Psalm 136.10-20 – God’s “unfairness”
Posted: 31 January 2011 in Psalms

To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn: for his mercy endureth for ever:
And brought out Israel from among them: for his mercy endureth for ever:
With a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm: for his mercy endureth for ever.
To him which divided the Red sea into parts: for his mercy endureth for ever:
And made Israel to pass through the midst of it: for his mercy endureth for ever:
But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red sea: for his mercy endureth for ever.
To him which led his people through the wilderness: for his mercy endureth for ever.
To him which smote great kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:
And slew famous kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:
Sihon king of the Amorites: for his mercy endureth for ever:
And Og the king of Bashan: for his mercy endureth for ever:

It is scarcely possible to read psalm 136, with its repeated refrain “for his mercy endureth for ever,” without wondering whether Pharoah, Sihon, Og, and others, might not have had a slightly different perspective on the matter. This psalm contains one of the uncomfortable truths to be found in the Bible; namely that God’s mercy is only available to those upon whom he chooses to bestow it, and for everybody else there is only wrath. It would seem that the full revelation of his divine nature requires God to put both his mercy and his wrath on display. Abstract theological truths, such as divine sovereignty, will otherwise not be sufficient for humans to take them on board. They need to be backed up by hard concrete reality.

The same thought might account for another apparent unfairness. Namely that some of God’s most faithful servants can live in conditions of dire poverty and hardship, whereas others, who never give God a second thought, can live a life of comfort and ease. The lesson here might be that serving God is not about obtaining material success, or some other reward, and that he must be loved and served for his own sake. For God’s true disciples, their service of him must be its own reward. (Which does not, of course, excuse anybody from trying to relieve suffering wherever it occurs.)

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