For the ninth year I have had the privilege of preaching the Sunday after Christmas. The first year, the Responsive Reading happened to fall on Psalm 78, and I thought it to be a fitting text to preach from. Since then, I have gone back to the same Psalm every year. Each time there seems to be one thing more that I learned.
The psalm basically is a rebuke to the people of God for forgetting his great wonders. The psalmist promises that he will pass on these glorious deeds to the next generation. So he recounts those wonders, as well as the failures of God’s people to obey God and to remember what he had done. We are going to look at verses 12-16, which summarize God’s works. They provide a tidy three-point sermon about what God did for his people. He delivered them; he guided them; and he provided for them.
12 In the sight of their fathers he performed wonders
in the land of Egypt, in the fields of Zoan.
The wonders of God that take center stage in the history of Israel are those involving their exodus from Egypt. The exodus is the great story of deliverance. No wonders top those wonders; no deliverance is more significant than that deliverance. For though their history begins with the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it is this event that turns them into a nation; and not merely a nation, but the nation of God. Though God made a covenant with their fathers – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – it is when the exodus takes place that he makes a covenant directly with them to be their God and for them to be his people. Of all their deliverers, it is Moses who rises supreme because he is the redeemer whom God sent to deliver his people.
“In the fields of Zoan,” refers most likely to the place where Pharaoh held court when Moses met with him and pronounced each plague. So Moses pronounces each of the ten wonders. Verse 13 takes us to the climactic wonder – the crossing of the Red Sea.
13 He divided the sea and let them pass through it,
and made the waters stand like a heap.
The crossing of the Red Sea is the climactic moment of deliverance from slavery. As Moses said to the people just before it took place: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today” (Exodus 14:13).
As great as the deliverance from slavery was, it was not the completion of the story. God did not merely have in mind freedom from hardship; he delivered his people out of Egypt that he might lead them into the Promised Land of Canaan. And so, verse 14 speaks of another wonder accomplished for this end in mind.
14 In the daytime he led them with a cloud,
and all the night with a fiery light.
The pillar of cloud and of fire first appears as the people begin to leave Egypt. It represented the presence of God. It would go before the people and they would follow. It protected the people on their way out of Egypt, coming in between them and pharaoh’s army while the Red Sea was being divided. It rested on Mt. Sinai, and from out of it God would speak to Moses. Once the tabernacle was built, it would rest upon the tabernacle, representing God’s presence in the midst of his people. It would take them on their 40-year journey through the wilderness until they entered the Promised Land.
So by his great wonders, God delivered his people from bondage, and he led them into the Promised Land. By other wonders, God provided for his people.
15 He split rocks in the wilderness
and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.
16 He made streams come out of the rock
and caused waters to flow down like rivers.
There are two times where God produced water from a rock. Early in their journey, the people experienced thirst and questioned if God could provide for them. He then had Moses strike a rock and water flowed out. But God was not pleased with the people, for he considered their complaints as testing his ability to provide. Years later the people would complain again, but it would be Moses who loses his patience and earns disfavor. Again God orders Moses to strike a rock, but this time Moses gives credit to himself and his brother Aaron for the miracle. This is the incident that causes Moses to lose the favor of entering into the Promised Land with the people.
Lessons for the People
So, by his great wonders God delivered his people from bondage; he led them into the Promised Land, and he provided for their needs. Let’s consider why the psalmist is recounting these wonders. What does he want to teach his people?
1. Give Glory to God
One obvious reason is for them to give glory to God. These deeds are glorious deeds (v. 4), and such are intended to glorify the God who performed them. The psalmist of Psalms 66 exemplifies such an attitude.
Shout for joy to God, all the earth;
2 sing the glory of his name;
give to him glorious praise!
3 Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!
So great is your power that your enemies come cringing to you.
4 All the earth worships you
and sings praises to you;
they sing praises to your name.” Selah
5 Come and see what God has done:
he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man.
