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His Love Endures Forever

Tom Pennington Psalm 136:1


This week, obviously many of us will gather with our families to celebrate Thanksgiving. If your family is like mine, there are a lot of family traditions, and my kids constantly remind me that every single one of those traditions is very important - everything from the feast to the football, from carving the turkey to carefully curling the crescent rolls. And honestly, I enjoy all of those traditions. I enjoy the time with my family and really appreciate those rich times. But it's so crucial that in all of our family traditions as believers, we don't miss the real reason for the holiday, and that is thanksgiving; setting aside time both individually and with our families to actually give thanks to God.

As you reflect on that and in anticipation of Thursday, let me ask you this morning what are you most thankful for? There are a lot of possible answers to that question. Some might say, steady employment in these difficult economic times or perhaps you were without work and you're thankful for a new job that God provided in the last year, or maybe for success in your career or in your school and studies. Maybe good food, we're all grateful for that, or a comfortable home, a good family. We should be grateful for all those temporal blessings that God provides us in this life. We're commanded to be, and we are. But we also ought to be grateful as believers for the spiritual blessings that we enjoy in Christ.

But I think there's even another step beyond that for us that we need to take. There's something for which we should be most grateful beyond our temporal blessings, beyond even our spiritual blessings. The thing for which we should be most grateful is for God Himself.

Often when the apostles and prophets began to express their gratitude, it's to this great theme that their thoughts and their pens turned - our God's unique character. When you survey the Scripture there is one quality that describes God's character that seems to me to elicit the most profound thanksgiving from God's people. That quality is encapsulated in a single Hebrew word. Sadly, it is a word that most Christians know nothing about. It's a word that after this morning I hope you will never forget. It's the Hebrew word, hesed. It's transliterated into English as h e s e d, hesed. Whenever God's character is exegeted to its most essential level in Scripture, this attribute is always included. For example, you remember when Moses asked God to show him His glory. When Moses said let me hear what You're like. In Exodus 34:6, we're told that God proclaimed His name to Moses, and this is what He said, "Yahweh, I AM, I am God (Elohim), compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and truth."

That amazing self-revelation of God given to Moses at Sinai unfolds as the Old Testament unfolds to become a great rallying cry of God's people. Six other times it is repeated verbatim in the Old Testament.

But there is one Hebrew word in that self-revelation that is repeated in the Old Testament again and again and again. It becomes the bedrock confidence of Old Testament believers. It is the concept of God's lovingkindness, the word - hesed in Hebrew. It occurs more than 250 times in the Old Testament. Most of those times it's used to describe an essential characteristic in God. Nowhere is that seen clearer or louder than in Psalm 136, where I'd like for us to turn this morning together. Psalm 136. In Jewish tradition this psalm has long been associated with the feast of Passover. Its theme is crystal clear. In fact, it literally shouts at us. If you look down through Psalm 136, you'll see that it is absolutely unique among all of the psalms because it is the only one in which the second half of every verse is exactly the same refrain, "for His lovingkindness is everlasting." That refrain drives home its theme. This psalm was used in corporate worship; it's likely that the Levites sang the first line of each verse and that the people responded antiphonally with 'for His lovingkindness is everlasting.' The main theme of this psalm meets us in its very first verse. Look at Psalm 136: 1 and the verse I want us just to briefly center our thoughts in this morning. "Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His lovingkindness is everlasting."

That verse identifies a crucial reality for us to understand about our God. Just like God's self-revelation back in Exodus 34, this verse is repeated verbatim six other times in the Old Testament. Its message is really quite straightforward. The ultimate reason for the thanksgiving of the people of God is the character of God. And in the character of God the one attribute on which we most depend is the one that is here translated lovingkindness.

Now as you look at Verse 1 the structure is pretty straightforward. There are three basic lines. The first line records for us the command of thanksgiving. "Give thanks to the Lord." The Hebrew word that is translated here give thanks, literally is the Hebrew to confess. In fact, this word is used three different ways in in the Old Testament; it's used often of confessing sin. In Psalm 32 when David finally is willing to be repentant and he confessed his sin to the Lord, it's this word that's used. It's also often used of confessing, not sin, but the character and acts of God. It's used often in the psalms in this way and when it's used this way, the same Hebrew is translated praise; it's one of the words for praise. But when this confession is to God about Himself or what He has accomplished, and it's accompanied with personal gratitude, then it is translated and means give thanks.

