A maskil of Asaph.
My people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth with a parable;
I will utter hidden things, things from of old –
things we have heard and known,
things our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord,
his power, and the wonders he has done.
He decreed statutes for Jacob
and established the law in Israel,
which he commanded our ancestors
to teach their children,
so that the next generation would know them,
even the children yet to be born,
and they in turn would tell their children.
Then they would put their trust in God
and would not forget his deeds
but would keep his commands.
They would not be like their ancestors –
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
whose hearts were not loyal to God,
whose spirits were not faithful to him.
The men of Ephraim, though armed with bows,
turned back on the day of battle;
they did not keep God’s covenant
and refused to live by his law.
They forgot what he had done,
the wonders he had shown them.
He did miracles in the sight of their ancestors
in the land of Egypt, in the region of Zoan.
He divided the sea and led them through;
he made the water stand up like a wall.
He guided them with the cloud by day
and with light from the fire all night.
He split the rocks in the wilderness
and gave them water as abundant as the seas;
he brought streams out of a rocky crag
and made water flow down like rivers.
But they continued to sin against him,(Ps. 78:1-20 NIV)
rebelling in the wilderness against the Most High.
They wilfully put God to the test
by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God;
they said, ‘Can God really
spread a table in the wilderness?
True, he struck the rock,
and water gushed out,
streams flowed abundantly,
but can he also give us bread?
Can he supply meat for his people?’
This Psalm begins using typical Wisdom language. The wisdom teacher exhorts the people to hear his teaching. The parable and hidden things are like the proverb or riddle of the book of Proverbs. The Psalmist calls for the reader to pay attention, understand and live by what is taught. The things that he has heard and known, that have been passed on from the generations before, will not be hidden from the next generation. The generation that listens to the Psalmist must pass these things on to the next generation.
The apostle Paul did a similar thing when he taught Timothy in order that Timothy might teach others.
You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2 And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. (2 Tim. 2:1-2 NIV)
The message that the Psalmist wants the people to pass on to their children is about the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord. In the OT the great act of salvation was the redemption of the people of God in the Exodus out of Egypt. In the NT the praiseworthy deed of the Lord is in the New Exodus, where Jesus is the Passover Lamb and the people of God are bought out of the slave market of sin. The remembrance of the Lord and his powerful deeds brings forth praise. The Psalmist’s generation had not lived through the Exodus, yet they have a living memory of what God had done. We were not there at Calvary when Christ was crucified, but these Gospel truths are as real to us today as if we had been there. We live in the reality of what God has done and we seek to share that with our own generation and teach it to the next. The passing on from one generation to the next is not like the handing on of a trade or disseminating an oral tradition. God had given the people of God written statutes and laws. By the gift of revelation, God had placed into the hands of His people His word. It is this written record that is to be passed on. Today we learn from students of God’s word from the past. I have generations of commentators to refer to. All teaching can be tested by referring to God’s written word, and as we understand that word, and explore the best ways of teaching it, we preach to this generation and the next, so that there will be a collective and intergenerational understanding of the Gospel. The teaching has the objective that the people might put their trust in God. The work of the Lord should not be forgotten. In this nation, there once was a widespread understanding of the Bible, and people knew the difference between right and wrong. But generations now have not been taught the scriptures and there is a biblical illiteracy. When you speak of sin, it is a misunderstood idea. If you tell someone they need to be saved, they ask ‘saved from what?’. The knowledge of the Gospel and the fear of the Lord restrained the behaviour of many God-fearing people. Though they were not Christians, they realised that they would one day account for their behaviour. The cause of this biblical illiteracy is the failure of preceding generations passing on the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord.
While remembering the mighty acts of the Lord is positive, remembering the behaviour of their ancestors gave them no cause to be proud. The Psalmist is referring here to that generation that stubbornly resisted the Lord. This was the generation that witnessed the miracles of the plagues in Egypt, and had walked through the Red Sea, which must have been a never to be forgotten experience. For forty years their clothes never wore out, they were provided with water in the wilderness, they had fresh bread every morning, and having lived through that, they rebelled against God. The Psalmist’s generation are to remember them, so that they will learn not to repeat the same mistakes. God was good to that generation as He is good to every generation, but that generation horribly rebelled against God. All but two of the people who had experienced the Exodus, did not experience crossing over the Jordan into the Promised Land, because of their disobedience. They were not loyal to the Lord, their spirits were not faithful to God. Every generation needs to pay heed to what God has said in His word, and allow that word to establish their hearts and make their hearts loyal to the Lord.
The men of the tribe of Ephraim armed themselves for battle but they did not fight the battle. On the day of battle they fled the battle field. We can arm ourselves for battles through Bible study and learning truth, but we have to then engage in battle in the strength of the Lord. Our battle today is the world, the flesh and the devil. On the fateful day of battle, we are armed with our knowledge, but faced with the world, the flesh and the devil, we flee the battle scene. That is to be like the tribe of Ephraim. The lesson the Psalmist wants us to learn is to look back and see what they did, and don’t repeat their mistakes.
They did not keep their covenant with the Lord, they were disobedient. They committed three errors. They failed to keep God’s covenant, they refused to walk in the ways of God’s law, and they were forgetful regarding God’s miraculous works of the past. Not remembering is like not obeying. One commentator says, ‘If wisdom is the fruit of the collective memory so as to avoid repeating past mistakes, forgetfulness dooms one to repeat past errors.’
The Psalmist lists the mighty works that God did before the eyes of this rebellious generation. They chose to forget their own history. They chose to put God to the test by demanding the luxuries of Egypt. How soon they had forgotten about their cries that rose up to heaven, the hard slavery, the whip lashes of the cruel taskmasters, the butchery of their male children, the relentless oppression. God had delivered them. Our daughter tells of her experience of working with the street children in Bolivia. They rescued a teenage girl and her baby from living in the city sewers, they took her back and cleaned her and her baby, clothed them both, got medical attention for them, provided good food and a place to live, free from the dangers of the sewer children. After six months the young girl left with her baby to go back to life in the sewers. Our daughter had spent weeks supporting and befriending her, and couldn’t understand the choice to go back to that kind of lifestyle. The people of God are longing for what they had in Egypt. They questioned God. Could God really spread a banquet for them in the wilderness? Could God who parted the Red Sea really give us bread and meat to eat? That would be like us asking, ‘Could God who sent His Son to die on the cross and then raised Him from the dead, could God provide for us?’ Our hearts can become like that when we fail to remember what God has done, when we break our covenant promises, and when we fail to walk in God’s way.
Lord God help us to listen to Your word, to keep our covenant promise to walk before You in newness of life, to remember what You have done for us through Jesus Christ, and to walk in obedience to Your word. You saved us out of the world, forgive us for wanting to wander back. Let us not repeat the mistakes of previous generations but to establish our hearts in righteousness and be faithful to You, for Christ our Saviour’s sake, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Only by grace can we enter: