Driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike can be rough, especially when you’re tired. The hills and farms all look the same, and it’s easy to get lulled to sleep by the endless pattern of signs: speed limit, exit, service plaza; speed limit, exit, service plaza.
Many of us read Psalm 136 this way. Every verse contains the refrain “for his steadfast love endures forever.” Though you may exult in this truth in verse 1, you weary of it by verse 13. Your eyes skip along to the “interesting parts,” neglecting the other half.
But there’s gold in the repetition.
Behold the Promise of God’s Love
This psalm is a masterpiece, painting God’s work through history with the brushstrokes of his love.
The psalmist begins by highlighting God’s goodness and his supreme position above other gods (vv. 1–3). The next six verses describe God’s work as Creator: He made the heavens, spread out the earth, and created the sun, moon, and stars (vv. 4–9).
Beginning in verse 10, the psalmist writes of the pivotal deliverance from Egypt. The psalm slows down, crediting God with each step along the way—the Passover, the Red Sea, and the defeat of Pharaoh (vv. 10–16).
In their journey through the wilderness, God gave his people victory over nations who opposed them. In verses 17–22, the psalmist rehearses God’s military might and his provision of land. This stanza connects God’s promise-keeping love (see God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12:7 and 17:8) to his commitment to fight for his people.
The psalm closes with a summary: God remembered, rescued, and provides for his people (vv. 23–25), so we should thank him.
Sing the Refrain of God’s Love
Through all 26 verses, the refrain is the same: “For his steadfast love endures forever.” Behind God’s creative work, his saving work, his fighting work, his providing work—through all the high drama, God’s love is the explanation.
And God’s love is not reserved for the mountain tops. His steadfast love is revealed in the valley of the wilderness years (v. 16) and the mundanity of mealtimes (v. 25).
God’s steadfast love is behind and underneath everything he does. None of his characteristics or actions can be separated from his love. We can easily affirm this integration when considering the exodus or promised land, but it applies equally to God’s justice and wrath (see vv. 15, 17–20).
From top to bottom, God is love.
Grasp the Steadfastness of God’s Love
If the biblical authors highlight and underline their writing by repetition, we should pay careful attention to this refrain. It appears in each and every verse—26 times in all.
For his steadfast love endures forever.
Notice the whopping three references to time in this refrain. God’s love is steadfast. His love endures. His love endures forever.
It’s hard for finite humans to digest that word, forever. Everything we see, do, or know comes to an end. What is true for food and clothing, we also witness in our emotions. We’d like to claim that our love (for a spouse, for a parent, for a child) is steadfast, but we know better. In anger or impatience, apathy or bitterness, we withhold our love from those most dear to us.
How different God’s love is from ours! His love is steadfast, never diminishing in volume, never weakening in strength, never retreating, never tainted. Though we may feel alone or unloved, reality is different—his love endures forever.
We struggle to digest this truth; we’re prone to dismiss or forget God’s love. In times of suffering, loss, or deep sadness, we often resist with our heart what we know with our mind. Like the psalmist, we need to repeat this truth as often as possible: God’s steadfast love endures forever.
Personalize the Beauty of God’s Love
Here are two ways to internalize God’s love:
Put the psalm on repeat. Read Psalm 136 every morning and evening for a month. (Read every word, careful not to skip the repeated line!) Listen to it on your phone or tablet. Like the woodpecker, a persistent tapping in the same spot sometimes yields a breakthrough.
Write your own version of this psalm. Take up a journal, recount God’s work in your life, and end each line or paragraph the same way: “For his steadfast love endures forever.”
Consider the Cost of God’s Love
God’s love for his people reached a crescendo in the incarnation. He aimed to redeem his people, and he had to deal with their sin, once and for all. In his steadfast love, God sent his Son. For his love is a pursuing, costly love.
God demonstrated his abiding, enduring love in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. When Jesus was “made sin for us” on the cross, the Father withdrew his protective love for a time. The Father’s love for his people was manifest in wrath toward sin, and the Son was crushed for our iniquities. Jesus knew the Father’s full fury; he experienced the absence of God’s love so we would know it forever.
Give Thanks for God’s Steadfast Love
Why does the steadfast love of God matter? How does it change us?
One clear application comes out of this psalm: Give thanks. This is the only exhortation in the entire psalm, and it appears four times (vv. 1, 2, 3, 26). In fact, all of the descriptions of God, including the refrain about his love, are given as fuel for thanksgiving.
So give thanks to God for who he is. He is the Creator, Savior, Conqueror, and Provider that Israel needed then and that we need now. Thank God for all the ways his steadfast love has rung out in history and in your life. Don’t hesitate to include the routine aspects of your day; from the miraculous Red Sea crossing to God’s provision of food, everything flows from his love.
And as you give thanks to God, remind yourself and everyone around you about his love. It is steadfast, and it endures forever.