Have you ever made a comment like this? “If that I had happened to me, I would never forget.” We can say that negatively, but I mean positively. “I will never forget what you have done for me.” “I will never forget this special moment.” “I will never forget the debt of gratitude I owe.” And yet we do forget. Time and circumstances come together in such a way that despite the magnitude of the experience, and despite our promise at the time, we forget the impact and forget the vow.
That is what happened to the ancient Hebrews. Despite experiencing the most dramatic miracles recorded, they fell back into their ways of living as though God had done nothing for them. We are going to explore how such a relapse could occur.
In spite of all this, they still sinned;
despite his wonders, they did not believe.
This verse sums up the response of the Hebrews to God’s wondrous works he performed for them. Let’s recall what these works were as listed by the psalmist. I’ll put them in chronological order:
There were the plagues in Egypt: turning the rivers to blood; sending swarms of frogs and of flies that devoured; causing a heavy hail to fall with flashing fire that killed cattle; sending swarms of locust that destroyed crops; and most terrible of all, the slaying of the first-born.
There was the miraculous crossing of the Dead Sea by dividing the waters, the same waters which rushed back over their enemies. Once out of Egypt and in the wilderness, God led his people by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire by night. He provided water from rocks. He daily provided manna and sent birds like the sand of the seas. Once in the Promised Land, they won victories over greater nations and armies.
God also performed mighty works of discipline. Indeed, in verse 31 we read of God slaying the rebellious. But, as the psalmist concludes, “despite God’s wonders, they did not believe.”
What did they not believe? Did they not believe there is a God? No, atheists were in rare supply in those days, especially among the Hebrew people. Did they not believe in Yahweh, the God of Israel? This may be closer to the truth. Their unbelief would not so much be that the God of Israel does not exist but that he is not very effective. As verse 22 explains: “They did not believe in God and did not trust his saving power.”
Such unbelief may be hard to believe, which is the perspective of the psalmist. He bemoans that they would not/could not remember God’s works. Why did God’s wonders not earn their trust? Why were they not remembered? What more must God do? Let’s look for reasons in the psalm.
1. They did not tell the next generation and others of the deeds done for them (4-8).
The first clue comes at the beginning of the psalm. The expressed purpose of the Asaph is to do what the first generation failed to do, which is to teach the next generation “the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done” (4). This affects how the children grow up, of course, but it also has a debilitating effect on the parents as well. When we fail to recite the deeds of the Lord done for us, we fail to reinforce the lessons for the persons who need them most, namely ourselves. Every teacher knows that the best way to learn and to remember what you have learned is to teach others.
2. They sinned – they did not keep God’s covenant (10).
The second clue for their memory lapse comes in verse 10.
They did not keep God’s covenant,
but refused to walk according to his law.
Simply put – they sinned. They had promised to keep the laws of God’s covenant, and they broke their promise. There are two ways to go when one has sinned. The first, and what God desires, is to turn to God by confession and repentance. That is what saved David from his sins. When confronted, he made a clean confession and ardently repented. The other route is to hide from God. The best example is that of Adam and Eve, who literally hid themselves from God. Then, when they were confronted they tried to hide their full guilt. Adam blamed Eve; Eve blamed the serpent.
The first way reinforces one’s relationship with God because it reinforces how wonderful God is in his mercy and in his wondrous works. The offender is reminded of how God has forgiven and saved before. The second way weakens the relationship because the offender does not want to come to terms with his guilt. He doesn’t want to remember that he made promises he broke. He is ashamed to remember the good that God has done for him – a remembrance which makes him think of how much ashamed God must be of him. And so the wonders of God and his deeds become lost in the haze of sin.
3. They could not endure suffering (18).
The next clue is revealed in a phrase in verse 18: “the food they craved.” The reference is to the Hebrews’ initial experience in the wilderness. They had come through the Red Sea only to be met with a waste land. Into their second month on the journey, they had yet to receive the manna that would be their daily provision. They are hungry. They are suffering.
They are suffering unexpectedly. Think about this. Moses had come to the people with the promise that God was going to deliver them from slavery and bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey. A good deal, right? And it is a promise reinforced by wondrous deeds. Why is God doing all this? Because they are his people. He claims them for himself above all other nations. How much better status can a people have?
But they don’t recall any words about the journey through the desert. They were not expecting thirst, then hunger – a hunger so great that they look back at their meager provisions in slavery as daily banquets. Deliverance from slavery to starve in the desert was not in the bargain, wondrous deeds notwithstanding. Maybe those deeds were not so great after all.
