RPM, Volume 16, Number 43, October 19 to October 25, 2014

I Forgot

Psalm 78:9-11

By D. Marion Clark


This psalm is excellent for studying at the end of the year — for it is a psalm of looking back so as to look forward. The first eight verses focus on the obligation God's people have to pass on to the next generation what God has done. Our present passage provides insight as to why the Israelites stumbled in fulfilling their obligations, and consequently should give us some insight into our own stumbling.


Verse 9 tells us: The Ephraimites, armed with the bow, turned back on the day of battle.

Who were the Ephraimites and what is this turning back they were guilty of? One of the twelve tribes of Israel, they had a promising beginning which led to prosperity and honor. Ephraim was one of the two sons of Joseph (Manasseh being the other), whom Joseph's father Jacob adopted as his own, thus making them heads of half-tribes in place of Joseph.

Let's go back to that promising beginning for Ephraim. When Joseph brought his two sons to Jacob to be blessed by him, Jacob switched the blessings by placing his right hand on the younger son Ephraim. When Joseph protested, Jacob responded that Ephraim shall be greater than Manasseh, and indeed become a "multitude of nations." Ephraim's tribe did rise to prominence. Joshua, who led the Israelites into the Promised Land, was an Ephraimite. When they entered into the land, it was in the territory allotted to Ephraim that the tabernacle of God was located at Shiloh. It was in Ephraim's territory at Shechem where the first national assemblies were held. Thus, Ephraim became both the religious and political center for the nation. In practical terms, Ephraim became the first among equals among the tribes.

But the tribe eventually fell out of its position, which Psalm 78 presents. Verse 60 notes that God "forsook his dwelling at Shiloh." Though the tabernacle containing the ark of the covenant dwelt in Shiloh, the ark ended up in Judah, eventually settling in Jerusalem where the temple was built. God removed his favor upon Ephraim and shifted it to Judah. Where did Ephraim go wrong?

If you page back through your Bible, you will not find an episode of Ephraim warriors backing off from a battle. Actually, they were a bit quick about wanting to fight, even fighting against other tribes for not letting them join in their battles. But if you were to read in Judges, chapter 1, you would find Ephraim listed as one of the six tribes who failed to drive out the Canaanites from its territory. Ephraim failed to finish the battle. Its warriors did enough to take ground in the Promised Land; the tribe did well enough to be prominent. But it did not complete the race. Why?

To answer that question, let me take you back to another scene of blessing. This was the day when Jacob gathered his sons about him and gave each a blessing. Here is an excerpt of what he said of Joseph, which would also be the blessing for Ephraim:

23 The archers bitterly attacked him,
shot at him, and harassed him severely,
24 yet his bow remained unmoved;
his arms were made agile
by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob…(Genesis 49:23-24).

Note the image of Ephraim with a bow as in verse 9 of our passage. As this blessing indicates, Ephraim did not become cowardly in battle. It was not the attack of enemy archers that overcame its warriors. Something else led them to drop their bows of their own accord. The next two verses of our psalm explain the real problem:

10 They did not keep God's covenant,
but refused to walk according to his law.
11 They forgot his works
and the wonders that he had shown them.

The Ephraimites' downfall (and it was the problem of all the tribes as the psalm will show) was two-fold: they disobeyed God, and they forgot what he had done. Psalm 78 presents this connection of disobedience with forgetfulness. The psalm begins with the very act of remembering and telling the deeds of the Lord to the next generation so that they will not forget his works, but keep his commandments (v. 7). The shame of the old generation was that they did not remember God's power by which he redeemed them from Egypt, and thus rebelled against God (v. 40-42).

They Disobeyed

Consider their disobedience in verse 10: They did not keep God's covenant, but refused to walk according to his law. The grief of the Israelites' disobedience encompasses more than mere breaking laws. Let me illustrate. When a patrol officer pulls you over for exceeding the speed limit, he typically treats you with indifference or even with pleasantness. You have broken the law, but he does not regard it personally. But when that same officer walks to the window and finds his daughter behind the wheel, it becomes another matter. And if that daughter had appeared to be a model driver with her father in the car; if she had promised him that he could count on her to set an example of good driving so as to make him proud…then her lawbreaking becomes all the more painful. She did not merely break the law; she disobeyed her father. She broke his trust and even shamed him because of their relationship.

The problem is not merely that God made laws that were broken, but that they were broken by his people with whom he had made a covenant. Here are the words God had Moses say to his people at Mt. Sinai before the giving of the law:
"You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:4-6).

They were to be his treasured possession. He loved them, as his delivering them from bondage was intended to prove. They were to display to all the nations what it meant to belong to God. Listen to what Moses told them:

When your son asks you in time to come, 'What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?' 21 then you shall say to your son, 'We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22 And the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. 23 And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. 24 And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day (Deuteronomy 6:20-24).

Obeying God was not about being a good rule follower; it was about loving him; it was about affirming the covenant made with him that they belonged to him; that he was their God and they his people; that they loved the God who loved them first and delivered them from bondage through wondrous deeds. These laws were themselves a reminder of what God had done for them.

