A Parable for the Coming Generation | Psalm 78

With seventy-two verses, we certainly will not be able to mine even a fraction of the depths within this psalm; thus, let us be content to make this sermon a survey of the overall message of this psalm.

From the first verse of this psalm, we learn that it is instructive: “Give ear, o my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth!” Asaph, the author, is calling upon each of us as the readers and hearers to consider these words deeply. While the bulk of this psalm is a poetic recounting of Israel’s history from the exodus to David’s ascension to the throne, it is explicitly intended to be serve as a lesson for us, even us in the twenty-first century.

WE WILL NOT HIDE THEM // VERSES 1-8

Verses 1-8 provide us with why Asaph wrote these words. He is taking “things that we have heard and know, that our fathers told us” (v. 3) and retelling them a parable for future generations.[1] Indeed, verses 5-6 recount that God has given that very command to His people. God “commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn.” Asaph is likely thinking of the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which most consider to be the very heart of the Old Testament:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

This was God’s great command to Israel. They were to worship Him exclusively because He alone is God. They are also to worship Him exhaustively, with all of their being, because He alone is worthy of complete devotion and worship.

Of course, God commands exclusive and exhaustive worship from His people for His glory but also for their good, for it is an unavoidable reality that we become like whatever we worship. Those who worship carved blocks of wood become blockheads themselves. Those who give their devotion to scrolling through memes become a meme themselves, a walking parody of life as much as social media is a parody of embodied community. Those who worship others, perhaps their spouse or children, will inevitably come to hate them once the weight of divinity has ground them into dust. Of course, the worship of self, which is the most popular deity on the market today, promises self-fulfillment, yet every new year we wrestle with destructive desires that we cannot bring ourselves to change. Thus, we are certainly not the little gods we desire to be, and we surely do not know what is best for ourselves.

The point is: nothing is worthy or capable of our worship than the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. To worship Him is to become like Him, bearing His image and likeness. To worship Him to discover that He is Himself the path of life and in His presence “there is fullness of joy… and pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).

Therefore, teaching our children “that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (v. 7) is the greatest inheritance that we can leave to the coming generation. Indeed, it is the one thing necessary (Luke 10:42). If we can leave our children with one thing, it should be this knowledge of God and His commands. To leave a financial inheritance to our children is certainly of some value, but leaving a biblical and godly inheritance is of value in every way.

Spurgeon exhorts:

The best education is education in the best things. The first lesson for a child should be concerning his mother’s God. Teach him what you will, if he learn not the fear of the Lord, he will perish for lack of knowledge. Grammar is poor food for the soul if it be not flavoured with grace. Every satchel should have a Bible in it. The world may teach secular knowledge alone, ’tis all she has a heart to know, but the church must not deal so with her offspring; she should look well to every Timothy, and see to it that from a child he knows the Holy Scriptures.[2]

The motto of parents and of churches as a whole ought to be verse 4: “We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.” For it is only by passing down the knowledge of the LORD that the coming generation will be able to break from the pattern of their fathers, which as verse 8 tells us, were “a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.”

It is astounding to me that we lament the degradation of our society while continuing to guide our children along the same path toward destruction. Only the Spirit of God working through the Word of God can bring a dead heart to life. Likewise, only the Spirit of God working through the Word of God can bring to life a decaying culture. God alone must give life, but He has commanded us to sow the seeds of His Word through which He will bring a harvest. Therefore, it is my conviction that lasting change will never take root until Christian parents resolve for their children to know and love Ruth more than Elsa. The worldly junk food that we so often set before their eyes in order to get an hour or so of peace and quiet causes spiritual malnourishment in their souls. Just as the taste of broccoli gets overridden by the taste of a chocolate chip cookie, so too does a taste for the Bible get shoved aside by the taste for visual sweets. God’s Word is effectively hidden from their view, and children within Christian homes are as thorough catechized in the stories of the world as non-Christian children are.

