BOOK 3: PSALM 78 OF 89 – Judah over Joseph

It would be easy to look at Psalm 78 as merely one where Asaph seeks to re-tell the stories of old, of God’s wonderful and amazing works, to remind us of the powerful and sovereign Lord in whom we place our trust.

Yet, that is not the sole, let alone primary, purpose of the Psalm.

Consider the story of Rahab in Joshua 2: she knew that the Lord has given the Israelites the land of Canaan, that the fear of the Israelites had fallen upon them, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before them.  They heard of his wonderful works; of how He parted the Red Sea; of how the two kings of the Amorites were destroyed.

That is the purpose of the Psalm – to tell of the world around, and the coming generations of the Israelites, that His works and love will be everlasting.  V 4 – we are told not to hide them from our children, but tell it to the coming generation, the glorious deeds of the LORD.

Is this not our duty, that the Lord’s word, work, and miracles in our lives are shared not only with our peers but with the next generation?  What will help them endure?  The “law”?  The Scriptures?  No — those alone will not be enough.  What will help them endure is the glorious deeds of God.

The irony is that the present generation of Christians look to the stories of old – and only that.  By that, I mean only the stories of Scripture – of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Familiarity with those stories, however, should not corner oneself into only looking to those stories as the source of our strength and hope.  That is because we are called to share the Lord’s works in our lives now as well.  Note that the law is a result of His works, the law in itself is not the Lord’s glory.  Vv. 5-6 say as much: the next generation might know the law, so that they will not forget the works of God.

How can one remember the Lord simply by following the law?  Instead, the law highlights our sins — if not for the law, we would not even be aware of our sins! (see Romans 7)  Rather, the law points us towards His works, not our works.  By keeping these commandments, we are constantly reminded that we are sinful creatures in need of His grace, that we are entirely incapable of redeeming ourselves (see Hebrews 10:1-18).  By failing to keep the law (v.8) as the previous generations did, Asaph is highlighting that these people consider themselves above it i.e. they consider they could walk their lives without remembering or pinning their hopes on the Lord’s works and grace.

Then come the various sections of this Psalm which recount: (i) the Ephraimites who refused to walk according to His law, forgot His works and wonders, despite having witnessed the miracles during the times of Moses (vv 9-66).  There, the sequence is as follows: the Lord would perform a wondrous deed, and the Ephraimites would sin still more against Him, would keep testing Him in their heart, demanding more and more, despite the Lord continually feeding their desires.  This cycle continues throughout the chapter until the climax at v 67.  He rejected the tent of Joseph.

What does this mean?

Spurgeon says this about vv 67-68:

God had honoured Ephraim, for to that tribe belonged Joshua the great conqueror, and Gideon the great judge, and within its borders was Shiloh the place of the ark and the sanctuary; but now the Lord would change all this and set up other rulers. He would no longer leave matters to the leadership of Ephraim, since that tribe had been tried and found wanting. And chose not the tribe of Ephraim. Sin had been found in them, folly and instability, and therefore they were set aside as unfit to lead.

To give the nation another trial this tribe was elected to supremacy. This was according to Jacob’s dying prophecy. Our Lord sprang out of Judah, and he it is whom his brethren shall praise. The Mount Zion which he loved. The tabernacle and ark were removed to Zion during the reign of David; no honour was left to the wayward Ephraimites. Hard by this mountain the Father of the Faithful had offered up his only son, and there in future days the great gatherings of his chosen seed would be, and therefore Zion is said to be lovely unto God.

There are serious implications here.  Genesis 48:20 recounts how Jacob had deliberately blessed Ephraim (the younger) over Manasseh (the firstborn).  This had displeased Joseph, and Jacob deliberately pressed ahead with this form of blessing (Genesis 48:17-19).  The reason that Jacob gave, was that Ephraim “shall be greater than he [i.e. Manasseh] and his offspring shall become a multitude [also translated as “fullness”] of nations.”  Given this significant blessing over Ephraim, this begs the question, why then did the scepter/ruler’s staff never depart from Judah, as prophesied later on in Genesis 49:10?

It would seem to be the case that Ephraim was destined to be a significant physical representation of Israel.  Ezekiel 37:16 and Hosea 5:3 typically refers to Ephraim as the ten tribes comprising Israel’s Northern Kingdom, and not merely the single tribe named after Joseph’s son.  However, the Northern Kingdom (also known as  “Israel”) was taken into captivity by the Assyrians (Jeremiah 7).  Whereas, the Southern Kingdom (Judah) was conquered by the Babylonians later.

Eventually, Ephraim was prophesied to be laid waste on the day of reckoning: see Hosea 5:9, 11.  Ephraim was, along with Dan, not even mentioned as part of the redeemed tribes of Israel in Revelation 7:4-8 (instead, Joseph is mentioned, as well as Manasseh).

