Comments On Psalm 78
"Maschil of Asaph. Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old: which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us....... Yet they tempted and provoked the most high God, and kept not his testimonies: but turned back, and dealt unfaithfully like their fathers: they were turned aside like a deceitful bow. For they provoked him to anger with their high places, and moved him to jealousy with their graven images......" (Ps.78:1-3, 56-58)
The Epistle to the Hebrews begins with the greater name, it begins with God; this should command the attention. The great consideration is God Himself, and surely that must be so, especially in the light of the failure of man, and particularly so in the case of the nation of Israel. Psalm 78 draws attention to the time when God took up the nation out of Egypt (vv.11-13, 42-53), through the wilderness (vv.14-41) and even into the land (vv.54-72). It is a very significant fact, and a word of warning to us, that the greatest failure of this nation was, in consequence, when they were in the land. That is a very solemn thing. The greatest failure occurred when they were in the possession of their God given privileges, when they had divine power available to them, and when they were under the divinely appointed leadership in the land flowing with milk and honey. They failed in the wilderness, firstly with the golden calf, and that had its consequences governmentally, and there were many more failures. The emphasis in taking this history up is to show that there is divine resource in the presence of human failure in all situations.
Looking at God's sovereign choice of Abraham helps us to understand this. This is what is taken up in Hebrews 6 where we have God's oath, the unconditional promises made to Abraham. Thus the blessing depends solely upon God Himself. Subsequently they were placed under the law which they said they would keep. This altered the aspect of things. The fulfilment of these promises was now subject to their obedience, and so the whole history of this people, as recounted here, was under those terms. This history emphasises that when it depends upon man there is nothing secured. Every one of us should learn the lesson from this. The time of trial and probation, as shown in Romans 3, supposes that some will claim exception to what God has said, but we are to be reminded in our experiences, that we cannot save ourselves, we are no exception when God pronounces that there is none that doeth good. We may think we are the exception but we only have to live to prove that we must be included in the conclusion of Romans 3, but the fact that some blessings depended upon Israel's obedience, and consequently where there was nothing for man and nothing for God, did not mean that there was any rescinding of the unconditional promises of God to that nation. So in the presence of their failure the time had come for God to assert Himself, to show that He had resource, He was to fulfil those promises even in the presence of a nation of whom it was said so often that they were stiff-necked and rebellious. The apostle Paul summed this up in Romans 10.
We only have to read the book of Numbers (the wilderness book which corresponds to the Epistle to the Hebrews) to learn that the people were taken up in the privileges and lacked appreciation. We find that in Numbers 12 they despised Moses, they despised the land, they despised the manna and they even despised God! This is very solemn. After their failure in regard to their responsibility, refusing to enter the land, God said that their carcasses would be strewn in the dessert. Then chapter 15 opens with God telling Moses to tell the people, "When ye go into the land......" and then we have a list there which goes down half the chapter detailing the burnt offerings, meat offerings and drink offerings they were to offer, showing that there was another aspect which was anticipated when there would be that which would give God pleasure, and provide the occasion for Him to take His people up in a sovereign way in the acceptance and the perfection of another. So we should read Psalm 78 in the light of the New Testament and similarly we can understand the book of Numbers in the light of the New Testament.
"......When God heard this, he was wroth, and greatly abhorred Israel: so that he forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent which he placed among men; and delivered his strength into captivity, and his glory into the enemy's hand. He gave his people over also unto the sword; and was wroth with his inheritance. The fire consumed their young men; and their maidens were not given to marriage. Their priests fell by the sword; and their widows made no lamentation......" (vv.59-64)
Here in the psalm we have one verse after another of Israel's doings and their failure and then we come to the time when they lost the ark to the Philistines. The ark, acacia wood overlaid outside with gold in which was put the tables of stone, Aaron's rod that budded and a pot of manna, was the starting point of God's dealings with Israel; it was the first thing mentioned in connection with the tabernacle (Ex.25). We begin at the brazen altar and, as we progress in our appreciation of God's grace in Christ, it leads us to His thoughts of Christ in regard to the ark, but God begins with the ark and this corresponds to the book of Hebrews which begins with God, and shows that, in the presence of the failure of the nation, His resource is in that glorious Person. What a solemn state of affairs losing the ark to the Philistines was, it would prevent them from having the annual Day of Atonement, there could be no forgiveness of sins, no function of the priesthood, no sin offering. This was the consequence of their rejection of God. The losing of the ark showed the complete ruin of man in responsibility, and I repeat, this was after being brought into the land. We get then a great relief which corresponds to how God takes this matter up in Christ in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the One who has made by Himself purification for sins and sat down (Heb.10:12), and who has brought many sons to glory (Heb.2:10); the competency is in the Captain. So in that which actually happened in their losing the ark, God took the matter up showing how sovereignly by a divine prerogative He acts even when man has failed.
