Grasping the Covenantal Love of Psalm 136

zoriana-stakhniv-347480Psalm 136 is a glorious, antiphonal Psalm detailing the steadfast love of God with the various actions of God’s redemption throughout history. A brief reading of the Psalm notices the Psalm’s uniqueness, where every attribute of God or demonstration of power is followed by the refrain: “for his steadfast love endures forever” (ESV) or “for His lovingkindness is everlasting” (NASB).

In all, the Psalm praises God for who he is (vv. 1–3), what he has done in creation (vv. 3–9), what he has done for Israel in redemption (vv. 10–22), and what he has done for “us in our low estate” (vv. 23–26). The last four verses seem to reflect a move from history to personal experience.

Certainly, in these 26 verses, the Psalmist is using repetition to stress the covenant love of God. Yet, it is tempting to skip over the refrains,  thinking I’ve read this before. But this is to miss the force of God’s love, if the reader replaces “his steadfast love endures forever” with some kind of mental “ditto.” Indeed, this repeated explanation for God’s action reveals much about God’s love and works powerfully to impress his love on our hearts.

Therefore, lets consider five truths about God’s covenantal love, that may help us better hear Psalm 136 and give praise to God.

Five Truths about God’s Covenantal Love

1. The love described in Psalm 136 is covenantal love.

This point is obvious, but needs explanation. The word for “steadfast love” or “lovingkindness” is the word ḥesed (חֶ֫סֶד). It is a word that speaks far more than sentimental love or adoration. The word could also be translated “loyalty” or “faithfulness,” where the love of God is a faithful, promise-keeping love. Indeed, as one lexicon defines it: ḥesed is an “obligation to the community in relation to relatives, friends, guests, master & servants” (W. L. Holladay & L. Köhler,  A concise Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament [Leiden: Brill, 2000], 111).

In this way, ḥesed is a word that reflects the covenant nature of love. And in the Old Testament, we learn how ḥesed “denotes God’s faithfulness to his people. The OT frequently uses the term ḥesed to denote an aspect of God’s character as it relates to his covenant with his people” (R. P. Nettelhorst, “Love,”Lexham Theological Wordbook (ed. D. Mangum, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, & R. Hurst; Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014). And thus, in Psalm 136, we not only find praise for God’s love, but how his love leads him to act in covenant faithfulness for the people he has created and redeemed.

In fact, with the light of the Old Testament story, which Psalm 136 develops, we might even say there are anywhere between three and five covenants mentioned in these verses. Let’s consider them.

2. The Covenant with Creation (vv. 4–9)

Without going into all the reasons for (and against) seeing a covenant with creation, it is enough to read verses 4–9 as conjoining God’s work in creation with God’s covenant love. Clearly, Psalm 136 understands Yahweh to be the creator of all things, and thus he conjoins God’s covenantal purposes in creation. Importantly, the verses speak of Genesis 1 and God making the great lights . . . the sun to rule over the day . . . the moon and stars to rule over the night” (vv. 7–9). This is unique to creation account of Genesis 1 and cannot be related to the covenant with creation as established in Genesis 6–9, where the language of berith is explicit.

While I have never seen Psalm 136 adduced as evidence for a covenant with creation. From the repeated combination of ḥesed and the acts of creation, it seems like the natural  and necessary conclusion.  And thus, we should see in creation a demonstration of God’s love. According to the stipulations of that original covenant, which now broken (see Romans 5:12–21), It is not a redeeming love. But it is most certainly a genuine kind of covenant love.

3. The Covenant with Abraham (vv. 10–16)

Next, we see the covenant with Abraham. Though it is possible to see these verses related to Israel’s defeat of Egypt as describing God’s covenant with Israel formed at Sinai, this would be anachronistic. As Exodus 6:2–6 informs us, God is saving Israel from Egypt specifically because of his previous covenant with Abraham. Thus, it seems best to read Psalm 136:10–16 as reflecting the outworking of God’s covenant with Abraham, which included a commitment to lead his people out of Egypt (Genesis 15:13–14).

