When I read Psalm 78, I can’t help but think about my Sunday School experience years ago. Before we would go off to our separate age-appropriate classes, the whole motley crew of us would gather in the sanctuary for a time of singing. It was my favorite part of Sunday School. And I think it was the most important part, because the singing of our faith made it a part of our lives in an almost visceral way. No wonder believers with dementia can still sing the old songs when memories of almost everything else has faded into fog.
What does any of that have to do with Psalm 78? Well, it was intended to be instruction for the children of Israel. The word maskil in the superscription probably means “instruction,” and the first 4 verses are explicitly about teaching children. Further, the fact that it was composed or perhaps conducted by Asaph suggests that this Psalm was intended to be part of worship, and probably sung. Asaph is identified elsewhere in Scripture as a Levitical choir director. So, it is not a stretch to read Psalm 78 as a song of instruction designed to make the story of God’s ways with Israel a deep part of their children’s lives. When I read this Psalm, I find myself humming that old Sunday School song, “I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.”
Of course, Psalm 78 isn’t about things above and it isn’t directly about Jesus, though the story of Jesus is the fulfillment of the story told in Psalm 78. The story told by this Psalm is much older than the story of Jesus and his love, and this story is much harder to love given its frequent references to God’s fierce anger toward his people. Indeed, Psalm 78 may feel so ancient and angry that modern listeners won’t even listen to a sermon on it. That would be a shame because it is a major Psalm (the second longest in the Psalter) and its sung story is intensely relevant for our fractured, God forgetting culture.
You might help your people pay attention to Psalm 78 by painting a picture of the historical situation in which it was first sung. Some scholars plausibly see hints that it was composed at the time of the divided kingdom, perhaps after the Northern Kingdom had been taken away into exile. The references to Ephraim, the major tribe in the North, and to the fall of the shrine at Shiloh are among those hints.
The northern tribes had fallen because they had forgotten God and drifted off to the idols of their pagan neighbors. Judah was hanging on yet, but in danger of doing the same things her brothers and sisters had done up north. So, Psalm 78 was written for a nation divided and in danger of forgetting the God in whom they said they trusted. If you paint that picture vividly enough, your people might see a parallel to their own contemporary cultural situation.
The lectionary reading for today covers only a fragment of this epic historical Psalm. Verses 1-4 set the scene in Sunday School and verses 12-16 give an extremely brief summary of the main point of the story—God’s miraculous intervention in Israel’s life. The intervening verses continue the point about instructing the children (verses 5-7) and introduce the counter theme about the fathers who not only neglected such instruction, but also forgot about God entirely (verses 8-11). The rest of the Psalm consists of two major stanzas about Israel’s sin and God’s responses (verses 17-39 and verses 40-64). Then there is a concluding stanza about the election of Judah and the selection of David as king.
A sermon on the lectionary reading should emphasize three things. First, Psalm 78 is very direct about our responsibility to teach our children. The instructor here addresses parents, reminding them of what their parents had taught them and urging them to pass on to their children what they had learned. There must be an intergenerational connectivity in the church. Today there is much talk about the various generations that compose our culture—the greatest generation, the Baby Boomers, the Baby Busters, the Gen-Xers, the millennials, and generations yet to be named. It is assumed that these generations have their own stories, songs, passions, interests, and worries. Generation gaps are presumably everywhere. While not denying this cultural phenomenon, Psalm 78 calls us to stay connected by telling the story from generation to generation.
The teacher here uses a couple of interesting words to describe the content of his teaching. “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things, things from of old….” “Parables” is the Hebrew mashal, which means comparisons. Think of Jesus’ parables in which he said, “The Kingdom of God is like….” In Psalm 78 there are two such comparisons. In urging Judah to stay faithful in the instruction of their children, the Psalmist gives two examples from Israel’s history of people who did not do that: “like their forefathers… whose spirits were not faithful to him (verse 8)” and “the men of Ephraim… [who] forgot what he had done (verse 9).” Those historical examples of faithlessness are parables for the faithful remnant.
