Those who don’t learn from the past…
How do we maintain hope despite our many failures? This psalm recites Israel’s many sins—so like the Church’s today—but it does so to build up, not erode, the believers’ hope.
An Asaph psalm.
1 My people, listen to my teaching
and pay attention to what I say.
2 I’m going to tell you stories
that unspool a riddle from the past—
3 about things we’ve long heard and known.
Stories our ancestors passed down to us.
4 We won’t keep them from their descendants.
We’ll sing YHWH’s praises to the next generation
telling of his miraculous power.
5 Because he established laws for Jacob
and entrusted his teachings to Israel
giving our ancestors strict orders
to teach them to their children.
6 So the next generation would learn them
and pass them on to their kids—
children yet unborn—
7 that they too might trust in God
remember his powerful deeds
and keep his commandments
8 unlike their ancestors
a willful and rebellious generation
whose hearts weren’t true to God
and whose spirits were unfaithful.
9 Though armed with bow and arrow
Ephraim’s warriors turned tail
on the day of battle.
10 They didn’t keep God’s covenant
and refused to follow his teachings.
11 They forgot what he’d done
all the miracles he’d shown them.
12 Down in Egypt
on the plains of Zoan
God did miracles in full view of their ancestors.
13 He split the sea in two
and led them through it
piling the water up on either side, like a dike.
14 He led them with a cloud by day
a blazing light by night.
15 He split rocks open in the wilderness
and let them drink deeply
as from an underground sea.
16 He made streams gush out of stone
and pour down in torrents.
17 But in response
they only sinned against him more
defying the Most High in the desert.
18 They deliberately tested God in their hearts
by demanding their favorite food.
19 They railed against him, saying:
“Can God spread a feast for us in the desert?
20 Yes, water poured out in torrents
when he struck the rock.
But can he also give us bread
and serve his people meat?”
21 When YHWH heard this
he was furious and fire blazed against Jacob.
God’s anger flared against Israel
22 because they weren’t willing to trust him—
to believe he’d take care of them.
23 Even so, God ordered the sky above
to open heaven’s portals wide
24 and rain down manna to feed them.
He gave them the bread of heaven:
25 mortals ate food from heaven’s courts
and all they could eat of it too.
26 Then he drove the east wind across the sky
and moved the south wind powerfully too.
27 He rained meat down on them like dust
a flock of birds like sand on the seashore.
28 He brought the birds down
right in the middle of his camp
all around his personal residence.
29 They ate their fill
of the very food they craved.
30 But while they were stuffing their faces
their mouths still full of food
31 God’s anger flared up
and killed Israel’s finest young men
wiping out the nation’s best and brightest.
32 But despite all this
the people went on sinning.
Despite God’s miracles
they still didn’t trust him.
33 So he made their lives vanish like a breath
and ended their years in terror.
34 When he’d killed them
the rest turned to him for help—
turned and sought him eagerly.
35 They remembered God was their Rock
God Most High their redeemer.
36 But in fact they only paid him lip service
lying to him through their teeth.
37 Their hearts were unfaithful to him
untrue to his covenant.
38 Yet being compassionate
he atoned for their rebellion.
Instead of destroying them
he repeatedly reined in his anger
and held back his wrath.
39 He was mindful of the fact
that they were just made of flesh and blood
a breath of wind that passes
never to return.
40 How often they defied God in the wilderness
and grieved him in the wasteland
41 repeatedly testing his patience
provoking the Holy One of Israel.
42 They were oblivious of the power
revealed when he redeemed them from their foes
43 the signs he performed in Egypt
his miracles in the land of Zoan.
44 He turned their rivers into blood
making the water undrinkable.
45 He sent swarms of flies
that ate the Egyptians alive
and frogs that drove them mad.
46 He fed their crops to grasshoppers
their produce to locusts.
47 He blighted their vines with hail
their fig orchards with frost.
48 He surrendered their cattle to hailstorms
their flocks to lightning strikes.
49 He unleashed his burning anger against them—
fury, indignation and distress.
He sent a band of destroying angels among them.
50 He freely vented his anger
not sparing their lives
but letting the plague ravage them.
51 He killed all of Egypt’s firstborn sons
emasculating every man in all the tents of Ham.
52 He led his people out like sheep
herding them like a flock through the wilderness.
53 He led the Israelites to safety
with nothing to fear
while the sea swallowed up their enemies.
54 He brought them to his holy land
the mountain he himself won.
55 He expelled nations before them
and marked out an inheritance
for each of Israel’s tribes to pitch their tents in.
56 But even then
they went on challenging God Most High
paying no attention to his laws.
57 Instead they turned away
and acted treacherously like their ancestors
who were as unreliable as a warped bow.
58 They provoked God with their hilltop shrines
and made him jealous with their idols.
59 Hearing what they were doing
God became furious and
totally rejecting Israel
60 abandoned his residence at Shiloh
the tabernacle where he lived among humankind.
61 He allowed the seat of his power to be captured
the ark of his glory to fall into enemy hands.
62 He turned his people over to the sword
venting his anger on his inheritance.
63 Fire devoured their young men
so their brides heard no sweet songs.
64 Their priests were felled by the sword
and their widows sang no dirges.
65 Then YHWH jumped up as if from sleep
and burst out like a fighter inflamed by wine.
66 He beat back his foes
putting them to everlasting disgrace.
67 But he rejected Joseph’s descendants
and overlooked the tribe of Ephraim.
68 He chose the tribe of Judah instead
and Mount Zion, the place he loves.
69 There he built his sanctuary on the heights
established it to stand
like the earth, forever.
70 He chose his servant David also
taking him from the sheep pens
71 from tending nursing ewes
to shepherd Jacob his people
Israel his inheritance.
72 David cared for them with selfless devotion
and guided them with skilful hands.
The psalmist takes us around the roller coaster ride of God’s amazing grace and Israel’s appalling resistance to that grace. God graciously rescues his people from Egypt, even killing Egypt’s firstborn sons, which Egyptian men took as proof of their manhood. But after God has rescued his people, they become entitled. Despite God’s legendary patience, they’re eventually burned by the fire of his holiness. When they then merely pretend to seek him and ultimately think they can control him, taking the ark of the covenant to battle against his will, God lets their pagan enemies cart it away. This rightly leaves the Israelites devastated, unable to sing even a dirge.
The tragedy ends only when God—jumping up like a startled sleeper or a wine-inflamed fighter—defeats Israel’s foes and makes three epic choices that signal a new beginning for God’s people. First, he chooses Judah, not Ephraim, whose warriors had turned tail in the battle. This may mean the psalmist is writing after Jeroboam had made Ephraim the northern kingdom’s leading tribe, while Judah dominated the southern kingdom. Second, God chooses Zion, permanently establishing his house there. Third, he chooses David to shepherd his people.
God’s pain and frustration relates to us today as much as to ancient Israel. Seeing us pursue the gods of this age, Jesus weeps over his Church as he once did over Jerusalem, though he still hasn’t given up on us. The psalm implicitly tells God’s people three things we can do to flourish in his care. First, we can worship God alone, rejecting the idols clamoring for our attention. Second, we can serve David’s reigning son, Jesus. And third, by God’s grace, we can trust and obey him faithfully. The psalm also gives us hope since, refusing to give up on his people, God does everything needed to redeem them.
Like Israel, I easily slide into presumption and pretense, God. Yet you don’t let go, and the cross proves you’ll withhold nothing from me that’s for my good. Help me submit to your holy Son, worship and obey you alone, and hold onto hope both for myself and for your people. Amen.
In your free moments today, meditate on these words, which relate to David’s “greater son” also: