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Psalm 106.1-5
Praise the LORD!
Oh Give thanks to the LORD,
   for he is good,
   for his steadfast love [chesed] endures forever!
Who can utter the mighty deeds of the LORD,
   or declare all his praise?
Blessed are they who observe justice,
   who do righteousness at all times!
Remember me, O LORD,
   when you show favor to your people;
   help me when you save them,
   that I may look upon the prosperity of your chosen ones,
   that I may rejoice in the gladness of your nation,
   that I may glory with your inheritance.

What a magnificent start! The psalmist has moved from praising God for his goodness to blessing those who live justly to asking God to remember him when favor is shown to the people of God. And so ends the joyful part of this forty-eight verse psalm. But, before looking at what comes next we must linger for a moment over the opening verse. This psalm, like many others, finds its theological stake grounded in the word chesed. This is the word translated “steadfast love” (ESV/NRSV/RSV), “lovingkindness” (NASB), “loyal love” (NET), “love” (NAB), “faithful love” (HCSB/NJB), and “mercy” (KJV/NKJV). That there is such variety in the translations should alert us to the fact that this Hebrew word is difficult to render in English. Furthermore, this is no small word; in fact, chesed is the heartbeat of the psalms, which is repeated over and over as the central belief about God’s relation to his people—his chesed endures forever. So what is chesed? John Goldingay translates it “commitment” and gives the following definition:

It is sometimes described as covenant love, though in the OT [Old Testament] it rarely appears in the company of the word “covenant.” It is used in two connections: when someone makes an act of commitment for which there is no reason in terms of prior relationship, and when someone keeps their commitment when they might be expected to abandon it (e.g., because the other person has done so). It is the Hebrew equivalent to the Greek agape.

Chesed starts with God who graciously, lovingly establishes a covenant relationship with his people at Mount Sinai. He promises to remain faithful to it no matter what. It is important to distinguish chesed from the word “love.” This is because love is often construed today as infatuation, intense fleeting emotion, or something exciting yet wildly unstable. God’s chesed is much deeper than that. His chesed is much more like the kind of love a married couple shares. It is not a fickle love, which may find another on a whim, but a committed love; it is the kind of love that is firmly established in the marriage covenant. There is no one word in the English language that can express this idea, but Psalm 106 can teach us what it means.
Now, it is important to keep in mind that the basis for the relationship between God and Israel at that time was the Old Covenant or Law. Part of this covenant was that God would bring blessings and prosperity upon his people when they remained faithful and judgment and wrath when they broke faith. So, when the people rebelled, even God’s punishment was an act of his commitment. But, on the other side, after the just penalty was meted out, the people found in chesed a basis from which to appeal to God for deliverance—for his chesed endure forever. Now we must return our attention to Psalm 106 and observe the sudden shift between verses five and six.

After the introduction (vv. 1-5), the psalmist turns his attention to the meat of the matter—confession. He begins this extended confessional prayer (vv. 6-43) with the formulaic expression:

Both we and our fathers have sinned;
   we have committed iniquity;
   we have done wickedness.

These are the precise words Solomon employed in his magnificent temple dedication prayer (1 Kings 8.47). The psalmist is taking it upon himself to confess to God on behalf of his entire people the sins of Israel from the time of Egypt right up until the present. In fact, we are not told when the psalmist is writing until he finishes his historical summary. Where he stops is when he lives. Over all he enumerates eight sins that the people have committed:

Summary from Psalm 106 Related Scripture
1: Red Sea Rebellion Psalm 106.7-12:
After the ten plagues in Egypt, the people rebelled by the Red Sea. The psalmist writes, “they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love [chesed].” After they bitterly complained God rebuked the sea and it became dry—like a desert. Once they were safe the waters covered and drowned the pursuing Egyptian army. “Then they believed his words; they sang his praise.”
Exodus 14.11-12:
Then they said to Moses, “Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt with us in this way, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians?’ For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
2: Quail Fiasco Psalm 106.13-15:
Though God had provided bread (manna) for his people, they soon grew dissatisfied and developed an irresistible craving for meat. God sent them quails; they ate to the full; but while the meat was still between their teeth, God sent a wasting disease among them. This all happened because they forgot his works and did not wait for his counsel.
Numbers 11.4-6:
The rabble who were among them had greedy desires; and also the sons of Israel wept again and said, “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.”
3: Dathan & Abiram Psalm 106.16-18:
Certain people became discontent with Moses and Aaron. Among them were Korah, Dathan, and Abiram who convinced 250 other Israelites to join their conspiracy. They defied Moses accusing him of being a dictator, and challenged Aaron for only allowing his direct descendants to be priests while the rest of the Levites were not allowed to enter the courts of the tabernacle. God settled the matter by opening the earth to swallow these jealous men and sending out fire to consume the 250.
Numbers 16.12-14:
Then Moses sent a summons to Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab; but they said, “We will not come up. Is it not enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, but you would also lord it over us? Indeed, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Would you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up!”
4: Golden Calf Debacle Psalm 106.19-23:
The people of God “exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass.” They “worshiped a metal image.” The psalmist is appalled at this act. He recognizes that God would have destroyed them, “had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them.” Why did this happen? How can it be explained? “They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt.” Over and over the people forget, and so they break faith resulting in disastrous consequences.
Exodus 32.1-4:
…the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears…and bring them to me.”…And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
5: Refusal to Enter Land Psalm 106.24-27:
After fleeing from Egypt and trudging through the desert, they finally arrived at the entrance point to the Promised Land: Kadesh. Spies went to the land and upon returning convinced the people that they would never be able to defeat the natives. Thus, the psalmist writes, “they despised the pleasant land, having no faith in his promise.” They murmured and rebelled by refusing to enter the land. God swore they would perish in the wilderness, which happened over the next forty years.
Numbers 14.2-4:
And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”
6: Bowing to Baal of Peor Psalm 106.28-31:
The people attached themselves to another god, Baal of Peor, and “ate sacrifices offered to the dead.” As a result of their provocation, God sent a plague resulting in thousands of deaths. However, Phinehas, overcome with zeal for God, intervened resulting in the deliverance. He was honored with a perpetual blessing.
Numbers 25.1-3
While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.
7: Moaning at Meribah Psalm 106.32-33:
When they arrived at Meribah there was no water for the people to drink. God told Moses to speak to the rock, but instead he struck it with his staff and said, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Thus, the psalmist writes, “for they made his spirit bitter, and he spoke rashly with his lips.” For this, “it went ill with Moses” and later when they finally entered the Promised Land, Moses was excluded.
Numbers 20.3-5
And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the LORD! Why have you brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink.”
8: Assimilation of Canaanite Practices Psalm 106.34-43:
Upon entering the land, Israel did not destroy the peoples as God commanded. Furthermore, “they mixed with the nations and learned to do as they did.” Thus, they became idolaters and even “sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons.” The land became polluted with blood. God’s people became unclean. As a result God’s wrath was poured out upon his people. He let their enemies conquer them and eventually they were wholly taken out of the land and brought into exile to live among their captors. “Many times he delivered them, but they were rebellious in their purposes and were brought low through their iniquity.”
Ezekiel 16.17-21
You also took your beautiful jewels of my gold and of my silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself images of men, and with them played the whore. And you took your embroidered garments to cover them, and set my oil and my incense before them. Also my bread that I gave you–I fed you with fine flour and oil and honey–you set before them for a pleasing aroma; and so it was, declares the Lord GOD. And you took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me, and these you sacrificed to them to be devoured. Were your whorings so small a matter that you slaughtered my children and delivered them up as an offering by fire to them?

