In 2019, and always, our greatest tool for fighting sin is remembering the great works that God has done for us.
Asaph, the author of Psalm 78, has three goals: to remind his readers what God has done for Israel (and what Israel did in return); to admonish us to teach this relationship to our children; and to point us to what God has done to give us a pathway out of sin.
Asaph knows, fairly poignantly, that Israel and Yahweh have had a fairly tumultuous relationship. Despite the fact that God saved them from Egypt, gave them a law to follow, and gave them someone to hope in (vv 5-8), they still refused to obey him (vv 9-11). Twice: God performed amazing signs and wonders (vv 12-16) and Israel forgot again, even going as far as challenging his goodness and compassion (vv 17-20). Asaph says this happened a third time: God performed great signs and wonders, this time spilling his wrath against Israel (vv 21-31), but Israel still sinned (v 31). Readers of the Psalm might get dizzy watching this cycle continue, wondering if Israel will ever get the hint. We should be turning that question on ourselves: when we will get the hint that God loves us and turn to fight out own sin?
This Psalm is important for us because it uses Israel’s history as an object lesson for us. It helps us understand the depths of human sin, the heights of God’s mercies toward us, and the good news of what God has done to help us turn away from sin and remember him.
First, it illustrates for us the depth of our sin. We seem to think that we’re alright, and that we generally don’t sin as much as we could. Heck, we think that because we are freed from slavery to sin (Romans 6), sin is something that we don’t need to worry about. This Psalm reminds us that this simply isn’t true. Israel was God’s chosen people, a people who had often seen what God was doing among them in tangible ways. We know and see that God is active among the Church, but it often does not look like pillars of fire or piles of dead birds for meat, right? Yet despite seeing all of these miracles, Israel still turns to sin. This shows us, poetically and historically, proof that knowing God is not enough to turn away from sin. There is a more active component to fighting sin that we will return to later.
Secondly, it illustrates for us the depths of God’s compassion. Notice how many times Israel sins in this Psalm. There are three major sections, and yet more scattered verses throughout the Psalm telling us about how Israel turned away from God. But look at how many times God is compassionate. When Ephraim turns away from him, he leads Israel through the Exodus and provides for them in the wilderness (vv12-16). When they asked if Yahweh could provide meat in the wilderness, he opened the heavens and provided abundantly (vv 23-30). When they repented, he atoned for their sins and restrained his anger (vv 34-38). He remembered that humans are not eternal, and abated his wrath accordingly (v 39).
Notice how the Psalm ends with Yahweh’s compassion having the final word (vv 67-72). Despite Israel still sinning, God is more faithful and loving that we could ever fathom. When Ephraim turned away from him, he did not forsake Israel entirely; instead, he chose the tribe of Judah to lead his people. He built a sanctuary among them so that his presence would be available to them. He raised up for them a shepherd, David, to lead them and bring them into prosperity. David was upright and skillful, capable of leading Israel into obedience to Yahweh. All of this was given out of Yahweh’s compassion, and not out of response to good that Israel had done. By putting this section at the end of the Psalm, Asaph suggests that Yahweh’s divine initiative is the way out of this cycle of human forgetfulness.
Therefore, finally, it illustrates two lessons for us and our children: the danger of forgetting the Lord and how his compassion can free us from sin. Notice one theme Asaph calls on repeatedly: they did not remember the Lord. Because of this, God’s wrath came upon them repeatedly (vv 21-31; 33; 44-51; 57-64). We need to remember, and we need to teach our children, what our position was before we were in Christ. We were children of wrath, constantly walking in opposition to God, his enemies (Ephesians 2:1-4; Romans 5). Because of our sin, the wrath of God was upon us (Romans 1:18ff). God’s wrath against sin is real: when Christ returns, all sin will be wiped away from the face of the earth so that holiness may reign. Sin is not something we can be negligent or lackadaisical about: God takes it seriously, and so should we. By reading this Psalm to them, and reciting our own histories of sin and God’s mercy, children learn about the depths of sin and can begin to reflect on sin in their own lives.
Thankfully, implicit in this Psalm is the good news for us and our children: when we remember God, we can turn away from sin and worship him in righteousness. I’ve already highlighted how God has provided above, but we understand his ultimate provision a bit differently thanks to the revelation of his Son. In the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, we have seen his ultimate sign and wonder. Jesus, the seed of David, comes from the tribe of Judah, the tribe Asaph tells us about here (v 67-68). The sanctuary that he has built, founded forever (v 69), is the church, built on Christ the cornerstone (Eph 2:11-22). Jesus, the new David, is the ultimate great shepherd (John 10:6-10), who leads us in the path of righteousness (Psalm 23). By the power of the Spirit, we are able to remember the Lord in ways that Israel never could. By the indwelling Christ, we are no longer slaves to sin, and we can escape this cycle of forgetting God by remembering his compassion and mercy toward us.
So, in 2019, remember the Lord by the power of the Spirit. It is the only way we can be free of our cycles of sin and forgetfulness and live in obedience to the Lord. Remember his goodness in sending his Son and building us into his new dwelling place. Remember Jesus, the good shepherd, who guides us with uprightness and skill. Only then can we live in the abundant life God has for us.