FOR HIS MERCY ENDURES FOREVER
by Wayne S. Walker
Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever (Psalm 136:1). In the New King James Version, Psalm 136 is headlined, Thanksgiving to God for His Enduring Mercy. It mentions several things that God had done to deserve this thanks. He created the heavens, the earth, the sun, the moon, and the stars. Also, He brought the plagues upon Egypt, delivered Israel from bondage, overthrew Pharaoh in the Red Sea, led the people through the wilderness, slew the kings of Canaan, and gave Israel the promised land. Then He remembered our lowly estate, rescued us from our enemies, and gives food to all flesh. Each verse in the Psalm ends with the clause, For His mercy endures forever.
There was a time in the early days of the English speaking church, following Henry VIIIs break with Rome, when the primary musical expression of public worship was the singing of Psalms. We still sing All People That on Earth Do Dwell from the Anglo-Genevan Psalter, and The Lords My Shepherd, Ill Not Want from the Scottish Psalter. Other writers have sought to express the sentiments of the Psalms in more literary terms, including Isaac Watts (O God, Our Help in Ages Past), Henry F. Lyte (Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven), and James Montgomery (Hail to the Lords Anointed). But today we sing far more hymns and gospel songs than we do Psalms.
In the winter of 1623-1624, while living at his father’s house on Bread St. in London and learning his lessons at St. Paul’s School, the fifteen-year-old John Milton (1608-1674) produced a free rendering of Ps. 136 in 24 two-line stanzas, evidently for his own delight or for that of his father and teachers. Each of the stanzas ended with the couplet, “For His mercies aye endure, Ever faithful, ever sure.” It was natural, considering his Puritan heritage, that he would turn to the Bible for his inspiration. The fact that he chose a Psalm to paraphrase shows that the Psalms were still the chief outlet for singing praise to God in his day.
Young Milton, the lyric poet, was just imitating his elders, but many feel that he did a better job than they did. The poem was not published until 1645 in his Poems, Both English and Latin. Milton went on to become one of the most famous English authors of the 1600s with Paradise Lost in 1667 and Paradise Regained in 1671. His version of Psalm 136 was never used as a hymn until 1855, when it was included in the Congregationalist Hymn Book. It is not as popular as it once was, but it is still a great hymn. “Let us with a gladsome mind, Praise the Lord for He is kind; For His mercies aye endure, Ever faithful, ever sure.”