Psalm 78 opens with a determined declaration to tell of the Lord’s glorious deeds to the next generation. Even so, the very determination arises out of the failure of God’s people to do that very thing. Most of the psalm presents the story of how the Israelites failed time and again to be faithful to their God. Their problem, as spelled out in verses 9-11 is that they forgot what God had done for them. Fortunately for Israel, God proves to be faithful despite their faithlessness. Our passage this morning will explain why God remains faithful, and what he has done to overcome the faithlessness of his people.
Let’s review the narrative of Psalm 78. The psalmist opens with his intention. He is going to present the “glorious deeds of the Lord” (v. 4) for the next generation to hear. Why? So that they will “set their hope in God” (v. 7). He does not want them to be like their ancestors who forgot the works of God and who rebelled against him. The rest of the psalm, then, interweaves God’s works and wonders with the rebellious response of the people. God performs great acts of deliverance and provision, and mostly what he gets in return is whining and rebellion. He punishes the people with mighty works. They repent (a little) and then go back to their ways. It doesn’t look like we are moving toward a happy ending, but the story takes a turn for the better when the psalmist recounts how the Lord raises up his servant David to shepherd his people.
Just in time too. This is one of those rescues-in-the-nick-of-time stories. God had “utterly rejected Israel” (59). He had given “his people over to the sword and vented his wrath on his heritage” (62). But then he “awoke as from sleep” (65) and “put his adversaries to rout” (66). The question for us is Why? Why did God, yet again, come to the rescue of a people who time and time again rebelled; who time and time again complained and did as they pleased; who time and time again reneged on their promises to change.
That is the question our text answers:
38 Yet [God], being compassionate,
atoned for their iniquity
and did not destroy them;
he restrained his anger often
and did not stir up all his wrath.
39 He remembered that they were but flesh,
a wind that passes and comes not again.
Let’s break this text down:
“Yet God.” That phrase sets forth at the beginning that if anything is to be done to change the downward spiral of the Israelites, God would have to be the one to act. Look at the two previous verses.
36 But they flattered him with their mouths;
they lied to him with their tongues.
37 Their heart was not steadfast toward him;
they were not faithful to his covenant.
All they were doing was digging their graves deeper. Two other times “yet” appears in the psalm but followed by the Israelites:
16 He made streams come out of the rock
and caused waters to flow down like rivers.
17 Yet they sinned still more against him,
rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
55 He drove out nations before them;
he apportioned them for a possession
and settled the tribes of Israel in their tents.
56 Yet they tested and rebelled against the Most High God
and did not keep his testimonies…
There were times when the Israelites behaved better, but the consistent pattern was turning back to their old ways. They could not reform themselves, whatever the reason. It may be that many tried, but the trials or the temptations of life were too great. Verse 34 says “they repented and sought God earnestly.” But verse 36 indicates a bit of hypocrisy in their efforts. Whatever the reason, good intentions or not so good intentions, they could not keep up their end of the bargain. If rescue was to come, “yet” had to be followed by “God.”
“Yet God, being compassionate.” Of all the attributes of God, this is the very one the Israelites needed. Thankfully for them, the line did not read, “Yet God, being just.” Justice is just what they could not handle. It would have been just for God to destroy them. True justice does not give second chances. God had already given numerous chances for them to change. As the holy, just God who cannot abide sin, it was more than his prerogative to destroy a people who continuously sinned in all the different ways it is possible to sin against God. They rebelled, they committed idolatry, they refused to believe God even as he was delivering them by miraculous deeds from slavery, they broke all the commandments of the law that they swore to uphold. Yet God chose to deal with them out of his compassion.
Let’s consider this term, compassionate. In English it denotes a tender sympathy towards those who are suffering. The Hebrew term typically is used of the feelings someone in a greater position has for another person in a lesser position. It is used, for example, of a mother’s regard for her children. We can easily see the application for God as the greater being and the Israelites as the lesser beings. But what about this suffering idea? After all, the depiction is not of a suffering people, but of a rebellious people. Their very problem is that they refuse to recognize what all God has done to alleviate their suffering. They downplay what they have. They want more; they want better.
