Psalm 78

February 4, 2001


Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church


Psalm 78

Today we come to Psalm 78. Let me tell you two things about this Psalm before we look at what it says. First, this is the second longest Psalm in the book of Psalms, next to Psalm 119. Secondly, next to verse 36 there is a note in the margin of the Hebrew text, chatsee which is the word for half or mid-way indicating that verse 36 is the middle verse in the Hebrew Psalms.

The Psalm itself is about the past. The Psalmist says in verse 2, “I will speak dark things... things we have heard and known that our fathers have told us.” I met a retired doctor recently who is writing memoirs of his family. His father had done that as had his grandfather. He knows about their lives because he has those books. That’s what the Psalmist is doing here. Verse 4, “We will not hide them from our children.” Well, we might ask, why would we hide them? But then the thought comes, what if there is something to be ashamed of in our memoirs? And that’s exactly what the problem is.

My dad used to tell the story of someone in our family, a distant cousin who was no good, left home in his twenties, moved somewhere to the west, and the family lost touch with him. Dad used to call him “the black sheep of the family.” The story the Psalmist tells of his relatives has a lot of black sheep in it, particularly, verse 9, the Ephraimites. And we can trace the words: verse 8, stubborn, rebellious; not loyal to God; not faithful; verse 10, did not keep God’s covenant; verse 11, forgot what God had done; verse 17, they continued to sin against him, rebelling; verse 18, they wilfully put God to the test; verse 19, they spoke against God, and it goes on and on in that vein. A lot of black sheep there.

Why tell this part of the story? When the story of the marvelous works of God is told, like in Psalm 77, or Psalm 105, people ended up praising the Lord. But not in Psalm 78. God still does good for them, but the Psalm comes toward the end in verse 64 with the words, “their priests were put to the sword and their widows could not weep.” Why tell this part of the story?

Can we learn from the past? It was George Santayana who said, “They who know no history are doomed to repeat it.” That’s the reason the Psalmist in verse 4 is intent that people not hide these things from their children. You know how people do that at times. When I was a child, maybe 8 or 9, we were visiting a farmer friend of my parents. I remember their house had a thatched roof and their farm land is part of the King of Prussia mall today. While we were there, the farmer got up and started toward the barn where he said a cow was calving. He asked dad whether he wanted to go. I wanted to go and see this thing of which he had spoken. He looked at me - a Scottish man he was - and then at dad and judged that I was too young to see this. It’s going to be a difficult birth was what he said.

The words that first accompany the teaching of the Psalmist are positive enough. By teaching children what has happened in the past, the children would put their trust in God, verse 7, and they would keep His commands. That’s the hopeful side. This is what any of us hope would be the path our children would take. But because the Bible is a realistic book, the road is not a yellow brick road. We might indeed begin to dance down the road in company with a scarecrow, a tin man and a lion; but at the very next words in verse 8 we stop dancing. What the Psalmist hopes is “they would not be like their forefathers - a stubborn and rebellious generation.” It is easy to forget what God did yesterday because we want something new today. That was exactly like Israel in the wilderness. They weren’t satisfied with manna. They wanted something else.

When the Psalmist begins in verse 9 to tell the stories from the past - and like so many stories of the Hebrew people, these are about the Exodus and the years spent in the desert and the settling in Canaan - he stops every so often to apply the stories to the present situation.

In verse 9 he speaks of the men of Ephraim. Down in verse 67, God rejects the Ephraimites. What we know about these people from Genesis 48 is that Ephraim, the younger son of Joseph, receives a greater blessing than his elder brother. Jeroboam, who established the northern kingdom after Solomon’s death, was an Ephraimite. There is no specific incident that might lead the Psalmist to use Ephraim for an example. What we know is they often depended upon military power, missile defense systems and superior fire power, rather than depending upon God. We Americans like to think we’re practical, but however Christian our president is, the nation would rather depend upon a missile system they can see than upon God when the battle crunch comes. Americans are like the Ephraimites about that.

Now the Ephraimites are only one example of black sheep among the ancestors. In verses 18- 20 we get a hint of the problem that affected Israel so often, and it affects us. They wanted more than God had given them. They had manna, and they craved meat; in fact, according to verse 20, they asked, Can God supply meat for his people? Then they demanded water and we get the picture. They were never satisfied.

Florence Nightingale, a British nurse who cared for soldiers on the battlefields during the Crimean War, lived through many hard times on the battle fields in Turkey. She repeatedly told God what she expected him to do about it. And suddenly realizing what she was doing, she wrote in her diary these words, “I must remember God is not my private secretary.” Jews, Muslims and Christians have the same problem. We all think God should give us what we want.

In John 6, Jesus chides the crowds for following Him because he fed them. And He has just done this miracle turning a few loaves and fish into enough to feed thousands and at verse 30 the people ask, “What miraculous sign will you do that we may see and believe?” Aren’t we like that? God did something grand in our lives in the past. Perhaps it was one of the factors which led you to believe. In a new situation, though, you want God to do something more. Old miracles don’t seem relevant to you. But God knows the difference between struggling faith and unbelief. We see that often in Jesus. He would not do a miracle for the Pharisees, but he did heal the son of a desperate official from Capernaum. What was the difference? God sees faith in a person and he responds to faith, not merely need.

