Bible Commentary: Psalm 136

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Psalm 136

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Psalm 136, a song of thanksgiving, is known in some traditions as the Great Hallel (or "Praise") on its own, while others reckon the psalm as the last of the Great Hallel collection. Though the psalm is unattributed, its opening words and repeated refrain--"Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy [hesed, loyal love or devotion] endures forever" (verse 1)--are known to have originally come from the song King David composed for the celebration of bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem (see 1 Chronicles 16:34). The same words are also found at the beginning of Psalms 106 and 107 and at the beginning and end of Psalm 118.

The refrain--"For His mercy endures forever"--was sung by the Israelite congregation and the Levitical choir at the dedication of Solomon's temple (2 Chronicles 7:3, 2 Chronicles 7:6) and later by King Jehoshaphat's singers before Judah's army (2 Chronicles 20:21). It seems likely that the accounts of these occasions are abbreviated, so that Psalm 136 may have been sung in these instances, as it appears to be written in the form of an antiphonal exchange--that is, back-and-forth, responsive singing--either between two choirs or between a choir and the congregation or as a litany between a worship leader and a choir or the congregation. In the latter case, the choir or congregation would sing the repeated refrain.

Note again the occurrence of the entire formula--both the call to thanks and the refrain--at the opening and closing of Psalm 118. This song, we may recall, concludes the Egyptian Hallel (113-118), so named for the customary use of this collection of psalms in the observance of Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, celebrating Israel's deliverance from Egypt. As it was likely seen as an amplification of Psalm 118's opening and closing formula, Psalm 136 eventually also became part of the traditional Passover liturgy, being sung after the Egyptian Hallel. Furthermore, as The Nelson Study Bible says, "This psalm, known as the 'Great Hallel,' was often recited in the temple as the Passover lambs were being slain" (note on Psalm 136).

The link between Psalms 118 and 136 is paralleled by the link between Psalms 113 and 115 (two other Egyptian Hallel songs) and Psalm 135 (reckoned among the Great Hallel in some traditions). Recall, furthermore, that besides the Passover role, the Egyptian Hallel also played a major role in the liturgy of the Feast of Tabernacles--as did the Great Hallel, especially when reckoned as a collection beginning with the songs of ascents.

Psalm 136 opens with three calls to thanksgiving and closes with another (verses 1-3, 26). We should note that though this song is classed as or among the Great Hallel, the word hallel or "praise" is not found within it. Rather, the giving of thanks to God in song, publicly expressing gratitude to Him for His works, is itself an important form of praise. Note the following parallel. Psalm 136:1 begins, "Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good!" Similarly, the previous psalm states: "Praise the LORD [Hallelujah], for the LORD is good" (Psalm 135:3). To praise is to speak well of, and Psalm 136 has much to say in praise of God--even though the word "praise" is not actually used.

Besides God's goodness, the opening calls to thanks also acknowledge God's supremacy, with the titles "God of gods" and "Lord of lords" (verses 2-3). The meaning of the latter terminology is easy to ascertain--that is, all who are "lords" (or masters, as this term designates) are ruled over by the supreme Sovereign Lord and Master, God. Yet many argue that the first title here is merely a figurative superlative, as a literal interpretation would seem to admit the existence of other gods (compare also Psalm 135:5; Psalm 138:1). It could, however, be taken literally to mean that God is the God over all who are called gods--including demons posing as pagan deities (compare Deuteronomy 32:17) and pagan rulers falsely claiming divinity. Moreover, God Himself elsewhere refers to human beings made in His image, who are supposed to rule for Him in the created realm, as gods (Psalm 82:1, Psalm 82:6). And in the eternal realm to come, those who are glorified will share in God's divinity--yet He will forever still be their God, and above all.

The three opening calls to thanks are all followed by the powerful refrain, which is repeated in every line of the psalm for a total of 26 times--perhaps because 26 is "the numerical value of the divine name Yahweh (when the Hebrew letters were used as numbers)" (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, note on Psalm 136). As noted above, the word in the refrain translated "mercy" in the KJV and NKJV is the Hebrew hesed, sometimes rendered "loyal love," "steadfast love," "covenant faithfulness," "lovingkindness" or "graciousness."

Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words has this to say: "The Septuagint [the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible] nearly always renders hesed with eleos ('mercy'), and that usage is reflected in the New Testament. Modern translations, in contrast, generally prefer renditions close to the word 'grace'.... In general, one may identify three basic meanings of the word, which always interact: 'strength,' 'steadfastness,' and 'love.' Any understanding of the word that fails to suggest all three inevitably loses some of its richness. 'Love' by itself easily becomes sentimentalized or universalized apart from the covenant. Yet 'strength' or 'steadfastness' suggests only the fulfillment of a legal or other obligation. The word refers primarily to mutual and reciprocal rights and obligations between the parties of a relationship... But hesed is not only a matter of obligation; it is also of generosity. It is not only a matter of loyalty, but also of mercy. The weaker party seeks the protection and blessing of the patron and protector, but he may not lay absolute claim to it. The stronger party remains committed to his promise, but retains his freedom, especially with regard to the manner in which he will implement those promises. Hesed implies personal involvement beyond the rule of law. Marital love is often related to hesed. Marriage is certainly a legal matter.... Yet the relationship, if sound, far transcends mere legalities.... Hence, 'devotion' is sometimes the single English word best capable of capturing the nuance of the original" ("Loving-kindness," Old Testament Section).

Hesed is "the most significant term used in the Psalms to describe the character of God" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 1-2). And since God's character never changes, this awesome attribute of His character is, like Him, eternal--as the refrain repeatedly affirms.

As the refrain is given in response to every act of God recounted in the psalm, we are to understand that all His acts here--the "great wonders" exclusive to Him (verse 4)--are born out of this sublime character trait. God created the universe and the earth (verses 4-9) as a habitation for mankind--out of loving devotion for those He would yet create and bring into a relationship with Him. Out of His loyal love and mercy came His deliverance of His people Israel from Egypt and from enemies on the way to Canaan--so that they would receive the land He promised them as a heritage or inheritance (verses 10-22). And it is due to God's unfailing love and grace that He continues to deliver--and that He provides sustenance to all (verses 23-25).

The structure of praising God for His works in creation and then for His works in delivering Israel in the Exodus and on the subsequent journey to the Promised Land is also found in the previous psalm (see Psalm 135:5-12). In fact, as was noted in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on that psalm, the wording of the latter aspect is very similar, providing evidence that one of these psalms influenced the composition of the other. "Slew mighty kings" (Psalm 135:10) occurs in Psalm 136 as "slew famous kings" (verse 18). In both cases this is followed by mention of "Sihon king of the Amorites" and "Og king of Bashan" (Psalm 135:11; Psalm 136:19-20), who were defeated by Israel (see Numbers 21:21-35; Deuteronomy 2:26-3:11) and whose land on the east side of the Jordan was taken over by the Israelite tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh (see Numbers 32; Deuteronomy 3:12-22). It is likely that the "famous kings" of Psalm 136:18 is also intended to include the kings of Canaan on the west side of the Jordan (as in Psalm 135:11), so that "their lands as a Israel" (Psalm 136:21-22) would include the land of Canaan (compare Psalm 135:11-12).

Considering the focus of Psalm 136 on God's loving acts of salvation, we should recall the psalm's festival association--for God's annual festivals outline His plan to redeem and save mankind. God's deliverance of Israel is a central focus in this plan, for all people must become part of Israel in a spiritual sense to ultimately be saved.

The psalm ends in verse 26 as it began--with another call to thank God and a final resounding affirmation, through the refrain, of His eternal steadfast love.