His Love Endures Forever

Psalm 136

A few days ago I received a note from a friend I first met when we were in the same youth group together many years ago. My friend sent a Facebook message that contained a poignant observation:

In my heart and mind, we are still innocent, carefree teens at the church. However, the reality is that we are now middle-aged, and I am noticing that many of our friends on Facebook are dealing with exceptionally difficult illnesses. Others are losing special friends, mentors, and family members who were at the end of a normal lifespan. It still hurts, as we are such imperfect mortal beings.

There is, my friend adds, a great amount of hurting going on. Who can doubt that this is true? When you are young, you feel invincible. I have always thought this was a good thing, this feeling of being strong and brave and able to conquer any obstacle, because it gives to the young the courage to attempt great things. Someone has remarked that it is a pity that youth is wasted on the young. By the time we gain the wisdom that comes from experience, we have lost that innocent and carefree spirit.

Sometimes we gain that wisdom from our children. We have some dear friends who serve very effectively as missionaries in Alaska. A year and a half ago the wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It came as a shock because she is young and to all outward appearances had seemed healthy. But cancer is no respecter of persons.

Recently our friends have received the sad news that no further treatment is possible. The wife is now starting hospice care. We know about their situation because they have kept their friends updated via Facebook and Twitter. The husband and wife have both spoken openly about the own journey through fear, anger, and doubt. Yet down deep their faith has remained steadfast. I was struck by two messages that appeared on their Twitter account recently. The husband wrote that “the stress is high on the family these days.” Then there was this about their six-year-old daughter:

On a positive note. A while back Audrey stated that she thought Heaven was great place to go so she decided not to “break up” with Jesus :)

Note the smiley face at the end of that sentence. What truth there is in that little symbol. In times of great crisis we discover what we really believe. For our dear friends, coming to the great moment of truth, they smile through their tears because they know that they know that they know that God is good.

Even now.
Even in hospice.

Audrey is right. Why “break up” with Jesus now?

Why “break up” with Jesus now?

We have to find out who God is so that we will be strong when the winds of sorrow blow against us.  Good theology does that for us.

We can see this principle at work in Psalm 136, sometimes called a “Hallelujah Psalm” because it contains no petitions, no complaints, and no problems. Instead it contains a list of moments where God worked in history, each answered by the refrain “His love endures forever.” No doubt the worship leader would read the first line of each verse, and the congregation would respond, “His love endures forever."

I. The Call to Praise

The psalm begins this way:

“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good.
            His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods.
            His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords:
            His love endures forever
(vv. 1-3).

These verses offer us three reasons to praise God:

            1. He is good!
            2. He is the God of gods!
            3. He is the Lord of lords! 

There are “gods” aplenty and “lords” all around us, but there is only one true God who rules the universe. To that great God belongs our best and deepest and highest praise.

Consider the meaning of these things:

            1. He is truly the Supreme Being of the Universe.
            2. He is good in what he does.

It is impossible to overestimate the value of these truths:

            1. If he were not supreme, we would not worship him.
            2. If he were not good, we would not trust him.

But because he is both good and the ultimate Lord, we not only trust him, we also bow before him in praise and worship!

Note the answering chorus in each verse: “His love endures forever.” These simple words remind us that all things display God’s love at work on behalf of His children. 

The Hebrew word translated “love” refers to loyal love, faithful love, or you might call it “covenant love.” It’s love that lasts because it is based on an unbreakable commitment. It’s the love of a husband for his wife or the love of mother for her children. God’s love is eternal because his covenant is eternal. He cannot not love his people! 

But the meaning goes beyond that. God’s love endures.

It outlasts all the problems of life.
It transcends the troubles we face every day.
It goes on when our life comes to an end. 

God cannot not love his people!  

Charles Spurgeon said it this way:

“No saint shall fall finally or fatally. Sorrow may bring us to the earth, and death may bring us to the grave, but lower we cannot sink, and out of the lowest of all we shall arise to the highest of all.”

When we stand by the grave of a loved one, we have to know the truth. Where is he? Where is she? Is death the end or is there something else? 

What gives us the confidence to face death with our heads held high? How can we cross the Jordan to reach the other side? We can because “His love endures forever.” That’s it! That’s our hope! We die, but “His love endures forever.” We fail, but “His love endures forever.” We stumble and fall, but “His love endures forever.”   

II. The Cause for Praise  

The remainder of Psalm 136 contains a survey of God’s faithfulness beginning with creation (vv. 5-9) and ending with Israel’s entry into the Promised Land (vv. 10-26).

A. Creation (verses 5-9)       

These verses follow the general pattern of Genesis 1. Verse 5 parallels Genesis 1:1. Verse 6 goes with Genesis 1:2. Verses 7-9 closely follow Genesis 1:14-18. Note that the universe and everything in it is made “by his understanding.” This rules out purposeless evolution or blind fate. The universe came into being because God willed it to be. Perhaps you’ve heard of the T-shirt that says, “I believe in the Big Bang Theory.  God said it, and Bang! It happened.” The writer of Psalm 136 would agree. Hebrews 11:3 states the same truth this way: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” The entire universe came into being by a plan that comes from the hand and mind of Almighty God. Nothing was made by chance. Nothing “evolved” into being by a random mutation. God’s “understanding” stands behind the universe as we see it.

