“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
We use the English Standard Version for our weekly readings. One of the things that struck me when I first started using the ESV is how many times the phrase “steadfast love” is used to describe God and His actions. I had never noticed that phrase before. And there is a good reason. While the ESV uses the phrase “steadfast love” 208 times, it’s never used in the New International Version that I used for over 20 years. The NIV has the words kindness, love, or mercy instead.
But steadfast love is a better translation. For the Hebrew word here is not the general word for “love.” It is a word that has the connotation of undeserved love and mercy, and it often refers to deeds of love and mercy that are a fulfillment of a covenant, a promise of God to His people, generally sealed with a sign.
Psalm 136 is a litany psalm designed to be sung responsively. The verses tell who God is and how He has graciously acted in history on behalf of His people, particularly in creation, the Exodus, and the conquest of Canaan. And these verses call upon us to praise the Lord for His loving deeds—past, current, and future—with the refrain, “for His steadfast love endures forever.”
We see this steadfast love in action in our Old Testament lesson from Genesis 9 and the aftermath of the Flood. The Flood was the greatest catastrophe that human history has known. All the awesome, destructive power of nature was displayed as the waters rose and the high mountains were covered to a depth of more than 20 feet. Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; men and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds of the air were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.
What could cause God to do such a thing? Believe it or not, it was God’s continuing concern for His creation that led Him to send the Flood. A concern expressing itself in judgment of a society that had become desperately wicked. A judgment upon a world that had become so godless that even after 100 years of Noah’s preaching only 8 people remained who trusted in the one true God. A judgment on humanity whose wickedness on the earth had become so great that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil all the time.
Oh, it must have been bad back then we think. It’s good that things got much better after the Flood. God culled out the riff-raff, so He could start all over with righteous Noah and his family. Certainly humanity is much better today, isn’t it?
Popular opinion would hold that most people are basically good; they just need a little boost to get over the hump. They just need God to come with His Word and show them what to do and they’ll be just fine.
But then we read in Psalm 14: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (vv.1-3).
St. Paul echoes this thought in Romans 3, with a litany of Old Testament quotes: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (vv. 10-18). The Apostle sums up the human condition this way, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
But we don’t have to go that late in history to see the depth of human depravity. Just after Noah, his family, and the animals stepped off the ark, and Noah sacrificed burnt offerings on Mount Ararat, The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in His heart: “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done” (Genesis 8:21).
Did you catch that? Yes, God had resolved never again to curse the earth because of man. But His decision was not prompted by a change in human nature. Tucked into the middle of His promise is God’s assessment of the human condition even after the Flood: “The intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”
The depravity of man is still a fact of life in this fallen world. By nature, we’re no better than the sinful humanity that led God to destroy His creation, to start again. You and I are—as we just confessed—poor, miserable sinners who have offended God with all our sins and iniquities, and justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment.
But God is gracious and merciful. God’s steadfast love goes so far that He does not leave Noah and his family on their own after the Flood. He gives them a blessing, very similar to that expressed to Adam and Eve at creation. And then God gives them one more word of assurance as they are about to set out on their new lives. God does so in the most solemn and binding form of divine promise—by means of a covenant. Think of it! God actually obligated Himself to observe the terms of a solemn contract: Never again a flood!
In addition to assuring them with words that He would never send another Flood, God gave them a visible sign as a seal of His promise: “I have set My bow in the cloud.” Whenever the rainbow appears, God remembers His covenant. And whenever the rainbow appears, all of Noah’s descendants are reminded that God is faithful to His promise, His steadfast love endures forever.
Fast forward to another mountain, many centuries later. Once again God has rescued His people, bringing the people of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt with the Passover and a miraculous Red Sea crossing. There in the Sinai wilderness, Israel encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. The Lord reminded Moses of His steadfast love: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:3-6).
The Lord confirmed this covenant by inviting Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel to join Him on the mountain. Moses built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and appointed young men to offer burnt offerings and sacrifice young bulls as fellowship offerings to the Lord.
“And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words’” (Exodus 24:6-8).
Each year, Israel was to commemorate the night in which the angel of the Lord struck down the first born of the Egyptians and “passed over” the homes of the Israelites, whose doorposts had been painted with the blood of the lamb. God instructed Israel to never forget that it was not their own sacrifices or holy living, but His power and grace that brought them deliverance. Consequently, each yearly Passover celebration was more than a mere historical remembrance. All participants were united again to the gracious God who had come down to rescue their ancestors, and they were able to give thanks to the Lord for His steadfast love.
But God, in His steadfast love, was not through making covenants. Move forward in history almost fifteen centuries. The eleven disciples gathered in Galilee, at the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”
God does not change. The Lord is steadfast. He deals with His people in the same manner He always has—by the mercy and grace of His covenant love. And once again He uses ordinary water connected to His living Word. God continues to use water both as a means of judgment and as a means of salvation.
As in Noah’s day, God continues to provide a special ark large enough for all repentant sinners that will carry them safely through all His judgments upon an evil world. In the waters of Baptism, God again delivers man from the sin-dominated world into the new creation that Christ brings. “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever.”
God understands our needs as sinful people. Our greatest need is to know we are personally forgiven and loved in spite of our sin. Our gracious Lord also realizes our need to be in fellowship both with Him and others around us. God miraculously fulfills this special need through His gifts to us in the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They are His Word accompanied by actions that involve our senses—sight, hearing, taste, and touch.
Thus, when God connects His Holy Word to ordinary water, it becomes life-giving, saving water in Holy Baptism. When God connect His Holy Word to the earthly bread and wine in Holy Communion, these become special and assuring “signs” that not only point us to His incarnate love, mercy, and forgiveness, but actually deliver these blessings in His very own body and blood.
Christ’s blood shed on Mount Calvary replaced the old covenant God made with Israel at Mount Sinai. Jesus is the sinners’ true Passover Lamb. His blood takes away the sin of the world. In the new covenant, our once crucified but now living Lord personally embraces you with the very body and blood that He poured out on the cross to deliver you from sin, death, and the devil. No wonder after receiving communion we sing a variation of our text: “O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good; and His mercy endureth forever.”
Yes, the Lord’s steadfast love certainly does endure forever! Through all ages the Lord continues to reach out to man with His grace and mercy. The Lord continues to make and keep His promises. The Lord continues to give us signs to reassure us of His undeserved forgiveness and favor.
The Lord God brought Noah and his family safely to a new creation through the waters of the Flood. With the sign of the rainbow, He promised never again to destroy the earth because of man’s sin. The Lord God has brought you rebirth and regeneration through the waters of Baptism. Through the water and the Word, He makes you His child and promises never to leave you nor forsake you.
The Lord God brought Israel from the bondage of Egypt to the Promised Land. The blood of the covenant sprinkled upon the people was the sign that sealed His promise to Israel. Today, the Lord God gives you the new covenant in His blood—His very body and blood given to you for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith unto life everlasting in His eternal Promised Land. Where you have failed to keep your Word and promises, the Lord God’s promises endure forever. Where your love fails and falters, the Lord God’s steadfast love endures forever. Where you have sinned and abounded in wickedness, the Lord God brings you this Good News: You are forgiven of all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.