Psalm 78 lays forth the sins of the Israelites clearly. They were guilty of not remembering the works of the Lord, which are detailed in the psalm – the miraculous works of deliverance from Egypt and provision in the wilderness – miraculous works that they were personal witnesses of. As verse 11 states: They forgot his works and the wonders that he had shown them.
In their forgetfulness they tested God, ever demanding that he prove himself, as though he had not already proven his power and faithfulness; indeed, as though he was beholden to them, rather they to him. Their testing led to outright rebellion, and they turned to idolatry, to false gods. This is a bad indictment, indeed. It reminds one of the description in Romans 1 that traces the downward path of sinful man from sin to ever lower sin.
And yet, the psalm does not conclude with judgment, but rather with redemption. God raises up the righteous servant David to shepherd his people. A surprise ending? Actually no, when we take into consideration the covenant spoken of in verses 10 and 37. It is the concept of covenant that both adds to the guilt of the people and exalts the glory of the Lord.
Let’s look at this covenant spoken of in the psalm.
They did not keep God’s covenant,
but refused to walk according to his law (10).
Their heart was not steadfast toward him;
they were not faithful to his covenant (37).
What is this covenant spoken of? Turn with me to Exodus 20:1-2 where God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, as well as a fuller instruction of the law. And God spoke all these words, saying, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
It is after this remark of the deliverance from Egypt that God gives his law. This deliverance is the basis on which God makes a claim on Israel. Back in chapter 19, verses 4-6, he instructs Moses to say the following to Israel:
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.
And the people understand this and respond accordingly: “All the people answered together and said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do’ ” (v. 8).
It is here at Mount Sinai that Moses mediates a covenant between God and Israel. God has delivered the people from slavery in Egypt so that they can become his holy nation. On the mountain God gives laws for the people to follow and also makes promises to them – to protect and to provide for them. And then he has Moses perform a ratification ceremony. It is described in chapter 24.
Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, "All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do." 4And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. 5And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD. 6And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. 7Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, "All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient." 8 And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, "Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words" (3-8).
What is happening here is that the people of Israel are accepting the terms of the covenant, identifying themselves as belonging to God. Do you understand then the special relationship between God and the people of Israel? God had chosen them from among all the other nations to belong to him. He had delivered them. He had set them apart to be his kingdom of priests, his holy nation. He gives them his law, not only the moral law that would apply to any nation and individual, but special civil and religious laws designed to distinguish them from other nations, and to keep them focused on serving the Lord as their King. In turn, he promises to deliver them into the promised land of Canaan and to provide and bless them in that land. That is the covenant.
That is the covenant broken by Israel. You can see then how much more galling is the rebellion of the people. All sin is rebellion, and all sinners are rebels. But the sin of Israel had the added repugnance of belonging to a people bound by covenant to follow the Lord God. And their sin was not the failing of weakness, but the conscious act of rebelling against the God who had performed wondrous works of deliverance for them. It was the deliberate turning away from their own promises so that they could go their own way. They were covenant breakers.
So here is the question: Why then did God not end his relationship with them? He threatened to. After the fiasco of the golden calf, when the people had turned to a false god even while Moses was on the mountain receiving God’s law, God threatened then to destroy the people and begin a new nation from Moses’ seed. Moses intervened on their behalf, though, when we consider God’s dealings with his people, we can see that Moses was merely playing the role God had given him.
Again, it is not as if God did not give warning. In the setting up of the covenant, God stipulated both blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. Here is an excerpt from a litany of curses in Deuteronomy 28:45: “All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you.”
The full description of curses is rather graphic, and we can see how they were fulfilled over the years and centuries until the fall of the northern tribes to Assyria and of Judah to Babylon. Indeed, Psalm 78 itself speaks of God’s wrath falling on the people in the wilderness and how he eventually rejected Israel once the people had settled in Canaan in the years before a king.
But as we have already noted, Psalm 78 ends on an up-note with God coming to Israel’s aid, rescuing the people from their enemies, and setting up the righteous king David. What’s with God? Is he really like the grandfather who sounds gruff but at heart is really a softy. Is he the type who can get ornery, but can’t quite bring himself to carry out full judgment?
Our answer goes again back to the covenant, but not the covenant mediated through Moses; rather the one made with Abraham, the father of Israel. Three times God made and ratified his covenant with Abraham. The first covenant words occur in Genesis 12:1-3. Let me read it:
Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."
Then again in chapter 15, God enacts the ratification ceremony. He has Abraham bring sacrificial animals, cut them in half, and then place the halves against each other. Then, after the sun goes down, God, through the symbols of a smoking pot and flaming torch, passes through the halves. Finally, in chapter 17, he gives to Abraham the seal of the covenant, namely, circumcision.
We don’t have time to examine all the details of the covenant with Abraham and the covenant through Moses, but I want to point out a couple of significant features. First, in the covenant with Abraham, there are no conditions that carry with them curses if left unfulfilled. There is the requirement in Genesis 17 to have the males circumcised and who are cut off from the covenant if they are not circumcised. But that is failure to identify in the first place with the covenant. There is not the long list of laws to follow, which, if failed to be upheld, will then bring down curses from God on his covenant people. There is no threat of destruction. Actually, there is the clear promise of an everlasting covenant.
Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.
The second feature to note is that the responsibility of keeping the covenant falls on God. Note the repetition of what God will do: “I will make you exceedingly fruitful”; “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring”; “I will give to you and to your offspring…land.” This is a covenant that is about the promises of God to keep his word.
The ratification act in Genesis 15 symbolizes this. In a typical covenant ceremony of the ancient world, the greater king would have the lesser king go through a ratification process that would place on him the obligations to carry out his end of the bargain. It would include the cutting up of animals with the lesser king saying something like, “If I fail to keep the conditions of this covenant, may what happens to the animals happen to me.” The greater king made no such condition for himself.
What ought to have happened in chapter 15 is that Abraham should have been made to pass through those animals. Obligations ought to have been placed on him and curses pronounced if he failed to meet the conditions of the covenant. But God passed through the animals! God placed the obligations of fulfillment on himself! That is the setting of the ceremony. Abraham had just asked God for a guarantee that he would fulfill the promises he had made to Abraham. And instead of striking Abraham down for his insolence, God accommodated him!
Let that sink in for a moment. The great King, the Most High God, puts himself through a ceremony before one of his own creatures to give assurance that he, the Lord God, will fulfill his own word. That ceremony is a sign and a seal that God will keep his covenant promises no matter what happens in the future. And it is because God is a covenant keeper that he many years later will not utterly reject Abraham’s children, even when they fail as covenant keepers. Judgment, as discipline, will come. But always there is deliverance. There is always a redeemer.
Redeemers will come in all shapes and sizes for Israel in her history, but there is one redeemer who rises above the rest, namely King David. It is with David that Psalm 78 ends. David is the shepherd boy chosen by God to be the shepherd-king of God’s covenant people. He becomes, not only a redeemer for the time, but the idealized vision of God’s covenant Redeemer. And it is to be from his lineage that the Redeemer, the ultimate Redeemer will come and deliver his people forever. That Redeemer will be God’s instrument to fulfill his covenant promises.
Now move forward centuries later. A baby is born to a humble priest and his wife. The priest, Zechariah, then prophesies about the role his son John will play in preparing the way for the Lord, i.e, Israel’s redeemer. He begins this way:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
69and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
74that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
You see, Christmas – the birth of Jesus Christ – is the story of God fulfilling his covenant. Zechariah understood this. But even Zechariah would not understand the full implications of what redemption necessitated. Remember, the covenant was a broken covenant – not by God but by his people. And not broken in the sense of repair work needing to be done. It was broken by rebellion, by treason. The covenant sanctions were violated. Justice is demanded. Letting bygones be bygones only adds to injustice. Violating the covenant cannot go unpunished and the punishment is death. That is what the covenant ratification ceremonies signified.
But now go back to the ratification ceremony that God went through before Abraham. It is God who passed through the sacrifices; God who made the vow to remember the covenant to do whatever was necessary to keep that covenant. God would provide the necessary sacrifice to atone for the covenant sins. And through that provision would come redemption.
You know who became the Redeemer and the means by which he redeemed his people. You know the cost. Jesus Christ is the Son of David who fulfilled the covenant obligations, even the obligation to die for the violations of his people. One night, he would hold forth a cup and say to his followers, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Just as he poured out wine to his disciples, so his blood was poured forth on the cross to take upon himself the penalty of the old covenant being broken, and to mediate a new covenant. As Hebrews 9:15 says, “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.”
But you might ask, if you are not a Jew, “What does this have to do with me? I did not belong to the old covenant. I am not of Abraham’s lineage.” But you are. Go back to Genesis, to Abraham. Before God enacted his own ratification ceremony in chapter 15, it is said that Abraham actually did believe the Lord’s promise to him: “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (v. 15). The apostle Paul would later explain the significance of that statement, that salvation is by faith and that Abraham was the father, not so much of those who shared his blood line, but those who shared his faith. As he says in Romans 4:16: “That is why it [the promise] depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.”
I want you to remember that as you enter into a new year. When you received Christ by faith, you demonstrated that you belong to the family of Abraham, that you are a member of his household. When you looked to Christ as your Redeemer, you showed that you belong to the covenant that he has mediated for you. It is a covenant with God the Father that will not be broken, for your Redeemer not only mediated it for you, he has already carried out its conditions. His blood once shed is sufficient for all time.
You do not know what this year holds. But you do know who holds you. It is your Father, not Father Abraham, but your heavenly Father. He is the Father who chose you before the foundation of the world to be his; who established a covenant with his Son to make you his. He is the Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the Father of Moses, the mediator of the old covenant, and the Father of David, the shepherd-king, the covenant redeemer. He is the Father of our Redeemer, our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the heavenly Father, who has given you to his Son, and that Son, our Redeemer, promised in his covenant – the covenant that he sealed with his own blood – that he would never cast you out. With that knowledge go into the new year.
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