The Duration of Mercy

Tom Nettles
| Psalm 136 | July 17, 2017

The recurrent chorus of this Psalm identifies it so well that we can assume that it is a Psalm of David. He used that phrase with regularity in similar recitations of the power and favor of God to Israel (1 Chronicles 16: 7-36, Compare verse 34 with Psalm 136:1; see also 1 Chronicles 16:41). Probably we are accurate in saying that it was sung in Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles vii. 3, 6). This Psalm, in all likelihood, as a reminder of how the Lord had undertaken in mighty and miraculous ways for Israel in days past, was the text for the singers that went before the armies of Jehoshaphat. Their song served as a background for the Lord’s victory in the wilderness of Tekoa over Mount Seir, Ammon, and Moab (2 Chronicles 20:21, 22).

 

I. Praise to God for the Excellence of His Being – Verses 1-3

A. The Refrain, “For his mercy endures forever,” or “his lovingkindness is everlasting.” God from eternity held within himself a series of covenants through which he would unfold his attributes to a created order. These included a covenant of works, given to the entire race in its initial existence in Adam. Eternal life was to be merited through perfect obedience to God’s moral requirements of the creature. This was forfeited by the one man’s disobedience. Subsequent to the fall of the race in Adam, a covenant of grace, present in the purpose of God from eternity, was introduced in Genesis 3:15. This would involve a fulfillment of the covenant of works by another covenant head, Jesus Christ, whose work of personal merit would be given to a selected group of fallen image-bearers as a transaction of pure mercy and grace (Ephesians 2:3-5; Colossians 2:9-15; Titus 3:3-7). This unfolded in covenants to Noah, Abraham and his posterity, David, and in the new covenant announced in Jeremiah 31:29-37 and Ezekiel 36:24-32 and 37:24-28. It culminated in the passion and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, and the inclusion of the Gentiles in the eternal dimensions of these covenants (2 Corinthians 6:17-7:1). The mercy, the lovingkindness, that God placed on his people that are included in the covenant of grace, even the covenant of redemption, is indeed everlasting. It is mentioned in John 17:1-3, Romans 8:26-39, Galatians 3:9-14, Ephesians 1:3-7, Hebrews 13:20, 21. (It will help every teacher to read all of these texts to make this covenantal prerogative of God firmly entrenched in your mind). This is what the Psalmist has in mind, by divine inspiration, when he writes the refrain, “For His lovingkindness is everlasting.”

B. Give thanks for His goodness – God’s goodness constitutes the sum total of his attributes. Goodness embraces both justice and mercy, perfect equity and grace, wrath and forgiveness. God’s goodness passed before Moses (33:19-23; 34:5-9).

C. Give thanks because he is the highest and greatest of all Beings, not just quantitively but as a being is dependent on nothing outside of Himself, not partial in any attribute, but infinite, eternal, unchangeable, and infinitely good in all. He is the one true God, and no other being who has authority in any realm has it without having received it from this God (John 19:11). Even the pagan deities and mythological gods were never imagined to have had the pure and absolute authority and power of Jehovah. Their spheres of power were restricted and it could hardly be said that they were “good” and filled with lovingkindness.

D. Give thanks because His authority is unparalleled. He is the Lord of lords. This is no absent deity, carelessly letting his creation operate on its own. No, it is dependent on him for every moment of its existence and it operates according to his decree and the perpetual sustaining energy of his creative power.

 

II. Praise to God For the manifestation of his power and wisdom in Creation – Verses 4-9

A. He alone has the power, purpose, authority, and wisdom to create. He “alone does great wonders.” If he has brought the world into existence then he can use it for any purpose he so deems. Though ordinarily every part of it operates in harmony with his own symmetry and rationality, he may perform at any time something astounding and, to us, miraculous with any part of the cosmos. He upholds it from moment to moment and will sustain it in all of its parts and its teleological dependencies even while one part of it he uses to give evidence of his transcendent power and immanent involvement. Spurgeon quipped, “Since it requires me to be an atheist that I may logically reject miracles, I prefer the far smaller difficulty of believing in the infinite power of God” Treasury of David, verse 13.

B. He looks to the first verse of divine revelation as a source of praise in giving a vast, virtually immeasurable, sphere of life sustaining gases (Genesis 1:1 and 6-8). Even as we are surrounded by this firmament and absolutely dependent on it, so we cannot escape the presence of God and our dependence on him.

C. He looks to the arrangement of a habitable, stable and solid arrangement of land upon which we can move, and build, and work–an environment for the support of an industrious life (Genesis 1: 9, 10).

D. Verses 7-9, he looks to the fourth day of creation when the bearers of light were created to give a predictable life-sustaining rhythm to the light that already had been brought into being Genesis 1:14-19. Even as the earth supports our bodies and provides space for the use of our limbs, and atmosphere provides air for our lungs and the sustenance of our food supplies, so the rhythm of night and day gives fitting opportunity for work and rest. All of these show his lovingkindness. Each in itself has been created and related to the others with wisdom, understanding, and skill.