Verse 39 reveals what it is about them that draws out God’s compassion: “He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and comes not again.” That thought touches the eternal God, the one for whom “a thousand years…are as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night” (Psalm 90:3-4). Perhaps he had read Ecclesiastes and appreciated the toil, the struggle to live a meaningful life in the face of one’s mortality. Maybe he underlined that remark in 2:11: “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”
Whatever the case, the just God turned out to be a compassionate God who took mercy on the frailty of man. And it is that frailty that may be the point. After all, the verse does not say that God remembered the difficulties life threw at them, but that they themselves were but flesh. They passed away quickly.
Let’s go back up to verse 38 to see what God’s compassion led him to do, or rather not to do. Skip the first phrase for a moment. God did not destroy them; he restrained his anger often and did not stir up all his wrath.” In other words, he did not give them what their behavior deserved. He did not mete out the full just punishment for their sins. For understand that is what is meant by God’s wrath.
God is not like us when it comes to anger. We get angry for wrong reasons or we go overboard in our anger. And so Scripture regularly calls on us to restrain our anger. But God, because he is just, reserves his anger only for what sin deserves. He doesn’t “have a bad day” that makes him lose his temper. He doesn’t need a cup of coffee to think straight. Therefore, to restrain his anger, to hold back from stirring up all his wrath is for God to refrain from completing justice.
Wait a minute. Did I get that right? Because the implication is that, if God refrains from completing justice, then God is not being just. Think this through. We read a passage like this and think, “How nice of God to overlook the Israelites’ sin.” I was watching the classic movie Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Kris Kringle is going through the naughty and nice list. He stops soon and says, “I guess they’re all nice.” What a nice thing to do.
But let’s move to a court scene. A murderer appears in court. The judge finds the accused to be guilty. Indeed, it turns out the man is a serial killer and thief. But the judge also sees that the poor fellow has had a tough life, and he feels compassion for him. So he restrains his just wrath and gives the murderer a couple of years in jail. Would we applaud the judge for his compassion? Would we not rather reproach him for being unjust? If God truly is over the universe; if he is the Creator, then he must also be the judge responsible for the moral system. If he is truly holy and righteous, he must do something about sin; he cannot shrug off our sins and remain just. So what does he do?
He does what the opening phrase says he does: he “atoned for their iniquity.” If you are reading from the KJV, you will see the term “forgiven,” rather than “atone.” God does forgive, but “atone” helps us to see that God’s forgiveness is not a mere matter of shrugging off sin. He doesn’t merely say to let bygones be bygones.
So, again, what does he do? How does God atone for the iniquity of his people? Here it does involve holding back from his full wrath, as we have seen. But the psalm goes on to make clear that the people’s iniquity continued and that God’s punishment continued. And though it is not in this psalm, the prophets make clear that a final Day of Judgment would come in which the full consequences of sin would be meted out. God can forgive and overlook sin for so long. The day of reckoning must come, and living under such a cloud is not a way for a people. How much good does it do a child for a mother to give him a “time out” for misbehaving and then adds, “wait till your father comes home”?
No, God doesn’t need to merely put off punishment; rather he must come up with a way to deal with sin fully without destroying the sinner. He provides a system by which outwardly atonement can be enacted. He provides the sacrificial system. Both individually and corporately the people could sacrifice on the altar animals who serve as substitutes for the sinners. But even that is no more than a stop-gap measure. As the writer in Hebrews notes, such sacrifices “can never take away sins” (10:11).
