For Part 1 of this study of Psalm 78, click here.
Beginning in verse 9, Asaph begins telling the tale of the cycle of God’s dealings with Israel. Over and over again, God proves himself faithful, and Israel proves itself faithless.
Disobedience From Forgetfulness
“They did not keep God’s covenant, but refused to walk according to his law. They forgot his works and the wonders he had shown them.” ~ Psalm 78:10-11
Verse 8 referred to a “stubborn and rebellious generation… not faithful to God.” Here we see that the cause of their disobedience was that they forgot what God had done for them. This was no mere passive ignorance, but a willful and deliberate refusal to obey the God who had done so much for them. The events that follow describe the sins of the very generation that had directly witnessed amazing miraculous deeds; the same generation to whom God originally gave his Law through Moses.
Verses 13-16 describe some of these miracles: the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21-22), God’s leading Israel as a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21), and bringing water out of a rock (Exodus 17:6). These are the sort of things you wouldn’t expect one to soon forget!
Incidentally, a common objection to faith posed by many skeptics (for instance, in the debate sparked in the comments section of this post) is that God is somehow being unfair by not revealing himself today in the grandiose ways in which the Old Testament records him revealing himself to the people of that time. The implication is that they would believe, if only they could witness a miracle. This is simply not the case. Jesus said that if people did not believe the accounts in the Old Testament, they wouldn’t believe even if a dead man came back to life (Luke 16:31). He was quite right. Many people witnessed the miracles in the desert first hand and did not believe. Many witnessed Jesus’ miracles first hand and did not believe. It would be no different today.
Still, it is hard to imagine being witness to such miracles without being awed and humbled by the power and provision of the Lord. It is in this spirit of incredulity that the psalmist writes, “Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert.” ~ Psalm 78:17
Disobedience From Greed
“He struck the rock so that water gushed out and streams overflowed. Can he also give bread or provide meat for his people?” ~ Psalm 78:20
God had warned Israel what would happen if they forgot him. He told them where it would lead. Forgetting God’s mighty works and his commandments would result in the Israelites thinking too much of themselves; they would believe they deserved blessings, or worse — that they had wrought these blessings by their own effort (Deuteronomy 8:11-17).
Rather than fall down in worship at the God who brought forth water from the rock, the people immediately “tested God by demanding the food they craved” (Psalm 78:18). Who were they to think they were in any position to make demands of the Most High?
Again, we think we would not share their reaction, but we do it all the time. Every time we are dissatisfied or discontent, we silently make demands for more stuff or different circumstances. Sometimes these demands are not silent. Sometimes we openly shout our demands to God. Sometimes we politely call them “requests”. In fact, this sentiment has so permeated our society that we now have an entire industry devoted to this. Odds are you can turn on your TV right now and find a smiling purveyor of God’s word who is all too happy to tell you to simply name your demands and claim them “in Jesus’ name”. These false prophets make promises of a better life which they cannot deliver, and have the gall to call it “Christianity”.
The thing is, these guys wouldn’t be in business if we weren’t buying what they are selling. Even those of us who claim to abominate the prosperity gospel really love it. With our words we hate it, but with our lives we live it. We are so blessed that we have come to expect even more blessings, and when we don’t receive them we become resentful. Our appetites are insatiable. We are just like the Old Testament Jews.
If only we could learn as Paul to be content in every situation (Philippians 4:11)… and he wrote that from prison while awaiting execution! It is as Thomas Watson has said: “If we have not what we desire, we have more than we deserve.”
Disobedience Brings Judgment
“And they ate and were well filled, for he gave them what they craved. But before they had satisfied their craving, while the food was still in their mouths, the anger of God rose against them, and he killed the strongest of them and laid low the young men of Israel.” ~ Psalm 78:29-31
It’s the ultimate case of “be careful what you wish for.”
When the people made their demands for food, God’s “anger rose against Israel, because they did not believe in God and did not trust his saving power” (Psalm 78:21-22). Still, he gave them “the bread of the angels” — and not just a little but “in abundance” (Psalm 78:23-25)! Still the people were not satisfied, but demanded meat in addition to the manna (Numbers 11:4-6). Again God provided (Psalm 78:26-28).
But God is not to be tested. Before they had even finished eating, God sent a plague to punish them (Numbers 11:33). In doing this God accomplished three things:
- He showed that He is powerful enough to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think (Ephesians 3:20)
- He proved that, like a good Father, He will provide for the needs of His children even in the midst of their rebellion
- He vindicated His holiness by following through on a promise to punish those who did not remember that it was God who provides us even with the means to provide for ourselves (Deuteronomy 8:18-20)
Today God provides — sometimes abundantly — even for those who do not “trust his saving power.” Everything we own, every meal we eat, every breath we take… all is a gift from God. Theologians call this “common grace”. Yet we are not to ask with the prophet Jeremiah, “Why do the wicked prosper?” (Jeremiah 12:1-2) Rather, we should sing with David, “Who is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4)
A right understanding of our helplessness and God’s all-sufficiency will allow us to escape the corruption of sinful desire (2 Peter 1:3-4). This understanding is accomplished primarily through remembering God’s works and meditating on his mighty deeds (Psalm 77:12), particularly the mightiest deed of all: Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross in our place, and His resurrection from the dead, demonstrating His power even over sin and death!