Psalm 106: A History of Failure

Praise the Lord.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his love endures forever.

Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the Lord
    or fully declare his praise?

Blessed are those who act justly,
    who always do what is right.

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Psalm 106

The previous Psalm is a great celebration of YHWH’s grace, of all that God has done for his chosen people, the covenant that YHWH made with Abraham, liberating his people from slavery, rescuing them from their oppressors, providing for them in the wilderness and journeying with them to the land that he had promised.

Psalm 106 begins with a call to praise and to thank the God of the Exodus but actually, for most of the rest of the Psalm, what thanks does God get from the people that he has saved? Absolutely none! 

The majority of the Psalm is a litany not only of ingratitude but of rebellion without a cause. Even though God had saved the Israelites, they ‘soon forgot’ (vv. 13, 21), they set their hearts on false gods (vv. 19, 28, 36) and they sank into a cesspit of wickedness (vv. 37, 38).

They ‘forgot’ but God remembered. Sometimes that remembrance took the form of judgment and there are undoubtedly verses which are troubling and with which we need to wrestle with in the light of God’s revelation in Christ, but it is important to remember that the context of judgment in the Psalm and elsewhere is always that of God’s great love (vv. 43–46).

Psalm 106 is a history of failure. The history of God’s people in the Old Testament is less than glorious. To be honest the history of the church hasn’t always been particularly great either: anti-Semitism, the justification of slavery, support of Apartheid, racism, the oppression of women, neglect of creation, a failure to speak out on behalf of the oppressed… The list could go on. We’re part of that, and that’s why the prayer of confession is such an important part of Christian worship. At best we are, as Martin Luther once said, ‘Simul Justus et Peccator’ – both justified and sinners. 

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer used the phrase ‘cheap grace’ to describe the beliefs of Christians in 1930s Germany who understood God’s grace only as an idea to inform their religious beliefs rather than a dynamic power to transform the whole of their lives. The expression however did not originate with Bonhoeffer but came from Rev. Clayton Powell Sr., the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, one of the oldest African-American Baptist churches in the USA, and the Church that Bonhoeffer had attended while he was a student in New York. When Powell spoke about ‘cheap grace’ he was describing those American Christians who thought that Christianity was just a ticket to a glorious hereafter and had nothing to do with addressing the sins of racism and sexism and poverty that so disfigured American society.

God’s grace is free but it is not cheap. It cost Christ his life. We are not to take God’s grace for granted but often we do. God’s passionate desire is that we let his grace transform us and that we lead lives which reflect his purposes and bring blessing to the world (Romans 12:1). And yet there is a sense in which somehow even our failures and faithlessness shine a spotlight on God’s unconditioned love.  

When we look at the multiple failures of God’s people as outlined in Psalm 106 we might well think if God can forgive all of them, how could it be possible for anyone to ever outrun his grace? That wide mercy, ‘like the wideness of the sea’ (FW Faber) is a source of comfort, confidence and also confession. We don’t need to pretend with God, we don’t need to pretend that we’re better than we are or that we are better than anyone else because we know that ‘There is welcome for the sinner / and more graces for the good; There is mercy with the Saviour; There is healing in His blood’ (FW Faber). And, if we are honest about what we are, then God can transform us into what we are not. No wonder the Psalm begins and ends with a call to worship (vv. 1, 48).