Theme: Discontent, Jealousy, and Idolatry
In this week’s lessons we see that even when we sin, the Lord remains the God who acts not only in judgment, but also in faithfulness and compassion.
Scripture: Psalm 106:1-48
Rebellion, the sin identified with the people’s exodus from Egypt, is a root sin that lies at the heart of the other sins of Israel. Still each sin is worth remembering separately, which is what the psalmist does at this point. He remembers six sins associated with Israel’s years of wandering in the wilderness, and then follows them with one more from the years in Canaan. We will look at the first three sins of Israel in today’s study.
1. The sin of discontent (vv. 13-15). The first paragraph describing the sins of the wilderness seems to combine incidents recorded in Exodus 16 and Numbers 11. In Exodus 16 the people “grumbled against Moses and Aaron” because, they said, in Egypt “we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (vv. 2, 3). God answered by giving them the manna that they gathered each morning. In Numbers 11 they had grown tired of the manna and complained that they had no meat: “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna” (vv. 4-6)! God answered this complaint by sending quail into the camp, so they had plenty of meat. But God was angry because of their discontent and “struck them with a severe plague” (v. 33).
How about ourselves? We have been given much and have been preserved from much by God. Yet are we not also frequently sinfully discontented with our lives? Matthew Arnold, the English poet and essayist (1822-1888), wrote that “one thing only has been lent to youth and age in common—discontent.”1 It is all too true. Christians along with many others are often sinfully discontented, though we have no cause to be.
2. The sin of jealousy (vv. 16-18). The next stanza of the psalm describes the time when Korah and two hundred fifty of his accomplices rebelled against Moses and Aaron because of jealousy, as recounted in Numbers 16. They said, “The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’s assembly” (v. 3)? God judged these men by having the earth open up and swallow their entire households, while fire came out from the tabernacle and consumed the two hundred fifty. Even then the people were rebellious. God sent a plague that killed over fourteen thousand people before Aaron intervened to make atonement for their sin.
3. The sin of idolatry (vv. 19-23). The next incident is the best known, the sin of the golden calf, which was idolatry. It is told in Exodus 32. Moses had been on Mount Sinai receiving the law of God. But while he was on the mountain the people, who had grown impatient and restless, approached Aaron to ask for a “god” to lead them out of the desert to a better land. Aaron should have resisted, but he was weak, as so many leaders are. He asked for their gold earrings and other jewelry, melted them down and fashioned them into a calf, which the people then began to worship. Since the calf reminded them of Apis, the bull god of Egypt, and since the worship of Apis had been orgiastic, the result was a sexual romp in which the people “ran wild” (see Exod. 32:25). On this occasion God told Moses that he would destroy the people and begin a new nation starting with Moses. But Moses interceded for them, offering himself in their place, and God spared them once again.
It is interesting that Paul quotes the first half of verse 20 in his indictment of the entire human race in Romans 1:22, 23. The psalm says, “They exchanged their Glory for an image of a bull, which eats grass.” This refers to Israel’s sin at Sinai. However, in Romans Paul broadens the verse to embrace the sin of mankind in general, writing, “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” In other words, it is not Israel alone that has been guilty of the sin of idolatry. This is humanity’s sin in general. We, too, are idolaters when we put anything but God in God’s place.2
1From “Youth’s Agitations,” cited in Angela Partington, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press, 1992), p. 29.
2Leslie Allen points out how much Paul was dependent on this psalm. “Paul not only quoted v. 20 in Rom. 1:23 but echoed v. 14 at 1:24, v. 39 in 1:26, 27, and v. 48 in 1:26 (cf. vv. 23, 32, 40 with 1:18). Moreover, he used v. 41 as the basis for a threefold refrain in 1:24, 26, 28.” See Leslie C. Allen, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 21, Psalms 101-150 (Waco, TX: Word, 1983), p. 53.
List the three sins of Israel. How did God deal with each of the sins of the people?
How does Paul broaden the sin of idolatry from the Israelites’ camp?
Why did Aaron give into the people’s sin? Do you see evidence of such leaders today? Where?
Reflection: Think about a time discontent has eroded your relationship with God. What did you learn? Ask God to reveal to you and convict you of any ways you have been discontented.
Key Point: Idolatry is humanity’s sin in general. We, too, are idolaters when we put anything but God in God’s place.