by Brian Godowa

Whenever I hear Christians criticizing contemporary worship music for being mindlessly repetitious with its echoing refrains, I like to point out Psalm 136 (copied on the next page). Psalm 136 consists of twenty-six verses, each of which is followed by the very same repetitious phrase, “for His mercy endures forever.” This is repeated over and over for all twenty-six verses. I can imagine these modern critics complaining that King David (or whoever wrote it with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) was just too simplistic and redundant going on an on with his mind-numbing chant-like refrains. My point is that there is a place in our worship experience for simple lyrics of redundant praise.
But there is also some truth in the critique. As you read the rest of Psalm 136, you will find a highly developed theological story integrated within that simple repetition. It is a narrative of creation, exodus, and conquest. For our ancient Israelite forebearers, songs were so much more than expressions of emotion or belief because they so often incorporated story into the experience. If we want to worship God in line with Scripture, we had best incorporate more narrative theology into our music.

My gifts and calling are not in music but in visual arts and storytelling. And as a professional storyteller, I can add a bit of outsider perspective by explaining how story works on the human soul in a way that can make worship have a more rooted connection with God.

The power of story is the power of incarnation. Incarnation means the living embodiment of an idea or spirit. When we hear, read, or watch a story, we are engaging with a narrative of events of characters whose journey embodies change leading to redemption. As we identify with those characters, our imagination enables us to go on the journey with them, and experience the redemption they experience.

Through imagination, story places us within a worldview or paradigm. It helps us to understand truth in an existential way as opposed to a rational or abstract way. This is not to pit imagination against reason, but merely to show that they touch different parts of our humanity created in the image of God.

Story structure can be explained like this:
The beginning of a story is the normal world of the protagonist, how they start out on their journey, and what their goal is. And there is also an antagonist, the character that keeps the protagonist from achieving their goal. The middle is how that protagonist seeks the goal, but is brought to a point of failure until they realize that they need a rebirth to change who they are. They are then empowered with the inner redemption that leads them to vanquish their outer foe, the antagonist, in a final climactic battle of the end. Finally, there is the denouement, which is a brief depiction at the end of the story that shows the protagonist’s life in harmony with their purpose or meaning as a result of their change.

That, dear reader, is the story of redemption.

So, how does this relate to worship? The power of story in song enables us to enter into the story of God’s people and experience God’s redemption afresh. We inhabit the story with our imagination and therefore inhabit the truth of that story beyond mere intellectual assent or abstract contemplation.

So going back to Psalm 136, let’s see how it uses story to incarnate the redemption of God’s people.

Prologue (Psalm 136: 1-3)

Verses 1-3 of Psalm 136 are a prelude of exhortation to praise Yahweh. Like an ancient chorus, they set the stage for the purpose of the story, namely, gratitude to God for his mercy that endures forever. And how do we see this abstract thing called, “mercy”? We see it through history—through His story of how God redeems Israel.

Beginning (Psalm 136: 4-9)

Verses 4-9 are a narration of creation reminiscent of Genesis 1. But this is not really about the beginning of the physical universe, but the beginning of Israel’s story. The ancient Hebrews regularly used creation of the physical cosmos as a metaphor for the creation of God’s covenant people. Psalm 74 and Isaiah 51 are examples of how the establishment of the Mosaic covenant with Israel is expressed poetically as the creation of heavens and earth. God’s speaking through Moses at Sinai is described as “establishing the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, ‘You are my people’” (Isaiah 51:16). For Yahweh, his people are his universe of creation. And their goal is communion with him.

(For the sake of analysis, I am cutting out the refrain to focus on the story content for this article)

Middle (Psalm 136: 10-16)

Verses 10-16 tell the story of the Exodus. In particular, the Red Sea crossing (another aspect of Psalm 74 and Isaiah 51. Check it out). And of course, the antagonist is Egypt, the enemy of God’s people. Biblical scholar N.T. Wright has often explained that the basic events of creation, election, exodus, exile and return was the recurring narrative that saturates the Jewish identity. We see this song as a simplified version of that narrative.

