When you are in the midst of a crisis, feeling the burden of sorrow, overwhelmed by tragedy, or wondering how to carry on during a challenging time of life, fear and doubt often charge forward to tempt your faith as they catch you in a moment of weakness. We have all been there, allowing our circumstances to dictate our heart—and such an approach to life leads quickly to despair, guilt, blame, and resentment. It begins by asking questions but leads to no answers, and so people become weary, give up, and grow selfish, justifying every act of defiance by pointing to personal pain. In this we forget the essential nature of triumph—that enduring hardship and overcoming obstacles define the heart of great victories. We forget that adversity and injustice build character—not because they have some moral power themselves but because they force us to develop moral strength within. However, many lack the faith to turn to God in difficult times and so fail to develop moral strength, capitulating to the devil’s decree and turning their face away from all the good around them.
The Jews who returned from captivity could reflect on their existence from a vastly different viewpoint than their predecessors. Their ancestors lived as if the blessings they enjoyed in the land of Canaan came by right rather than by divine privilege, and so they saw those blessings gradually slip away until war and captivity removed them completely. Returning from Babylon, the Jews could see their history from a far better perspective—one centered on God’s role, God’s blessings, and God’s provision. By this time, they had lived through war, the destruction of their capital and most prized national symbol, the obliteration of any political prominence as a people, captivity as a nation, and an attempted ethnic cleansing. Finally, despite such a sad history, they found reason to smile once more because they rediscovered their faith and their God, as Psalm 136 itself testifies, beginning with the opening words: “Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever” (Psa. 136:1). That final phrase, “For His mercy endures forever,” repeated verse after verse after verse, captures the essence of the psalm and so the heart of a people recapturing the essence of their true identity. The good that Israel experienced came from the LORD’s goodness—not their own. And the fact that they had survived, they finally realized, found its roots not in their survival skills but in the enduring mercy of the LORD.
Israel endured because the LORD’s mercy endured. The goodness of the LORD’s character and His being true to the covenant—even when they were not—provided the key to their return (Psa. 136:1). They returned from a pagan land because Jehovah alone is truly God (Psa. 136:2) and because His authority is unparalleled (Psa. 136:3) and His power unsurpassed (Psa. 136:4). The same God who created the universe in six days (Psa. 136:5-9; Gen. 1; Ex. 20:11), the same God who delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage (Psa. 136:10-15), the same God who led them through the wilderness and gave them military victories while they lacked military might (Psa. 136:16-20), and the same God who gave them their homeland (Psa. 136:21-22), remembered His covenant and His people when they were in the midst of captivity at the mercy of their captors (Psa. 136:23-24) and brought them back home to provide for them in their poverty (Psa. 136:25). They had not deserved their blessings originally, but they fully deserved their punishment eventually. However, as they returned from captivity a defeated people, they finally saw what they had as blessings they did not deserve.
Living with wealth, convenience, and opportunity, we have every reason to feel blessed. But do we? We can look through history and see God providing for us every step of the way (Jas. 1:17)—especially in Jesus (Eph. 1:3). But do we think that way? Do we live that way? Let it not take tragedy to bring us to our knees before our God. Instead, let us bow before Him now. “Oh, give thanks to the God of heaven! For His mercy endures forever” (Psa. 136:26).