Back in the day, a radio commentator named Paul Harvey became famous for the way he reported the news. He would remind his listeners of a well-known news item and then he would tell “the rest of the story,” the other side of the story that everyone thought they knew. That’s exactly what we have in Psalm 106. Psalm 106 is like the evil twin of Psalm 105. That previous Psalm told the story everyone knew and loved, the story of God’s faithfulness to Israel. Now Psalm 106 reminds Israel of the other side of that story, the story of Israel’s forgetfulness of God. That pattern of faithfulness and forgetfulness forms the narrative spine of Psalm 106.
Why would the anonymous author of Psalm 106 have gone to the trouble of dredging up that bad news? Well, Israel was in trouble, again, and needed God’s help, again, after having forgotten God, again. Verses like 46 and 47 suggest pretty strongly that Psalm 106 is an early post-Exilic Psalm. Some of the exiled Israelites had come back from Babylon, but many more are scattered among the nations.
Here some leader of Israel (the wording of our introductory verses suggests a Levitical priest) intercedes with God for the return of all the exiles. But that deliverance depended on Israel remembering its sin and returning to the God who has always been faithful. To move Israel to genuine repentance, Psalm 106 recites the checkered history that led to the catastrophe of exile.
The Psalm begins, as so many do, with a call to praise Yahweh because he is good and his love endures forever. That is covenantal language. It is designed to stir up in Israel the kind of trust in God that will give them the courage to approach God again. It was John Calvin, I think, who said that we will only return to God if we believe he will take us back. It isn’t the scourge of the Law that drives us to repentance; it is the promise of the Gospel that lures us back to a God we trust to forgive. So the Psalmist begins his grim story of Israel’s sin with a reminder of the goodness of Israel’s God.
But the Psalmist is deeply aware that telling the old, old story is a solemn task. Thus, he asks, “Who can proclaim the mighty acts of Yahweh, or fully declare his praise?” He doesn’t give a direct answer, but the next verse and the theme of the whole Psalm point us in a helpful direction. First, the preacher must be righteous and just. Second, the teller of the story must remember God. The exact relationship between those two things isn’t clear. Must we remember God in order to do right? Or will doing right keep us from forgetting? It is certain that Israel did not do right because they did not remember God.
The Psalmist knows what it takes to be a faithful preacher, but he also knows that he needs the grace of God to be faithful. So, he prays in the next verses that God will remember him in the very way he is going to ask God to remember Israel. “Remember me, O Yahweh, when you show favor to your people, come to my aid when you save them….” This intermingling of the individual and corporate is instructive. Biblical salvation is never merely individual, but it also never only corporate. Yes, God cares about his people as a whole, but he also cares about each individual. To put it into New Testament terms, it’s never just “Jesus and Me;” there is always the Body of Christ. And it is never just the Body of Christ; Jesus loves each member individually. Having a personal relationship with God in Christ is important, but so is being part of the Body. The Psalmist knows that when he prays for them, he is also praying for himself.
Thus, when he utters those first words of repentance in verse 6, he does so in the first person plural—not them, and not just me, but us. “We have sinned….” He uses three strong words to describe the sin of God’s people—sinned, done wrong, and acted wickedly. Genuine confession, the kind of true repentance that brings people back God and God back to his people must be deep and wide, honest with no holds barred. How often in the story of Israel’s sin (and in our own lives) has repentance been superficial and momentary, followed all too quickly by forgetting and faithlessness. I know that I’m bordering on Calvinistic gloom here, but this is where a careful preaching of Psalm 106 takes us. Our sermons on Psalm 106 shouldn’t leave us there, but plumbing the depths is a crucial step on the way to the glory of gracious redemption.
In the rest of our reading today (verses 19-23), we have one particularly egregious example of Israel’s forgetting of God. Having reminded the exiles of how Israel forgot God even after he had delivered them from Egyptian bondage and had begun to lead them through the wilderness to the Promised Land, our author brings us to the foot of the mountain of God, Horeb. Even though Yahweh had defeated the gods of Egypt in those 10 plagues, Israel “made a calf and worshiped an idol cast from metal.” Our preacher underlines the utter horror, not to mention stupidity, of that sin by emphasizing the difference between the true God and that false God. “The exchanged their Glory (another name for Yahweh) for an image of a bull who eats grass.” Imagine the folly! Worshiping a creature that eats grass instead of the glorious creator of everything!