4. They yielded to temptation of the world (58).
So what do we have so far? The people of God forgot the wondrous deeds God had done for them because, one, they failed to recite those deeds; two, their sin shamed them from remembering; and three, unexpected suffering in the wilderness diverted their attention to their present experience. As we progress through the psalm we find them finally in the land of milk and honey with the same problem of forgetfulness. Verses 56-57 show them to be as sinful as ever, but verse 58 notes a particular sin – that of idolatry.
The primary point to make here is that the covenant people of God, who had claimed them for his own, were turning to the gods of their neighbors for real help. They yielded to the temptation of the world, to place their trust in what the world offers for security and pleasure.
And the neighbors of their world had much to offer. After all, they had been living in the land of milk and honey under their gods, and seemed to be doing well. Their gods could be seen; their gods had clear benefits, especially if one knew how to manipulate them. Their gods certainly had a less demanding moral code. Besides, years have gone by and the wondrous deeds of deliverance – well…what were they again? All the special people of God know now is slavery to more powerful neighbors who do not follow the God of Israel.
5. They were not shepherded (70-72).
Our final clue for why the people failed to remember God’s wondrous deeds comes in the form of a person. Verses 70-72 depict David, whom the Lord raises up for his people, to shepherd them. The people were certainly accountable for their own sin. The shepherd Moses thought so! But as time went on, Moses, then Joshua, died, and faithful shepherds were hard to come by – shepherds who would lead the flock of God along his paths, feeding them with his word and with the recollection of God’s wondrous deeds. And so when leadership is lacking, when leadership is not only allowing the sheep to go their own way, but actually encouraging them to go anywhere but in the path of God, then old wondrous deeds are no longer remembered.
Let’s move now to us. As a pastor, people come to me in times of trouble for counsel, prayer, and even confession. A very common comment goes like this: “I never thought such and such could happen to me.” Whatever “such and such” might specifically be, their point is that they have been thrown for a loop. Their faith is in question. Maybe they have committed a sin they thought not possible. Maybe it is a failure in relationships. Sometimes it is simply a realization that their zeal for God and faith in him have diminished. Whatever it is, they are surprised, because there had been a time when their confidence in God seemed impossible to erode and their commitment to him impossible to tamper with. And yet despite whatever wonders God had done in their lives, they now feel left in the wilderness – hungry, tired, and questioning.
Let’s go back over these same clues for the Hebrews’ faith struggles and see how they may apply to us.
1. They did not tell the next generation and others of the deeds done for them.
As a pastor, individuals will come to me with their woes. As they present their very real heartaches to me, I often ask, “Why do you still believe?” or “Tell me your testimony – how you came to faith in Christ?” What typically happens is that, as the sufferer or sinner is recounting what God did in his or her life, their spirit picks back up. They tell me about the wonders of God in their life. They teach me why they should trust the God who saved them. They want me to marvel with them about him.
I think that is why we like singing hymns in church. Hymns are a way to testify out loud to the wonders of God. For myself, when I am at my lowest; when I am doubting the reality of the gospel, nothing confirms my faith better than to sing hymns in church, unless it is what I get to do now – proclaim the teachings of God’s Word, especially the gospel. Holding back from telling others holds my own faith back. Telling it, giving it away, spurs it on.
For our own sake, we need to be telling others what Christ had done for us, and what God continues to do for us in Christ.
2. They sinned – they did not keep God’s covenant.
Nothing is more effective in keeping us silent about the wonders of God than our sins. If we have a conscience, we are ashamed to testify because our very sins seem to contradict our testimony. All the more then we are ashamed to turn to God for forgiveness.
But often it is not God whom we are ashamed to confess our sins to, but ourselves. We cannot admit to ourselves how we failed to live up to our promises – promises that were made in response to God’s wonders in our lives. That is when we begin to rationalize our sin. We make excuses for it. We blame others; we might even blame God. Like Adam and Eve, we begin to hide from God because we don’t want to confront our sins. And hiding from God means that we keep from ourselves both the memory of his wonders and the blessings he grants even now.
That is why I counsel those who come to me confessing sin to give praise to God for the gospel of grace shown in Christ. The very purpose of Satan in leading us to sin is so we will feel the shame and turn from our heavenly Father. But if our sin drives us to our Father for mercy, then Satan’s purpose is foiled. God’s wonders are made ever new to us, and we, in consequence, are enabled all the more to live in obedience to him. Experiencing mercy afresh does not lead down the byroad of further sin but to the road of following Christ.
