new mission.—R.T.
The Divine dealing with the humiliated.
"Who remembered us in our low estate." This closing portion of the psalm proves its association with the restored exiles. That long time in Babylon was ever thought of and spoken of as the great time of national humiliation. Never before had the national life been broken up, the national capital been in the hands of the enemy, and laid in ruins, or the temple, as the center of the religious life of the nation, destroyed. Humiliation expresses precisely the experience through which the nation had been called to pass. But a condition of humiliation never puts either a man or a nation out of the Divine regard. Such conditions belong to the Divine discipline, and that means the immediate and direct Divine interest. And this the psalmist recognizes. God had remembered his people in their low estate; and how practical that remembrance was is seen in the fact that, in due time, he redeemed his people from out of the hands of the enemies that humiliated them.
I. THE DIVINE DEALING WITH THE HUMILIATED MAY BE AN ENDURANCE. He may let it continue. He may seem to hold aloof, and to restrain himself. But endurance is altogether different from lost interest or forsaking. Endurance means knowledge, watchfulness, and sympathy. It is only "biding his time," patiently waiting until the best time has come, and so supremely seeking the highest well-being of the humiliated, that no limitation of the stern discipline can be permitted. There are conditions of life—religious life—in which God can only carry out his purposes of grace by our humiliation. It is the marvel of his love that he will even do a thorough work of humiliation.
II. THE DIVINE DEALING WITH THE HUMILIATED IS SURE TO PASS INTO A REDEMPTION. God's endurings have no stamp of permanency. They are only agencies working with a view to some issue. And God's final issues are always redemptions. God's people cannot be humiliated forever in any Babylonian slavery. Man may humiliate his fellow, and never loosen the humiliation. The overruling God never does. There is always something good and gracious towards which the humiliation is moving. Sooner or later, the humiliated will be redeemed.—R.T.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Psalms 136". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25