If ever there was a passage of the Bible to ram a point home it’s surely psalm 136.
The second half of each of its 26 verses is identical, ‘…for his steadfast love endures forever.’ Most of the interspersed lines are giving different acts or characteristics of God which are examples of his steadfast love. And that’s where it gets a bit tricky, at least for me, to feel I can use this psalm easily as a prayer.
I’m fine with the first nine verses, which celebrate God’s creation as a sign of his love. That lifts my heart and inspires my mind. The last four verses are fine, too – celebrating God’s care for his people and his provision for all creatures. It’s verses 10-22 that are a bit more problematic. They celebrate God showing his love in striking down the firstborn of Egypt, and drowning Pharoah’s army. They go on to praise God for his love shown in the death of mighty kings, and in the taking of their land as a heritage for Israel. I can see all this as a sign of God’s power, and of his faithfulness to Israel – but of his steadfast love? That’s a bit more of a stretch.
I can’t just keep the bits of the Bible I like, though. This psalm reminds me that our experience of God is always partial and subjective. The psalmist writes from within the experience of a people who have been oppressed and enslaved, and who have had to rely on the LORD for national survival. For God’s love to be seen through Israel’s perspective is part of the way in which God has made himself known in the Bible, and this psalm is written squarely from within that perspective. The story and experience which shaped it are part of the revelation, and perhaps we can legitimately distinguish in our prayer and worship between the parts that remain universal and the parts that are national. What we can’t do is to forget that the nationally-specific verses are there, or think that the verses we like and can use are somehow ‘more inspired’ or more fully God’s word. I’m sure that the psalmist intended them to be read as a unity, and believed that God had Israel in mind when creating the heavens.
I’m reminded of the text from the Wisdom of Solomon which is used at the start of the midnight service at Christmas – a wonderful, evocative verse which is just right for that atmospheric moment of mystery and worship.
When all things were in quiet silence, and night was in the midst of her course, your mighty Word, O LORD, leapt down from your royal throne.
It seems a perfect image of the incarnation for that moment’s gathering. I’d got used to it and come to love it over the years. Then I read it in context, and found that it’s actually talking not about creation, incarnation, revelation or anything wonderful like that, but about the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt.
For a while I wondered whether I could use it again as part of Christmas worship. In the end I decided that I could and would. For I can see in these words a far richer and deeper meaning than the original writer had in mind – and one which I believe is more true to the continuing unfolding of God’s will and word, as he acts for the freedom not just of one nation but for the world.
Perhaps we can do the same with this psalm – not forgetting its roots in the particular experience of Israel but recognising that our experience of God’s love and our aspiration for living that love should be much wider.
For his steadfast love endures forever.