Psalm 136 starts with this familiar phrase:
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His love endures forever.”
Maybe it’s familiar because it occurs in lots of places in the Bible, including 1 Chronicles 16, Psalm 33, Psalm 106 and is repeated every other verse all the way through the 26 verses of Psalm 136! More likely it’s because of this song by Chris Tomlin.
The refrain is written in a way designed for a call and response, where the lead singer sings the first line and the congregation respond with the second.
But what does it mean? I had a quick peak at the Hebrew words in this refrain, and found out some interesting things:
1 Our words ‘give thanks’ (in some version it’s “O give thanks”) are one Hebrew wor:, ‘howdu’. It’s from the root word ‘yadah’, which literally means ‘to throw or to cast down’, but generally confers the meaning: to confess, praise, thank, glorify.
Yadah occurs 114 times in the Old Testament, and is the word we translate to ‘thanks offering’ in Leviticus. As far as I can tell, this is the only offering listed in Leviticus which is voluntary, or rather, the timing of which is left to the person’s discretion. It’s an offering given to thank God for something particular, usually being well after a long illness, getting home safely from a long journey, that sort of thing. Traditionally, people would have taken their thanks offering to the tabernacle or temple, where the priest did part of the ritual, and the other half was a sacred meal with family and friends to celebrate the thing the thank offering was for.
If you are familiar with the Passover meal, a Todah offering is a personal version of that, or perhaps it would be better to say that the Passover meal is a communal (national!) Todah. Some people believe that it was during a Todah offering that Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it and shared it with his followers. Anyway, I disgress. It’s enough to say that this thanks giving is a sacred, spiritual act, not just a ‘thanks’.
The second word in Hebrew is the word Yahweh, which our Bibles usually translate as Lord (if fact, many of them use a large capital L followed by smaller capitals to distinguish this particular name of God from the title Lord). In the Jewish Bible this word is often translated as ‘Hashem’, which means ‘the name’, as orthodox Jews don’t write the name of God out of reverence for its holiness. At other times, the word Adonai is used (as in the translation of the word Yahweh in the blessing in Numbers 6:24). This holy name is the proper name of God, the name he gives to Moses in Exodus 3 when Moses asks who to say has sent him to free the Israelite slaves.
The next two words in Hebrew are ‘ki towb’, which mean ‘for [he is] good”. ‘Towb’ is the word used about creation in Genesis 1, and I love how this is the reason this verse gives for thanking God, rather than a specific occasion or event in our lives. It gives us the challenge to thank and praise God because of who he is.
The next part of this verse is the refrain:
His love endures forever. (NIV)
For His loving kindness (graciousness, mercy, compassion) endures forever. (AMP)
God’s love never fails. (CEV)
For his steadfast love endures forever. (ESV)
His love is eternal. (GNB)
For his mercy endurest for ever. (KJV)
His love never quits. (The Message)
His tender love for us continues on forever. (TPT)
In Hebrew, the refrain phrase says: kî ləōwlām ḥasdōw. ‘Ki’, as we can see from above, means because or for. ‘Leowlam’ is from the root word olam. which means long duration, antiquity, or futurity, and is usually translated in verses as ‘everlasting’, always, ancient of day or permanent. It’s a word used one the most commonly used Jewish prayers: “We bless you Lord our God, King of the universe” – the word universe is the word haolam, from olam. In our refrain, the word used is for ever, but you can see from the other uses of this word that it is an always, everywhere, all the time type of for ever; our God is good and omnipresent.
The word ‘hasdow’ occurs 58 times in the Bible, and is translated mercy or loving kindness. It comes from the root word ‘cheched’ (pronounced kheh-sed) meaning goodness, kindness, favour, good deeds, mercy, loving kindness. This kindness is especially extended to the lowly, needy and miserable (!), and includes:
- redemption from enemies and troubles
- preservation of life from death
- quickening of spiritual life
- redemption from sin
- keeping covenants
And the kindness of God specifically is described as:
- great in extent – as great as the heaven is above the earth (Psalm 57:9)
- everlasting (olam again!)
- and good (see above!)
- promised in his covenant
I wonder what part of this changes the way you think or feel about this refrain.
I wonder how you might express your ‘todah’ to God.
There’s loads of fun, creative ways to explore Psalm 136 in the Thank mini-mag.