Psalm 136: His Steadfast Love

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

–Psalm 136:1-3 (ESV)

If after reading Psalm 136 you scratch your head and say, “I can’t figure out the theme here,” you’re obviously missing something.  This psalm is unique for its repetitive style and its refrain, “For his steadfast love endures forever,” which occurs a whopping 26 times.  In its opening verses, Psalm 136 bears considerable similarity to Psalm 118, while the rest of the psalm echoes other historical selections such as Psalms 104 and 105.  Regarding the refrain, the ESV Study Bible comments, “Perhaps the psalm was to be sung responsively, with a priest leading with the first line of each verse, and a Levitical choir or the whole congregation replying with the refrain.”  If it strikes you as monotonous to repeat “For his steadfast love endures forever” 26 times, just remember how quick we are to forget what the Lord has done for us, and how great his steadfast love truly is.

Today we consider the Psalter Hymnal’s two versifications of Psalm 136.

283, “Now May All in Brotherhood”

After plenty of studying and comparing hymnals, I simply can’t figure out why this psalm setting was created.  It comes neither out of the Genevan/Dutch Psalter nor the 1912 Psalter; it was created specifically for the blue 1959 Psalter Hymnal by Harry Mayer and Johannes Dirk Plekker.  What’s even more confusing is that the 1912 Psalter and the 1934 Psalter Hymnal both contain a setting of Psalm 136 in the very same meter, with an almost identical refrain (“For His mercy doth endure,/Ever faithful, ever sure”)—but the texts are very different.

“This one has ten verses rather than six, so maybe it’s more complete and accurate,” I thought, but that conclusion proved to be wrong as well.  True, the old version “Praise Jehovah for His Love” has 36 lines in total, whereas “Now May All in Brotherhood” has 80—yes, eighty.  Yet I found that this versification was less accurate, more archaic, and more cumbersome than its predecessor.  Why did the editors of the blue Psalter Hymnal feel the need to rewrite a perfectly good psalm setting?  Why did they decide to repeat each refrain twice, breaking up the flow of thought between the stanzas even more?  Perhaps I’ll never know, but at the very least I’d suggest that you take a second look at “Praise Jehovah for His Love,” which I’ve copied in its entirety below.

 "Praise Jehovah for His Love"

With a monotonous rhythm and a pedestrian melody line, REMEIN (the tune used with number 283 in the blue Psalter Hymnal) is far from perfect.  Again I’ll point you to the tune of “Praise Jehovah for His Love,” BETTER LAND, which is much more uplifting and suitable for these words.  Perhaps an even better and more familiar choice would be DIX, the tune of “For the Beauty of the Earth” or “Safely Through Another Week” (#320).

While it’s not my intent to completely tear apart this particular Psalter Hymnal selection, it just seems to be a shame that our songbook doesn’t give better treatment to such a jubilant psalm of praise.

284, “Give Thanks to God, for Good is He”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI, and at Synod 2012)

Thankfully, my complaints are far fewer with regard to the Psalter Hymnal’s other version of Psalm 136, “Give Thanks to God, for Good is He.”  This is a limited paraphrase, treating only verses 1-9 and 23-26, but it successfully summarizes the main themes of the psalm.  The alternating refrains at the end of each line (“His grace abideth ever” and “His mercy faileth never”) closely replicate the structure of the original text, and might lend themselves to some kind of counterpoint setting.

The tune CONSTANCE was composed by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame).  It powerfully bears along the text of Psalm 136, including its short but memorable refrain.  For church musicians, I’d suggest that the tune be lowered to E-flat to avoid the high F in the last line.  I’d also like to call your attention to the rest at the end of each line, and suggest that a contrasting organ registration be used for the refrains.  With these stylistic nuances, number 284 will shine!

He helped us in our deepest woes,
His grace abideth ever;
He ransomed us from all our foes,
His mercy faileth never.
Each creature’s need He doth supply,
His grace abideth ever;
Give thanks to God, enthroned on high,
Whose mercy faileth never.


4 Responses to “Psalm 136: His Steadfast Love”

  1. 1 Reita Julien February 18, 2013 at 10:03 am

    Our church sings “Now May All in Brotherhood” really well; however, my husband always feels uncomfortable picking that one. It is more of a hymn than a Psalm.

  1. 1 Psalm 144: Such Blessings | URC Psalmody Trackback on June 10, 2013 at 12:10 pm

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