So, the psalmist says we are to confess who God is with an element of personal gratitude, we are to give thanks to the Lord. That's really important. As I was leaving my, neighborhood earlier this week there is at the at the entrance to my neighborhood a sign on which the homeowners association can post all of those little reminders about things we're not supposed to do or upcoming events. But this week it was completely blank except on that sign were two words. Give thanks. It didn't say - to whom. I suspect that the sign was well intentioned but probably had to be tempered by political correctness, and if you'll keep your ears open this week, you will hear people all around you at your job, in at school, on the news, in sporting events you'll hear them talking about being thankful, being grateful. But often you won't hear them say to whom. Don't you as a believer be guilty of that. When you speak to others about the things, you're grateful for, express the fact that you are grateful to God for those things. And don't spend this entire week merely talking to other people about what you are grateful for, notice we are to give thanks to the Lord. Don't go through this entire week talking about what you're grateful for and never set aside time to tell the Lord your thanks. The psalmist says, "give thanks to the Lord."

So that's the command to thanksgiving, but the psalmist doesn't leave us there, he goes on to explain secondly the chief reason for our thanksgiving. Notice how Verse 1 goes on, "Give thanks to the Lord, for (because here's the reason, He is good) for His lovingkindness is everlasting." Now at first glance the psalmist appears to be giving us two reasons, but in reality, the two are as we will see really only one reason. Now, first of all, he begins by saying we should "give thanks to the Lord for He is good." We should give thanks for God's goodness. What do we mean by that? When the psalmist says God is good, and we say that, what does that mean? A W Tozer defines it this way, he says, "The goodness of God is that which disposes Him to be kind, cordial, benevolent, and full of good will toward men." There is in God a quality, there it permeates His being, it is an attribute, that's why we use that word, that can describe Him as One who is inherently good and generous.

Now understand that God is good. He was good before He made anything. He expressed His goodness eternally within the relationship of the triune Godhead. But since God is good in Himself, when He created the world, out of Him flowed all goodness. He is the fountain of all good to His creatures. Psalm 119:68 puts it this way, "You are good; therefore, You do good." That's the most common way in which God's goodness is used in Scripture. His doing good. His benevolence. That which prompts God to deal generously, to be generous with us. Because God is good, He is the source of everything good in the world. Listen, every good thing you enjoy in life, every good thing you enjoy comes from God. James 1:17 says: "Every good thing given, and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow."

The reason you should give thanks to God is because if it's good, it's from God. So, God's goodness then has to do with His acts of kindness, His benevolence.

So, who are the objects of God's benevolence of His goodness? The answer Biblically is all creatures, all beings. Turn over to Psalm 145, just a few pages over.

David makes this very plain in Psalm 145:9:

The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works.

Down to verse 15:

The eyes of all (beings, all creatures) look to You and You give them their food in due time. You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.

Verse 17:

The Lord is righteous in all His ways and kind in all His deeds.

So, understand God demonstrates His goodness to absolutely everything and everyone.

But He does so especially and uniquely to His own. God's goodness is especially reserved for those who are His own. Psalm 31:19 says this, "How great is Your goodness, which You have stored up for those who fear You, which You have wrought for those who take refuge in You." Psalm 84:11: "No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly." Lamentations 3:25: "The Lord is good to those who wait for Him to the person who seeks Him."

There is in God essential goodness. He is good. If nothing else existed, He would still be good. But because He created, He is now good to all that He's has made, but He is especially good to those who are His own. But what is it about God's goodness that especially captured the heart of the psalmist? The answer comes in the last phrase of Verse 1 and the second line of all 26 verses of Psalm 136. The chief reason for our thanksgiving is one specific expression of God's goodness and it is His lovingkindness. Look again at Verse 1. "Give thanks to the Lord, because He is good"

And that goodness is most especially demonstrated in that His lovingkindness is everlasting. "For His lovingkindness is everlasting."

Those are just in the Hebrew three brief words. And in those three Hebrew words the Scripture takes us to the essential core of Israel's experience and understanding of her God. Now because of the nature of Hebrew poetry, which is parallelism, not rhyme. The third line in Verse 1 is a further explanation or development of the idea in the second line. So, it is by this one expression of God's goodness that the psalmist is now captivated - His lovingkindness.

Now if you've been a part of our church any time at all, you've heard me say this but let me just reiterate it for those of you who haven't been here. The New American Standard translation is a great literal translation of the original Greek and Hebrew in which the Bible was written. That's why we use it to study because there is no English translation that labors more carefully to make sure that you're seeing as much as possible, a reflection of the original Greek and Hebrew. However, that said, I think the translation "lovingkindness" is one of the worst, probably the worst translation that the translators of the NAS made. The Hebrew word behind lovingkindness is hesed. I want you to forget the word lovingkindness because in our world it means almost nothing. It's a kind of throw away word. It once meant something but not so much today.

This concept though, hesed, is a crucial concept. It occurs more than 250 times in the Old Testament. It sometimes speaks of a relationship between two humans but most frequently it refers to a relationship between God and His people. Now let me define it for you. This word is very difficult to translate directly into English with a single word because the Hebrew word is infused with two equal ideas. Get these two ideas in your mind. First, this word includes the idea of a profound love that is found in the deepest of relationships. A profound love that is found in the deepest of relationships. So, on the one hand you have, love. But there's an equal competing idea in this word as well. Not only a profound love, but secondly a tenacious, stubborn commitment. So, love and commitment or love and loyalty. That's why the English Standard Version translates this Hebrew word as steadfast love. That's why the New International Version translates it as unfailing love. They're acknowledging that this Hebrew word hesed has these two concepts, love and loyalty – married together. Ralph Davis puts it this way, "Hesed is not merely love, but loyal love, not merely kindness, but dependable kindness, not merely affection, but affection that has committed itself." And this is the foundation of everything for us, even more so than a covenant. You know the covenant God made with His people in Exodus 19 when He made them a nation. They couldn't appeal to that covenant because in Exodus 32 they broke it by worshipping a golden calf, and so in Exodus 34, God says, "your real appeal to Me is that I am abounding in hesed, I am abounding in loyal love – in steadfast love."

Let me encourage you to use your English lexicon, or excuse me your English concordance and trace down this word as it is used throughout the Old Testament. It's incredible what you will find in terms of how it's described. Let me just give you a couple of examples. This word regarding God's hesed is described as abounding. We saw that in Exodus 34, "I am abounding" God says, "in hesed." In other words, God doesn't just have a little bit of this quality. This isn't just something that He occasionally demonstrates. He has on overwhelming amount of this quality. He is abounding in hesed. In other places it's said to be great. There's one place in Psalm 33:5 where the psalmist says, "God's hesed, His steadfast love extends to the heavens." After this service is over, I want you to walk out those doors, and go out go outside and look up in the sky, look up at the atmosphere that protects us and shields us from space, miles up. And God says it's as if this planet is encapsulated, shrouded in a sea of My steadfast love. It's called precious, that is, valuable.

In fact, in Psalm 63:3, listen to this, "it is better than life" the psalmist says. Think about that for a moment. He says if you had a choice, and on the one hand you could choose to keep on living in this world and on the other hand you could choose to keep God's steadfast love, it wouldn't even be a decision. It's better than life. Why is that? What exactly does God's hesed, His steadfast love do? What does it produce? What difference does it make? Well, there are countless examples, and I would encourage you to go through your own concordance and study this word and how God demonstrates this. But let me just give you a couple to think about. We are preserved both physically and spiritually by God's hesed, by His steadfast love. Listen to Psalm 40:11. "Your hesed will continually preserve me." The reason I continue to be protected physically and spiritually is because of God's steadfast love. When you find yourself in trials and troubles and difficulty, when you need comfort, it is from God's steadfast love that that comfort comes. Psalm 119:76, "O may Your steadfast love comfort me according to Your word to Your servant."

