Theme: A Great Historical Psalm
In this week’s lessons we see the importance of remembering all the blessings that God has given to us.
Scripture: Psalm 78:1-72
During the ten years that I was a part of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, which was upholding the high, historic view of the Bible, one of the arguments against our position was that the Scriptures are authoritative and inerrant in matters of faith and morals, but not in matters of history or science. We answered then, as I still do today, that for Christians faith and morals cannot be separated from history or even from science, because Christianity is an historical religion; attacks on its roots in history inevitably and always undermine it.
This is clearly true of the New Testament, for Jesus Christ was an historical figure and because our salvation is grounded on what he actually accomplished in history by his atoning death for sins. This is true for the Old Testament, too. Psalm 78 is a good example. It is one of the great historical psalms, that is, one of the psalms that rehearse the history of the people of Israel in order to draw lessons from it—lessons as to who God is, what he has done, how the people responded to him wrongly in the past and how they should learn from those past failures today. Other psalms that do this are Psalms 105-107, 114, 135 and 136. But there are other examples too, the best known being Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin recorded in Acts 7. Stephen’s point was that the Jewish people had always killed the prophets God sent them, and now they had also killed Jesus.
Psalm 78 is the longest of the historical psalms. Its lesson is that history must not repeat itself. The people must never again be unbelieving. But they were, of course, especially when they rejected Jesus Christ.
The first eight verses of this psalm are a compelling preamble to the history that is to be reviewed. In these verses two very important points are made.
1. We must learn from the past. This is what I have been saying in the introduction to this study, but it is worth saying again if only because the past is either unknown, disregarded or just not taken seriously by most people. The key word here is “parables” (v. 2), which is what the psalmist calls the history he is going to recall. To us the word parable means a story, usually a fictitious one; we think of the stories Jesus told. But “parable” actually has more in it than this. Para means “alongside of,” and bolein means “to throw.” So a parable is the placing of one incident or story alongside of something else so we might learn by the comparison. In this case, the past history of Israel is set alongside the present so that those living today might not repeat the people’s past sins.1
This means that we can learn from this past history too; in fact, we must learn from it. “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). If we do not learn from Israel’s failures, we are bound to repeat them. And we might anyway!
2. We must instruct our children. The second point made in the preamble is that the history of God’s dealings with us must be taught to our children. We have a duty to do this because God has commanded us to do it (v. 5), and we should also want to do it because it is the means by which our children may come to “put their trust in God” and “not forget his deeds” (v. 7). Then, says the psalmist, “They would not be like their forefathers—a stubborn and rebellious generation, whose hearts were not loyal to God, whose spirits were not faithful to him” (v. 8).
Actually, in these words Asaph is only echoing for a later generation what God had said clearly to the generation of the exodus. For example, in Deuteronomy 6, in the chapter immediately following the second listing of the Ten Commandments, Moses wrote, “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (vv. 6-9).
And later in the same chapter:
In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Before our eyes the LORD sent miraculous signs and wonders—great and terrible—upon Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land that he promised on oath to our forefathers. The LORD commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the LORD our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today. And if we are careful to obey all this law before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness” (vv. 20-25).
Let me make this relevant to our time by saying that one thing we are to abhor as Christian parents is “values-neutral” education. Our culture wants it. If fact, it fights for it. But then we get a world in which the young avoid hard work, laugh at honesty, steal, and in some cases kill with no apparent conscience. We should not be surprised. But we should struggle to make sure that our children are taught morality grounded in the character of God and supported by the life and power of our Savior Jesus Christ.
1This is what Jesus’ parables did, which is why Matthew quotes verse 2 in 13:35, saying that Jesus spoke in parables to fulfill “what was spoken through the prophet.” This is only one of many verses from Psalm 78 that are either cited or reflected in the New Testament: 1 John 1:1-4 echoes verse 3; Ephesians 6:4 builds on verse 4; Acts 2:40 may be referring to verse 8; 1 Corinthians 10:4 to verse 15; 1 Corinthians 10:9 cites verse 18; John 6:31 quotes, and Revelation 2:17 echoes, verse 24; 1 Corinthians 10:3 refers to verses 24-29; 1 Corinthians 10:5 echoes verse 31; Acts 8:21 is like verse 37; and Revelation 16:4 may be thinking of verse 44.
Why is it significant that Christianity is an historical religion?
How do you answer when challenged that the Bible is not scientifically accurate?
What is a biblical parable?
What is taught in this psalm about the relationship of biblical principles to quality of life?
Reflection: Have there been times in your life when you did not learn a lesson God was trying to teach? Did you repent?
Application: How can you teach a child or younger person the history of faith?
For Further Study: To learn more about how the Lord Jesus Christ is the meaning and center of history, download and listen for free to Sinclair Ferguson’s message, “The Christ of History.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)