The application of Psalm 78:1-8 was the following exhortation:
“We must be careful not to exhibit complaining spirits before our children. Do they see that in us? What will your children hear from you today – how wonderful it was to worship God with his people or complaints about parking or room temperature? What will they hear from you this week – your sharing of God’s glorious deeds or grumblings about how tough life is? Will they remember best your prayers with them or your complaining about them?
“And these are not just questions for parents. Everyone here, you need to know that you are being watched and listened to by children. They see and hear you when you don’t notice them. They are learning from you whether worship in the house of God is boring as it seems or something that they too should be delighting in. They are learning from you by your attitude in worship and your attitude towards them if the gospel is something to really believe; if it is something for them. What are you teaching them?
“Today is the first day of a new year. Brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, let us resolve today that we will not hide the sayings from of old in the Scriptures; rather, we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. Let us make known the faithfulness of the Lord to all generations.”
Here is my question. How did you do? Can you look back over the past year and with satisfaction say, “I’ve been a good witness to my children and the children of my church this year; by my words and actions, they know better the glorious deeds of God and his faithfulness”? Before we answer such a question, let’s do as one noted commentator liked to say and give the “rest of the story.”
As noted in the previous messages, Psalm 78 reviews Israel’s sad history of forgetting what God had done for them and then falling away from him. The psalmist gives warning not to follow the example of their ancestors who rebelled against God in the wilderness after his miraculous deliverance from Egypt, preservation in that same wilderness and even after entry into the Promised Land. The result of such rebellion was God’s rejection of them and their deliverance into the hands of their adversaries. But the psalm does not end with rejection. Let’s pick up with verse 65.
65 Then the Lord awoke as from sleep,
like a strong man shouting because of wine.
66 And he put his adversaries to rout;
he put them to everlasting shame.
Here is what the psalmist Asaph is referring to. During the period of the judges’ rule over Israel, the tabernacle that had moved with the people during their wilderness journey, had been located at Shiloh in the territory of the tribe of Ephraim. This was the tribe, descended from Joseph that had risen to prominence over the other tribes.
According to the psalmist, Israel’s idolatry during the period of the judges led to Shiloh’s destruction and the downfall of Ephraim from its position of prominence as the location of government and worship. The soldiers fighting against the Philistines turned the very ark of God into an idol by taking it into battle as a talisman to secure victory. Instead of victory, they were defeated and the ark taken into captivity, never again to return to Shiloh. Indeed, Shiloh would eventually be destroyed and become an example of the destruction that comes to those who fail to keep God’s covenant.
At the battle of the ark, the two ungodly priests “fell by the sword,” as verse 64 notes, and the widow of one of them died while giving childbirth when she heard the news of her husbands death and the ark’s capture. She just had time to name the child – Ichabod, which means “inglorious”; for, as she said, “The glory has departed from Israel!”
This was the legacy of the Israelites who centuries earlier at the foot of Mt. Sinai had vowed, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8). What they did was break all the commandments that the Lord had spoken and passed on that same trait to their descendants. And so the day of shame finally came that the glory departed in the form of the ark from Israel. The ark, which represented the presence of God among his people, was taken away.
But that was not the end of the story. “Then the Lord awoke as from sleep.” He put his adversaries, in this case the Philistines to rout and everlasting shame. How did he do it? He gave them hemorrhoids! Or a plague like it that disfigured and killed many men. After seven months of passing the ark around their cities, they returned the ark to Israel by letting it be pulled on a cart by unmanned cows. A generation later, King David would bring the ark to Jerusalem on Mt. Zion in the territory of Judah. As the psalmist Asaph explains:
67 He rejected the tent of Joseph;
he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim,
68 but he chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion, which he loves.
69 He built his sanctuary like the high heavens,
like the earth, which he has founded forever.
It was Jerusalem that God had destined to be the dwelling place of his Presence. There the ark would reside in the temple built as the place of worship for all of God’s people.
Furthermore, God chose a servant to shepherd his people so that they would not fall into the disobedience of which they had been so guilty.
70 He chose David his servant
and took him from the sheepfolds;
71 from following the nursing ewes he brought him
to shepherd Jacob his people,
Israel his inheritance.
72 With upright heart he shepherded them
and guided them with his skillful hand.
Let’s recap the story as presented in this psalm. By glorious deeds, God delivered the people of Israel from captivity in Egypt. He made a covenant with them and appointed a law by which they were to keep that covenant. They promised obedience but far from obeying God they tested him time and again in the wilderness with their discontent, and yet again in the Promised Land with their idolatry. God, in turn, delivered them over to their enemies and yet would rescue them whenever they showed sign of repentance. The twist in the story comes when the very ark of God – the symbol of his Presence – is taken into captivity. It returns but to a new location. The favor once shown to the tribe of Ephraim shifts to Judah. The ark is given a securer home in Jerusalem, and the people are provided a skilful, godly shepherd.
For the sake of full disclosure, I should note that the author of this psalm, Asaph, served under David. Who knows, maybe this psalm was written on an anniversary of the occasion of bringing the ark to Mt. Zion? This explains why the psalm ends with the reference to David and presents such a pleasant image of David leading God’s sheep. The days of discontent and idolatry are behind them.
But we know the rest of the story, don’t we? Yes, David was a good shepherd who was a man after God’s own heart. But David had his own lapses. His moral lapse led to adultery then murder. His failure to exercise discipline in his family led to a bloody rebellion. His folly led to a plague that killed thousands.
The nation was obedient enough. But within two generations it would divide in two, and the northern kingdom led by Ephraim would never again return to true worship. With possession of the temple and the ark, the southern kingdom of Judah would fall into idolatry then return to the Lord, fall into idolatry then return to the Lord, and so on, all dependent on the particular guidance of their shepherd-king at the time.