But then, those sacrifices serve another purpose other than to stall punishment. They serve to point to the sacrifice, the method of atonement that really will do the job. Again, God would have to provide the sacrifice. Abraham unknowingly speaks of this to his son Isaac on that dreadful day in which he thought he would be sacrificing his son on an altar. When Isaac asks the whereabouts of the sacrificial lamb, Abraham answers, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:8). Years later, the prophet Isaiah would prophesy about that lamb:
4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people? (Isaiah 53:4-8)
More years later, that lamb would come. John the Baptist spotted him and cried out, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). That lamb would allow himself to be led to the slaughter and be offered on the altar of a cross. And on that cross, God would lay on his Son the iniquity of us all. God would atone fully for our sins. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). The Greek verb for “propitiation” is the same Greek verb used in the Greek version of our Psalm for “atone.”
This is God’s solution for atonement. Remember the quandary – how can a just God show forgiveness without becoming unjust? The apostle Paul explains in Romans 3:22-26:
For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Verse 25 near the end speaks of the quandary: “in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” like those in Psalm 78. What then about righteousness? How could God be righteous and do so? More to the point, how could sinners ever attain the righteousness necessary to avoid judgment?
The answer? Jesus! First, he lived a righteous life and thereby proved himself to be the necessary lamb without blemish who could be sacrificed. He then willingly took upon himself our iniquity along with the guilt and bore the punishment due our sins. God’s wrath was meted out. Justice was served. But more took place. Not only were our sins transferred to Jesus, but his righteousness was transferred to us so that we who place our faith in Christ would be covered by his righteousness and so be justified. As one great hymn explains, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”
The cursed series of sin, punishment, sin, punishment was broken. Is there still sin? Of course. We give proof of that every day. But sin leading to death is no longer the story line. Rather, the theme is God’s grace shown us everyday in Christ. “As sin reigned in death,” explains Romans 5:21, “grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
So, let me ask, How closely does the experience of the Israelites match yours? Are you like them? You believe in God. You know how good he has been to you. You want to obey his laws, but no matter how determined you are to be faithful…well, you forget what he has done for you and before you know it, you are living the same old self-consumed way. You fail again and again and again. And you know that sooner or later God’s punishment will catch up with you. Some day, Dad’s going to come home.
This is your story, yet…yet God. Remember, yet God, being compassionate has made atonement for sin. There is but one thing we are called to do. Believe him. He has sent his Son, out of love, to atone for our sin. Believe him, trust him. That is what it means to have faith in Christ Jesus. Take him at his word, and you will be surprised at that change in your life. That’s the crazy part about this atonement. It is by giving up on yourself to make change that leads to great changes being made in you by God. When your hope really is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness, then you will find even your besetting sins losing their grip on you. What a difference it makes when the cloud of punishment is lifted and the sunshine of grace comes pouring in.
To you who have made such a profession of faith…shame on you! Not for failing to live a good life (though you could do better), but for failing to take God at his word. He has atoned for your sin. Christ Jesus has once and for all made the sufficient sacrifice for you. The cloud of judgment is gone. Why do you still carry umbrellas? Why do you keep expecting rain when the sunshine of grace is upon you? Why do you keep watching the weather station looking for storms of judgment when God has promised you his mercy?
You talk about what you have done or not done. “Woe is me, I failed again.” “How can I still be saved when I’ve done such and such?” Shame on you for forgetting the glorious deeds of your Lord, who has won your redemption, who has won your everlasting acceptance.
Do you see what I am getting at? It’s not about us. It’s about God. It’s not about our faithfulness. It is about his faithfulness. And here is the deal. If we will trust his faithfulness, then we will actually grow in our own faithfulness. If we will put our hope in the blood and righteousness of Christ, then we will mature in righteousness, even to the point of making our own sacrifices.
Do you understand? Our right standing before God is not about God responding to us, but us responding to God. It is being a young Isaac, who trusts his father when he is told that God will provide the lamb. Well, the Lamb has been provided. And even now that Lamb is serving as our High Priest, not to make more sacrifices for us, but to make intercession for us. He will remain faithful, as will his Father.
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