Psalm 136 and the Use of Repetition

Dear Reader,

I have become bogged down in my study of the psalms. But last week at church we sang Psalm 136A. Do you know this psalm? It is the most repetitive one there is. It tells the story of God’ faithfulness to the Israelites in bringing them out of Egypt and into their land.  After every phrase comes the refrain: “His steadfast love endures forever.” In some ways, I think it probably seems most normal to us. Refrains are something we know from our English music. It is not very common (at least to this degree) in biblical Hebrew poetry which relies mainly on parallelism to give it structure.

As we sang the psalm, the power of that repetition struck me. Sung well, by a large (for an RP church) number of people, it is quite powerful. When we repeat over and over  “His steadfast love endures forever”, I am struck by the, well, steadfastness and foreverness of it. God’s faithfulness was repeated for the Israelites through all the events the psalm mentions. It has been repeated many times more for His people in Old Testament times and on through to the present day. And it will still be repeated. The repetition of this phrase underscores the repetition in history of God’s covenant love. Even though the exact same words are sung by us many times in this one psalm, their very repetition adds meaning.

And that is an important point for us to remember as we translate, study, and sing the psalms. We do not build our poetry on parallelism but the ancient Hebrews did. Because it is not natural to us, this parallelism often seems meaningless or tiresome. But it isn’t. Even if the exact same words are repeated, there is meaning in their repetition. Which means that we should neither eliminate that repetition in our translations nor add repetition where the psalm has none. To do either is to change the meaning of the psalm.  

The other thought I had as we sang Psalm 136 is that our repeated proclamations fo God’s faithfulness do not stand alone. God’s people have been singing of His steadfast love for millenia using these same words (in their own languages of course). But if an ancient Israelite were to be dropped into our congregation today and could understand English, they would recognize this Psalm and know what it is we are singing. I may sing of God’s love a dozen times in one evening, but His people have been singing it on and on through the centuries.

Psalm 136 is a favorite of children because they can pick it up so quickly. For adults, it often becomes tiresome. But it shouldn’t. We should rejoice in both God’s steadfastness and the continuation of His people through history even to out present age and beyond.


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