As follows is an exegesis of Ps 135 LXX / 136 MT that was inspired by Holy Transfiguration Monastery. I recommend listening to their chant before reading the commentary, as I believe it spiritually will attune one to understanding what the Prophet David was really communicating when he penned it.
An Orthodox exegesis of this text, in my mind, is most compelling. No other exegesis will do:
1 [Alleluia.] Give thanks to the Lord: for he is good: for his mercy [endures] for ever.
“Alleluia,” the Psalm fittingly begins with praising God. “The Lord,” for He is master over all.
“He is good.” He loves mankind and “is longsuffering toward us” (2 Pet 3:9), He is “abundant in mercy” (Num 14:18 MT), and “works all things for Good.” (Rom 8:28) “His mercy endures for ever,” because “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and this is indelibly His character. This character is eternal, a natural consequence of His simple essence’s will. There is no composite parts, no contradictions, no contrary wills—and so mercy is inviolable, enduring, and without condition. “Mercy triumphs over judgement.” (James 2:13)
2 Give thanks to the God of gods; for his mercy [endures] for ever.
“Give thanks,” for gratitude is due to God due to His love, mercy, goodness, and beauty. In God’s works, His “diversity of energies” (1 Cor 12:6), God’s greatness is both clearly seen and perceived. “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead.” (Rom 1:20) Gratitude is the good and necessary consequence of confronting God.
“God of gods.” God is the Creator of the angels and deified saints, the latter two being the gods He is Lord of. “His mercy endures forever” for the gods, the angels and saints, for they are continually deified by His energies. Their existence is sustained continually by Him and entirely contingent upon Him, despite being “gods.” They are not “gods” apart from His grace. “[T]he angels continue immortal, not that are truly incorruptible in nature…but because they have been allotted a grace from God which bestows immortality and will grant them an incorrupt existence.” (cf Synodal Letter of Sophronius of Jerusalem, 2.4.1)
3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords: for his mercy [endures] for ever.
“The Lord of lords.” God is not only the Creator of the angels and saints, He is the God and Leader of the world’s leaders. God is always righteous and good, and leaders following Him make a sort of heaven on Earth. Only sin, from their subjects or from the leaders themselves, impedes this. “His mercy endures for ever.” “For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” (Rom 13:1) Until the end of time governments will exist, as their existence is by God’s grace for the good of man. “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.” (Rom 13:3) They will finally be replaced by the new heavens and the new Earth, and God Himself will be with His people and will rule Himself. And so, His mercy in this regard is likewise eternal, for God is eternal, and His will is eternal and unchanging. “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” (Num 23:19)
4 To him who alone has wrought great wonders: for his mercy [endures] for ever.
“To Him who alone has wrought great wonders.” “I alone stretched out the heavens.” (Is 44:24 MT) The
reference is to God creating the spiritual realm. God works with no co-creators in Heaven or Earth. There are no co-eternal entities—God alone is without beginning and He alone is Creator. This is hard to appreciate in an era where no one knows what Henotheism is let alone having observed Henotheistic worship and practices. However, God is worthy of praise because Henotheism is a fantasy. “God may be all in all.” (1 Cor 15:28) God is all and He is in all by the cooperation of the will of all entities. There will come the time where “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:10-11)
The cooperation of every willing entity will be assured, either in embracing the grace of God or in its rejection of God will begin its eternity tending towards complete annihilation and nothingness. “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh.” (Gen 6:3 MT) As Saint Maximus teaches, “The sages give the names of perdition, hades, sons of perdition and the like, to those who by their disposition have set themselves on a course to non existence, and by their mode of life reduced themselves to virtual nothingness.” (Ambiguum 20:2) And so, the contrary willing entities will be overcome by the grace of God. In this they do not become literal co-will with God and therefore attain to Theosis (i.e. eternal reward in Heaven). Rather, they completely capitulate due to being overpowered and humbled, and eternally rejecting the grace of God they endlessly tend towards becoming increasing undone. They are infinitely undone as eternity is infinite. “For His mercy endures forever.” There is no end to His grace.
5 To him who made the heavens by understanding; for his mercy [endures] for ever.
God has filled workers with wisdom and understanding in which to partake in their crafts. (cf Ex 31:3, 35:31 MT, Job 32:8 MT) “Understanding” is intrinsic to God as He is omniscient. (cf Job 38:36) God is Logos—He is Wisdom, Order, and the Sum of All Knowledge. All created things have logoi, the fingerprints of the Logos that ordered their respective natures. And so, all created things are contingent upon their Author. This contingency is an ever-enduring mercy.