In this way then, we can and should view the whole Exodus narrative from the call of Moses, to the ten plagues, to the Red Sea crossing as an act of God’s covenant faithfulness. His love is proved by the way he keeps his word. And in this case, it is proved by saving his people from Egypt.

4. The Covenant with Israel (vv. 17–22)

Psalm 136:17–22 then shifts from the exodus from Egypt to Yahweh’s ongoing role as Israel’s shepherd-king. In these verses, the Psalmist remembers God’s powerful defeat of mighty kings (vv. 17–18), specifically Sihon and Og, whose demise is told in Numbers 21:21–35. These events occurred after the covenant at Sinai, and lead me to see verses 17–22 as focusing on God’s covenant with Israel.

However, this may not be the best way to put it. As Exodus 6 informs us, God is saving Israel because of his covenant with Abraham. And thus, the covenant with Israel is not so much a new covenant, as it is a marriage ceremony with his chosen people that includes stipulations and sacrifices for how God’s people will live with him. In this way, the covenant with Israel is an extension or legislative continuation of his covenant with Abraham.

In fact, the land mentioned in verses 21–22 are the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, not Moses. Rather, the Law of Moses explains how Abraham’s offspring can remain in the land. That being said, because these events took place after the covenant with Israel (and before God’s covenant with David), it seems best to read them as related to the covenant with Israel.

5. The New Davidic Covenant (vv. 23–26)

Finally, in verses 23–26 we see another shift in focus from Israel’s historic past to it’s historic present. “Us” is the predominant pronoun in these verses and set in Book V of the Psalms, I have to posit that this reflects the people of Israel who sit on the other side of the exile.

In a canonical reading of the Psalter, Books 1–2 follow the rise of David’s kingdom. Book 3 recounts the fall of David’s throne. Book 4 speaks of Israel’s exile. And Book 5 details God’s plan of redemption, through a new David. Because Psalm 136 comes after the introduction of this Savior (seen in Pss 110 and 118) and the return to Zion in the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120–134), it seems best to read the “us” as those exiles who have returned to Zion and are giving praise to God for his covenant faithfulness.

Importantly, the covenantal cast of these words is seen in the word “remember” (v. 23). In both Genesis 8:1 and Exodus 6:6, God says he remembered the people with whom he made covenant promises. The same thing is true in Psalm 106:45, which reads , “For their sake he remembered his covenant, and relented according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” In all of these settings, the idea of “remembering” is “remembering of God’s covenant.”

So here in Psalm 136, God has remembered his covenant. Only the language in verse 25 expands from Israel to “all flesh.” This is significant, because it matches the increasing scope of God’s new covenant. Just as God promised David that he would possesses the nations (Psalm 89), the new covenant promises a son of David that all nations will stream into him (cf. Isaiah 2:1–5; 60:1–22). Book 5 is the place in the Psalter where this new covenant is most evident, and thus it makes sense in this context that the praise of God’s remembrance is not just for a past covenant but rather for a future one.

In fact, Psalm 145, the final song of David, in the last verse before the Psalter closes in a symphony of praise, states: “My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.” Indeed, as Joel 2 relates, all flesh relates to the people of every nation who will give praise to the king of Israel, the heir of David, the promised seed of Abraham. Accordingly, verses 22–25 seem to point to a fourth covenant that stands upon and beyond the other three.

Let Us Give Thanks for God’s Covenant Love

In Psalm 136 we discover that the God of heaven makes himself known to us through a series of related, escalating covenants. These covenants demonstrate and display his love to us. In this we are invited to give praise. In his love, he makes us participants in his covenant, which in turn seals on our hearts his never-ending love.

Truly, our God is a covenant-making, covenant-keeping God. And thus his love is not discerned (correctly) without an awareness of his covenants. So as Psalm 136 calls to consider, let us give thanks to God for his covenant love. And let us keep an eye on God’s covenant history to understand how his love comes to us. In this way, we will both know our God and his multi-faceted covenant love.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds