“When He killed them, then they sought Him, and returned and searched diligently for God; and they remembered that God was their rock, and the Most High God their redeemer. But they deceived Him with their mouth, and lied to Him with their tongue. For their heart was not steadfast toward Him, nor were they faithful in His covenant. But He, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; and often He restrained His anger, and did not arouse all His wrath. Thus He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and does not return” (Psalm 78:34-39). Is this not the story of man’s sinfulness? Through punishment and discipline our souls must pass, but when the relaxation comes our souls fall right back into their old habits!
I would like to look at Psalm 78:34-39, noticing the contrasting nature of God and man. Compared to the ever-loving God of our fathers, mankind is filled with hatred and deceit. While our Lord is eager to forgive, we are so often eager to take advantage of that mercy. Jehovah is perfect, but sinful man is cursed with sin. In these comparisons, the mercy of God is made perfect. Just as the apostle wrote, “Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners, among whom I am the foremost. And yet for this reason I found mercy, in order that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience, as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16).
Psalm 78:34-35 – “When He killed them, then they sought Him, and returned and searched diligently for God; and they remembered that God was their rock, and the Most High God their redeemer.”
God: Consistent Man: Inconsistent
Of course, the “them” in these verses is Israel. In its unfaithfulness, the nation of God’s people had left their Lord with little choice but swift punishment – a task that God never desired to do (on the contrary, see Matthew 23:37), but that He promised would be the result of unrighteousness. The people knew what the stakes were, they were never kept in the dark about the potency of the wrath of Jehovah. Deuteronomy 30:19-20 makes it clear that God set before His people a curse and a blessing, and wholeheartedly encouraged them to choose life. Death, however, was what these obstinate people often met after committing numerous deeds of sedition and blasphemy, idolatry and all kinds of wickedness (1 Samuel 12:9-11). Death was the end result of Korah’s rebellion (Numbers 16). A great plague was sent to the Israelites when they played the harlot with the daughters of Moab in Numbers 25:9. The people were defeated badly at battle after battle because they did not seek the counsel of God. Finally, death awaited many of the Hebrews still left in Judah before, during, and after the great invasion by the Babylonians. It is sad that death is the only thing ever seemed to speak to these stubborn people – that they never followed God unless a swift punishment was their alternative.
Do we know folks like this? Are we like this? Some people never choose God with their whole hearts, but only feign real devotion when they know that the alternative is undesirable. Some say, “Well, I only want to be a Christian to avoid going to Hell.” And while Hell is certainly a reasonable state to fear, it should not be the primary motivation behind obedience to God. “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). Notice that Paul never explained that the goal of his instruction was to instill fear into his listeners, to scare them into obedience, or to encourage insincere faith – indeed, faith that is not based on the love of God (that is, the fear of Hell) is far from sincere.
“Then they sought Him, and returned and searched diligently for God.” Many believers get stuck in a cycle of ups and downs, righteousness and unrighteousness. They obey with such fervor, as our Lord puts it so well in His comparison of them to the seed in the rocky soil (Matthew 13:20-21), but when the cares of the world creep in, or the temptations pull them away, they give in and fall back into sin. As soon as they need something from God, though, they return to the church and repent. When the need vanishes, so do they, until they need God again. This is a dangerous way to live, though, because we do not know when death will find us (Ecclesiastes 9:11), or when God will finally come to us and say, “You fool, your soul is required of you this very night” (Luke 12:20). God is not an emotionless vending machine that can be beckoned at any time of day and ignored the rest of the time. He will not tolerate the person who goes back and forth between sin and righteousness.
I like the second verse of our text. “And they remembered that God was their rock, and the Most High God their redeemer.” O how quickly the fool forgets! It is almost comical the way some people forget God and suddenly remember Him. “Oh yeah, I remember God now. He was the One who rescued me, and comforted me in my darkest hour.” It seems so casual the way some people, especially the Israelites at times, suddenly remember God and return to Him.
Psalm 78:36 – “But they deceived Him with their mouth, and lied to Him with their tongue.”
God: Honest Man: Full of lies
This is a scripture very similar to Hosea 11:12, “Ephraim surrounds Me with lies, and the house of Israel with deceit; Judah is also unruly with God, even against the Holy One who is faithful.” Do we ever deceive God with our mouths and lie to Him with our tongues? Indeed, every time we sin we lie to Him and every time we make an empty promise we deceive Him. So many people make grand promises to God and proudly proclaim their loyalty to Him after a lifetime of sin, but fall away so quickly and break every one of those oaths. Our baptism is an oath, in fact. It is the symbol of our promise to God to be obedient, and our humble compliance to His plan of salvation. The communion is another promise that we make weekly. It is a remembrance of the oath that we gave on the day we were saved. Paul writes, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:26-27). If we profane that act, though, by falling away, partaking of it inappropriately, or abusing the privileges that go along with participation in its observance, then we essentially lie to God.
Regarding broken vows, the preacher explains, “When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it, for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay” (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5). Solomon is not saying, however, that we should never make promises to God, but that broken promises do us no good. Do we really want to admit that we are deceiving and lying to the Father with our useless vows? One noteworthy example of this idea is found in Matthew 21:28-31, in which a man has two sons. He asks the first son to help him in the field, to which the lad promptly promises his hands. The second son, however, rejects his father’s request and leaves. As it turns out, the son who promised to help never fulfilled that promise, and the disobedient son ended up feeling guilty and working very hard. Which kind of person are you? Oh, how many Christians make such promises to God! Especially think about our brothers and sisters who are not as faithful to worship as they ought to be. We may call them over and over again, imploring them to obey their duty (Hebrews 10:25), but it sometimes does no good. They will say, “Oh, boy! I’ll be there at church on Sunday, front and center. I promise I’ll make it to worship this time!” But do they show up? Do they keep those promises? Look closely at the words of Hebrews 10:23, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He whom promised is faithful.” When God makes promises to us, He always keeps them. He is always faithful and unwavering in His word. Are we? Compared to other arenas of this life, it is absolutely amazing how much grace we have in God. If we make promises to our bosses, teachers at school, or friends in the neighborhood, how much promise-breaking to they generally put up with? The fact that there is no immediate penalty for missing worship services sometimes dulls the significance of our absence “every now and then.” But we have to realize that the Lord will not put up with deception forever. He will not allow us to lie to Him perpetually.
Psalm 78:37-38 – “For their heart was not steadfast toward Him, nor were they faithful in His covenant. But He, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; and often He restrained His anger, and did not arouse His wrath.”
God: Compassionate Man: Unfaithful
Again, we can learn a lot of lessons through the comparison between God and man. How do we reach a point when our hearts are not steadfast toward God, or when His covenant is loathsome to us that we become unfaithful? At the root of the problem is man’s innate desire to improve, revolutionize, and modify everything he can (Deuteronomy 32:15-18). We get bored – it can be put no other way than that. We get bored with a particular car so we sell it and get a new one. Many unfaithful men and women get bored with their spouses and commit adultery. Members of any particular religious group get bored with the ways things “have always been done” and want a modern-day revolution. When we stop caring about authority (Biblical or otherwise) we become susceptible to boredom.
The problem that so many people face, though, is that they live for finding the “new” things in religion. They want to be on the cutting edge of the latest religious fashion trend, writing the newest books, revolutionizing the old philosophies, or implementing the most modern outreach programs and religious gimmicks. Some go so far as to say they want “new” revelation from God. Some well-known religious figures write books with titles like “A New Christianity For A New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying And A New Faith Is Being Born” (by John Shelby Spong). They may even add unbiblical doctrines, claiming that they are newest way to look at Christianity. Entire congregations take to the idea of novelty; one young religion, for example, calls itself “the New Church” and claims to have a “new Presence” and a “new vision” for the way religion ought to be. In the end, though, we just fall into the trap of losing our steadfastness. Instead of “looking to the ancient paths,” so many Christians look to the future. “Thus says the Lord, ‘Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; and you shall find rest fro your souls. But they said, “We will not walk in it”’” (Jeremiah 6:16). Also see Proverbs 22:28. All of these novel Christian ideas are the complete opposite of what God intended. The restoration movement of the nineteenth-century sought to look backward to find out the way things ought to be. Early church pioneers fought hard battles to convince others that the answer to religious purity and true faith is not in looking for innovation, but in restoring apostolic order. It is against God’s plan to establish a “new” church in the twenty-first century – His church was already established the day our Lord ascended!
Contrasted so starkly with the fickleness of mankind is God’s unbending, unerring, unwavering nature. “For I, the Lord, do not change” (Malachi 3:6) has been His cry through all the ages. In spite of all the foolish, wicked, arrogant deeds committed by His creation God stands alone as the most consistently merciful force imaginable. “But He, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity…” (Psalm 78:38) There is something to be said for a Creator who puts up with so much disobedience. In the wilderness, for example, the people of Israel mocked and blasphemed God numerous times, but He always left a remnant of the people behind, never fully destroying them. Not long after the incident at Mount Sinai involving the golden calf, God proclaimed through the prophet Moses, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7). There is a warning, though, which says, “Yet He will by not means leave the guilty unpunished…” No matter how loving God may be, He will not back down from His promise to defeat and destroy evil people. The same statements are made again in Numbers 14:18-20.
As for Jehovah’s self-restraint, we ought to praise Him every day! He says of Himself, “For the sake of My name I delay My wrath, and for My praise I restrain it for you, in order not to cut you off” (Isaiah 48:9). We do not deserve to continue existing – one look at the nightly news will tell us of that fact. The fact that a world like ours has continued as it has for so long is just a sign of God’s mercy – after all, our society is probably not much less sinful than that of Noah’s time, but for our sakes Jehovah promised never to destroy the population in such a way ever again (Genesis 8:21-22). While some may look at God’s supposed inactivity as proof of either His inexistence or His acceptance of sin, we must look at it as just more time to improve ourselves and the world in which we live. Remember the foolhardy words in 2 Peter 3:4-6, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation…” We must watch ourselves, friends, to make sure that we do not fall into the same trap of proclaiming, “Peace and safety” (1 Thessalonians 5:3).
Psalm 78:39 – “Thus He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and does not return.”
God: Perfect Man: Imperfect
Why does God show such mercy to us? Why does He tolerate wasted opportunities by us? I think a lot of wisdom is summed up in Psalm 103:13-14, “Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows what we are made of; He is mindful that we are but dust.” Our Lord knows what we are going through, especially in the sense that He experienced it in the form of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 2:18). He knows the kind of sins that knock at our door, because Christ was tempted by the same things! And it is because He understands our weaknesses that we can “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16). But there is certainly a requirement for this grace in the sense that we must “fear Him” (Psalm 103:13). If we do not fear Him, respect Him, honor Him, and love Him with all of our strength then He will not feel so sorry for us in our state of unrepentant sinfulness.
Compared to God, we can never measure up. He is superior to us in every way, especially in His capacity to forgive. In that sense, His ability to show mercy is fully perfected in our humility and contriteness. Of all the men who have ever lived, Paul the apostle was one of the greatest, but even he wrote something that is telling of the gap between God and man (a gap that is closed by the blood of Christ) As we close, I want us to consider that scripture, the same scripture that we employed near the beginning of the sermon, “Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners, among whom I am the foremost. And yet for this reason I found mercy, in order that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience, as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16).
“He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).