6 To him who established the earth on the waters; for his mercy [endures] for ever.
“Established the earth on the ‘waters.’” “Waters” is a metaphor for the fallen angels. What is meant here is that God established the Earth upon the fallen angels. Creation was an ordering of good and evil, the separation of light from darkness, waters from waters, as Gen 1:3-8 delineates. Why the physical creation by necessity follows the fall of the angels in Heaven is mysterious.
Surely, this understanding has been fodder for the Gnostics who have wrongly inferred that the creation itself is a defect which resulted from an analogous spiritual fall (imagined as the emanation of aeons). This is obviously incorrect.
Perhaps, the fall in heaven nearly coincided with the fall on Earth, both events transpiring as practical co-incidences (i.e. Satan’s fall happening right before and thereby precipitating Eve and Adam’s).
One must affirm God made the heavens by understanding. God created knowing that elements of His spiritual creation would rebel and, as a result, cause His material creation to experience the Fall due to Adam’s sin. God could have easily created so that Satan would never exist. Further, He could have struck
Adam and Eve before their deception and re-created from scratch. But, He has permitted evils, “the waters,” to persist.
Why? Because God knew it better to permit finite evil to bring about greater good than to not permit its existence whatsoever. To not do so would, in effect, inhibit the goodness of creation. Imagine no incarnation, no atonement, and no sanctifying suffering? Even sinless saints, like the Theotokos and John the Baptist, voluntarily allowed evils to befall them. (cf Venamin, Palamas Homilies, p. 323) The former fell asleep voluntarily, the latter permitted his own death via execution. Neither could otherwise die due to their sinlessness. The Lord did not consider equality with God the Father something to be grasped. (cf Phil 2:5) The willful humbling of oneself requires the limited existence of evil and by His permissive will, God is merciful even in this. When the time comes when there will be no more evils and no more tears (cf Rev 21:4), a full appreciation of this temporary state of affairs will set in. (cf Rom 9:22-23) In this way, His mercy endures forever.
7 To him who alone made great lights; for his mercy [endures] for ever.
“…alone made great lights.” This is in reference to the stars/angels. The significance of “alone” has already been covered.
8 The sun to rule by day; for his mercy [endures] for ever.
This is a reference again to the angelic realm. “By day” pertains to the prescriptive willing of righteousness, and the good workings of God in creation. The reference is wholly positive. “His mercy endures forever” as His use of the angelic realm, particularly the guardian angels, are of great use for men, church, city, and nation.
9 The moon and the stars to rule the night; for his mercy [endures] for ever.
“The moon and the stars” pertain to the angels in the midst of a dark, evil “night.” These “rule the night” because they assist man in doing and experiencing good, that is sanctification, in the midst of suffering (i.e. “the night”). “His mercy endures for ever” for even the Lord eternally will bear the marks of His suffering as a badge of honor, as it is a reminder of His mercy for us. Additionally, the memory of longsuffering makes the eternity of unparalleled grace that much sweeter.
The threefold reference to angels in v. 7-9 is an implicit Trinitarian reference. (cf Gen 18:2 MT)
It should be noted that in the Akathist to Saints Joachim and Anna, the Theotokos is referred to as the “Moon.” This may correspond with Rev 12:1, which speaks of the Theotokos having the moon under he feet. If so, the Theotokos and stars ruling the night may speak of her and the “holy ones” (both angels and saints) interceding for man in the night of this life.
10 To him who smote Egypt with their first-born; for his mercy [endures] for ever.
“To Him who smote Egypt,” that is the whole demonic realm, “with their first-born,” that is Satan and his devious hierarchy of “principalities,…powers,…rulers of the darkness of this age,…spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12, cf Rom 8:38) “His mercy endures for ever,” for “having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.” (Col 2:15) God has conquered death and His victory over death is universal and eternal. Death is despoiled.
11 And brought Israel out of the midst of them; for his mercy [endures] for ever.
God chastens those whom He loves (Heb 12:6), that is “Israel.” “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Gen 32:28 MT) “Out of the midst of them.” He purifies His elect through suffering. (cf 1 Pet 1:7, Zeph 13:9 MT) “His mercy endures forever,” because this sanctification brings eternal salvation.
12 With a strong hand, and a high arm: for his mercy [endures] for ever.
“With a strong hand,” as God shows restraint and allows for evils with His permissive will. “And a high arm,” for He makes things right by His prescriptive will and can enforce His decrees at any moment. “For His mercy endures forever,” as God’s will proceeds from His essence. Because His essence being eternal, so is His will.
13 To him who divided the Red Sea into parts: for his mercy [endures] for ever.
“Divide the Red Sea into parts” is another reference to the separation of the waters, a direct reference to v. 6 and 10, necessarily connecting the two.