In the wilderness God is even more kind. The people make demands on God, then they make a Baal calf to worship, then they complain, and yet time after time God provides for them and in the end, He still gives them the promised land. Verse 41 says, “Again and again they put God to the test.” And then in verses 42-55 the Psalmist recounts what God had done for them, His miracles, how He defeats Israel’s enemies, and then comes the result in verse 56, “But they put God to the test.” They had heard the story, but, verse 57 says, “Like their fathers they were disloyal and faithless, as unreliable as a faulty bow.”

So many black sheep in this family.

One of the things I remember from my own youth is fables I read, like Aesop’s fables that have a moral to them. Those morals stood in my mind as good things. If I wanted to win a race, I needed to keep going, even if it were at a tortoise pace. One of the reasons so many people are drawn to works like Tolkien’s great fantasy, The Lord of the Rings and to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books is that they have morals to them. These are the positive things to do. There is good and evil in the world. Do the good things, even when they are unpopular. Avoid evil.

There is an interesting problem that the popularity of fantasy literature poses. Several years ago Philip Pullman began writing a trilogy called, His Dark Materials. The third and final volume has recently been published, The Amber Spyglass. Pullman has played on the popularity of fantasy trilogies, but Pullman himself is directly and specifically anti-God. His heroes are those who lie and are against God. His villains are those who believe in God and whom Pullman portrays as weak. So you think when you buy the books in Pullman’s series that you are going to get a great fantasy in the genre of The Lord of the Rings because Pullman can write, but what you get is something blatantly evil. And Pullman says that. He tells you where he is. He doesn’t believe in God or trust God. He thinks the best thing we can do is to murder God. Pullman plays on an inversion of the morals many of you grew up with. That’s something that the Hebrews do.

Verse 42 puts the Psalmist’s point clearly, when people forget God’s redemption, then faith, love and obedience do not last long among those people. Their whole value and person systems become skewed. And this is exactly what Israel failed to do as their subsequent history shows. They lost faith in God, they did not love one another, and they did not obey God’s commands.

So what the Psalm intends to do is to refresh people’s memory about their past. But there are two parts to the past. One concerns those striking things everyone likes to hear about, how food came in the wilderness, and how water came from a rock and how, though it took them 40 years, they finally entered into the land where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had once lived. But there is also the black sheep side of the story. And the Psalmist doesn’t ignore that. He doesn’t ignore it because he has a point to make.

His point, and the conclusion of the Psalm, is in verses 65-72. In spite of the rebellion against the Lord - which is different from simply not always doing what God wants - in spite of that rebellion, God is gracious. There may have been a time you remember when you were insensitive to someone and you felt guilty about it. But that is a completely different thing from actively rebelling against God for which there will be punishment. Although, what grace means is that people get what they don’t deserve. But as is often true with grace, it may involve a shift in the direction of God’s plan. He did not reject Israel, but He did reject Ephraim and instead He chose another tribe, the tribe of Judah, from which David and Jesus descended. The Ephraimites were warriors and the people of Judah, shepherds. David was a shepherd. So when God chose a new direction for Israel, it was not a direction of military might, but the direction of shepherding sheep.

Sometimes a sentence in the New Testament can summarize a whole, long story from the Old Testament. That’s true here. The sentence in the New Testament is in 2 Timothy 1:9 “God saved us and called us to a holy life - not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.” There it is. God keeps after people, not because of anything we have done. When Paul, in another place, summarizes the character of the church, he looks around so he can verify it, there are not many great, or wise or important people in your church, I see. Yes, that’s right, says God. I choose what is lowly and neglected and unnoticed by the powers that be. That happened when God chose David to be king. Jesse, David’s father, had a number of strong, mature, sophisticated sons. One by one they were paraded before Samuel, the prophet of God. And Samuel who had come to anoint a son of Jesse to be king, but he didn’t know which son (1 Samuel 16), would look at them, at how big and strapping and important they looked, and God would tell him, “No, not that one. No, not that one.” And at the end, when all the sons had been paraded before him, Samuel asked, is that all your sons? in a truly puzzled voice.

No, says Jesse, I have one more. He’s a shepherd. I didn’t think he would be the one. He’s not very significant and big and right now he’s out caring for the sheep.

But he turns out to be the man, or boy in this case, whom God has chosen.

Notice how Psalm 78 puts this, verse 70, He chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens. From tending sheep, he brought him to create a new paradigm for kingship. He was to shepherd people the way he had shepherded sheep. And, says verse 92, he shepherded them with integrity of heart. Now new paradigms are at the heart of the technology field. We see all the time how someone like Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos sees an old problem in a new way. What David did was he practiced what he was good at. And that was all God needed. Sure, he also became a great military leader, but for the Psalmist that was secondary to David being a shepherd for the people of Israel. That’s what we discover when we hear the story.

Now what about in your life? Do you think about the kind of ancestor you’ll make? Are you showing your children how to trust God? What will be your place in your son’s or daughter’s memoir? A black sheep? Or a man or woman who trusted God?