Theme: Ingratitude and Unbelief
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
The second stanza of this psalm begins its rehearsal of the historical dealings of God with Ephraim, one of the twelve Jewish tribes (vv. 9-16). This seems a strange place to begin, first, because Ephraim does not seem to us to be a very prominent tribe, and second, because the incident referred to is not known. It was a time when “Ephraim, though armed with bows, turned back on the day of battle” (vv. 9). Nothing exactly like this is found anywhere in the Old Testament.
The answer to why Asaph begins here is probably to be found at the end of the psalm where we are reminded that God rejected Ephraim as the tribe out of which the great and enduring kingship of David should come, choosing Judah instead (vv. 67, 68); and that God even “abandoned the tabernacle of Shiloh,” which was in Ephraim’s territory, and replaced it by Mount Zion (vv. 60, 68). In the early days of this history, at the time of the invasion and conquest of Canaan, Ephraim was the largest and most prominent of the twelve tribes. By the time of the writing of Psalm 78 Judah had eclipsed her. This is important for what Asaph wants to say. For what he is recalling to our minds is that sin brings judgment and that unbelief has consequences.
The problem with Ephraim is that its people forgot God’s miracles in bringing them out of Egypt, taking them across the Red Sea and leading them and providing for them in the desert (vv. 11-16). However, as the rest of the psalm will make clear, this was also a failure of the people as a whole. Therefore, the replacement of Ephraim by Judah is intended as a warning to all. Learn from the past, says Asaph, or you, too, may be moved aside by God as a result of his onward march in history. Should we not also learn from this? Jesus told the church at Ephesus, “If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev. 2:5).
The devil tempted the Lord Jesus Christ, as recorded in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, inviting him to jump from the temple, trusting for his safety to the words of Psalm 91: “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone” (vv. 10, 11). Jesus rightly responded by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:16, which says, “Do not put the LORD your God to the test” (Matt. 4:7; Luke 4:12). None of us is to tempt God by getting into situations that require him to do a miracle to save us or by demanding of him miracles he has not promised to do. Yet that is what Israel did in the wilderness, says the psalmist in this next stanza (vv. 17-31): “They willfully put God to the test” (v. 18).
What seems to be the problem here is not that the people expected God to provide the necessary food and water for them, since he had brought them into the desert and they needed these necessities lest they perish. The problem was, first, that the people were dissatisfied with what God had done, wanting more; and second, that they considered that the reason why God did not give them everything they wanted was because he could not. In other words, their sins were first, ingratitude and, second, unbelief. In both they “put God to the test,” contrary to the law’s teaching.
The way Asaph highlights the base nature of these sins is by contrasting them with the abundance of God’s blessings. God had “rained down manna” on them (v. 24); it was “all the food they could eat” (v. 25). As for water, “When he struck the rock, water gushed out, and streams flowed abundantly” (v. 20). This food was not poor fare. It was “the bread of angels” (v. 25), and the water was no mere trickle. Still the people complained, “Can God spread a table in the desert” (v. 19)? “Can he supply meat for his people” (v. 20)? The rest of the stanza reminds us that God did exactly that. He gave meat, causing flying birds to descend on their camp so they could eat as many as they could catch and stuff down. But God was angered by the ingratitude and judged them by making them sick on the fowl. The text says, “He put to death the sturdiest among them, cutting down the young men of Israel” (v. 31).
Why is it significant that Asaph talks about the history of Ephraim?
Why were the people of Ephraim eclipsed by the people of Judah?
How did Jesus respond to temptation?
To what did Asaph contrast the Israelites’ sins?
How are you like the people of Ephraim? Of what do you need to repent?
In what ways do you put God to the test?
What were the sins of the people in the desert? In what way do you share in those sins?
Prayer: Bring your sins to God and repent of them. Pray that you will never willfully put God to the test.