Here's a really important one for every single one of us. When you find yourself needing God's forgiveness, when you need forgiveness for your sin, do you understand that it is because of God's hesed that you experience that forgiveness? Listen to Psalm 51, you remember David's hymn of confession as he confessed his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah, how does he begin? Psalm 51:1, he begins, "Be gracious to me, O God," God show me grace. Be good to me even though I deserve exactly the opposite and what he's asking for is forgiveness because he goes on to say, "Blot out my transgression."

But on what basis does David ask for that forgiveness. He doesn't say because I deserve it, because You've made a promise to me. No, he says, "Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your hesed (Your steadfast love)." God my only hope, my only appeal is that while I am unstable as water, your love is steadfast on me. Psalm 86:5: I love this, "For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in steadfast love to all who call upon You." Because of God's steadfast love, He is ready to forgive. Ready, eager to forgive.

Micah 7:18, you're familiar with this verse, in the middle of Israel's sin, Micah the prophet talks to God about who God is and this is what he says in Micah 7:18: "Who is a God like You?" He is saying well you can look around at all of the so-called gods of the nations around, they're not like You God. "Who is a God like You, who pardons iniquity and the rebellious act of the remnant of Your possession?" (In other words, the sin of Your people? Who does that?) "He does not retain His anger forever," But He forgives. Why? "Because He delights in hesed." Because God finds His greatest delight in His steadfast love for His own, He pardons, He forgives.

Listen, I don't know this morning if you've ever come to the place in your own life where you have repented of your sin. Where you have admitted your rebellion to God, and you have pled with Him to forgive you because of the perfect life and the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ. I don't know if that's ever been true of you or not, but I can promise you this. If you will find yourself alone with God today, and you will do just that, I can tell you how you will find Him. You will find that because of His steadfast love He is ready to forgive. He delights in hesed.

Did you realize that your prayers are heard with God, because of His steadfast love? Psalm 119:149: "Hear my voice, according to Your steadfast love." And that's repeated over and over again throughout the psalms. God listen to my prayer and it's not because I deserve to be heard but because of Your steadfast love.

Now look again at Psalm 136. Every verse here celebrates God's steadfast love. Verse's 1 through 3 are a call to give thanks to God for this reality. But then we see God's hesed in various settings, in Verse's 4 through 9, we see it in creation. The reason God made this planet, the reason He initiated life here was because of His steadfast love. In Verse's 10 through 22, we see His steadfast love in the redemption and preservation of His people. And of course, the greatest Old Testament picture of redemption is the Exodus from Egypt and so that's what used here. But it's describing God's redemption of His people and His preservation of them and care for them. That is founded in God's hesed. But I love Verse's 23 to 25 because here we find that God's hesed is even in the present experience of His people. Notice for the first time in the psalm, we come to the word 'us. Verse 23: "who remembered us in our low estate." Verse 24: "for He has rescued us from our adversaries."

Now why is that important? Because the psalmist wasn't there at the creation and the psalmist wasn't event there for the exodus and the Red Sea and the conquest of Canaan in the earlier verses. And so, he fast forwards to his own time and he identifies his story with the story of those who'd gone before. He could celebrate God's steadfast love, not because he experienced it in the exodus, or in the creation, but because he's experienced it in his own life. As one writer puts it, "The psalmist believes in a God who has reached out for him and will never let go. Therein lies his hope." Folks this is the one unchanging certainty in an ever-changing world – God's steadfast love.

But notice the psalmist isn't content just to celebrate God's hesed, but a quality about His hesed. Look at Verse 1 again: "For His lovingkindness, His steadfast love, is everlasting." It is forever. It endures. Now make sure you understand that this is not true for unbelievers. They are here and now the recipients of His love and His common grace as we were reminded even last week in His causing the sun to shine and the rain to fall and providing good things for them. They are the recipients of God's love now in His common grace. But if they die unrepentant, they will experience God's justice and His wrath forever - that is the message of the Scripture, not His steadfast love. This is for those who are the special objects of His love. For them His steadfast love is everlasting. Now this is huge, because we live in a world where people make commitments of steadfast love, and for a time they are steadfast in their love, but sadly in a fallen world, sometimes those commitments change. They're steadfast love but its only for a short time.

