On Repetitive Worship Songs


Audio Transcript

Pastor John, as you well know, contemporary worship songs get criticized for their repetition. A lot of them do repeat refrains over and over. So, I think the overall critique is fair and should be addressed. But then, as we read along together in the Navigators Bible Reading Plan, we open our Bibles to Psalm 136 today — and it’s loaded with repetition! Psalm 136 is unlike any other chapter in the whole Bible, echoing the very same phrase 26 times: “For his steadfast love endures forever.” The psalm has never appeared in over two thousand APJ episodes, so it’s overdue I guess. What’s the point of Psalm 136? Why so much repetition? And what does it mean for our debates over repetition in our worship songs today?

I really enjoyed thinking about this psalm. We’ve read this antiphonally at church many times, with the congregation doing that refrain and the leader doing the narrative. But before I get into the substance, here are a few style observations about worship songs.

Rare Repetition

First, this peculiar psalm is really there. Let’s just say that. It’s there. It’s in the Bible. It’s got 26 repetitions of the English phrase “for his steadfast love endures forever” — or sometimes translated, “for his mercy endures forever” or “his lovingkindness endures forever.” So, it sounds like this:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
     for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods,
     for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
     for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who alone does great wonders,
     for his steadfast love endures forever. (Psalm 136:1–4)

And onward for 26 repetitions.

Second, it’s rare. There are a lot of psalms. It’s not like every psalm reads like this. There’s nothing like it again. It’s the rarity of it that gives it such force. If all the psalms did this, we would be worn out. Something unusual is happening here stylistically. It’s so unusual for the psalms, in fact, that we’re driven — which is what you asked — to ask, Why? Why is he doing this?

“Moods in worship should be awakened and sustained primarily by truth, assisted by music.”

Third, the English refrain “for his steadfast love endures forever” has ten syllables in it. The Hebrew has only six — kî lə·‘ō·w·lām ḥas·dōw. That’s a cumulative difference or increase of 104 syllables in English in the psalm as a whole. That might make it a slightly different experience. We just need to keep that in mind. It might have been a little easier to have the refrain kî lə·‘ō·w·lām ḥas·dōw rather than “for his steadfast love endures forever.” That’s a significant sound difference.

Songs with Substance

Fourth, repetition by itself is not the problem with contemporary worship songs. That’s not the problem. Old, great hymns use repetition, like “And Can It Be.” Five times:

Amazing love! how can it be?
That Thou, my God, should die for me!

The issue’s not repetition per se but whether there is enough substance, enough rich content of truth about God woven into the repetitions to justify them, to warrant them. That’s the issue. There’s a difference between repetitions that are called forth by the repeated crescendo of new, glorious truth, and repetitions that serve as a kind of mantra without sufficient truth that is simply used to sustain or intensify a mood. Moods in worship should be awakened and sustained primarily by truth, assisted by music — not primarily by music with a little truth thrown in to justify the singing.

So, what strikes us about Psalm 136 is not just that “for his steadfast love endures forever” occurs 26 times, but that these 26 statements are woven into a truth-laden narrative of the history of Israel. Give thanks: he’s God over all gods. He created everything in the universe. He struck down the Egyptians and delivered Israel. He struck down the kings of the Amorites and gave Israel the land. He picked them up from distress and delivered their foes. He gives them food, and in fact, “He gives food to all flesh” (Psalm 136:25). Give thanks: he’s the God of heaven.

So, there’s the main impression you get. The steadfast love of God relates to everything, from the highest heaven of heavens to the nitty-gritty feeding of the birds and the animals. From wilderness wanderings to the destruction of kings, everything relates to the steadfast love of God. That can’t be missed if you’re paying attention.

Logic of Steadfast Love

But here’s what I had not thought of before that I think is so significant. He could have simplified. The psalmist could have simplified the refrain by saying, “His steadfast love endures forever.” That’s not what he said. In every single one of the 26 repetitions, he says, “Because his steadfast love endures forever. Because his steadfast love endures forever. Because his steadfast love endures forever.” He made the logic explicit 26 times. That’s cumbersome! It really is! When you use a “for” or “because” — I see that often in contemporary worship songs, where the logic seems belabored, and I say, “Just take that out and make it simpler. It would flow better.” The Hebrew word (“because” or “for”) is thrust forward, number one in every phrase, every time, 26 times.

In other words, all of creation, all of God’s superiority over other pretending gods, all of his destruction in Egypt, all of his patience in the wilderness, all of his victory over kings, all of his mercies in distress, all of his food provisions for creatures — all of it is not just vaguely related to the steadfast love of God; it is because of the steadfast love of God. In other words, the psalmist made the refrain more cumbersome with the word “because” in order not to short-circuit the theological depth that was being driven home — namely, everything God does in creation and history and redemption and consummation is flowing ultimately from his free goodness and mercy and love toward his people.

Mercy in Every Work

What makes this especially striking is that this includes his punitive justice against the enemies in Egypt and against the kings of the Amorites. According to this psalm, even when God is bringing destructive justice against his enemies, he has not ceased to act from his steadfast love. So, here’s the way Jonathan Edwards put it in his comment on this psalm (he just has one brief comment in his notes on Scripture):

The psalm confirms to me that an ultimate end of the creation of the world and of all God’s works is his goodness, or the communication of his good, to his creatures. For this psalm sufficiently teaches that all God’s works, from the beginning of the world to the end of it, are works of mercy to his people, yea, even the works of his vindictive justice and wrath, as appears by the Psalms 136:10, Psalms 136:15, Psalms 136:17–22. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 24:537)

So, I conclude that the substance here in this psalm is so profound as to warrant 26 repetitions to force us, as it were, to dwell on the logic, on the fact that everything God does is because — because — his steadfast love endures forever.

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