14 And brought Israel through the midst of it: for his mercy [endures] for ever.
This is a direct reference to v. 11, showing that God has permitted these suffering for our salvation. The significance of being delivered “through the midst of it” instead of “them” is that the former is a reference to the entire experience of suffering in this life, while “them” is a reference to the actual instruments that bring about evil—the demons.
Man by nature is not evil. He is tempted to think and do evil things by the temptations of demons. Otherwise, man’s nature would be defective and not only would have Adam been already fallen before he sinned, the Lord would have assumed a nature that was already sinful. This is not at all possible. His “eyes are too pure to look on evil” (Hab 1:13 MT) let alone actually be composed of an evil essence. The Lord assumed a sinless human essence/nature. This, by necessity, means that death and corruption were voluntarily assumed by the Lord and were otherwise not necessary according to His human nature. “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15)
15 And overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea: for his mercy endures for ever.
“And overthrew Pharaoh.” Satan will be cast into the lake of fire and will be obliterated for eternity. (cf Rev 20:10) “And his host in the Red Sea,” meaning all the individual demons belonging to the realm of evil will experience the same fate. “For His mercy endures forever.” This eternal damnation is infinite,
unending justice, and is a never-ending experience of the grace of God. (cf Acts 3:19, 2 Thes 1:9) It is the will of the recipient grace, operating against the grace of God instead of co-operating, that turns infinite reward into infinite punishment.
16 To him who led his people through the wilderness: for his mercy [endures] for ever.
“To Him who led His people through the wilderness” of sin and suffering is due praise. “His mercy endures forever,” because God forsakes the Christian not in this life nor the next. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Rom 8:35) Only those Israelites who turn back to Egypt, that is sin, in the wilderness of this life are lost. “For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” (Heb 10:26) The rest, making a painful trek, often with many detours (i.e. lapses into sin) as the Israelites likewise experienced those 40 years, will enter the promised land. “Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted.” (1 Cor 10:6)
17 To him who smote great kings: for his mercy [endures] for ever.
“To Him who smote great kings” is a reference to the “rulers of this age,” both spiritual (demons) and temporal (Pilate). Had they known “the wisdom of God in a mystery…they would have not crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Cor 2:7-8) This mystery is that of His condescension in becoming man, in voluntarily assuming suffering, in saving Christians through trials (cf Luke 21:19)—this is surely a mystery as man would have not concocted salvation through any of these means.
His “mystery” also includes the Eucharist, which is His flesh and blood, as only those who partake in the sacrifice of Christ by consuming Him (cf John 6:53) will enjoy the benefits of Him bearing their sins in His body. (cf 1 Pet 2:24) The things “which God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor 2:9) encompasses this entire mystery—humility, voluntary suffering, and forbearance is attained to in its highest degree by consuming the flesh and blood of Himt who had experienced these to the utmost. “For His mercy endures forever,” as Christ will eternally indwell Christians physically, as they have communed Him, as well as by His Spirit, which indwells them via the divine energy of the Godhead.
18 And slew mighty kings; for his mercy [endures] for ever.
This is a reiteration of v. 17 for emphasis.
19 Seon king of the Amorites: for his mercy [endures] for ever.
Seon went out of his way to oppose Israel on their way on the promised land when the Israelites merely requested safe passage through his dominion. (cf Num 21:21-23 MT) God slayed him, as he represents the trouble “that comes looking for” the Christian. God grants perseverance in the faith (cf Phil 1:27) for those who are oppressed. Their trials come despite their faithfulness. Mercy endures forever as the result of the reward of perseverance. (cf Rom 5:3-5)
20 And Og king of Basan: for his mercy [endures] for ever.
Not much is known about Og other than he was dealt with similarly as Sihon. (cf Deut 3:2 MT) Likely, he also represents demonic influences that go out of their way to impede the Christian. Perhaps Seon represents wickedness dealt to Christians by people and Og represents wickedness dealt by the hands of the demons themselves. One can take confidence in the fact that “all his people” were defeated as “no survivors [were] remaining” after his battle with Israel. (Deut 3:3 MT) Hence, not only Satan, but his entire cohort will be put to an end by God, which will be an enduring mercy for the faithful.
21 And gave their land [for] an inheritance: for his mercy [endures] for ever.
Heshbon and Bashon are beyond the Jordan river (cf Josh 9:10 MT), placing their territories outside of Israel. Hence, God gives not only Heaven to Christians, but in some sense the literal Earth. The significance of this is that Satan, the prince of this world (cf Eph 2:2, 2 Cor 4:4), loses his own subjects under his dominion to the Church as she evangelizes and baptizes. “Children of wrath” (Eph 2:3) become “children of God.” (1 John 3:1) This conversion to Christ, by His grace and perseverance, brings eternal life. In this way too, his mercy endures forever.