That is just what we have in natural life where death ends all human efforts, and so Christ went to where we really were, in the place of death and the place of the curse. It was such a Person as He who came there, and let us note that in Hebrews 2 where we have the Manhood side stressed, we still cannot lose sight of the Deity side, for "For he does not indeed take hold of angels by the hand, but he takes hold of the seed of Abraham". This statement is an attestation that the Person is none other than God Himself. To change His station, as it were, to go into a lower station is not the province of any one of God's creatures, it is true of none but God. Here it is in view of the fact that where the children were found He partook of flesh and blood. "Since therefore the children partake of blood and flesh, He also, in like manner, took part in the same, that through death He might annul him who has the might of death, that is, the devil, and might set free all those who through fear of death during the whole of their life were subject to bondage" (Heb.2:14-15). This is an allusion to this resource that God has in Christ.
"......Then the Lord awaked as one out of sleep, and like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine. And he smote his enemies in the hinder parts: he put them to a perpetual reproach......" (vv.65-66)
This is a remarkable statement. It is as though He were insensible or indifferent to the whole matter, and no doubt His people in that predicament could conclude that God had forsaken them. We had this assumption stated in Ezekiel 8:12, "evil men say the Lord seeth us not; the Lord hath forsaken the earth", but blessed be God, in these verses we have the divine prerogative to act at a time when man has wasted himself like the prodigal son. Like Israel we have got ourselves into the place of this governmental judgment, but "the Lord awaked as one out of sleep, and like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine" and He will destroy His enemies. This is what the cross means, this is what is meant in spoiling principalities and powers and making a show of them openly (Col.2:15), this is the Lord Jesus, not taken by wicked hands, but drawing His enemies and all His haters into open conflict with a view to routing them completely, to make a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it. God's resource is in Christ.
"......Moreover he refused the tabernacle of Joseph, and chose not the tribe of Ephraim: but chose the tribe of Judah, the mount Zion which he loved. And he built his sanctuary like high palaces, like the earth which he hath established for ever. He chose David also his servant, and took him from the sheepfolds: from following the ewes great with young he brought him to feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance. So he fed them according to the integrity of his heart; and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands." (vv.67-72)
This refusal is another divine prerogative, God can and did refuse the tabernacle of Joseph, and God can and did choose David over Ephraim, God does what He pleases, and God is pleased to show this consideration for the sinful creature in the sending of Christ our Saviour into the world and to act in this way for us. Death was a reality for Him, He went lower than any living person. The extremes of suffering and shame and glory meet in that one Person, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the knowledge of that glorious Person is sufficient to keep us above all trials, pressure and difficulties. If we keep our eyes on Him, He is sufficient, there is not any uncertainty to face. So we praise God that in spite of all our failings, He has His resource in our glorious Saviour, as typified in His choice of David.
David recovered the ark just as the Lord Jesus will recover everything for God in view of handing it to God. He recovered us, but He will recover everything that is to be reconciled, and, even in the realm of the judged, every knee will have to bow, and all heavenly beings, earthly beings and infernal beings will have to admit that everything that God has done He has done right (Phil.2). How we praise God for this and how fitting it is that it is at the name of Jesus that every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess Him as Lord. What a glorious theme we are occupied with in the Epistle to the Hebrews. In David we have an allusion to the One whom God anticipates, and surely we can see Him in God's choosing by divine prerogative, as well as His refusing of man altogether and His reliance solely upon the One anticipated, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what we have in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2, Christ presented as the divine resource in wisdom and power, the One by whom God will effect everything, the matters of judgment and blessing will be taken by Him. It is in the communion of that Person that we are led into and we enjoy these things not by the word of Scripture alone. Let us see to it that we act in self-judgment in regard to our hearts day by day, moment by moment, as often as ever we breathe. This matter of self-judgment is essential if we are going to get any progress whatever in reading the Scriptures, for man is ruled out by the cross, and Christ is everything. May the Lord encourage us in our time together for His name's sake.