The hymn “Let us with a gladsome mind” by the 15-year old John Milton was inspired by Psalm 136. Like the hymn it inspired, Psalm 136 reflects on the reader's experience through the lens of God’s faithfulness and mercy.
The centrality of God
Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever. Oh, give thanks to the God of gods! For His mercy endures forever. Oh, give thanks to the Lord of lords! For His mercy endures forever: (Psalm 136: 1 – 3)
The psalmist starts by reflecting on God for who He is, Just God. It is not a coincidence, on reflection, that Christ’s model of prayer also begins by acknowledging God as Himself “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name, Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth ….”. The emphasis on recognizing God for who He is helps us acknowledge His centrality - there is a difference between “God being a part of my story” and “my being part of a story written by God.”. I believe that difference is at the core of Faith in God. When we acknowledge the centrality of God, everything falls into place. We submit our worries to God; we recognize victories as opportunities to make an impact for God; we find it easy to trust and obey God absolutely because we know He is in charge. Finally, on this point, acknowledging God’s centrality can help us avoid the error of the Israelites as they journeyed to Canaan; as long as they were the center of their story, they could not enter God’s promise. But Joshua and Caleb, who acknowledged it was God’s story, saw the promised land.
The God who wins battles alone
To Him who alone does great wonders, For His mercy endures forever; (Psalm 136: 4 – 22)
The psalmist then proceeds that God alone won many battles, did great things, and overthrew kings; This is both a statement of thanksgiving and Faith. Very often, believers are quick to acknowledge the place of God in our victories.…in conjunction with the kindness of people, our wisdom. This goes back to how we view God’s centrality. There are no half measures of Faith; we either believe in God’s power or do not, but we cannot help God or assist him. Faith does not deny that we took some action (or need to take action) to achieve a victory. Faith does not take away the gratitude we owe others when they have helped us achieve an objective. Consider the Israelites & Joshua overcoming Jericho; they did act and got support, but ultimately, the victory was God’s. Faith helps us frame our efforts and those of others as God-driven acts. Faith does not take away gratitude to ourselves and others, but it does ascribe ownership to God. Distinguishing appreciation and ownership help us reflect praise rightfully to God. It also helps recognize our place and that of others when our strengths/resources fail or people let us down – we know God will make a way (not another way) because he is the author of the story.
The God who lifts us from our lowly state
Who remembered us in our lowly state, For His mercy endures forever; (Psalm 136 vs. 23 – 25)
The psalmist’s description of a lowly state helps create a complete picture of physical, spiritual, and mental distress. The beauty of God’s enduring mercy is that the one who is the center of all things, King of all Kings, cares enough to reach out to us when we are most undeserving. The prodigal son’s story depicts God’s enduring mercy and how He wants us to view Him. I find comfort in this verse because it reminds me that God is not just the center of all things; He surrounds all things. Not only am I never out of God’s reach, but I am also the center of His world.
Let us sound his name abroad,
for of gods he is the God:
for his mercies shall endure,
ever faithful, ever sure