If we want a different outcome for the lives of our children, we must be willing to apply a different method. We must repent of worldliness and make God’s Word the centerpiece of our homes.

YET THEY STILL SINNED // VERSES 9-66

Verses 9-66 find Asaph putting to practice what he announced in verses 1-8. He recounts the unfaithfulness of past generations of Israel as well as the ultimate faithfulness of God to them. For readers familiar with Exodus-1 Samuel, a poetic retelling of that period of history will become apparent.

In verses 9-40, the desert journey and wandering of the Israelites is recounted. Asaph reminds us how God gave His people water from a rock in the middle of a desert so they would not thirst. When they cried out for food, God gave them “the bread of the angels” (v. 25). He led them with pillars of His glory, a cloud by day and fire by night. Yet after all this provision and grace from God, they still sinned (vv. 17, 32).

In verses 41-55, Asaph recounts the destruction of Egypt through the plagues and, briefly, how God drove out the Canaanite nations under Joshua’s command.

Lastly, verses 56-66 move quickly through the spiraling downward rebellion of the book of Judges and focus upon the beginning of 1 Samuel, where God allowed Israel to be defeated by the Philistines and that ark of the covenant to be captured (v. 61). That day priests did indeed fall by the sword (v. 64), for the wicked sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain in battle. Phinehas’ wife also did not lament over him. After she heard that the ark was captured, she died giving birth and called her son Ichabod, which meant no glory, for the ark’s capture meant that God’s glory had departed from Israel.

Yet God allowed the ark to be captured in order to make His glory known directly to the Philistines, for every city that held the ark was plagued with tumors and illness. Eventually, the Philistines admitted the hand of God was upon them and sent the ark back to Israel.

While there are many lessons that can be drawn from these lessons in history, I believe that the Holy Spirit through Asaph has two primarily in mind. First, we are to note God’s faithfulness to Israel. Repeatedly, God’s grace and mercy upon Israel is recounted. Even when they were unfaithful to Him, He remained compassionate and faithful to them. Even His affliction of Israel with His judgments was never done in malice, but to rebuke and correct His wandering children. Indeed, I believe that verses 51-53 are central for understanding this theme:

He struck down every firstborn in Egypt,
    the firstfruits of their strength in the tents of Ham.
The he led out his people like sheep
    and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.
Then he led them in safety, so that they were not afraid,
    but the sea overwhelmed their enemies.

Again, Spurgeon writes:

The contrast is striking, and ought never to have been forgotten by the people. The wolves were slain in heaps, the sheep were carefully gathered, and triumphantly delivered. The tables were turned, and the poor serfs became the honoured people, while their oppressors were humbled before them. Israel went out in a compact body like a flock; they were defenseless in themselves as sheep, but they were safe under their Great Shepherd; they left Egypt as easily as a flock leaves one pasture for another.[3] (342)

Indeed, that metaphor best summarizes God’s faithfulness to Israel. He is their Shepherd, and they are His sheep, the flock of His pasture.

Yet the second lesson for us to see from this historical parable is the sinfulness and rebellion of Israel. They sinned. They rebelled. They tested. They turned away. They demanded. They did not believe. They did not trust. They flattered. They lied. They were unfaithful. Over and over again, Asaph emphasizes how Israel sinned against God their Shepherd. Of course, a familiarity with Exodus-1 Samuel should make sure that this is not surprising to us, yet the cumulative effect of listing them together in one poem is meant to be overwhelming. We are meant to see here a people whose hearts always go astray (Psalm 95:10).

But why? Thankfully, this psalm does not just present to us the problem but also the diagnosis and treatment. Back in verse 7, the root of the problem was presented: forgetting the works of God. Verse 11 then states again: “They forgot his works and the wonders that he had shown them.” Verses 42-43: “They did not remember his power or the day when he redeemed them from the foe, when he performed his signs in Egypt and his marvels in the fields of Zoan.” Their forgetfulness of God’s Word and God’s works led them into sin and rebellion against Him.

