Ps 136 Saying Thank You!

As we continue in our series on the vertical habits worship, we come to the words “Thank You.”  Like the other worship habits we have covered so far, we have assigned simple English that fits to the words many parents use when training up children to relate well in the world.  We have looked at saying “I Love You” for worship; “I’m sorry” for confession and today we are looking at the phrase “Thank you” for thanksgiving and gratitude.

Many of us were taught to say thank you by sending simple letters to our grandparents, aunts and uncles when they gave us gifts for Christmas or our birthday.  We have been taught to say thank you when somebody helps us, we may have even been taught to give a small gift, or token of appreciation when someone really goes out of the way to help us with big projects.   Those are all ways of saying thank you, but what exactly is Thanks?  Psalm 136:1 opens with the words Give thanks. In fact 3 times in the first three verses, the psalmist commands people to give thanks.


As I was studying this word, two rather fascinating things were revealed to me in the Scriptures.  First, the word for thanks is also the word that is used for shooting arrows. Jer. 50:14 “Take up your positions around Babylon, all you who draw the bow. Shoot at her! Spare no arrows, for she has sinned against the Lord.”  Second, the word for thanks is also translated as the word confess in other places. Lev. 5:5 “‘When anyone is guilty in any of these ways, he must confess in what way he has sinned…”


So giving these two interesting linguistic connections, thanks could be defined as “admitting the ways in which God has targeted you for his blessings.”  Just as an archer takes aim and releases his arrow with the intention of striking the target, so God, in his great love has taken aim at you and me and released his arrow of love upon our hearts, and when we admit this and the countless other ways God’s love has been shown to us, we are engaging in the biblical concept of gratitude.  Just as God has taken aim at us and hit the target, when we say “thank you Lord” we are taking aim and firing back at our heavenly Father with the words, “I got it.  I see it.  I realize it.”  We know that (James 1:17) Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.


So the next time you realize what a wonderful life you have, what a gift you have received or what a joy it is to be saved, take aim as an archer and fire up words of acknowledgement to your Heavenly Father saying, “Thank you Father.”


That leads to the second point.  Who do we thank?  Sure it is right and proper to offer thanks to individuals who give us things or help us with work, but are these brothers and sisters in Christ or friends in the world, or even nice acquaintances really the only ones who deserve a thank you when they help us?  Certainly not!  God our Father deserves our thanks first and these others should receive a thank you as a secondary act acknowledging how God has used them to bless us.


Again, the first three verses declare whom we should thank: Give thanks to the LORD…to the God of gods…to the Lord of lords (Ps 136:1-3). This isn’t three different gods, for the Scripture is very clear that the LORD your God is one (Deut 6:4).  Rather this is a Hebrew way of using poetry to bring out three different aspects of who this one God is.  God is our personal, ever present covenantal God – he is YHWH.  He is the God of our ancestors and he will be our God.  In Exodus 3:14-15, God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you. God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD [YHWH], the God of your fathers — the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob — has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.’”


But He is also the God of gods.  Here the word elohim is used.  This is the general word used of god or gods in the Old Testament, specifically of the creator god. Gen. 1:1 tells us, “In the beginning God (elohim) created the heavens and the earth.”  Here our personal covenantal God is declared to be the supreme Creator and in verse 3 this God is also called the Lord of lords.  Again the word used in this verse is adonai, meaning Lord or master.  So in three quick phrases we have been introduced to the personal, covenantal, creator God who is the absolute ruler of every authority.  This is whom we are to offer up our thanks, because this is who loves us.


If Who God is according to his self-revealing names, isn’t enough reason to acknowledge him, then maybe his character is.  This personal, creating ruler, who has you in his sights, is also described as good.  Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good (psalm 136:1).  Now goodness is kind of hard to make sense of, philosophically speaking, I mean.  When we say something or some actions in our world is good, we mean it is appropriate to a stated purpose, function or result. Apple pie is good when it tastes nice on our palette, beauty is good when it elicits appeal or assistance is good when we need help, but that doesn’t do us much good when we start talking about God.  To say God is an appropriate action, or an acceptable result just doesn’t seem to hit the nail on the head does it?  As I struggled to make sense of this statement that God is good, unfortunately, I kept finding myself walking in circles.  The biblical writers encourage us to “do good” while at the same time declaring that God alone is good (Mark 10:20).  Philosophically what is it that makes something good?  To answer this I found myself reading ancient writers and one of these writers, Thomas Aquinas, declared that goodness is equated with desirability.[1]


To declare that God is good is to declare him desirable, to declare that an action is good is to declare it desirable; to state that God alone is good is to so say he alone is the penultimate object, which our affections must cherish and want.  As another ancient church Father once wrote: he is the fountain of all goodness, meaning that anything we desire in this world and consider good is that way only because it is perfected in God and finds its origin in his being.  I know that these last few minutes may have seemed a bit philosophical, and they probably were, so if I lost you for a second, don’t fret.  Come back and join with us again knowing that we are called to give thanks to God because he is the most desirous person our affections can enjoy.


And because God is good, because he is desirable and seeking to awaken desire in his people for a relationship with him, he acts in certain ways in this world which the psalmist also wants to declare. Not only do we thank God for who he is and what his character is about but we also must thank Him because of what He does.  And the first thing the psalmist declares is God is the author of the great wonder of Creation.  He made the heavens and the earth and the sun, moon and stars.  In fact, according to Genesis 1, God created every living and non-living thing – rocks and trees, insects and plants, flowers and birds, fish and game, tree and human.  Everything that is seen and unseen.  Or borrowing from Col. 1:16 “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.”


