I don’t recall where I heard it, but it has stuck with me ever since. I don’t recall whether a person spoke this word of exhortation to me or I read it somewhere. What I remember is that ever since I have tried to embrace it in every area of my life. The exhortation was this: don’t just learn from the successes of others; learn from their mistakes, too.
We often see the positive injunctions for how we ought to live, usually in the form of some click-bait online: “Nine habits of the super-wealthy” or we read about the determined efforts of an athlete who succeeds long after most his age have retired. We’re encouraged to emulate their positive habits. Occasionally we’re told to reject some negative things, too, such as “don’t eat these five foods”, but rarely are we presented with failures of others as an exemplar for how we ought to live. Consider, then, Psalm 78—the second longest Psalm in the Bible. It begins with a call to listen up:
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth! I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.Psalm 78:1–4 ESV
The psalm begins with a warning that “dark sayings from old”—the nitty-gritty stuff that most of us would prefer to not hear about—will be spoken of but so will “the glorious deeds of the LORD”. The psalm immediately gets to the dark sayings.
He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.Psalm 78:4–8 ESV
There is the call to positive behavior: set your hope in God and don’t forget his works. See also the negative instruction: don’t be like that previous generation who was unfaithful to God. In verses 12–55 the psalm recounts the unfaithfulness of the Exodus generation, the very people who had seen and experienced God’s direct, miraculous work in rescuing them from Egypt. Though God gave them manna from heaven and meat without limit, though they had received blessing upon blessing from God,
In spite of all this, they still sinned; despite his wonders, they did not believe.Psalm 78:32 ESV
Even a cursory reading of the book of Exodus reveals the failures of that generation. The call in this psalm is to learn from their example—from their bad example. However, later generations failed to pay attention. In verses 55–64 the failures of yet another generation, this of the generation near the end of the period of the judges when God had settled the people in the land of Israel, are on display.
He drove out nations before them; he apportioned them for a possession and settled the tribes of Israel in their tents. Yet they tested and rebelled against the Most High God and did not keep his testimonies, but turned away and acted treacherously like their fathers; they twisted like a deceitful bow. For they provoked him to anger with their high places; they moved him to jealousy with their idols.Psalm 78:55–58 ESV
Instead of rejecting the failures of a previous generation, they embraced them and made them their own. As you know, the psalms were written for corporate worship. Can you imagine singing a song with 72 verses that recount the failures of previous generations and the anger and discipline of God upon those generations? Over and over again the psalm recounts the myriad failures of Israel, even though it begins by declaring it will proclaim “the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done”. We read that God “was full of wrath; a fire was kindled against Jacob; his fierce anger rose against Israel” (v. 21) and “the anger of God rose against them, and he killed the strongest of them and laid low the young men of Israel” (v. 31) and “he made their days vanish like a breath, and their years in terror” (v. 33). We read, “When God heard, he was full of wrath, and he utterly rejected Israel. He forsook his dwelling at Shiloh, the tent where he dwelt among mankind” (vv. 59–60). Then the psalm ends on a strangely positive note:
He rejected the tent of Joseph; he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim, but he chose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion, which he loves. He built his sanctuary like the high heavens, like the earth, which he has founded forever. He chose David his servant and took him from the sheepfolds; from following the nursing ewes he brought him to shepherd Jacob his people, Israel his inheritance. With upright heart he shepherded them and guided them with his skillful hand.Psalm 78:67–72 ESV
In a psalm recounting Israel’s many historical sins, David is presented as the recipient of God’s goodness, the very same David who was a murderer and who committed grave sexual sin, against God and against Bathsheba. Those who read and sang this psalm knew exactly the sort of man David was. Yes, he was called “a man after God’s own heart” yet his sins are on full display in the Scriptures.
The question in my mind is why on earth is this a song written for corporate worship? As we saw in my article titled, “Good Worship Music“, good worship music does not ignore our lived reality and experience. Rather, it includes our lived reality and experience but in light of God’s mercy and grace. The truth is Psalm 78 is not really about Israel’s sins and ongoing rebellion against God. It is not about David’s sins and rebellion against God. The psalm is highlighting the mercy and grace of God, for he chose David to be king of Israel. He called Israel out of Egypt. He blessed Israel in the land. Though they all sinned against him and failed to heed the warning of prior generations, God’s character is such that he honors his own word and keeps his own promises. His covenant is dependent on his faithfulness, not ours. By highlighting Israel’s unfaithfulness, Psalm 78 highlights the even greater faithfulness of our God.
This psalm is a call for us to heed the example of those who have gone before. We should emulate their good behavior and we must reject their sinful behavior and thoughts and attitudes. At the end of the day, however, we must rest in the overriding truth on display in this psalm: God is faithful, even when we are not. This is why we must participate in the communal life of the church, calling one another to faithfulness, both by embracing positive spiritual disciplines and by rejecting the sinful examples of those who came before us. If all of life is to be an act of worship (see Romans 12:1), then Psalm 78 is a great song of worship.