Psalm 78: God is Faithful to the Unfaithful

My people, hear my teaching;
    listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth with a parable;
    I will utter hidden things, things from of old –
things we have heard and known,
    things our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their descendants;
    we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord,
    his power, and the wonders he has done.

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Psalm 78

The previous Psalm was about a desperate man remembering, remembering what God had done for his people in the past and being encouraged in the present to hope in the future. This Psalm is about forgetting and about the consequences of forgetting. Along with Psalms 105 and 106 this song is the story of Israel’s history. It is a stirring anthem about God’s grace and faithfulness, and it is sad song about the ingratitude and unfaithfulness of God’s people.

It has often been said that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, so the song is sung that God’s people would learn from their history and live as his people, doing his will on earth as in heaven (vv. 1–7).

Throughout the Psalm it is clear that there are consequences for those who forget. But that forgetfulness is not the unintended inability to recall which plagues many of us, particularly on Church Quiz nights! Rather it is a deliberate forgetting, a refusal to acknowledge or remember what God has done for his people.

We can swing between two extremes. There is the danger of thinking that because we are saved by grace and because God’s love is unconditioned that we can do whatever we like – Paul encountered this in his ministry (Romans 6:1). The other extreme is to think that God’s love is conditioned on the lives that we live and that we have to earn God’s favour through living a certain type of life – this is also a view that Paul encountered and emphatically rejected (Ephesians 2:8, 9).

Throughout the Bible and here in this Psalm God reaches out to us in his grace, in his unconditioned love. But grace is meant to make a difference to the way we live (2 Timothy 1:9) and if we forget that there are consequences, we can end up hurting both ourselves and others.

The Psalm ends with David’s accession to the throne (vv. 70–72). After so much failure it is David who is depicted in glowing terms as an ideal monarch. It is tempting to be a bit cynical and think that David may have got this Psalm specially commissioned by some sycophantic songwriter. Sadly, David too found it hard to live the way God wanted. His life is also a life of unfaithfulness and forgetting. 

Verses 38 and 39 are central to the Psalm. Despite the failure of God’s people, God was faithful and committed to his purpose of blessing humanity through them. Eventually David also let God down – in spite of his protestations he did not love God with all his heart and he did not love his neighbour as himself. But the God who was faithful to unfaithful Israel would in time come himself in the person of Christ. He is the true Good Shepherd (John 10) who leads his sheep (John 10:3), who provides for them (John 10:9), who protects them (John 10:12–13) and brings them abundant life (John 10:10).