What Makes Us Tick – Psalm 136 [Totally Hip Gratitude]

Psalm 136 Bible with Justins Dark Chocolate Organic Peanut Butter Cups

Today’s ChocolateJustin’s Dark Chocolate Organic Peanut Butter Cups

Today’s Passage: Psalm 136

The psalms repeat themselves. Psalms 118 and 136 begin with the same couplet, word-for-word: “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His lovingkindness is everlasting” (118:1, 136:1). I could cite more psalms that feature the same line throughout themselves like a chorus or that borrow lines from other psalms like remixes, but I’d be repeating myself. And while Psalm 136 repeats its hook “For His lovingkindness is everlasting” in every verse, the point of the psalm isn’t repetition. It’s gratitude.

The first three verses establish that gratitude is the point of the entire psalm. Each one urges its listeners to give thanks to the Lord, and the psalm closes out with another exhortation to give thanks, bookending a grateful celebration of God’s compassionate actions. And once it’s introduced the gratitude theme, where’s the first place the psalm goes? One of my favorite topics: creation.

I’m a creator. When I draw or write, I can’t help feeling like my creative activity is reflecting that of the Creator, the God “who alone does great wonders…who made the heavens with skill” (4, 5), so of course passages like this resonate with me. But the implication here, not so thinly veiled, is that we should thank God for creating this universe we inhabit. And I can imagine one of my skeptic friends gesturing at the universe and saying, “Seriously? God expects us to thank him for this?

And the post comes to a screeching halt. The psalmist didn’t pen these verses to address the dissatisfaction of 21st-century misotheists; he meant them as a song for a grateful Israel to sing to God together. But I can point to plenty of psalms written from a perspective of disorientation, in which the speaker suffers, questions God, and expresses anger at a universe where injustice prevails. I keep asking: what makes the difference? Why does one person look at the created universe and see cause for joy, celebration, and thankfulness, while another person looks at the same universe and concludes that if it was created, the creator must have been either sadistic or crazy?

I expect to convince no one with the answer I’m about to propose, but I think that the people who are on the same page as the psalmist are those who’ve made the move from disorientation to reorientation. The psalmist writes that God “remembered us in our low estate…and has rescued us from our adversaries” (23, 24). The thing about the pit is that you can’t pull yourself out by your own bootstraps; only God can rescue you from it. It’s not my intention to make the call on free will vs. determinism today, but I don’t see us having a huge role in the move out of the pit. If the move from disorientation to new orientation depends at all on anything we do, I can’t see anything we do influencing our state except to reject absolute despair and cry out to God for help, and then to remember where we came from and how God pulled us out of it.

And even then, I can’t shake the feeling that perhaps we created beings have no more say in whether we give thanks to God than the characters in a story. If we cry out for help, is it because God created such a pit as would cause us to cry out? I have no definitive answer, and to consider the question adequately would require more space and time than I and the post have today. All I can do is pray that God, in the infinite capacity of his omnipotence, will pull my despairing friends out of their low estate and deliver them a gift unmistakably worthy of their gratitude, the gift of salvation.

But in this universe that God made, today I got to have a pair of Justin’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups and remember by contrast how much more pleasant they are than the painful times God’s brought me through. So, in the meantime, I’ll be giving thanks.

 

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