And so we offer up thanks to God recognizing that the rains that cause the plants to grow, the sun which makes the fruit ripen, the flowers which bring beautiful fragrances into our lives and the vistas which make us stop in wonder at the beautiful canvas of creation are all gifts shot from God’s bow to our hearts, minds, and senses. (Psa. 118:27) The LORD is God, and he has made his light shine upon us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar so that we may give thanks.  That’s how the psalm continues.


But God also causes the redemption of his people.  In verses 10-22 God’s great wonder of redemption is rehearsed by the psalmist beginning with the Passover story and the knockout punch which God planted upon Pharaoh and all the households of Egypt as the angel of death went throw the land killing the first born child. The story continues on to discuss the mighty hand and outstretched arm (Psa 136:12a) of God.  After rereading the Exodus story I believe the psalmist is referring to the presence of God in the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire be night.  Listen to the story again and tell me if this doesn’t sound like the mighty hand and outstretched arm of God.


(Ex. 14:19-20, 24) Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night longDuring the last watch of the night the LORD looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion.


Not only is God a creating and redeeming God, but he is also a miracle working God. He separated the Sea and brought his chosen people through on dry ground while causing the Egyptians to be drowned.   He rained down manna and caused water to sprout forth from the rocks until he brought the people into the land, ultimately causing Jericho to fall and the nation to be given to Israel. Verses 16-22 expand upon these themes.  For those wanting to read the actual stories you can find them in Exodus 16-17 and Deuteronomy 2-3.


As we continue moving to the end of the Psalm, we are given another reason to say Thank you to our great creating, redeeming, miracle working, protecting God.  And here it is: We say thank you because God is doing the same thing for the present generation. Through David and Saul the nation has prospered greatly and enemies have been stilled so the psalmist says He has remembered us…and freed us…and given food to every creature (Psa 136:23-25). The great acts of God, his wonders, weren’t just performed in the past; the psalmist exults because they are being performed for him and his generation.   God still feeds and God still provides for his people. If you wonder why the church and the community of Israel have always rehearsed the great deeds of God, it is summed up right in these verses.  We rehearse the great salvation stories of God so we can see that what God has done in the past, he is still doing in the present for us.  God’s salvation, his wondrous acts didn’t stop 2000 years ago or 5000 years ago.  No they are current and present.  He is God and (Heb. 13:8) Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.


God continues to bring the dead to life.  He continues to cause the blind to see, the lame to walk, the dead to rise and rivers to part.  Each of these acts of redemption and each of the miracles God performed in the Old Testament served to point all people towards the greatest act of redemption ever:  Bringing those in bondage to sin and death out of the stranglehold in which they live and ushering them, us, into the gift of new life and adoption as children of the one God whose love endures forever.


(Gal. 4:4-5) But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.

(Titus 2:11) For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.


And so we thank our God for targeting us with the gifts of redemption and the miracle of new life, being born of God’s spirit.  Just as God led Israel in the desert, He still leads his people by his spirit, which dwells within them. Jesus promised that he would (John 14:16-17) And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.  Today, the Spirit of Christ is your guide if you are a believer.  And the place where he is leading us is the same as it was then.  He is leading his children into a land flowing with milk and honey, where evil has been conquered and victory is assured.


For Paul wrote to the Corinthians with these words, given from God for the comfort of the believer: (1Cor. 15:52-57) for the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”  “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.


And he gives gifts to men as part of our entrance into the bountiful land. (Eph. 4:7-8) But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.”  And every soul that is saved today experiences the continuing work of God in their life making them holy and fashioning them into an object fit for service in the Kingdom.  He sets us free and he feed and provides for us still.


If you are lost, oppressed, or desirous of the kind of God proclaimed in this Psalm, a god of love, redemption, power and authority, then offer thanks. Psa. 50:23 He who sacrifices thank offerings honors me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of God.  God wants to do a wondrous work in your life, let it begin by acknowledging him and the wonderful gifts he has already given to you – your life, the food you eat, the blessing you enjoy as an American citizen, the beauty that surrounds you in NW Washington – and you will be well on your way to experiencing the new life of the redeemed.


As we conclude, let me offer one final reason to say thank you.  And it is arguably the greatest reason.  God is the God of heaven and as this psalm has declared 26 times, that means his love/grace/faithfulness endures forever.  The divine grace of God is really, the final and fullest reason why we must say thank you to the Lord God.  It is because of this grace that God’s people are saved from disasters.  It is because of this grace that human life is sustained, and we are not consumed in God’s wrath.  It is because of his grace that we can even begin to approach God and petition him for our needs.  It is because of his grace that he leads people, and that we can have hope and a good future.  In fact everything we have spoken of is possible because of whom God is – a God of enduring love.  Everything God does is the result of his being the personal, creating, sovereign King who is the focus of all desire and the overflowing fountain of endless love.  He has targeted you – say thanks to the eternal king of kings and lord of lord.  Amen!




[1] Aquinas, Summa Theologica


About Scott Roberts

pastor of Hope in Christ Church, Bellingham, WA
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