Daily Family Worship

Psalm 78:38-72: The History of Israel, Part 2

by | May 25, 2024

Psalm 78:38-72

In the first part of this great historical Psalm, we were given a glimpse of the general state of rebellion and unbelief that characterized the people of Israel during the period of their wanderings in the wilderness. Toward the end of that first section, we were particularly shown the people’s superficial and transient repentance: “when he slew them, they sought him.” But such “seeking” after God – which is not really seeking Him at all, but only seeking to escape from evil – neither goes deep nor lasts long. Thus the end of it was only lip-reverence, which was proved false by the people’s life-actions, and soon ended. “Their heart was not steadfast.” When the pressure was removed, they returned to their habitual position of rebellion.

From the midst of this sad narrative of faithlessness, there springs up – like a fountain in a weary land, or a flower among half-cooled lava – the lovely description of God’s forbearance, in verses 38 and 39! It must not be read as if it was merely a continuation of the preceding verses. The Psalmist does not say, “He was full of compassion” – even though that would be much, considering the circumstances. Rather, he is declaring God’s eternal character! His compassions are unfailing; and therefore, He exercised many gracious forbearances toward these obstinate transgressors in the wilderness. He was true to His own compassion by remembering their mortality and feebleness.

The first part of this historical Psalm recorded the Lord’s mercies and man’s acquittal; but the second portion speaks much of man’s ingratitude, which it paints in the darkest colors – for it provokes Him, grieves Him, tempts Him, and vexes Him. The Psalmist traces Israel’s sin to forgetfulness of God’s mercy; and thus he glides into a swift summing up of the plagues of Egypt, which immediately preceded Israel’s deliverance from slavery in that land (verses 40-51). The next quartet of verses (52-55) passes lightly over the wilderness-history and the settlement of the people in the land of Canaan; and then it hastens on to a renewed narration of repeated rebellion, which occupies verses 56-59. This section covers the period from the entrance into the Promised Land to the fall of the sanctuary at Shiloh; and all during this time, there was a continual and lamentable tendency for the people to relapse into idolatry. Hence the sad story of Israel’s humiliation under the Philistines is told with intense energy and pathos. What a tragic picture the Psalmist draws! Shiloh – the dwelling-place of God – empty forevermore! The “glory” – that is, the Ark – in the enemy’s hands! Stiffening corpses everywhere! A blanket of silence over the land; no brides and no joyous wedding-songs; the priests of the Lord massacred, and unlamented by their widows, who had wept so many tears already that the fountain of them was dried up – and even sorrowing love was silent with horror and despair!

The two last groups of verses in this portion of the Psalm paint a picture of the Lord’s great mercy in delivering the nation from such misery. It is almost a shocking figure of speech to depict the Lord as awaking from sleep and dashing upon Israel’s foes, with a shout like that of a hero who has been stimulated by wine; but it wonderfully expresses the sudden transition from a period of time in which God seemed to be passive and careless of His people’s wretchedness, to one in which His power flashed forth triumphantly for their defense. This was seen in the historical record of the long series of victories that Israel enjoyed over the Philistines and other oppressors; these culminated in the restoration of the Ark of the Covenant, the selection of Zion as its dwelling-place, and the accession of David to the throne. The Davidic kingdom, in the Psalmist’s view here, is the final form of Israel’s national existence; and the sanctuary, like the kingdom, is as perpetual as the lofty heavens or the firm earth. Nor were his visions vain – for that Kingdom does subsist, and it will subsist forever; and the true sanctuary, which is the dwelling-place of God among mankind, is even more closely intertwined with the Kingdom and its King than the Psalmist knew! The perpetual duration of the Church, as the Redeemer’s spiritual Kingdom, is truly the greatest of God’s mercies; it outshines all earlier deliverances! And those who have become the subjects of King Jesus will not willfully rebel against Him anymore, nor forget His wonders; rather, they shall faithfully tell them to the generations to come!

Thank You, Jesus, for leading Your people in the wilderness and for continuing to be with us today! Thank You for loving, protecting, and feeding us; and for assuring us that You will never leave us nor forsake us. Amen.  

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