Therefore, on the one hand, the LORD had always intended for Ephraim to thrive and become a major part of Israel as a nation.  However, the Promised Seed of Genesis 3:!5 is to come through the tribe of Judah (v.68), from which David, and Jesus the Son of David would descend.  It is by the hand of David’s upright heart that he was able to shepherd Jacob, the Lord’s people.

Yet, to look only to David would lose sight of the purpose of this Psalm.  If this Psalm points to the LORD’s everlasting plans, then this “David” is but a symbol of the everlasting king who can shepherd the spiritual Jacob, the global spiritual Israelites containing both Jews and Gentiles alike — those who worship the true David, Jesus Christ.  In the same way, whilst “Judah” is preferred over “Ephraim”, that is merely from a soteriological perspective.  For the Gentiles are, like the Ephraimites, in need of a Saviour.  They are all the Lord’s sheep who need to be guided into new creation.

 

BOOK 3: PSALM 78 OF 89 – Judah over Joseph

BOOK 3: PSALM 77 OF 89 – You sustain me even when my spirit faints

Psalm 77 is a raw psalm of Asaph.  This is meditation and self-reflection at their pinnacle.  The chapter is divided into three Selah portions: versus 1 to 3 is Asaph describing his cry, his day of trouble, his soul and spirit which refuses to be comforted, which faints.  Instead of drawing comfort from God, instead of seeking God’s face in his desperation, Asaph is simply too weary.

How many of us have gone through similar sentiments?  The tired parent?  The overworked employee?  The financial pressures of life?  The imminent fear of not being able to provide for one’s family?  The list can go on, and on.  Even in the midst of our cry to God, our inner spirit has difficulty yearning for Him.  This demonstrates that, to the very core, we cannot even have strength to believe, to have faith, let alone to even attempt to follow His laws and commands.  At the heart of our being, we are weak, we are frail, we are prone to fear and prone to weariness.  And so, Asaph decides to start this chapter on that note: the note of utter surrender to and defeat by his circumstances.

However, versus 4 to 9 starts the second portion of the Psalm.  In our surrender to our circumstances, in our submission to apparent defeat, the Lord’s faithfulness means that it is He, not I, who will keep my eyelids open; even though we, such weak creatures, would even question whether his “steadfast love forever” is, in fact, not “forever”.  Rather, we question the eternal provision of His grace and love, simply because we are not experiencing it here and now.  In our frailty, where we experience none of God’s present love, we question whether He has withheld it altogether from us.  V9 summarises this: Has God forgotten to be gracious?  Has he in anger shut up his compassion?

The irony is that our rhetorical questions regarding His presence in our lives (or lack thereof) is wrought with doubt and uncertainty, such questions are typically matched by rhetorical questions raised by God which actually reveals insight, truth and conviction.  Where Asaph asks whether God has ceased his love for us, God would in turn ask us (like He did with Adam), “Where are you” (Genesis 3:9)?  The Lord of course knew where Adam was; but the question highlighted to Adam that he is lost to his own sin and pride, and that he has lost his bearings in life.

This then leads to the final portion of the Psalm.  V11 starts – “I will remember the deeds of the LORD”.  Indeed, if we cannot experience God’s love now, if we are too weary to even speak to Him let alone to wait and hear His voice, we must therefore point to the “wonders of old” (v11).  It is those wonders which do not fail to demonstrate that God has never forsaken us.  On the contrary, He has been closely and intimately involved with our lives.

Look at how God’s arm had redeemed the children of Jacob and Joseph (v15); look at how He led his people like a flock by the hands of Moses and Aaron (v20).  Look at how nature is itself even afraid of God, the deep waters, the crash of thunder, the lightnings, the trembling and shaking earth; we may fail to see His footprints (v.19), but He is there.  In sin, the world is like the earth when it was without form and void (Jeremiah 4:23); but He brings life out of that darkness, as He had created the world ex nihilo (although, more accurately, made the earth in and through Christ; c.f. Colossians 1:15).  Yet, he who remains in sin will be like Babylon, engulfed by the tumultuous waves, a land in which no one dwells, with no protection: Jeremiah 51:41-44.

As Spurgeon comments:

As if conscious of its Maker’s presence, the sea was ready to flee from before his face. The conception is highly poetical, the psalmist has the scene before his mind’s eye, and describes it gloriously. The water saw its God, but man refuses to discern him; it was afraid, but proud sinners are rebellious and fear not the Lord. The depths also were troubled. To their heart the floods were made afraid. Quiet caves of the sea, far down in the abyss, were moved with fear; and the lowest channels were left bare, as the water rushed away from its place, in terror of the God of Israel.

Let us therefore come to Him even in the midst of our weariness, for His yoke is easy and his burden is light: Matthew 11:28-30.  That is the solution to Asaph’s sorrows.  Jesus is with us, not to increase our burden, but to give us rest.  That is what creation was made for; just as man was made on the sixth day, it is immediately on the following day that Sabbath was enjoyed by God and man alike.

BOOK 3: PSALM 77 OF 89 – You sustain me even when my spirit faints