Psalm 106 is not an easy read. It is not light or trivial, as if poetry written merely to lift the spirits of the reader for a fleeting moment. No, this psalm, though poetic, is painfully honest, historically aware, and theologically grounded. The psalmist does not run from the tumultuous history of his people nor does he brush off the sins of the fathers as if they had nothing to do with the present moment. He takes responsibility, stands upright, and confesses to God the chronic rebelliousness of his people. Still, after more than thirty excruciating verses of confession, he recognizes God’s gracious care for Judah even while in exile. He writes:

Psalm 106.44-46
Nevertheless, he looked upon their distress,
   when he heard their cry.
For their sake he remembered his covenant,
   and relented according to the abundance of his steadfast love [chesed].
He caused them to be pitied
   by all those who held them captive.

God’s commitment to the covenant, his chesed is the reason why God caused Judah’s captors’ had compassion on the exiles. Even in the midst of just punishment, which God was actually bound by the covenant to carry out, he found ways to lighten their burden. God’s totally undeserved loving care for the children of Israel still endured.

At this point we realize the situation of the psalmist. He has brought us along from Egypt to the exile when Judah was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar, forcibly extricated from the Promised Land, and resettled in Babylonia. Events had come full circle: the people who had suffered as a marginal group in the land of Egypt had gone in and now come out of the Promised Land only to sojourn once again in a strange land where the true God was not worshipped. His was one of the darkest moments in Israelite history. He writes while living in a foreign country, surrounded by people who speak a foreign language, who worship foreign gods, and who live in a foreign way (especially compared to the Law of Moses). Remarkably, he does not point his finger at God in protest as if his people were suffering some gross injustice; he does not conclude that the Babylonian god, Marduk, is more powerful than Yahweh; he does not forget who he is or the special history of the chosen people. Of course, as Bible readers we know that the exile only lasted seventy years, but from the psalmist’s perspective it may have seemed as though it would never end. Finally, after his extended confession the psalmist arrives at his plea:

Psalm 106.47
Save us, O LORD our God,
   and gather us from among the nations,
   that we may give thanks to your holy name
   and glory in your praise.

This is the heart of the entire psalm. Though everything seemed lost—with Jerusalem and the holy temple lying in ruins, the chosen nation stripped of sovereignty, and God’s people now living as captives in a foreign Gentile land—still there is hope. What explanation is there for such audacious hope? The psalmist knows from God’s consistent dealings, even after they have suffered the just wrath of God, that God’s chesed still endures. It endures forever. Thus, he is humbly confident and dares to pray for salvation, for return from exile, for the restoration of national Judah. Why should God move in this way? It is so that his people may give thanks and glory to God’s holy name—activities that could only be fully carried out with the people back in their land with the Temple functioning. Not only is Psalm 106 an incredible example to us of how to honestly face sin and courageously confess it to God, but it teaches us that even in the darkest moments of life, when all hope seems lost, when even declaring God’s steadfast love might result in ridicule from our neighbors, when the most powerful world empire has taken over, still in the midst of a seventy year nightmare God is faithful—his chesed endures forever. He is a God of love and though we have suffered the storm of his holy wrath light comes in the morning for those who have the temerity to pray such prayers as this one. Our psalmist concludes thus:

Psalm 106.48
Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel,
   from everlasting to everlasting!
And let all the people say, “Amen!”
Praise the LORD!

One Response to “Psalm 106: Crying out to God When Hope Seems Lost”

  1. on 28 Jan 2011 at 7:15 pmDoubting Thomas

    This is one of the most informative articles that you’ve written. I learned a lot from it. I especially like the part where you have the “Summary from Psalm 106” on the left side and “Related Scripture” on the right side. It makes it all very easy to understand (even for someone with limited knowledge of the O.T. like me)…


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