Likewise, consider verses 34-39:

When he killed them, they sought him;
they repented and sought God earnestly.
They remembered that God was their rock,
the Most High God their redeemer.
But they flattered him with their mouths;
they lied to him with their tongues.
Their heart was not steadfast toward him;
they were not faithful to his covenant.
Yet he, being compassionate,
atoned for their iniquity
and did not destroy them;
he restrained his anger often
and did not stir up all his wrath.
He remembered that they were but flesh,
a wind that passes and comes not again.

Israel remembered the LORD but only in pretense. They mourned the suffering that their sin brought upon them but not the sin itself. Thankfully, God remembered that His people were dust and did not consume them fully.

Sin and rebellion always derive from a forgetfulness of God’s Word and God’s works. Like Peter began to sink whenever he looked away from Christ, our hearts sink into the mire of their desires whenever we look away from God in His Word. Again, both individual and societal transformation can only happen through God’s Word. Thus, to abandon and forget God’s Word leads to sin and rebellion, while a remembrance and love of God’s Word leads to repentance and flourishing.

Just as this psalm is commending us to do, let us look at history for instruction. A few weeks ago, Tiff, Éowyn, and I went to see the Christmas candle-lighting concert put on by the university in our town, where they performed multiple pieces from Handel’s Messiah. That piece of music has to be one of the greatest artistic achievements of all time. Rightly do people stand at the great chorus: “King of Kings! Forever and ever! Lord of lords! Forever and ever!” That concert, as well as our recent familial exploration of other classical pieces, led Tiff and I to ponder about the profound beauty of that era of compositions, which in general seem to be unsurpassed still. It was then that this thought struck me: the classical period of the arts arose from the children and grandchildren of the Puritans and their contemporaries in other European countries. It seems to be that the artistic achievements of the 1700s and early 1800s were only possible because of the Scriptural foundation laid by the generations of the 1500s and especially the 1600s.

Or, for another example, the Hippies of the sixties and seventies were another puritanical generation, just as spiritual and just as intent on societal reform. Only they largely did the opposite of Puritans of old. Rather than devoting all of life to God’s Word, they jettisoned God’s Word at every turn, promoting New Age spiritualities and Eastern mysticisms and ushering in the sexual revolution. We are now reaping the harvest sown into the ground by the free love activists.  

Thus, the generational sway toward faithfulness or unfaithfulness was not a principle for Israel alone but for all people throughout all of time. A generation devoted to God’s Word fostered the classical period of arts. Another rejected God’s Word and set the ground for a cultural rejection of truth, the celebration of castrating children, and clinical suicide. Those are certainly two extreme examples, yet we should consider them as a real-life parable for us to learn from. Each of our lives is a seed sown into the ground that will yield a harvest for the coming generations. The only question is whether the harvest will be of righteousness and beauty or of wickedness and destruction.

TO SHEPHERD JACOB HIS PEOPLE // VERSES 67-72

Moving into the final verses of the psalm, Asaph begins by saying that God rejected Joseph and Ephraim. If we recall the ending of Genesis, we remember that Jacob numbered Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, as though they were his own. This was God’s doing since the tribe of Levi would not receive a portion of the land of Canaan for their own, so the inclusion of Manasseh and Ephraim as half-tribes in the allotment of land brought the number of the tribes back to twelve. As typically happens in the Bible, Jacob gave the greater blessing to Ephraim as the younger brother.

Ephraim’s leadership as the most prominent tribe over Israel was established by Joshua, who was the leader of that tribe. The tabernacle with the ark of the covenant was assembled in Joshua’s day at Shiloh (Joshua 18:1), a city of Ephraim, making it the center of Israel’s worship for many years. Yet after the ark was captured as recorded in 1 Samuel, it came to Kiriath-jearim for twenty years, until David became king and brought it to Jerusalem.