3. They could not endure suffering.
We all suffer. The difference in how a Christian responds to suffering lies primarily in expectations. For the Christian who anticipates suffering – whether because of persecution for following Christ or simply because he knows that suffering comes with living in a fallen world – suffering becomes a means to actually grow in faith as he learns to trust in God, and as he takes heart that he is able to suffer in the footsteps of his Lord who suffered for him.
But most of us place limits on the degree or type of suffering. We expect some hardship but not…but not what? Failure to get married or failure of a marriage? No children or rebellious children? No success in a career or a successful career filled with trouble? What is it that trips you up? Let’s be honest. How we respond to suffering ultimately reveals what is most valuable. God has promised to preserve for us what is most valuable, namely, our inheritance of salvation. Is that enough for you? There is nothing better than suffering for you to find out.
4. They yielded to temptation of the world.
Then there is plain old temptation. As much as we might bash the values of the world, it has plenty of temptations, just like the pagan neighbors had for the Hebrews. Sexual pleasure is a big one, of course. Money is another. Then there is popularity. Entertainment itself might be the biggest culprit.
Jesus warned that we cannot have two masters but we try. We don’t acknowledge these things to be our masters, but then that is why they are able to master us so easily. We fool ourselves quite easily. And sometimes we consciously plunge in when we find our pleasurable they are. Not only were we not struck down dead, we seem to be having more fun and more success as we enter into the world’s ways.
The only hope is a reality check – an examination of your life, of what you have really become. And a reality check of what and who you have really left behind. If you are fortunate, you will be granted suffering. That is what happened to the prodigal son. If you are unfortunate to be allowed success, as did the rich man in another of Jesus’ parables, you will not come to your senses until it is too late.
5. They were not shepherded.
I tremble; I truly tremble for the ministers who use their pulpits to lead their flocks away from the truth of the gospel. Preachers need to do their job, as do all shepherding elders, for they too can forget and fall away.
But there is a sense in which all of you are shepherds, for Christ has made us all priests. You need to minister to one another the gospel of Christ. For we all can easily forget the wonders of God, like the Hebrews of Psalm 78. We need to share both for the sake of our fellow believers, as well as for our own.
And though you should look to your shepherds to feed you, don’t take the analogy of sheep too far. You are not suppose to remain the same year after year, helpless to find food or water. As you are fed the Word of God and given the news of God’s wonders, so you should be feeding yourselves and others with the Word and sharing those same wonders.
I have been speaking of God’s wonders. It is time, like the psalmist, to recite those wonders. The news of God’s wonders were first proclaimed publicly by the angel to the shepherds. Unto us a Savior was born.
God became man. The Word, who was with God and was God, became flesh and dwelt among us. The eternal Second Person of the Godhead (which is another wondrous revelation – that God is Three Persons in One) – the eternal Son of God became Son of Man.
The Son of Man left his home in glory to become one of us, and he performed wondrous signs. He healed the sick, made the lame walk, cast out demons, gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. He even raised the dead to life. He multiplied food and stilled raging storms.
Best most of all, and most terrible of all, he saved his people from their sins by yielding up himself to be crucified on a cross. He allowed the final, awful plague of the death of the firstborn to be visited upon himself. The waters crashed over him that his people might cross into the Promised Land of salvation without harm.
He proclaimed the wondrous gospel to his generation. He obeyed his Father completely and did not sin. He drank the cup of suffering to its last dregs. He withstood all the temptations laid before him. He was the Good Shepherd, who made his very body the life source of his sheep.
But that is not all. Though he died; though he was buried and his body sealed in a tomb, he rose from the grave. He won the victory over death itself, so that this Firstborn of God became the Firstfruit of the resurrection.
And there is more. I will let Peter say it:
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).
These are the wondrous deeds we are to remember. The big ones anyhow. For you will have to add the deeds the Holy Spirit, whom Christ sent to you, has done and continues to do in you and for you.
Finally, to you who have never believed in God or his wonders, will you not consider them now? You are here; you have heard. You sit among a people of many backgrounds and of many failings; and yet they worship this God of wonders; they follow, even as they may stumble, their Savior, because they gladly know him as Lord. May you know this same Savior and Lord, and through him know the God of wondrous deeds.
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