In fact, there's an interesting verse in Hosea. Hosea is written to put God's hesed, His loving loyalty on display. And the picture of course is the prophet Hosea and his unfaithful wife, and God says, I'm like the faithful husband in steadfast love and My people are like the unfaithful wife. Listen to what he says about their hesed, Israel's hesed. This is Hosea 6:4: "What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? For your hesed, your loving loyalty is like a morning cloud and like the dew which goes away early."

God says when it comes to your hesed; it's like that morning fog that's all burned off by 9 o'clock. Here for a brief time and gone. Or it's like the dew which has evaporated by noon. You see as humans often our love is steadfast only for a moment, for a few days, for a few years, but not God's hesed, it never, never, never quits. It is everlasting. I love the last verse of the most famous psalm in the psalter, Psalm 23. The psalmist says, "Surely God's goodness and His hesed will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." He pictures God's steadfast love like one of the hounds of heaven, forever at is heels through this life and never relenting, never letting go.

But the amazing thing is God's steadfast love for us never had a beginning and will never have an end. Turn over to my one of my favorite psalms anyway, Psalm 103. Psalm 103, the psalmist here, David, makes a remarkable statement. He first pictures us, and he pictures us like the spring grass that sprouts up, or the wildflowers here in Texas, they pop up, they're beautiful. Notice in Verse 15: "As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes." Looks great, but then comes the summer winds and heat and suddenly and quickly it's gone. That's our lives. We're like the spring wildflowers, here today, gone tomorrow. But Verse 17: "But the hesed, the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him." It's from eternity past into eternity path or into eternity future. Rack your brain, the psalmist says, rack your brain and go back as far as your mind will take you into the past, into eternity past and then turn and consider as far as your mind will take you into eternity future. Go as far as you can in both directions without your brain turning into a bowl of mush. And the psalmist's point is from vanishing point in eternity past to vanishing point in eternity future you will find absolutely nothing pervading your life and existence except the stubborn, unchanging, unrelenting love of God. That's our God. That's something to be thankful for.

Now how do we respond? I mean, how do you respond to that? Well, it's interesting, because the Scripture gives us several ways we ought to respond and let me just briefly challenge you with these. You can look these up on your own and study them. Let me just mention them to you. First of all, you ought to meditate on God's hesed. Psalm 107:43: "who is wise, let him consider." Let him think about, let him meditate "on the hesed of the Lord." Think about it. Meditate on it. As I said, most Christians are completely unaware of this concept. But the Scriptures repeatedly say, "think about this."

Secondly expect it when you face trials and troubles. Expect God's steadfast love. I love Lamentations 3:32 because Jeremiah's in the middle of the worst tragedy of his life, the destruction of the city of Jerusalem. And in that context, listen to what he says, "if God causes grief, then He will have compassion according to His abundant steadfast love." He may bring grief into your life. He may bring trouble, trials that are unimaginable but if He does, He will show you compassion according to His steadfast love. Pray for God to show you His steadfast love. The psalms are filled with prayers like that. Trust in God's steadfast, rejoice in God's steadfast love and of course here in Psalm 136, "give thanks to God for His steadfast love."

Now in Psalm 136 and in the entire Old Testament the greatest expression of God's steadfast love to His people was what? It was the Exodus. It was the events surrounding the redemption of His people from Egypt celebrated in the Passover. When we come to the New Testament though, we find that God's steadfast love found its greatest and its most costly expression in another act of redemption, in the redemption of which the Passover was just a shadow. As New Testament believers we celebrate and give thanks to God for hesed personified. God's love was manifested in a person at the cross. Romans 5:8, "but God proved, (or God demonstrated, or God put on display) His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." God's steadfast love toward us was most powerfully displayed in Jesus Christ at the cross. And that's why it's appropriate that as we begin this thanksgiving week, we do so by celebrating the Lord's Table which points us back to that great event. Let's pray together.

Our Father, we thank You for Your steadfast love. Forgive us for taking it for granted, for being ignorant of it. For not giving You thanks, for not thinking about it, for not rejoicing in it, for not seeking it from You. Thank You O God, that You find delight in Your hesed. We do as well. And we love You and we worship You for the love You have shown us in Christ. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.