That rejection of Ephraim as the central tribe in favor of Judah came through their disobedience. In verses 9-11, Asaph said, “The Ephraimites, armed with the bow, turned back on the day of battle. They did not keep God’s covenant, but refused to walk according to his law. They forgot his work and the wonders that he had shown them.”

We have no record in Scripture of Ephraim refusing to fight a particular battle, but of course that does not mean that such an incident did not happen. Most events in Israel’s history were not recorded for us in Scripture. However, I think it is more likely that Asaph is not speaking of a particular event but metaphorically describing how the tribe of Ephraim forsook their leadership over the other tribes. Therefore, God stripped them of their leadership. He rejected Ephraim and chose Judah instead. He removed the ark from Shiloh and established it in Jerusalem, upon Mount Zion (which, by the way, is the name of the hill upon which the city of Jerusalem was built).

Yet Asaph is not merely celebrating a relocation of the ark of the covenant, he is glorying in the establishment of David as Israel’s king. Notice how Asaph presents David in the final verses:

He chose David his servant
    and took him from the sheepfolds;
from following the nursing ewes he brought him
    to shepherd Jacob his people,
    Israel his inheritance.
With upright heart he shepherded them
    and guided them with his skillful hand.

God took David from the sheepfolds and placed him over a far greater sheepfold. Becoming king, David did not cease to be shepherd; he only became a shepherd over people rather than sheep. It is no accident that the three greatest men of the Old Testament were all shepherds. David was a shepherd as a boy. We do not know about Abraham’s life in Ur, but in Canaan, Abraham was a shepherd. Moses, of course, grew up in Pharaoh’s palace where shepherds were considered an abomination and was not ready to lead God’s people until he had spent an equal portion of his life being such an abomination. This pattern exists because God Himself is the great Shepherd. Leaders of God’s people who are imaged after God’s own heart will also be shepherds.

Of course, Asaph presents David’s reign as if it might be the turning point for Israel. Perhaps David would be the Messiah that would deliver God’s people from their greatest foe: themselves. As we saw last week, that was not the case. God taking David from the sheepfolds can also be read to mean that David was taken from among the sheep, that he himself was one of them. And that was all too true. Overall, Asaph is correct to say that David had an upright heart, probably more upright than any of us today! Yet David was still one who forgot God’s Word and works and fell into sin. David proved to be a good and faithful shepherd over God’s people, but David himself still needed to be shepherded.

Israel needed the greater David, the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep. The Rock of ages cleft to provide streams of living water for God’s people. The true Bread of heaven come down to spiritually sustain our souls. Jesus, the Son of David, is the answer to the dark sayings (v. 2) of this psalm. He has fully atoned for our iniquity through the offering of His own life in our place. His death and resurrection is the greatest work of God ever performed. It is the wondrous beginning of the new creation, begun by Jesus, the Word made flesh. No deed is more glorious than this triumph of the Good Shepherd to redeem His wandering and faithless sheep. As 1 Peter 2:25 writes of us, “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” That is the marvelously good news that we must pass down to the next the generation, to “the children yet unborn” (v. 6).

As we come the Lord’s Table, consider the words of this true parable. How much do you resemble Israel? How many blessings has the LORD showered down upon you, yet how often do you turn away from Him? How often do you rebel against His commandments? How desperately do we need the Good Shepherd to rescue us from ourselves! How desperately do we need Him to pull us away from the endless sights and sounds that our eyes and ears crave and bring us to green pastures and still waters where we can be with Him! Indeed, Jesus our Shepherd has prepared this Table before us that we may eat and drink spiritual nourishment in the presence of our enemies. Come, then, let us eat and drink freely of the grace that our Lord gives! Let us taste and see the goodness of our God, who has rescued us wandering sheep at the cost of our Shepherd’s blood.


[1] It seems to me that we should mine all of history as we would parables, for all of history is instructive to us in some way or another.

[2] Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David Vol 2, 331.

[3] Spurgeon, The Treasury of David Vol 2, 342.

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