Disclaimer: The psalms are not my favorite part of the Bible to read, and I find them quite difficult to study. That said, I believe that they too are the inspired word of God, useful for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:17), and I do believe that they can be especially useful in family worship. That is because these musical poems were designed to lead the people of Israel in worship, and I think that they can still teach us a thing or two about worshiping the great I AM today.
Introduction to the Psalms
Before we dive into our weekly example, we need to address some interpretative difficulties specific to the psalms. First, we need to understand that each psalm functions as an intact literary unit with a purpose. The purpose of the psalms varies widely throughout the book, but the psalms can be grouped into broad categories, which can help us better comprehend them. These categories include laments, psalms of thanksgiving, hymns of praise, psalms of salvation history, psalms of celebration and affirmation, wisdom psalms, psalms of trust, and imprecatory psalms (address our anger to God). Whatever category they fit into (and psalms can span several of these categories), the psalms are always poetic and incorporate common poetic devices such as imagery, allusions, metaphors, hyperbole, etc. One device that is extremely common in the psalms is called parallelism, which is when a pair of lines play off of one another, either by reiteration or contradiction. For example, Psalm 78:4 says,
“We will not hide them from their children,
but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the LORD, and
and the wonders that he has done.”
The poetic nature of the psalms can present some interpretative difficulties because it means that we should not read the psalms literally, per se. If you find yourself bogged down, I encourage you to pick up some of the resources that I mentioned in my first post of this series. I would also suggest C. S. Lewis’ book Reflections on the Psalms.
So without further ado… Let’s open up our Bibles to Psalm 78.
Question #1: What Does It Say?
First things first, we need to try to assign this psalm a category. What do you think? I think it is a combination of a wisdom psalm and a psalm of salvation history. That sort of tells you something about the main thesis or overall goal of the psalm, doesn’t it? Fortunately, we are not left on our own, even to figure out something as basic as that. In verses 2-8, the psalmist comes right out and tells us that his goal is to inspire the current generation of Israelites to pass on their faith to the future generations (note that this is not limited to this psalm, but the theme is repeated in Psalm 145:4). He then spends the rest of the psalm recapping the grand story of God’s salvation of his chosen people. This can really be broken down into three events that repeat in a cyclic fashion.
It is clear that the psalmist really wants the children of the people of Israel, and their children, to understand God’s wrath and God’s mercy.
Question #2 What Does It Mean?
This psalm is an honest evaluation of the human condition- naturally rebellious against God (side note- all sin is a form of rebellion against God). Of course, this is not just a theme here, but elsewhere in Scripture (see Romans 3; Psalm 14; Psalm 53; and Isaiah 53:6). But more than that, it tells us how God deals with our rebellion. In his holiness, he hates it, and he righteously punishes it. Like a father, he disciplines those who rebel because he loves them (Hebrews 12:5-6). But God is not only just, he is merciful. Is this not exactly who God proclaimed himself to be to Moses when he hid him in the cleft of the rock (Exodus 33-34)? The history of Israel is filled with countless stories of God’s mercy toward them. It is clear that the psalmist hoped that the remembrance of these truths of God’s holiness and his mercy, and the act of passing them on to the coming generations would help them to remain faithful to God and not fall into rebellion against him.
As Christians, we see an even bigger picture of redemption history than the psalmist did. We know the rest of the story, and we understand that God’s wrath and mercy were ultimately and simultaneously manifested on the cross. It was at that point that the cycle was broken. God is still holy and he still hates sin, but sin was dealt with on the cross and his mercy and grace triumphed over it (Roman 6:6). God is both the just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26). How much more should we revel in Him than the psalmist ever could?
What Do I Do About It?
This psalm is a direct challenge to spiritual leaders. It puts the human condition of rebellion front and center. We would do well to never forget that we, our spouses and our children are all sinners and our natural tendency is to rebel against God. Therefore, the first thing that this passage calls us to do is to pray for obedient hearts in our own lives and in our families. More than that, it gives us a practical way to instill in each of us the desire to be obedient. How do we do that? We have to know and teach the salvation story to our families. We need to ensure that they understand the doctrine of sin and grasp the gravity of their own rebellion against God. We need to help them understand the importance of the atonement and what exactly it means for them. In short, we do not merely need to teach them God’s story, but we need to show them where they fit into. Then and only then will they have a reason to follow him.