But the casual observer might not see the parables in history; they would be hidden from those who are uninstructed. Thus, says the teacher, “I will utter hidden things, things from of old….” “Hidden things” is the Hebrew hidot, a word often used in wisdom literature. Only those instructed by the older generation will be wise enough to infer the lessons hidden in the history of their people. So, if we don’t want our children to miss the deep hidden lessons of the past, we must instruct them carefully.
Second, a sermon on Psalm 78 should clearly identify the message we must teach our children: “the praiseworthy deeds of Yahweh, his power, and the wonders he has done (verse 4).” Verse 12 uses a word that summarizes the message: “He did miracles in the sight of their fathers….” That is the heart of biblical religion, whether the Jewish foundation or the Christian completion. God has acted in mighty, often miraculous ways in human history for the sake of his frequently unfaithful covenant people.
The Christian faith is not primarily a philosophical system, a set of ideas that are true, though it certainly leads to that. Nor is it essentially an ethical code, a set of rules about right living, though it clearly teaches such a code. It is centrally the belief that God acts in human history for the salvation of his people. Note that the subject of all the verbs in verses 12-16 is God. Even when his people forget his covenant (verse 10), God does not. And his remembering always leads to his action.
Preaching on the mighty acts of God must be honest, as Psalm 78 is. Sometimes the God who loves us with an everlasting love gets very angry with the sins of his disobedient children. Psalm 78 has ferocious descriptions of what God did to the Israelites when they forgot and wandered away from him. There are consequences for disobedience. That’s part of the story that must be told, even if we would rather skip it as the Lectionary does today.
God cares about obedience. Indeed, that is the practical point of the instruction parents must give their children. Verse 7 concludes that proper instruction will lead to obedience. “Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.” Note carefully that this does not teach works righteousness. It is the Lord who saves by his mighty acts, by his miraculous intervention in our sinful lives. It is ours to trust him. And if we trust him, we will keep his commands. The source of our disobedience, indeed, the center of all sin, is forgetting the God who is part of our lives. When we remember and rely on him, obedience follows naturally. At least that is what we can hope for. It is certainly what God intends when he saves and even disciplines his sinful children.
Third, a sermon on Psalm 78 must emphasize and end with grace and, particularly, with Jesus. With all the warnings about God’s anger against sin and all the instructions to live by his commands, it might be easy to underemphasize grace. In spite of Israel’s repeated sin of forgetting their faithful covenant God and in spite of his anger (cf. verses 59-64), God always, eventually showed his amazing grace. “Yet he was merciful; he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath (verse 38).”
Thus, the long story of God and his people ends in Psalm 78 with the gift of David, “the shepherd of his people [who] shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.” With that happy ending we are pointed ahead to the Son of David, the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his flock. As James Luther Mays puts it in his commentary on Psalm 78. “The last word is the triumph of grace. The people fail, but the failure of the people is not the failure of God. God prevails against faithlessness.” That’s the story we must tell our children. “I love to tell the story of Jesus and his love.”
In a recent issue of First Things, Aaron Kheriaty writes an article titled “Dying of Despair.” It is about the alarming rise of suicide among young people. As many as 17 % of high school students have contemplated suicide, said a recent study, and far too many have actually tried to kill themselves. There are many causes for this “epidemic of premature deaths,” says Kheriaty, but at the root of it all is despair. At the heart of these “deaths of despair” is a loss of meaning and hope. Contributing to this loss of meaning and hope are the breakdown of family and the decline in religious commitment.
As he comments on these societal changes, Kheriaty writes something that connects directly with the story at the heart of Psalm 78. “Sociologists have documented the close connection between the retreat from marriage and declining religious participation…. As a consequence of these changes many Americans have ‘lost the narratives of their lives.’” Psalm 78 is an ancient call to God’s people to preserve and pass on the narrative that gives meaning and hope to people in a fragmented and God forgetting culture. For the sake of our children and our culture, let’s keep telling the story of Jesus and his love, including the introduction to that story in Psalm 78.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 1, 2017
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 Commentary