In today’s chapter, Peter deals with the fallout from his acceptance of Cornelius as a fellow follower of Christ, and the obvious place to go with it is that racism and religious bigotry have no place in the church. But as true as that is, I don’t want to co-opt the passage or use it as a soapbox to make my own points. Furthermore, there are some peculiarities in Peter’s interactions with the other Jewish Christians here, so let’s trade our broad brush for the detail one as we dig in.
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 single verse, the point of the psalm isn’t repetition. It’s gratitude.
If you want to argue that God changes his mind, you’re probably going to turn to Exodus 32. In this well-known passage, after the Israelites make a golden calf and start worshipping it, Moses apparently talks God down from destroying them and starting a new nation with Moses. The text even comes right out and says it: “So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people” (Exodus 32:14). But if you wanted to argue your case without reaching for the low-hanging theological fruit, you might opt to look at Amos 7.
Amos certainly likes his patterns. We started off with the “For three transgressions and for four I will not revoke” of the first two chapters, then we had the torrent of God’s rhetorical questions welcoming us to chapter three, and now in chapter four, we’ve got the mantra “Yet you have not returned to me.” The latter half of the chapter comprises a litany of disciplinary judgments intended to bring Israel back to their Creator, each punctuated by God’s observation that it didn’t work.
Psalm 136 picks up Psalm 118’s repetition of the phrase “His lovingkindness is everlasting” in its opening verses and takes it to its logical conclusion: repeating it throughout the whole song. The result is a call-and-response worship song that is sure to get the whole ancient Hebrew congregation bouncing. It inspired the song “Forever,” written by Chris Tomlin and performed by Michael W. Smith on his 2001 album Worship. “Forever” repeats the line “His love endures forever” throughout the verses, but while it focuses on God’s faithfulness, power, and compassion for humankind in general, Psalm 136 is specifically a song from Israel’s history about Israel’s history.
I expect that lyrical repetition has been around for as long as singing itself. It’s a potent device. If you want to write a hit pop song, get yourself a simple, singable chorus and a catchy hook, and lean into it hard: just drill it into your listeners’ heads. And whatever lyrical gymnastics you’re pulling off in your rap track, whatever rapid-fire vocals and complex internal rhymes, make sure you’ve got a good call-and-response chorus to get the audience bouncing. And to go back further, if you’re an ancient Hebrew lyricist, you too can put these techniques to work. Enter Psalm 118.