Summary: Our passage will explain why God remains faithful, and what he has done to overcome the faithlessness of his people.
Psalm 78:38-39 Yet God
12/28/08 D. Marion Clark
Psalm 78 opens with a determined declaration to tell of the Lord’s glorious deeds to the next generation. Even so, the very determination arises out of the failure of God’s people to do that very thing. Most of the psalm presents the story of how the Israelites failed time and again to be faithful to their God. Their problem, as spelled out in verses 9-11 is that they forgot what God had done for them. Fortunately for Israel, God proves to be faithful despite their faithlessness. Our passage this morning will explain why God remains faithful, and what he has done to overcome the faithlessness of his people.
Let’s review the narrative of Psalm 78. The psalmist opens with his intention. He is going to present the “glorious deeds of the Lord” (v. 4) for the next generation to hear. Why? So that they will “set their hope in God” (v. 7). He does not want them to be like their ancestors who forgot the works of God and who rebelled against him. The rest of the psalm, then, interweaves God’s works and wonders with the rebellious response of the people. God performs great acts of deliverance and provision, and mostly what he gets in return is whining and rebellion. He punishes the people with mighty works. They repent (a little) and then go back to their ways. It doesn’t look like we are moving toward a happy ending, but the story takes a turn for the better when the psalmist recounts how the Lord raises up his servant David to shepherd his people.
Just in time too. This is one of those rescues-in-the-nick-of-time stories. God had “utterly rejected Israel” (59). He had given “his people over to the sword and vented his wrath on his heritage” (62). But then he “awoke as from sleep” (65) and “put his adversaries to rout” (66). The question for us is Why? Why did God, yet again, come to the rescue of a people who time and time again rebelled; who time and time again complained and did as they pleased; who time and time again reneged on their promises to change.
That is the question our text answers:
38 Yet [God], being compassionate,
atoned for their iniquity
and did not destroy them;
he restrained his anger often
and did not stir up all his wrath.
39 He remembered that they were but flesh,
a wind that passes and comes not again.
Let’s break this text down:
“Yet God.” That phrase sets forth at the beginning that if anything is to be done to change the downward spiral of the Israelites, God would have to be the one to act. Look at the two previous verses.
36 But they flattered him with their mouths;
they lied to him with their tongues.
37 Their heart was not steadfast toward him;
they were not faithful to his covenant.
All they were doing was digging their graves deeper. Two other times “yet” appears in the psalm but followed by the Israelites:
16 He made streams come out of the rock
and caused waters to flow down like rivers.
17 Yet they sinned still more against him,
rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
55 He drove out nations before them;
he apportioned them for a possession
and settled the tribes of Israel in their tents.
56 Yet they tested and rebelled against the Most High God
and did not keep his testimonies…
There were times when the Israelites behaved better, but the consistent pattern was turning back to their old ways. They could not reform themselves, whatever the reason. It may be that many tried, but the trials or the temptations of life were too great. Verse 34 says “they repented and sought God earnestly.” But verse 36 indicates a bit of hypocrisy in their efforts. Whatever the reason, good intentions or not so good intentions, they could not keep up their end of the bargain. If rescue was to come, “yet” had to be followed by “God.”
“Yet God, being compassionate.” Of all the attributes of God, this is the very one the Israelites needed. Thankfully for them, the line did not read, “Yet God, being just.” Justice is just what they could not handle. It would have been just for God to destroy them. True justice does not give second chances. God had already given numerous chances for them to change. As the holy, just God who cannot abide sin, it was more than his prerogative to destroy a people who continuously sinned in all the different ways it is possible to sin against God. They rebelled, they committed idolatry, they refused to believe God even as he was delivering them by miraculous deeds from slavery, they broke all the commandments of the law that they swore to uphold. Yet God chose to deal with them out of his compassion.