6 He turned the sea into dry land;
they passed through the river on foot (Psalm 66:1-6).
Indeed, the people were made a covenant nation of God for this purpose. They were to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation that glorified God before the world, that proclaimed his excellencies. And they above all people had reason to do so, given the great wonders that God performed on their behalf.
2. To Trust God and not be Unfaithful
The other reason is what underlines the whole psalm. The psalmist shows how the people of God, despite the wonders he performed before them, nevertheless learned little from them. “They forgot his works and the wonders that he had shown them” (v. 11). As a result
“they rebelled against him in the wilderness
and grieved him in the desert!
They tested God again and again
and provoked the Holy One of Israel” (v. 40-41).
Though God delivered them, guided them, and provided them, they still would not trust God when times got tough. The psalmist does not want his generation to fall into the same faithless pattern.
3. Pass on to the Next Generation
He has the opposite intention. He is determined to pass on the stories of God’s wonders and the instructions of his law to the next generation
“so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments” (v. 7).
He now is exhorting the present generation to keep up the vital work of passing on the heritage of God’s covenant people.
4. Set the Context for a New Shepherd
There is one other purpose of the psalmist recounting the wonders of God’s deliverance, guidance, and provision. It is to set the stage for the servant appointed by God to carry on this shepherding work.
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 (vv. 70-72).
The shepherd David was made the shepherd-king over Israel. In that role, he led the armies that delivered the people from their enemies. He provided for them as a shepherd leads his sheep to water and pastures. He guided them specifically in the ways of the Lord, so that the people followed after God.
In summary, the psalmist recounts the wonders of God, showing how through those wonders God delivered, guided, and provided for his people. He reminds his readers, as well, of the failure of God’s people to learn from those wonders, how they were rebellious and never learned to trust in God fully to deliver, guide, and provide. He wants his readers to be different.
We can learn the same lessons.
1. Glorify God
We can glorify God for what are even greater wonders than those of the exodus. The apostle Paul gets caught up in this in the opening of his epistle to the Ephesians:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight (Ephesians 1:3-8).
So does the apostle Peter in his first epistle:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:3-5).
Peter goes on to tell us that we have been included in the covenant of God’s people for the very purpose of declaring God’s praise:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
You do that on the Lord’s Day. You gather with God’s people who have been delivered along with you from the bondage of sin by the victory of Christ on the cross. Now, when you return home, will you praise God – will you glorify him – for that same deliverance? Or is it only when you come to church? Do you praise him for that same deliverance when you pray to him?
I suspect that is what Philippians 4:6 has in mind when it says, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” When I make supplication to God, and I keep in mind that I should do so with thanksgiving, thanking him for the gospel – that Christ has saved me – is the first thing I think of. It certainly puts the matter at hand in perspective.
2. Trust God
It is also helpful to be reminded that, if God would perform such a marvelous and costly deliverance for us from our bondage to sin, will he not also guide us and provide for us along our Christian journey? If he delivered you through the Red Sea, will he not also guide you through the wilderness and provide for you until you reach the Promised Land?
There are many things that we fear. We fear loss – the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship (whether by death or distance or breakup), the loss of our health. We fear losing our security – our retirement, our ability to pay bills, our protectors such as our parents or anyone else we rely on. We are starting to fear the loss of our freedom to practice our faith. We may very well fear the loss of our reputation, as our society grows more hostile to beliefs and values.
Are we going to make it through our wilderness? We will if we trust God our Father to guide us, if we trust our Lord Jesus Christ to shepherd us, if we trust the Holy Spirit to give us the knowledge we need. Our troubles grow worse when we take it upon ourselves to make our own way. Many a Christian have the left the faith because they trusted their eyes and ears – what they saw and heard from the culture around them – more than they trusted by faith what God’s Word has to teach. They dipped into sin and found that they were not hurt. They followed the counsel of those who reject the gospel and found that they were getting along well enough. God was not wondrous enough for them.