 

III. Praise to God for His particular acts of merciful power in claiming Israel as His Own – Verses 10-20

A. A great calamity to the Egyptians was an act of consummate mercy to the chosen nation of Israel. The killing of the first born was the final and the most deeply penetrating of all the calamitous judgments Yahweh inflicted on Egypt: “There was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead” (Exodus 12:30). We must not forget the certainty nor underestimate the thoroughness of the terror that will come to unbelievers left to judgment before a holy God having only their own demerits to answer for them (Isaiah 24:18-23; 26:12). In all of this the covenant people give thanks and praise that “His lovingkindness is everlasting.”

B. He brought Israel out from their midst. “And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, even the selfsame day it came to pass, that all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:41). Again, this provides clear evidence that God distinguishes between the people of the earth on the basis of his own sovereignly declared covenants. These slaves in a state of exile were “the hosts of the Lord.”

C. Verses 13-15 recall the event of God’s manifestation of absolute control of the elements that He Himself created by clearing a path of dry land through the Red Sea, and, after having moved the entire nation of the Israelites through it, closed it back over the army and the Pharaoh of Egypt. Not only was the hand of God seen but his arm was uncovered in great power and glory: “The Lord shall fight for you and you shall hold your peace” (Exodus 14:14).

D. “To Him who led His people through the wilderness” – Immediately in the wilderness of Shur, God provided water, sweetened by divine intervention, and then abundantly plentiful and luxurious at Elim for an insecure and still skeptical people (Exodus 15:23-27). Quails and manna, a special bread from heaven, were provided for food. After their rebellion at Kadesh Barnea (Numbers 14:8-10), God preserved the nation only for the sake of his covenantal decree and “the greatness of his mercy” (Numbers 14:13-23; 28-31). Then for forty years he provided for them in their wanderings, teaching them dependence on him, their clothes not wearing out and their feet not swelling, until the generation that was to inherit the land had reached its maturity (Deuteronomy 8:1-4; 29:5).

E. As they entered the land to take possession of it they were opposed by two kings who possessed large armies and land. God gave them victory over both and made their land the inheritance of Gad, Reuben, and half of the tribe of Manasseh (Numbers 21:21-25; 33-35; Deuteronomy 3:1-13; 29:7, 8).

 

IV. Praise to God for his Faithfulness to the Abrahamic Covenant – Verses 21, 22

A. Verses 21, 22 give a special emphasis to God’s granting the land as an inheritance: “And gave their land as a heritage, … Even a heritage to Israel His servant.” This fulfilled in part the covenant announced to Abram in Genesis 13:14-18; 15:7-21. The promise, made around B. C. 1913, was fulfilled around B. C. 1451. This was close to 462 years, after Abraham surveyed the land to the north, south, east and west. Though this in itself was only a temporal and physical aspect of the covenant, its fulfillment was essential for the rest of the types, promises and eventual fulfillment of the covenant of redemption expressed in the New Covenant.

B. Thus we find that the “lovingkindness of God” has both temporal and eternal implications. David celebrated the fulfillment of the temporal dimensions of the covenant as a mark of divine faithfulness that surely would accrue to the eternal, spiritually redemptive aspects of the covenant.

  1. All of those who benefited from God’s faithfulness to provide physical deliverance, protection, and land for the sustaining of families, culture, and worship were not necessarily recipients of his gracious operation of spiritual transformation. “Yet the Lord hath not given you a heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day” (Deuteronomy 29:4). Since all the external evidence and manifestations of power were not sufficient to overcome the spiritual blindness and hardness of heart of the people, something more was necessary, “not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them, … but this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it … they will all know me,… for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” Jeremiah 31:32-34).
  2. These promises in the covenant of redemption continue with a more eternal perspective in the New Testament. The risen Lord spoke to Paul in Corinth, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9, 10) To that church founded by covenantal grace in the wicked city of Corinth Paul wrote, “as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:7-9). “For His lovingkindness is everlasting.”

 

V. Praise to God that, as the God of heaven, he regards those of low estate and rescued them from all kinds of adversaries – verses 23, 24.

A. God chose Israel to “be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.” But not for their greatness, or superior virtues or intriguing potential or “were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondmen, … Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations” (Deuteronomy 7:6-9). “For His lovingkindness is everlasting.”

B. Even on the verge of being beheaded for the cause of Christ, Paul could remind all Christians of the absolute faithfulness of God to this promise, first that he saves us by his grace, and at the same time sustains us in faithfulness to death by his covenantal love: “Notwithstanding [that no man stood with him] the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. And the Lord shall deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom: to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (2 Timothy 4:17, 18).

 

VI. Verses 25, 26 – As the God of heaven, the high and exalted one, the only true God, all flesh is provided with its necessary food according to his general providence, “for his lovingkindness is everlasting.” This shows that God operates through creation and providence in sustaining the world, its people, the continuity of nations, including hostile forces for the special sake of carrying out the benefits of his eternal covenant of redemption (Revelation 4:11). The world continues with all its authority structures in place in their dizzying diversity so that he might bring to fruition the final salvation of all his elect (1 Timothy 2:1-7; 2 Peter 3:7-15). “For His lovingkindness is everlasting.”