Telling God’s Works

This article relates to the devotional Journal for Treasuring God’s Word, Session 5. Share this with your students!

What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word “parable“?

If you are like most people, you probably think story, Jesus, the good Samaritan, Gospels, or something similar. Nearly everyone connects the word parable with the pointedly simple stories told by Jesus during his ministry on this earth. The New Testament, however, does not have a monopoly on parables. They can also be found in the Old Testament. Nathan, the prophet, told a parable about a rich man and a poor man when he confronted David with his sin of adultery and the murder of Uriah (2 Sam. 12:1–13).

Psalm 78 contains a parable. Verse 2 introduces the subject matter: “I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us.” What are the parables the psalmist is going to relate?

Take several minutes now to read this psalm, noting the main events in the story that begins in verse 9.

Pray verse 7 for yourself and your friends—that you would set your hope in God, not forget his works, and keep his commandments.

Having read the psalm, you may wonder why Asaph, the author, called it a parable. It looks like a rather straightforward summary of Israel’s history from the time in Egypt to the establishment of David as king. To answer this question, we need to look at the meaning of the word parable, which can also be translated “proverb.” Basically it means a comparison—a saying or story that uses one realm of life to illuminate another. Jesus’ parables were often stories, each one used to illustrate a spiritual truth. In Psalm 78, the narrative is historical, not fictional, yet its purpose is the same as that of the New Testament parables. Asaph recounts past events, not to entertain history buffs but to vividly illustrate a profound spiritual lesson. History here is not a recital of bare facts but a parable, a comparison which—if properly interpreted—will illuminate the present and the future. What light does the psalm shed on our present lives? Or what is the point of this historical parable?

The main body of the psalm begins with a problem: the men of the tribe of Ephraim have given up. They have deserted the cause and the covenant of God (vss. 9–10). What lies behind the desertion? Short memories. They forgot what God had done for them and the wonders he had shown them (vs. 11). Specifically, they forgot God’s guidance in the desert when he divided the Red Sea and led their fathers with the cloud and fire (vss. 12–16). They forgot how God provided both food and punishment when his people grumbled in the wilderness (vss. 17–31). They forgot that their ancestors had made a habit of unfaithfulness to God, flattering him with their mouths, but remaining disloyal in their hearts (vss. 32–37). They forgot that despite this continual disobedience, God was merciful and didn’t destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath (vs. 38).

Perhaps worst of all, the men of Ephraim forgot that they were guilty of the same sin that had so ensnared their fathers. Why did their ancestors rebel continually while they were in the wilderness and even after they settled in the Promised Land? They rebelled because they had also forgotten God. They forgot God’s power when he redeemed them from Egypt (vs. 42). The sin of forgetting God was at the center of Israel’s rebellion since the deliverance from Egypt. Each successive generation fell into this trap. Those who came out under Moses forgot God’s power displayed in the plagues against Egypt. Consequently, they sinned (vss. 40–51). The next generation settled in the Promised Land, repeated the sin of their fathers, rebelling against God and proving as unreliable as a twisted bow (vs. 57). Now, the psalmist says, the present generation—the men of Ephraim and the preeminent tribe—have fallen into the same error. They too have forgotten God. They have learned nothing from history.

Nevertheless, the tone of this psalm is not pessimistic. The parable itself is grim. Israel has repeatedly proven faithless. Yet, there is hope for the future. This hope lies in teaching the parable to listening ears—to the present and future generations—that they would not forget but would “set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God” (vss. 7–8).

This psalm ought to be an encouragement to you as you continue to survey the Old Testament. As you learn the history of God’s acts from your pastor, teachers, and leaders, you are seeing them explicitly obey Asaph’s summons to “tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done” (vs. 4). Pray verse 7 for yourself and your friends—that you would set your hope in God, not forget his works, and keep his commandments.

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