How could they do that? After all that God had done, how on earth could they do that? Here’s a place to make this old story intensely relevant. After all that God has done for us in Christ, how could we do what we have done in erecting our own false gods? After all God has done in his providential involvement in our little lives, how could we sin in all the ways we have? Don’t let yourself and your people wiggle out of this Psalm with any of that “them versus us” talk. It’s “we have sinned!”
How could we? “They forgot the God who saved them, who had done great things in Egypt, miracles in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.” They forgot, we forget. Isn’t it the case that whenever God’s people sin, the root cause of that sin is forgetfulness? Maybe it’s willful forgetfulness, deliberately putting God out of our minds in order to pursue a course of action that seems good to us. Or maybe it’s inadvertent, preoccupied, mindless forgetting, where we focus on the seen instead of the Unseen God up there on Mt. Horeb. Out of sight, out of mind.
Whether unintentional or deliberate, our forgetfulness does not please God. Indeed, says Psalm 106, it makes our loving God angry. Now, this won’t preach well. Folks today don’t want to hear about the wrath of God. Too many years of being beaten into guilty submission by the threat of God’s wrath has made contemporary churchgoers dismissive of the very idea of an angry God. Furthermore, hasn’t the sacrifice of Jesus solved the problem of God’s wrath against sin? His death was “propitiation,” wasn’t it? God’s wrath has been satisfied by Christ’s death. Again, many modern Christians don’t want to hear such talk either, because it seems too primitive, too bloody. So, as we preach on Psalm 106, we must be aware of the resistance we’ll encounter in our congregations, and even in our own minds. But the wrath of God and the propitiation of that wrath by the sacrifice of Christ is part of the Gospel. “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Romans 5:9)
And such talk is surely a large part of the story told by Psalm 106, as the author calls Israel to repentance in this powerful prayer of intercession. Indeed, says the last verse in our reading, “So [Yahweh] said he would destroy them—had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him to keep his wrath from destroying them.”
My advice to anyone who dares to preach on this Psalm is that you don’t ignore all the talk about God’s wrath. That would be dishonest to the Psalm. More than that, ignoring this harsh stuff could leave people languishing in their sins and wondering how life got so miserable (like Israel sitting by the rivers of Babylon wondering how on earth they got there). Sin is real and destructive, and God’s anger is a biblical reality. So, don’t ignore this dark stuff in Psalm 106.
But don’t leave your people there either. And don’t make that sin and anger the major focus on your sermon either. For all its strong negative language about the perils of forgetting God, Psalm 106 is centrally and finally about the God who remembers his covenant and forgives his faithless people. Verses 43-45 summarize the story. “Many times he delivered them, but they were bent on rebellion and they wasted away in their sin. But he took note of their distress when he heard their cry; for their sake he remembered his covenant and out of his great love he relented.”
Highlight those words, “out of his great love.” That’s the Gospel we need to preach. A more important question than “how could we sin the way we do” is the question “how could God keep delivering us?” There is no other explanation than those 5 words, “out of his great love.”
But don’t forget to emphasize those other 5 words, “when he heard their cry.” While God’s love is free and his grace is always prior to our repentance and faith, we must cry for mercy. Indeed, the one prayer God always hears and answers is that of the tax collector in Luke 18. ”God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Does that mean our rescue from exile depends on our prayer? No, it depends on a Mediator. Moses stood in the breach and pleaded with God for Israel’s life. He was God’s chosen one for that very purpose. The Chosen One, the Anointed One, Christ Jesus stood in the breach, hanging between heaven and earth for us and our salvation. We are not saved by our repentance and faith; we are saved by God’s grace in Christ. Our faith is only “the hand of a beggar reaching out to take the riches of a King.”
That’s all we are, in a sense. But in another sense, we are chosen ones, too. Like Moses, we have been chosen to stand in the breach. Like the author of Psalm 106, we are called to intercede for the exiles, for those who are far from God and wondering what happened to them. We don’t do that from a position of superiority. We are, after all, sinners saved by grace. But we are saved not just to enjoy salvation, but also to serve a sinful world by interceding for everyone. “Save us, O Yahweh our God, and gather us from the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.”
In every church I’ve ever served, there was a table prominently displayed in front of the sanctuary. It was designed by Jesus to keep us from forgetting our invisible Savior and God. He knew very well that when he disappeared from human sight, as Moses did up on Mt. Sinai, his followers would soon be tempted to forget him, in spite of all he said and did for us. So, our merciful Mediator gave us a simple meal to help us remember. “Do this in remembrance of me.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 15, 2017
Psalm 106:1-6; 9-13 Commentary