I have the joy of reading all the testimonies of new members. A common plot runs like this. The individual grew up in a Christian home, but in middle school or high school or college, he followed the way of the world. Then something happened – something that caused the person to come to his or her senses – brought them back to the fold. I like those testimonies. They encourage me as I see how Christ goes after his straying sheep.
But why stray? Why not believe God when he tells you through his Word about the deliverance he wrought for you? Why not believe God when he says that he will guide you and provide for you? Remember Jesus’ words:
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?… But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:25-26, 33).
Why not take Jesus at his word? That is what you want. When you make a promise that you will be there for someone, you want to be believed, especially when trials come. We love to speak of believing in God, believing in Jesus. Take out the “in.” God wants you to believe him; Jesus wants you to believe him. When he says that he is with you wherever you go, he wants you to trust him.
He says to look at the birds and see how they are provided for, and then adds are you not of more value than they? As a minister of the gospel, I say to you, look at the cross and see how he has provided for you there. What greater proof do you need that he values you? What other gift must the Father send to prove his love?
Is it a job? Is it a boyfriend or girlfriend? Is it achieving in school or sports or work? What other test must you give him, or rather what string of tests? Because you know that whatever is provided for you will not be enough to keep you trusting God when some other trial comes, if the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is not now enough for you. The people of Israel are an example for us as to what we can too easily become when we face our wilderness journey.
Learn from them to trust God and not to test him.
3. Pass on to the Next Generation
And then pass on the wonders of God to the next generation. We live in a society in which biblical illiteracy is growing higher. Whole generations are being raised having no idea what is in the Bible. They need you to tell those stories. How? Pray about it. Ask God to give you the wisdom to know how to do it. Ask him to present opportunities for you; ask him to open your eyes to the opportunities. Do something to help the cause of passing on to the next generation the wonderful deeds of God, especially the deeds of the gospel.
4. Point to the Good Shepherd
The psalmist who wrote this psalm was Asaph. He was chief musician for King David, who just so happened to be the one individual named and who is praised as the shepherd of Israel. I am sure David liked the psalm!
We have a greater David. We have a shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep and who raised it up again. We have a shepherd who did not once live, but who lives forever. He remains our shepherd. He has bought us with his own blood, and he will not give us up. He guides us through dangers that we do not even know, for Satan desires to have us. He provides for us as we go through our Christian journey, for he abides with us. With an upright heart he shepherds us and guides us with his skillful hand.
Will you not glorify him when you step out of the sanctuary? Will you not trust him to guide you and provide for you? Will you not rest in him, trusting that he will provide what you need at the right time? This is what he wants. To be trusted. To be believed.
If you are not a follower of Christ, here then is your opportunity. You may protest that you have not heard enough evidence. Perhaps you have not taken the time to learn the actual stories of the Bible that display the wonders of God? Listen to this individual’s story.
“I grew up in an atheist household and had minimal exposure to Jesus or the Bible. I had solid, nurturing relationships with my family and friends and experienced success academically and athletically, yet I still felt that I was incomplete. In the summer before my junior year of high school I began to become increasingly exposed to Christianity. I became better friends with individuals who took their Christian faith seriously and began reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden for school, which alerted me to the fact that I knew next to nothing about the Bible’s stories. I asked a friend to explain the stories to me and was presented with the Gospel for the first time. I initially found the Christian message offensive and Jesus unbelievable. The Holy Spirit used Christians in my midst to break through my resistance until one afternoon I entertained and accepted that the God of the Bible could be real. I began to ask more questions and explore the nature of God. As my understanding of God’s holiness grew, I began to discover the depths of my sinful nature, my great need for Jesus’ sacrifice, and ultimately, explanations for why I could feel incomplete when my life was otherwise running smoothly. I surrendered my life into Jesus’ loving hands.”
Perhaps the changing of your own heart could be the next wonder of God to be told.
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