For His Mercy Endures Forever…

Have you noticed the repetitive use of repetition in church songs? I find it a bit off-putting. I’m happy enough with repetition if you are trying to remember basic mathematical operations (2×2 is 4, 2×3 is 6 etc.), or a short shopping list, but when it comes to singing praise to God, it is generally uninspiring as far as I’m concerned. Why sing the chorus and some particular lines of a song over and over again. Seems to be mindless and purposeless repetition. Except…

There is a song that uses repetition with real teaching purpose. It is Psalm 136. This Psalm repeats the line “For His mercy endures forever” over and over again, but it takes us somewhere rather than sending us into a circling drone.

It is a Psalm of thanksgiving to the only God there is – to the LORD, to the God of gods, to the LORD of lords (for His mercy endures forever). Then the Psalm starts to list the things for which we should be thankful:–

  • God’s goodness in creation, (for His mercy endures forever),
  • for making the earth, (for His mercy endures forever),
  • the seas, (for His mercy endures forever),
  • the sun, (for His mercy endures forever),
  • moon and stars (for His mercy endures forever),
  • for destroying the first-born of Egypt (for His mercy …)

Oh… that’s a bit of a shock. The Psalm praises God for his mercy in destroying people, killing them? This is mercy? Well, yes. But we need to work through this. We need to think about this.

Long ago, God rescued His people, the descendants of Abraham, from Egypt — a nation that had unjustly enslaved them. God sent Moses to ask for their release. The LORD says, ‘Let my people go.”

The Lord gave nine warning plagues, which were ignored, and then the final judgment against Pharoah: the destruction of the first-born of Egypt.

Israel was set free.

So there is a sense that God’s mercy came to his people at the same time that He judged his enemies. Mercy and judgment come together.  But there is more here.

The Israelites were told to kill a lamb and smear its blood on the door posts of their homes. It was the blood of the lamb that prevented the death of the first-born of Israel. The point was that God saved Israel twice. Once from His own anger at their sin, and then from Egyptian slavery. Apart from God, there were no good-guys in the Exodus story. The LORD, according to his own sovereign choice, either saves or destroys his enemies. Because of his promise to Abraham, God saved rebellious Israel from sin and slavery; because of his justice he destroyed rebellious Egypt for their sin against the God of gods.

The good news is, that all people may sing this Psalm with confidence and joy, if they trust themselves to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, to the Lord Jesus Christ. He is King of kings and LORD of lords. By the death and resurrection of Jesus, his people are saved from their sins and the death sin deserves. Jesus saves such from the judgment that their rebellious and war-like actions against Him deserve.

Jesus finished judgment for his people by taking that judgment himself, by bearing their sins in His own body on the cross. At the same time, He confirmed the rightness of the judgement that will come upon all who remain outside of Christ — those who continue in refusing his mercy. At the cross, Jesus saved his people, and defeated his enemies.

In the case of Psalm 136, repetition takes us somewhere. It takes us to Jesus Christ, for His mercy endures forever.

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Worship: The singing of Psalms with grace in the heart

The following arguments are premised upon the belief that the Scriptures alone are our source of information about the worship of God, and that the Scriptures alone are our guide in what ought to characterise our praise of him.

The Psalms (150 scripture songs) are manifestly a portion of God’s word and they are intended for use by God’s people in their sung praise of Him.  Old and New Testament practice confirms this view.

There is no evidence in either the Old or New Testament that uninspired hymns or songs were used in the public worship of God. There is no indication in the New Testament that new, uninspired songs are to be composed for use in public worship.  While some Corinthians were encouraged to bring a psalm, no one was encouraged to compose a song for use in the pubic praise of God; not in 1 Corinthians 14 nor anywhere else in the New Testament.

Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 indicate that Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs are to be sung when God’s people meet (speaking to one another by them).  This practice is encouraged so that they ‘might be filled with the Spirit’ and that ‘the word of God might dwell in [them] richly in all wisdom’.  It might be objected that Psalms are only one of three categories of songs mentioned in these two verses, but I think that there is more than sufficient reason to believe that only the Psalms are meant (see 1. below), or, at least, only songs that are given to us in the Word of God (see 2. below).

