Saturday, November 30, 2013

Psalm 136

Psalm 136:10 states in the King James Version (which is in the public domain): "To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn: for his mercy endureth for ever..."

Jimmy Swaggart tries to argue that God's smiting of the Egyptian firstborn was a case of God's mercy towards the Egyptians: that God was doing this drastic deed to encourage the Egyptians to repent.  Swaggart notes that God could have smitten the Egyptians in one swoop, but he contends that God acted as God did to encourage the Egyptians to repent.  I heard Tim Keller say something similar, not specifically in reference to Psalm 136:10, but rather concerning the Exodus.

Do I buy this?  Well, on the issue of Psalm 136:10, I am not convinced by Swaggart's view that the verse concerns God's mercy towards the Egyptians.  I think that the verse is saying that God's smiting of the Egyptians, Israel's oppressors, was a case of God's mercy (lovingkindness, or covenant obligation) towards Israel.  Psalm 136:15, after all, refers to God's overthrow of the Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds) as an example of God's mercy.  I doubt that God was showing those Egyptians any kindness when he was overthrowing them in the sea, since God was killing them in that case, not giving them a chance to repent.  The point in v 15, I think, is that God was demonstrating kindness, or covenant obligation, to Israel by protecting her from and defeating her enemies.

What about the claim that the Exodus was a case of God trying to encourage the Egyptians to repent, of God demonstrating love even to the Egyptians?  I don't know.  I don't find that explicitly in the Exodus story.  Exodus 9:14-16 states: "For I will at this time send all my plagues upon thine heart, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people; that thou mayest know that there is none like me in all the earth.  For now I will stretch out my hand, that I may smite thee and thy people with pestilence; and thou shalt be cut off from the earth. And in very deed for this cause have I raised thee up, for to shew in thee my power; and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth."  And, after the death of the Egyptian firstborn, the Pharaoh does ask Moses for a blessing, which may indicate that the Pharaoh now acknowledges the power of Israel's God (Exodus 12:32).  But did God in the Exodus story have some missionary motivation behind the Exodus, a desire to bring the Egyptians into a relationship with him, or to encourage the Egyptians to worship him as God on a permanent basis?  I'm not sure.  Maybe what we see in the Exodus story is some nationalistic message that the God of Israel is supreme, and God is rubbing Egypt's nose in that, without really expecting Egypt or encouraging Egypt to enter into a relationship with him.

But back to Psalm 136.  Psalm 136:25 states: "Who giveth food to all flesh: for his mercy endureth for ever."  My Peake's commentary says that this verse "sounds strange in a Ps. which exults in the slaughter of the heathen----but it is easier to admit an inconsistency than to limit 'all flesh' to all Jews."  The commentary addresses the tension between nationalism and universalism, in reference to Psalm 136.

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