Steadfast Love

1 Chronicles 16
Psalm 136

This summer we are exploring the songs of the bible, of which there are more than 185. Last week we started with Psalm 119, the longest song in the bible. Today we turn our attention to the shortest song in the bible – which also happens to be what we might call the bible’s #1 hit: the song most often sung over the course of the text.

If you read the bible from front to back, this song first makes an appearance in Chronicles (which is one book in the Hebrew, and has been divided into two in Christian translations). The ark of the covenant, the wisdom that Moses received from God, is being brought to Jerusalem, where the new King David is establishing a tent of worship.

King David is known as a great musician, and music is important in both the procession and in the installation of the ark. Along the way to its new home, the ark is accompanied by the sound of horn, trumpets, and cymbals, and by loud music on harps and lyres.

After the ark has been brought into the tent, and offerings have been made, a song of praise is sung. Newly appointed praise leaders sing: “O give thanks to the Lord… Sing to God, sing praises, tell of all God’s wonderful works.” Then, towards the end of the singing, we hear these words: “O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good; for God’s steadfast love endures forever.”

This short refrain shows up again in a later part of the book of Chronicles. Solomon, David’s son, has succeeded him in kingship and has built a great temple for worship in Jerusalem. It takes chapters of text to describe this temple: sixty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, one hundred and twenty cubits tall. The inside is filled with elaborately carved cypress wood, overlaid with gold, and set with precious stones. Within the temple is a most holy place, separated from the rest of the temple with a curtain made of blue and purple and crimson fabrics and fine linen.

Once it is all finished, Solomon calls the elders of the people together to bring the ark of the covenant to the temple. They bring the ark into the most holy place of the temple, underneath the wings of great carved cherubim. And the same lineage of singers that David called to the work of musical praise come in fine linen, with cymbals, harps, and lyres. They stand to the east of the altar with one hundred and twenty trumpeting priests. They raise up the song: “God is God, for God’s steadfast love endures forever.” And the new temple is filled with a great cloud, and with the glory of the Lord.

“God is good, God’s steadfast love endures forever.”  All in all, this song is sung at least 12 times in the bible. In addition to Chronicles, we hear it when the prophet Jeremiah tells a desolate people that this song will be sung again in a rebuilt Jerusalem. We hear it when the temple is rebuilt, in the book of Ezra. This song is sung in preparation for battle, and in celebration of a military victory. It is featured in at least 5 psalms, including psalm 136, which we heard this morning.

Why was this song so meaningful to our ancestors in faith?

At the heart of this song is the Hebrew word, chesed, translated here as “steadfast love.” Chesed is difficult to capture in translation. In addition to “steadfast love” it is sometimes translated as “loving-kindness,” “mercy,” or even “loyalty.” The love of chesed is not the kindness of strangers, but the love of two parties who are profoundly tied together. The love of chesed is not a brief expression, but a dedicated ongoing practice.  Chesed is a description of the sure, intimate, long-lasting, foundational love that God gives to God’s people. The closest word in our Greek scriptures, in the Second Testament, is Charis, or “grace.”

If our song for today is popular at 12 mentions in the biblical text, chesed by itself is off the charts: it’s used 248 times in the Hebrew scriptures.

It’s fascinating that this song is sung at the dedication of a new worship space at least three times in the life of the ancient Israelites. It’s as if this song answers a crucial question: why are we doing this? What is worship about?  Why all the people, the instruments, the songs, and the rituals?

This is why, the song reminds us: God is good, and God’s chesed endures forever. Those in our lineage of faith traditions gather around this truth when we worship. Indeed, the purpose of worship is for us to practice centering our lives around this truth.  We practice putting our ultimate trust in the presence of that good God, and in her steadfast, loyal, merciful, eternal, unbreakable loving-kindness.

Psalm 119, the bible’s longest song, focuses on God’s way.  This shortest and most popular song in the bible focuses on God’s self.

So let’s take a moment to to try to let this really sink in, this old news which is still good news: God is good, her chesed endures forever. I invite you to get comfortable in your body, close your eyes if that works for you, take a deep breath or two or three.

  • Perhaps you have a few things swirling around in your mind and heart this morning; anxieties, things to do, personal griefs and gratitudes; greet them with kindness.
  • Become aware, too, of concerns that may lie beyond your immediate circles of care; there are so many: needs for reunification of families; for clean water and air; for freedom from poverty; for healing of body and soul; for release from racism; for a radical realignment and redistribution of power.
  • It is almost too much to bear, if we allow ourselves to consider it. Breathe.
  • Now, in the midst of what has come into your mind and heart, make some space. Allow an awareness of a foundational love to arise. A love so ancient that it began before all time; a love as deep as a sea floor; a love as steady as a mountain. A love that formed you, and knows you, and loves you without limit. A love that fills your emptiness. A love that blesses your tender places with care. A love that wraps its arms around you whenever you feel shame, and when you have made a terrible mistake, and when you feel most alone, saying: y ou are my beloved child.

Let us pray. God, train our hearts to know you, to open up and to be filled by you, to grow and to be fueled by you. For, truly, you are good; and your amazing enormous unbreakable love endures forever. Trusting in that changes everything. Amen.