Whatever the condition of spiritual fidelity in the land, the nation of Judah had one thing in which it placed its security – the temple of the Lord. Like their ancestors in the days of the judges who placed their confidence in the tabernacle, they believed that no matter how bad times could get, complete defeat would never take place because God’s temple dwelled in their land.
The prophet Jeremiah addressed this vain deceit:
Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord…’ (7:5).
Now God did intend for his people to look to the temple as a visible sign of his presence. When their faith in God grew weak, it was in the temple where it would be renewed; it was at the temple where they worshipped God; when they sinned, it was to the temple they came and offered their prayers and sacrifices to God. But they turned the temple itself into a talisman that would protect them even as they sinned. As Jeremiah went on to admonish:
8 “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. 9Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord.
And then he pointed back to Shiloh:
12 Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel. 13 And now, because you have done all these things, declares the Lord, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, 14 therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. 15 And I will cast you out of my sight, as I cast out all your kinsmen, all the offspring of Ephraim.
And so the story of God’s covenant people came full circle. Judah became Ephraim; Jerusalem became Shiloh. The glory of the Lord again departed and the people were sent into exile.
Except, the story does change slightly. As you know, the people returned from exile to Jerusalem. The temple is rebuilt and the law of God is restored. Indeed, the law would rise to a prominence it had not achieved through the rise of scribes beginning with Ezra. In time the temple would be completely rebuilt to an even greater scale than that of Solomon’s temple. And though Israel was occupied territory, the people were free to worship at the temple. And though there was no David on the throne to shepherd his people in the way of the Lord, they had Moses and the prophets through the faithful preservation and teaching of the law.
But another prophet exposed their sin. He said they neglected justice and the love of God. He said that they honored God with their lips but their heart was far from him; that they left the commandment of God and held to the tradition of men. He claimed that within their hearts were evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.
They had unknowingly come back full circle. Within a generation Jerusalem would again be destroyed and the temple permanently. Never again would it rise. The people would be scattered around the world and a Jewish nation would not return for centuries.
But there is more than a slight twist in this story. For this prophet was the long-awaited Messiah of whom all the other prophets had foretold. This was the Son of David who was the supreme Shepherd-King. And he would bring forth a redemption that could never be lost. He would open the way into the heavenly temple that will never be destroyed. He is the Good Shepherd who lay down his life for his sheep; who raised it up again; who ascended into the heavenly temple to serve as High Priest for his people. He still shepherds his people with an upright heart and guides them with a skillful hand.
As the glory of the Lord moved from Ephraim to Judah, so it moved from Judah to the Church. It is not that Judah is rejected, or even Ephraim, but that the Church encompasses all people from every tribe who follow Jesus Christ, the Shepherd-King. And the temple of earth is not to be found in a geographical location, but in the hearts of all true believers. Surely then the rest of the story is one of faithfulness to God!
Well…, sort of. When we review the history of the church over the last 2,000 years there are wonderful, inspirational stories to tell. And then, there are not-so-good stories – stories of persecution and wars carried out in the name of Christ; stories of immorality, theft, murder, coveting… why, the very things that Jesus spoke of against his generation!
And that leads us to the question raised at the beginning of this message: How did we do this past year in being good witnesses to the glorious deeds of the Lord? Did we keep the command to faithfully pass on to the next generation in word and deed what the Lord has done?
Judging by the spiritual health survey that was taken in March, the answer is “sort of.” We speak often of God’s goodness to us and of his faithfulness. We enjoy coming to worship; we read our Bibles and pray daily. We can see ways that we are growing in spiritual maturity. But…there is still that temper problem, especially with the family; and we did say some things we wish we could have taken back, especially that email we wrote hastily. There was more than one instance of indiscretion, and we suppose what we did with our money could fall under cheating or stealing. Probably some of our behavior could be classified as legalism; and yes, we did do good works thinking they would earn favor with God; and we have to admit there is a bit of pride in our thinking. No, we can’t really say we’ve paid much attention to encouraging the children.
And…I think I’ll stop there. That’s enough of my list; you can add your own. It seems that however much resolved I am the first day of the year to be a good witness for the Lord, I’m back on the last day confessing how much I’ve failed. I’ve come full circle. And yet, I would be a poorer witness if I presented such a picture as the rest of the story.
For the story has never been about the faithfulness of me or you or anyone else. It has never been about how well we have lived up to our potential or the personal reforms we have made. It has never been about our achievements. The story is about…well, let Isaiah tell you what it is about:
9 Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Behold your God!”
10 Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young (Isaiah 40:9-11).
Behold your God! Behold the God who redeems you; the God who shepherds you. You have fallen many times this year, but he has lifted you up every time. And for all your sins, there are surprisingly numbers of times that you have withstood sin because your King shepherded you. There are more times than you know that you were protected from sin because your High Priest interceded for you and his Holy Spirit worked in you. There are times that you can recall and other times you know nothing about in which you served as a good witness for your Lord because of your Shepherd’s skillful hand in guiding you.
That is the rest of the story. You are not destroyed for your sins. Your Shepherd took that punishment. Your guilt is removed forever. The glory of the Lord will not depart from you because the Holy Spirit will not leave you.
And actually, that is not the rest of the story. There is “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.” There is no circle of time dooming us to an endless story of sin and failure. Time is marching on to the day of the Lord’s return when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, when the heavenly Jerusalem will come down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. But there will be no temple in this Jerusalem, for “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22). This will happen because the Lord is faithful to all generations.
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