  1. These three words (Psalms, Hymns and Songs) are all used to indicate the 150 Psalms of the Bible. Note the titles of the Psalms. The descriptor, ‘Psalm’, is used at the head of Ps.3-6; 8-9; 12-13 15, 19-24, 29-31, 38-41, 47-51, 62-68, 73-77, 79-80, 82-85, 87-88, 92-98, 100-101, 108-110); for ‘Hymn’ see Ps.5, 54-55, 61 and 72 (Ps. 72 refers to all of David’s psalms as ‘hymns’ or sung prayers); for ‘Song’ see Ps.18, 30, 46-47, 48, 66-68, 75-76, 83, 87-88, 92, 108 and 120-134. The Greek translation of the Old Testament (the LXX) was the Bible version used throughout the Christian world in the first century AD. The LXX added several titles to the Psalms, which our Hebrew text left untitled. The early Christians would have recognised ‘psalms, hymns and songs’ as referring to these titles of the Psalms. Matthew 26:30 uses the word ‘hymn’ to refer to paschal Psalms, which were given no titles in the Hebrew OT. From these facts it may be argued that Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 refer exclusively to the Psalms of the Old Testament.
  2. Even if the three words do not refer exclusively to the 150 Psalms, they are each referred to as ‘spiritual’ (pneumatikais).  The fact that this adjective is feminine (ostensibly referring only to odais, songs) is no barrier to this idea. It is in fact a strong confirmation of it.  The adjective, spiritual, is used in such a way as to indicate that it refers to each of the three words.  Now, the adjective pneumatikos is used to refer to a person or thing that is the particular work of the Holy Spirit, and ‘spiritual’ for this reason. For example, the things of the Spirit of God are not received by the natural man, for they are foolishness to him, but the spiritual man (the one who is so by virtue of the infallible work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration) is now able to discern and receive what the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual (1 Corinthians 2:12-16).
  3. The Psalms are the most obvious source of Scripture Songs. There are very few examples of any others (Ex. 15, Habakkuk 3, Rev. 4:11, 5:9-10 & 12, 11:17-18 (maybe), and Rev. 15:3-4).  Mary might have sung the words in Luke 2:46-55 (as might Zacharias and Simeon their significant comments in Luke), but we are not told this.  Even if they had, these are not examples of congregational singing.

The scriptures are now complete. No new revelations of the Spirit are to be expected, and so no songs other than Scripture songs can now fall into the category of ‘spiritual’ songs.

Some advantages of Psalm singing:

  • It is a way to get to know a large portion of God’s word (the book of Psalms), a portion of the Bible that Martin Luther called the Bible in miniature.
  • It avoids unnecessary subjectivism in worship. Very few of the ‘I’s in the Psalms refer to us, but rather to the Lord’s anointed, or the Christ. Further, Psalm singing is a public, group proclamation of the word of God. This gives, I think, a helpful and sensible reading to women prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11:5. The whole congregation is prophesying (making God’s will known) by means of the Psalms. I Corinthians 14 also refers to the whole congregation prophesying (referring, I believe to their Psalm singing) with a powerful effect upon visitors.
  • It avoids unscriptural teaching. Of course, as with any other portion of scripture, we need to understand the word. In this way, singing Psalms also becomes a teaching opportunity.

Worship: l Timothy 2 On Public Prayer

The content of this chapter, and much of this letter, is not aimed at Timothy’s personal devotions or private worship, but the public gatherings of God’s people, and other matters related to the organisation of the church.

 This Paul makes clear in Chapter 3 of this letter. In 3:14, Paul says, ‘ These things I write … so that you might know how to conduct (yourself) in the house of God, which is the church of the living God.’

 So, first at all, Paul urges the church to pray for all sorts of people. Here he means that Timothy, or some other appropriate person,  is to lead the congregation in prayer. One person will say the prayer aloud,  and the gathered people will prayer along in their hearts and minds. This is the sort of practice implied by Paul in his discussion of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14. E.g., How can anyone other than the speaker say ‘Amen’ if the prayer is spoken in an unknown language? The point here is that all the congregation will be praying, but they will be praying the same things, as they are led by the one who leads the prayer. Why this is an important distinction will,  I hope, become clear a little later.

 In praying for the king (at that time, for Nero) and those with eminent positions in society, there seems to be at least two motivations. The first is so that the church might do its quiet and peaceful work of spreading the message of Jesus Christ. The aim is that they might live in all Godliness and modesty, undisturbed by the authorities. Paul knew by personal experience the trouble that can come to Christians and to churches if those is authority want to prevent the spread of the gospel. In Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus and almost in Corinth, Paul had trouble with authorities who gave attention to unfounded complaints against him or the Christians in those areas.

