A characteristic trait of God throughout the Bible is God’s faithfulness. In Psalms 136, the author ties events throughout history to God’s faithfulness (specifically to God’s faithfulness to Israel). The entire book is about this one theme. The author was not just conjuring a new theme in the written testimony about God; God’s faithfulness is consistent and repeated throughout the Bible.
What is particularly interesting is that throughout Psalms, the authors do not take God’s faithfulness for granted. Many of the Psalms are written from the perspective of entreating God to show faithfulness and some even question why faithfulness is not shown:
Psa 6:4 Return, O LORD, deliver me! Oh, save me for Your mercies’ sake!
Psa 17:7 Show Your marvelous lovingkindness by Your right hand, O You who save those who trust in You From those who rise up against them.
Psa 40:11 Do not withhold Your tender mercies from me, O LORD; Let Your lovingkindness and Your truth continually preserve me.
Psa 44:26 Arise for our help, And redeem us for Your mercies’ sake.
Psa 85:7 Show us Your mercy, LORD, And grant us Your salvation.
Psa 89:49 Lord, where are Your former lovingkindnesses, Which You swore to David in Your truth?
The authors of the Psalms were under no illusions. God’s mercy (faithfulness) was not a given. God could withhold his mercy, sometimes to the intense confusion of God’s people. Sometimes the authors felt abandoned, sometimes they pleaded for God’s intercession, sometimes they prayed intensely for God to remain true. In modern Christianity, the thought that God has no propensity or ability to be otherwise than faithful is not a concept drawn from the Bible.
Instead, the context of claims about God’s faithfulness are the list of events which show God is faithful. God is faithful because God’s past or present actions attest to His faithfulness. It is due to these historical acts that Israel could place their trust to believe God would continue to be faithful into the future. This is the context of Psalms 136:
Psa 136:1 Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.
Psa 136:2 Oh, give thanks to the God of gods! For His mercy endures forever.
Psa 136:3 Oh, give thanks to the Lord of lords! For His mercy endures forever:
Psa 136:4 To Him who alone does great wonders, For His mercy endures forever;
The text starts out saying God is the ultimate god. The text attributes all great works to God alone. This fits Israel’s narrative that other gods were powerless and fake (Deu 4:28 is an early witness of this concept). God is faithful because He is powerful.
The text then attributes to God the creation of the universe:
Psa 136:5 To Him who by wisdom made the heavens, For His mercy endures forever;
Psa 136:6 To Him who laid out the earth above the waters, For His mercy endures forever;
Psa 136:7 To Him who made great lights, For His mercy endures forever—
Psa 136:8 The sun to rule by day, For His mercy endures forever;
Psa 136:9 The moon and stars to rule by night, For His mercy endures forever.
Notice that the author does not condense the creation into one line. The author is showing his literal understanding of Genesis. The author also ties this creation to God’s power and faithfulness. Only one God created the universe. The idea seems to be that God is real and alone has power. When the author next appeals to God’s relationship with Israel, the reader can then understand that Israel has the one true God as an advocate.
The author, having begun the narrative of God in the Bible skips forward in history to Israel’s defining events:
Psa 136:10 To Him who struck Egypt in their firstborn, For His mercy endures forever;
Psa 136:11 And brought out Israel from among them, For His mercy endures forever;
Psa 136:12 With a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm, For His mercy endures forever;
Psa 136:13 To Him who divided the Red Sea in two, For His mercy endures forever;
Psa 136:14 And made Israel pass through the midst of it, For His mercy endures forever;
Psa 136:15 But overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, For His mercy endures forever;
Psa 136:16 To Him who led His people through the wilderness, For His mercy endures forever;
Israel’s defining event was the Exodus. Authors throughout the Bible appeal to this event to shows God’s basic characteristics: power, faithfulness, longsuffering, and intimate relationship with His people. The author of Psalms 136 is no different. God is faithful because of the Exodus.
Psa 136:17 To Him who struck down great kings, For His mercy endures forever;
Psa 136:18 And slew famous kings, For His mercy endures forever—
Psa 136:19 Sihon king of the Amorites, For His mercy endures forever;
Psa 136:20 And Og king of Bashan, For His mercy endures forever—
Psa 136:21 And gave their land as a heritage, For His mercy endures forever;
Psa 136:22 A heritage to Israel His servant, For His mercy endures forever.
The author is writing specifically about God’s faithfulness to Israel (as opposed to people in general). How is God faithful? God kills enemy nations and gives those lands to Israel. Sihon and Og were kings who opposed Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land. When the author is writing it is important to remember that he is writing to corporate Israel. Although God acts in faithfulness to Israel, those same actions may not extend to other people groups.
The author continues:
Psa 136:23 Who remembered us in our lowly state, For His mercy endures forever;
Psa 136:24 And rescued us from our enemies, For His mercy endures forever;
Psa 136:25 Who gives food to all flesh, For His mercy endures forever.
Psa 136:26 Oh, give thanks to the God of heaven! For His mercy endures forever.
God “remembered” Israel in their lowly state. This is the author thanking God for not abandoning them. The author thanks God for actively rescuing Israel from enemies. The thought behind this statement is: God could have forsaken us, but didn’t; therefore we praise Him.
The author ends this Psalm with a general statement that God blesses the entire world (through food) and a general statement of thanks.