to him who led his people through the wilderness;
His love endures forever.
Psalm 136:16 (NIV)
Psalm 136 is one of the most fascinating of all the songs in the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics we all the book of Psalms. The ancient Hebrew songwriter crafted it in such a way that the the meaning and metaphor of the lyrics are as much in the structure as they are in the words. First, there’s the organization of the the theme:
- Six verses about creation
- Six verses about the Hebrews deliverance from slavery
- One verse about the Hebrews being led through the wilderness
- Six verses about the Hebrews conquest of Canaan
- Four verses that echo/summarize the previous themes
- A final call to praise God
There is no other psalm in the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics that utilizes the call and response device as this song does. Twenty-six times the refrain “His love endures forever” is used. That number is important because for the ancient Hebrews, the letters of their alphabet also did double-duty as numerals. Every letter was used as a number. When you add up the numerical values of the letters of the Hebrew name for God: YHWH (Note: the Hebrew alphabet doesn’t have vowels) the total is, you guessed it, 26.
As I thought about the structure of the song, I couldn’t help but think that it parallels every life story, my life story.
I have a creation story. There’s the time in which I was born, the family in which I was raised, the community of my childhood, and the events that set me on my path in life.
Like the Hebrew exodus from slavery, I have climactic events that shape and define my life journey. My decision to follow Christ and subsequent call to proclaim His message, my being cast in a film and meeting the mentor who would play an instrumental part in my life, my early marriage, the births of Taylor and Madison, the divorce that would end my first marriage after seventeen years, and the unexpected arrival of Wendy in my life.
Like the Hebrew wilderness experience, I have my own stretch of life’s road in which I wandered in the wilderness of my own choosing. I chose the path of the prodigal. I ran. I squandered. I was unfaithful to those I loved most. I had my own pig-slop “Aha!” moment. I had to find my way back.
Like the Hebrew conquest, I have my own slate of victories in life. I have accomplishments, awards, and successes.
And, through it all, God’s faithful, enduring love is woven through every major success and every tragic failure. His love is woven through my best moments and my worst. In his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul wrote that at the end of the Great Story that contains all stories, including mine, there are three things that remain: faith, hope, and love. he adds, “The greatest of these is love.”
In the quiet this morning, as I look back at my own story, I am realizing just how much God’s love shows up like the repeated refrain of Psalm 136. I am also reminded that like the 26 love refrains the song writer metaphorically employed to point me to God, Yahweh, I am pointed to a God who is love incarnate, which is the destination and goal of my entire story and life journey through this world. If I’m not growing into love in increasing measure as Jesus defined it, then I am (perhaps even with the best of intentions) headed in the wrong direction.