If you leave God out, you’ve missed the fundamental truth about the universe!

Since the universe as it is rests on God’s “understanding,” no one can understand the universe properly without knowing God. If you leave God out, you’ve missed the fundamental truth about the universe! In order to understand human origins and the true history of the universe, we must begin with God’s understanding as he has revealed it to us in his word. Start there and you start on firm ground. Start anywhere else and you sink into the quicksand of humanistic unbelief.

We all wrestle with these three great questions:             

Where did I come from?
Why am I here?
Where am I going?

The first is the most fundamental. Until you answer it, you cannot answer the last two properly. During our recent trip to China, I shared those three questions when I spoke to 450 university students. During the question and answer time, a student said that he didn’t think it mattered where he came from or where he was going. The only thing that mattered was what he did while he was here on earth. He wanted to know what I thought about his viewpoint. The question is important because it forces us to confront the most basic issues of life. If we didn’t come from anywhere and aren’t going anywhere, then all we have left is the 60 or 70 or 80 years we spend on planet earth. Why not just eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we will die? Why get involved in anything outside ourselves if this life is all there is? But if we were made in God’s image, if he loves us so much that he sent his Son to die for us, then nothing matters more than knowing God deeply, personally, and intimately.

B. The Exodus (verses 10-15)

These verses recall the amazing series of miracles whereby God freed his people from Egyptian bondage:

“to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt  . . .
” and brought Israel out from among them  . . .
"with a mighty hand and outstretched arm . . .
"to him who divided the Red Sea asunder . . .
"and brought Israel through the midst of it . . .
"but swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea . . .”

God has no trouble defeating his enemies. He also has no trouble parting the Red Sea. He only asks that his people acknowledge that he did it–and not them!

God has no trouble defeating his enemies. 

We should praise the Lord not only that we are delivered but that our enemies are scattered, confounded, and utterly defeated because . . . His love endures forever!

C. The Wilderness (verse 16)

The psalmist sums up forty years of wandering in one verse: “To him who led his people through the desert, His love endures forever” (v. 16). So many things happened during those forty years: manna and quail, water from the rock, Balaam and his talking donkey, Moses on Mt. Sinai, the golden calf, Kadesh Barnea, the 12 spies, bitter water, bleached bones in the desert, complaining, and the continual challenges to Moses’ leadership.  Through it all, God led his people to the Promised Land.                                               

Note that God led his people “through” the desert, not around it. To get to the Promised Land, they had to go through the desert. So it will be for all of us. God leads his children along to heaven, but they have no easy road as they make their journey.  There are many detours, many switchbacks, many delays, and more than a few seeming dead ends, but God works in and through it all to see that they finally arrive because . . . His love endures forever!

D. The Conquest (verses 16-22)      

You can find the story of Sihon and Og in Numbers 21. When Israel desired free passage through the land of the Amorites, Sihon the king refused the Israelites and then attacked them. He was soundly defeated and Israel ended up occupying all the cities of the Amorites. As they marched up the road, Og king of Bashan marched out with his whole army to do battle. He too was totally defeated.

“So they struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army, leaving them no survivors. And they took possession of his land” (Numbers 21: 35).

What an encouragement these verses are because they remind of us God’s faithfulness in spite of our repeated failures. It would have been easy for the Jews to think, “Our sin has made God forget us. We have no hope, no future. We’ve blown everything.” But despite their sin and foolish unbelief, God never gave up on his people.

Let every child of God take great hope. Your past does not determine your future. You may have failed again and again and again, but there is still mercy for those who trust in the Lord. Who knows but that tomorrow you may yet see God win a great victory in your life because  . . . His love endures forever!

E. Throughout History (verses 23-25)

These verses contain three great truths about God:

1. He remembered us (v. 23).
2. He freed us (v. 24).
3. He feeds us (v. 25).

Your past does not determine your future.

He remembered us by sending Jesus to save us.
He freed us from our sins.
He feeds us every single day.

What God did for ancient Israel, he does for his people everywhere, all the time, in every situation because . . . His love endures forever!

III. The Conclusion of Praise

Psalm 136 ends with a general call to praise God at all times: “Give thanks to the God of heaven.  His love endures forever" (v. 26). Let’s wrap up our study of this psalm with three important conclusions.

1. History is not about us. History is about God.

This may seem elementary, but it is in fact a profound truth.

You are the not the center of history.
God is!

You are the not the center of history.
God is!

What happens to you matters, but the real point of life is to glorify God in all things.

To see his hand at work.
To believe him in the darkest moments.
To give him thanks for every victory.
To lean upon his Word.
To grow more like him day by day.
To live so that others find it easy to believe in him.