But in praying for authorities, we are not only to seek the good of the Church. Paul’s intention seems to be that these eminent people might come to faith themselves. This is the force of the statement that God ‘desires all people to come to the knowledge of the truth.’ I don’t believe that Paul is speaking about every single human being saved,  since it is clear from the words of Jesus that not everyone will be saved. But Paul says it is God’s desire that all sorts of people be saved – Jew, Greek, rich, poor, slave, free, male, female, young and old. This includes those who have been causing trouble for Paul and the church.

 This is why Paul makes a point of stating again the basis upon which anyone becomes a Christian. It is the work of Jesus. His saving work is applied to sinful people on the basis of God’s gracious choice. Therefore, when we pray for our leaders and for those with influence, we are not to pray with angry words asking for their fall. Christians are to pray without dissension, without bitterness, knowing that God desires all sorts of people to come to the knowledge of the truth — even those who might now be our enemies. Remember how Paul started out (as an enemy of the church), and what he became because of God’s mercy in Christ. This perhaps is why he explicitly refers to his own situation as a preacher of the Gospel as he urges Timothy to lead his congregation in prayer for the king, for those in authority and for all sorts of other people.

 One last point. Paul says we are to be led in prayer for all people (anthropoi), meaning for all human beings without distinction. Even our Lord Jesus is referred to as the human being (anthropos) who acts as mediator for anthropoi. But when Paul refers to those who in everyplace are to lead in prayer, Paul uses a different word (andres), which refers to adult males. It seems that, in the public gatherings of the church,  men — not women, not children — are to lead in prayer, to speak the words which the rest of the Congregation are to pray and say ‘Amen’ to. This clear verbal indication is supported by Paul’s direct statement that women are to learn in silence and are not to teach or exercise authority over a man in the public gatherings of the Church. Why? Paul’s reason is not drawn from the culture of his day, as he draws this principle from the very beginning of humanity. He simply says that there are circumstances where female leadership is not appropriate.

Worship: sound preaching

Preaching might be regarded as an unpopular activity these days. The Bible idea of preaching is making known true-truth in an authoritative way. This truth comes to people in an old book, a book that needs to be read and studied and thought through with care and attention. This truth needs to be declared with authority. Again, the truth that is to be preached concerns the Lord Jesus Christ; how he has acted to bring us back to our creator God, to the God we have offended by our sin, to the God who will judge all people according to their deeds, to the God who loved the world in a particular way. God’s love comes to people only through the life, death and rising of Jesus Christ. These truths only come to us from the Bible, and they must be shown to be true from the Bible.

Many people today don’t like to be told. We are all wise enough for ourselves. We prefer stories with ambiguous endings. We like to keep our options open. We don’t like to engage in hard thinking.

As preaching is unpopular with people, so too are preachers tempted to shy away from it. To encourage people to gather at church, ministers think their churches must provide something attractive, something to compete with the wide, varying and shiny alternatives – something other than preaching.

It is interesting how the Lord Jesus fits, or doesn’t fit, into these thoughts. He was followed by large crowds, often because he showed love with extraordinary power – it seems to me that in the three years of Jesus’ ministry, more wonders were performed by him than are recorded in all the Old Testament. But Jesus, we are told in the Gospels, was focused on preaching and teaching the word with a particular emphasis on the good news. Jesus didn’t come in order to gain popularity, but to speak Bible truth about himself and his work of saving people from their sin. He spoke with great authority and purpose. Whenever his disciples got carried away by the popularity that Jesus seemed to enjoy, Jesus reminded them that he would be betrayed, rejected and crucified by these people and their leaders. It was only sometime after Jesus’ resurrection that these men got the idea.

In brief, the apostles were focused upon the teaching (doctrine) of the word, that written word we know as the Bible. This word reveals Christ Jesus, who is both Lord and Saviour. These men passed this emphasis on preaching to others who would continue this gospel work after the apostles died. Paul told Timothy to preach the word, when people like it and when they don’t. The preaching was for conviction, rebuke and consolation with all patience and doctrine (2 Tim 4:2). Again the aim is to make the good news of Jesus known from every and any part of the Bible. This requires teaching things about who God is, his purpose in creating us and the universe, the origin of our bad attitudes, what his relationship with Israel was like, but all these things are to be taught and preached so that we understand who Jesus is, what he has done, and what it all means for people like us.

Gospel preaching will only be popular when people come under conviction of sin and of God’s mercy to sinners in Jesus Christ. This conviction is the work of the Holy Spirit. We need, as members of Christ, to be in prayer for this convicting work amongst ourselves and the wider community. Preaching is a vital, a central, part of worship because of its focus on content (the Bible) and its application. Worship without content is mute, meaningless ritual.