Knowing a gracious God

A sermon on Psalm 78

Psalm 78 is unusual in at least two ways. First, it is the second longest psalm in the Bible (after Psalm 119); second, none of its 72 verses is addressed to God. It reads like a sermon, not like a prayer or a hymn.

As for its content, Old Testament scholar Richard J. Clifford said, “Few psalms seem, on first reading, to be as irrelevant to modern life as Ps 78.”[1] What, then, are we to make of this distinctive part of God’s word?

It is a psalm of remembrance, where one generation passes on spiritual truths and sacred stories to the next (vv. 1-8). Notice the emphasis on not forgetting God’s deeds, and on keeping his commands.

The psalm recounts some of the high and low points of five centuries of Israel’s history, from the time of Moses to that of David. It reminds all of God’s people of the crucial links between our past, present and future – of God’s grace, judgment, mercy and wisdom.

Psalm 78 had a liturgical purpose as an expression of confidence in God’s grace and power amid human failure. It may also have had a political purpose, as an appeal for national unity, explaining the survival of Judah after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria in 722BC, reinforcing its legitimacy (note the emphasis on Judah, Zion and David, vv. 67-72; cf 2 Kg 17:7; and Hezekiah’s call for unity, 2 Chr 30:1-27, especially vv. 6-7, 9).

But Psalm 78 also had an ethical purpose: “the need to learn from the story of the ancestors a lesson about faithfulness. It is designed not merely to record the past but to change people for the future.”[2]

The grace of God is everywhere. Writer G.K. Chesterton put it like this:

You say grace before meals.  All right.

But I say grace before the play and the opera,

And grace before the concert and the pantomime, 

And grace before I open a book,

And grace before sketching and painting,

Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing,

And grace before I dip pen in the ink.[3]

Yet, as Psalm 78 reminds us, God’s people must never forget his most audacious acts of grace in salvation, and God’s commands or calls to live in particular ways in response to his grace and mercy. Here is a rationale for teaching Sunday school, for serious Bible study, for biblical sermons, for celebrating baptisms and communion.

We must keep telling the story, so that we don’t fall into the traps of ignorance, laziness, and apostasy as ancient Israel did (cf Ps 77:11-12).

The first Christians understood this imperative, as 1 John 1:1 says: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the word of life.”

Psalm 78 offers two parallel reviews, or recitals, of Israel’s history: verses 9-39, and verses 40-72. Both start by recounting God’s grace toward his people, leading them from tyranny to security, from Egypt to Canaan, despite their arrogance and obtuseness, bickering and complaining. See, for example, verses 34-39; and their response, verses 40-43.

One of the enduring lessons of history is that history tends to repeat. People rarely learn from their past, either from their own story, or their national story, or the stories of others, whether recent or ancient. Ancient Israel’s history offers many examples of this. Psalm 78 points to the cycles of rebellion, ruin, repentance and reconciliation (e.g. vv 56-58).

Finally, God does the unthinkable: he completely abandons his people (vv. 60-64). Sin and rebellion have serious consequences. Those who push God out of their lives, either suddenly or slowly, will one day find themselves rejected, pushed out of the life of God. There is a point in time where God’s patience may run out, and he leaves you to reap the reward of your childish pride and autonomy (cf Lam 5:21-22).

And yet, God is love. God’s grace abounds, overwhelming our pretended autonomy, and our hard hearts, and our stubborn wills (see vv. 20-25; 35-39; 71; cf 1 Sam 4-6, especially 4:10-11). We should not only receive but reflect this aspect of the nature and character of God. Writing in Christianity Today, counsellor David Seamands summed up his career: 

Many years ago, I was driven to the conclusion that the two major causes of most emotional problems among evangelical Christians are these: the failure to understand, receive and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness; and the failure to give out that unconditional love, forgiveness and grace to other people . . . 

We read, we hear, we believe a good theology of grace.  But that’s not the way we live.  The good news of the Gospel of grace has not penetrated the level of our emotions.[4]

So let me challenge you, as the psalmist challenges the ancient people of God, to keep telling the great stories of God’s power and grace, and how the universal story merges with your personal story.

And let me challenge you to enjoy and express God’s unconditional grace and mercy to you, to really experience it, and share that experience with others through your own acts of grace and mercy.

And let me remind you that what God did for Israel, he can do for us.

At many points in their national history, Israel had good cause to despair, and give up hope. But God went on being God, and God’s grace kept on flowing, and God’s provision for their needs kept on coming.

And so those living in the days of David and Solomon, and later generations too, could look back over their chequered history, and look around at what God was doing in their own day, and remember that they have a part to play in this grand history.

And there is now a sacred sanctuary (v. 69), where God dwells among his people, where the salvation story is retold, where God’s people are fed and healed and restored.

And there is now a shepherd king (vv. 70-72), who guides and guards his people after God’s own heart.

And in the shadow of the cross, and in view of the empty tomb and the risen Lord Jesus, seated in majesty at God’s right hand in heaven today, we can look beyond our own faults and failures, and tell the ongoing story, linking back to the Garden, and the Exodus, and the Promised Land, and the kingdom, and the temple, and the covenants, and the promise of renewal and fulfilment.

Sermon 635 copyright © 2015 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 13 September 2015. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

[1] Richard J. Clifford, Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), p. 47.

[2] John Goldingay, Psalms. Volume 2: Psalms 42-89 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007),  p. 479.

[3] G.K. Chesterton, quoted in Dudley Barker, G.K. Chesterton: A Biography (Briarcliff Manor, New York: Stein & Day, 1973), p. 65.

[4] Quoted in Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997).  

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