22 Even an inheritance to Israel his servant: for his mercy [endures] for ever.
This further emphasizes the exegesis given to the previous verse. The dominion of Satan is conquered by the Church. The Church is “His servant,” and so they conquer by doing the will of God and co-operating with His grace. “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) And so, inheritance comes to the servant not merely as a reward, but because this is literally the only way Theosis is possible. The promised land is typologically Theosis and Theosis is the eternity of perfectly co-operating with God. For Christians who persevere in the faith, this Theosis is an eternal mercy.
23 For the Lord remembered us in our low estate; for his mercy [endures] for ever.
“The Lord remembered us.” Nothing escapes God’s attention. He takes a loving interest in each Christian. “In our low estate.” He loves the Christians despite the world not loving them, in fact, oppressing them. Their humiliation is seen by the world as weakness, but God is glorified in weakness. In true weakness eternal strength resides. (cf 2 Cor 12:10) “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty.” (1 Cor 1:27) The wise and the strong already have their reward, (cf Matt 6:2) while the humble empty themselves of their own will and thereby make possible the supplanting of their own desires with God’s. The emptying of will is not a literal nothingness, but an allowance for God’s will to take over. This co-operation is Theosis, as discussed previously. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3)
24 And redeemed us from our enemies; for his mercy [endures] for ever.
“Redeemed us.” God paid the penalty of mankind’s sins, giving His life as a ransom for many. (cf Matt 20:28) The “us” or “many” are faithful Orthodox Christians—not the heretics, apostates, unbaptized, nor schismatics. There is an “our” which implies there are those who do not apply.
“From our enemies.” God paid the penalty of the original transgression by correcting the fallen tropos that had entered human experience by Adam’s sin. This distorted way human nature operates since the Fall of Adam, as discussed previously, exists only due to continual demonic suggestion. Human nature is intact. Only the tropos was distorted due to the agency of the demonic.
Christ defeated “our enemies” by living completely righteously, fulfilling the whole Law (of Moses and Nature; cf Rom 1-3), committing no sin. (cf 1 Pet 2:22) He did this by being tempted in every way mankind is, but without sinning. (cf Heb 4:15) Additionally, he abolished death, (cf 2 Tim 1:10, Heb 2:14) trampling down death by death. This corrected mankind’s tropos, making Christ a new Adam, (cf Rom 5:14) so that all who proceed from Him and not the old Adam are new creations. (cf 2 Cor 5:17) Their whole manner of living is entirely new. In this way Christians are literally redeemed from their enemies, Satan and the demons. His mercy endures forever as this redemption corrects the Fall and is eternal.
25 Who gives food to all flesh; for his mercy [endures] for ever.
“Who gives food to all flesh.” There is a typological function to God feeding His creatures. “The eyes of all look expectantly to You, and You give them their food in due season.” (Ps 145:15 MT, cf Ps 104:27 MT) Obviously, there is more being commented upon here than creatures’ physical sustenance or the general principle that God makes it rain on the just and unjust. (cf Matt 5:45) Rather, God constantly upholds all life. “How could any thing have endured, if it had not been thy will? Or been preserved, if not called by thee?” (Wis 11:25) Also, “If He should gather to Himself His Spirit and His breath, all flesh would perish together.” (Job 34:14-15 MT)
God’s energies in the Person of His Holy Spirit constantly maintains the existence of all creation, let alone sentient life, at all times. This includes the angels, as discussed beforehand. All things, literally experiencing the grace of God at all times, without doubt feel and perceive His presence. This is why only a fool says there is no God. (cf Ps 14:1 MT) They are without excuse. (cf Rom 1:20) Denying the existence of God is tantamount to denying self-existence. Therefore, God providing food to all flesh is the very definition of His mercy enduring forever, as every moment of existence is an instance of mercy.
26 Give thanks to the God of heaven; for his mercy [endures] for ever.
“Give thanks.” Gratitude must exist in all circumstances, including suffering. This is why Christians pray for His will to be done; not because His will always feels good, but because it is best. Christians must sincerely desire what is best, the Lord’s will. “The God of heaven.” God not only provides for all flesh, but also sustains the heavenly realm, as discussed previously. He is the God of everyone and everything. This is an intentional parallelism with the second verse, in so doing ending the chanter on the note that the last word on the subject is what immediately precedes the second first. “For He is good.” Goodness, intrinsic to God, one may evaluate as true of everything He has created. (cf Gen 1:31 MT) Existence is good because its Creator is good. Time and space, being His creations, are likewise good. There will be a new heaven and a new earth, its goodness unmitigated, enduring for ever by His mercy and grace.
How could one not want to repeat this Psalm and continue chanting it? For His mercy endures forever.