That’s why the psalmist connects the concrete facts of history with a triumphant cry of praise. If we miss this, or if we downplay this, or if we think that God is somehow “optional” to our lives, then we have missed the very purpose of our existence.

Q: What is the chief end of man?
A:  To glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Yes, of course. That’s what the Westminster Shorter Catechism says. We affirm that and do so gladly. But it is not always easy. In this long recital of Israel’s history, the psalmist covers centuries of time in just a few sentences. God’s plan was not always easily seen at every point along the way. When the Jews were groaning in Egypt under Pharaoh’s whip, we could understand why they might have felt abandoned by the Almighty. Still later they complained against the Lord after they had been delivered and said how much they missed Egypt.

How shortsighted we are!
How quick to forget God’s goodness to us!

We pray for deliverance and then complain when it comes. We were born wishing for something better. This psalm reminds us in every single verse that God’s ways and our ways are not the same. Generally we will only see God’s plan in retrospect. As we look back, we say, “Oh, I see it now.” But when we are in the furnace, we see nothing but the flames.

When we are in the furnace, we see nothing but the flames. 

We need Psalm 136 to remind ourselves, because we are so prone to forget it, that God works across the centuries to establish his purposes on the earth. Just because we don’t see it on Thursday at 6:37 AM doesn’t mean it’s not there.

It just means we don’t see it.
That’s all.

We aren’t the center of the universe-God is. Best that we should meditate on that fact now because we’ll certainly need to remember it before this year is over.

2. Our faith rests on facts. 

The long recital of Israel’s history teaches us that our faith rests upon the concrete acts of God in human history. When Paul made his defense before King Agrippa in Acts 26, he concluded his statement regarding the death and resurrection of Christ with these words:

“I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner" (v. 26).

He means something like this. “O king, you don’t have to take my word for it. Check it out for yourself. The facts are there for anyone to see.” That’s why the best answer to give to a skeptic is simply, “Read the Bible and make up your own mind.” During the question and answer time in China, another student said that even though some people in China may disagree with me, they must respect my views and listen to what I had to say. Later he came up to my wife and continued his discussion. When she asked him if he had read the Bible, he said that he had but didn’t believe it. “Keep reading it,” she said, “and you’ll understand what my husband was talking about tonight.” That’s excellent advice, isn’t it? Just keep reading the Bible and see for yourself what it really says.

We have nothing to fear from the critics of the Christian faith because our faith is founded on the great realities of the Bible–a literal creation by the hand of God, the existence of Israel, the miracles of the Old Testament, the prophecies of the Messiah, and towering above everything else, the miraculous birth, the sinless life, the sacrificial death, and the victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ and his triumphant ascension into heaven. These things were not done in a corner. 

3. Remember the big picture:  His love endures forever.

Say it over to yourself. Repeat the phrase. Memorize it. When you feel yourself tempted to despair, ponder this thought: His love endures forever. When you want to give up, write this thought down and stick it on your dashboard: His love endures forever. Tell your husband: His loves endures forever. Tell your wife: His loves endures forever. Tell your children:  His love endures forever.  When the devil himself starts whispering in your ear about what a loser you are, you tell old Scratch to hit the road because His love endures forever. When you have had all you can take, when the world seems to collapse around you, stand up, lift your head, and shout to the skies: His love endures forever!

No matter where you’re going this week, His love endures forever.
No matter what your problems, His love endures forever.
No matter how you feel about it, His love endures forever.

No matter where you’re going this week, His love endures forever.

As I write these words, we have just entered a new year with all its promise and all its uncertainty. We bring with us the accumulated weight of our fears and worries, the remembrance of our failures in the past along with our dreams and hopes for the future.

What will the new year hold for us? As I scan the Internet I see article after article with predictions for 2011. It seems that we are overrun with armchair prognosticators and crystal-ball gazers. Some people have even claimed to divine the date of Christ’s return, nailing it down to a particular day. I will say frankly that I don’t know whether the stock market is going up or down this year, I have no clear idea who will win the Super Bowl, and I can’t say for certain whether or not Jesus will come in the next twelve months (or the next twelve years, for that matter).

I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet.

But I am certain of this much, and on this I will take my stand: His love endures forever.

Because God is God, that will be just as true in six months as it is today. Because God cannot change, his love for us will never change. Keep that in mind as you face the uncertainties before you. Perhaps things will go well for you in 2011. I hope they do. Perhaps you will experience amazing answers to prayer. May that be your portion. But if you experience hard times in the year ahead, if you struggle to make ends meet, if you feel you have lost your way, if your friends seem to turn against you, if the sky tumbles in around you, come back to Psalm 136  and read it out loud.

Remind yourself that we serve a God who acts in history.
Remember that his ways are not our ways.
Ponder his mighty power in the past.
Consider how he has led you thus far.
Think of the many promises he has made.

Fix your mind on the Lord Jesus, and no matter what else happens this year, stake your claim right here and rejoice evermore because . . .

His love endures forever!

2011-01-07-His-Love-Endures-Forever

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