Exodus represents God delivering Israel out of the “belly of the beast” (a story term) of Egypt in her new birth as a nation at Sinai. In fact, Scripture even uses this “beast” imagery when describing the Red Sea. It says Yahweh “crushed the heads of Leviathan” (Psa 74:14) or “pierced the sea dragon” (Isa 51:9) at that crossing. Imaginative poetry expressing the ancient understanding of God’s sovereign protection of his people, as he conquers the monster of chaos to create his covenant order.

One other common story element is that Israel goes through the waters like traditional heroes go through a gauntlet of purification, where she comes out on the other end strengthened to accomplish her goal like never before. Israel is formed, goes through the waters of trial and trust, and is established in the wilderness and given the power to fight her climactic battle.

End (Psalm 136: 17-22)

Verses 17-22 recounts the conquest of the Promised Land. By the power of Yahweh’s strong arm, the Israelites conquer the mighty Sihon and Og, last of the Rephaim giants in the Transjordan (Deut 2:26-3:11). This victory leads to the rest of the Promised Land of Canaan as their heritage (Psa 136:21).

Denoument (Psalm 136: 23-26)

Verses 23-26 concludes with another exhortation to praise Yahweh for his protection and provision. He was the one who had remembered his people in their “low estate” and rescued them from their foes.

This is only one example of a pattern throughout the Old Testament of people singing their narratives of redemption. Deborah’s song of victory (Judges 5), Moses’ song of Red Sea deliverance (Exodus 15), Moses’ song of entry into the Promised Land (Deut 32). All, songs full of theological narrative.

As Christians we have many songs that retell our unique identifying narrative of the resurrection of Christ, which is a wonderful thing. But is there room for a more developed aesthetic within our music to tell more stories of God’s deliverance through lyric? Can we add theological depth to our refrains of repetitious praise with integrated stories of God’s actions in history? Can we follow the Psalmist in singing not merely choruses, stanzas and bridges but singing more stories?

We are storied creatures, created to encounter truth not merely through rational doctrine or emotional expression, but also through narrative incarnation. As we sing the stories of God’s redemption of his people, we inhabit that redemption, we expand our worship and enter into God’s own story.

His mercy endures forever.

Psalm 136 (NKJV)
1 Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good!
For His mercy endures forever.
2 Oh, give thanks to the God of gods!
For His mercy endures forever.
3 Oh, give thanks to the Lord of lords!
For His mercy endures forever:
4 To Him who alone does great wonders,
For His mercy endures forever;
5 To Him who by wisdom made the heavens,
For His mercy endures forever;
6 To Him who laid out the earth above the waters,
For His mercy endures forever;
7 To Him who made great lights,
For His mercy endures forever—
8 The sun to rule by day,
For His mercy endures forever;
9 The moon and stars to rule by night,
For His mercy endures forever.
10 To Him who struck Egypt in their firstborn,
For His mercy endures forever;
11 And brought out Israel from among them,
For His mercy endures forever;
12 With a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm,
For His mercy endures forever;
13 To Him who divided the Red Sea in two,
For His mercy endures forever;
14 And made Israel pass through the midst of it,
For His mercy endures forever;
15 But overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea,
For His mercy endures forever;
16 To Him who led His people through the wilderness,
For His mercy endures forever;
17 To Him who struck down great kings,
For His mercy endures forever;
18 And slew famous kings,
For His mercy endures forever—
19 Sihon king of the Amorites,
For His mercy endures forever;
20 And Og king of Bashan,
For His mercy endures forever—
21 And gave their land as a heritage,
For His mercy endures forever;
22 A heritage to Israel His servant,
For His mercy endures forever.
23 Who remembered us in our lowly state,
For His mercy endures forever;
24 And rescued us from our enemies,
For His mercy endures forever;
25 Who gives food to all flesh,
For His mercy endures forever.
26 Oh, give thanks to the God of heaven!
For His mercy endures forever.

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