They Did Not Remember

Consider their failure to remember in verse 11: They forgot his works and the wonders that he had shown them. This failure is particularly galling considering what it is they forgot and how quickly. The psalmist lists God's wonders done before their very eyes: the plagues in Egypt, dividing the Red Sea, producing water from a rock, daily provision of manna, and a miraculous massive flock of quail. And I should mention the pillar of cloud and of fire that was with them everyday and led them in their journey. These are not miracles they heard about. God performed them in front of them on their behalf. You would think such mighty deeds would make a lasting impression. And if not those, then the acts of discipline should have had an impact. Verses 31 and 34 speak of God killing them. Three times God sent a plague. Another time he sent poisonous serpents among them. And then there was the spectacular manner in which he sent judgment against Korah and his rebel cohorts, opening up the earth to swallow them and their families. Don't you think the images would remain in their memory? How do you forget both the good and the horrifying?

And it did not get better with the next generation. All the adults who witnessed these deeds in the wilderness died before entering the promised land. It was their children, many of whom witnessed the same wondrous deeds, who inherited the land. They experienced God opening the waters of the Jordon; of his tearing down the walls of Jericho; of his giving them victory after victory against strong foes. These are the same people who swore to Joshua that…well, here is what they said to him:

"Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods, for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. And the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God" (Joshua 24:16-18)

The sad but humorous response of Joshua to this "sincere" pledge reveals what was to come. He commanded them then to "put away the foreign gods that are among you."

"Foreign gods? Oh, you mean these idols we keep. Gee, how did they get to be here? Sure, you can depend on us to get rid of them."

They did not get rid of those idols and they passed down their addiction to these foreign gods along with their rebellious ways to their children. Thus, we read in verses 56-58:

Yet they tested and rebelled against the Most High God
and did not keep his testimonies,
57 but turned away and acted treacherously like their fathers;
they twisted like a deceitful bow.
58 For they provoked him to anger with their high places;
they moved him to jealousy with their idols.


What a sad history. What a poor example these people were. Don't you wish you could shake your heads at them and say, "How could you? How could you so easily forget? How could you turn away from a God who performed such miraculous deeds?"

But we should understand that the Israelites are not being held up as exemplifying unusual human behavior. The trouble with the Israelites is not that they are particularly bad, but that they are particularly human. Let us consider then lessons we may learn from those who are kindred spirit with us.

1. It is natural for the human heart to follow whatever most suits its needs for the moment, to ask "what have you done for me lately," especially when under trial. And the Israelites had their share of trials. They could say to us, "You wander about in a desert for a few weeks living off water rations and then tell us how well you remember great miracles. You tell me that you would not question why you were delivered by miracles in order to live in unbearable conditions. And that manna from heaven — tell me how great you think it is when that is all you have to eat day after day, year after year. And have you ever waited forty years for anything? In a desert? And then when you get to your promised home, you must spend years more fighting hand-to-hand combat to obtain your inheritance? You tell me then how well you would remember God's great deeds."

Can you relate? You who years ago experienced miraculous like conversions — are you able to live off of that great work, or do you grow weary with the tediousness of making a living and the trials that inevitably come? Do you find it a bit difficult to maintain your faith and your allegiance to God, even though you have your own pillar of God's presence in the weekly worship and Bible study and other forms of fellowship? Can you sympathize with the Israelites who thought deliverance from Egypt meant entering quickly and lastingly into the Promised Land of peace and prosperity? When you joyfully turned your life over to Christ, did you bargain that years later you would be struggling in your marriage, dealing with children who reject your faith, or embittered with disappointments? Are you surprised to find the appeal of idols irresistible as you turn to money or power or sex or any number of other gods you cling to to provide you with security and satisfaction because an invisible God no longer is sufficient. When we read the sorry history presented in Psalm 78, we should not be wagging our heads in disbelief, but trembling, knowing that these people model the tendency of our hearts, which leads to our next lesson.

2. It is the heart that must be changed, Scrooge notwithstanding. You know the story of how Scrooge turned from being the model of mean spiritedness to that of generosity, and all because of the visit of three spirits. Scrooge received what the rich man wanted done for his brothers after he had been sent to hell. In Jesus' parable, the rich man asks Abraham to send the poor man Lazarus from the dead to his brothers to warn them, just like Jacob did for Scrooge. As he said, "If someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent." But Jesus gave his answer through the lips of Abraham, "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead" (cf Luke 16:19-31).

What more did the Israelites need to experience in order to turn to him? How many more miracles? What do we think is necessary for us? If only God would make my life better — get me a good job, make my kids obey, change my spouse, give me a spouse, take away my temptations — then I could do a better job of living for him. If only God would send good fortune to my neighbor, or take away good fortune, if only God would do what I think is necessary for my neighbor, then I know he would have faith and repent.

Let the lesson be clear — it is not the circumstances of life, however miraculous they may be, that will change anyone's heart; rather it is the work of the Lord in the heart. Ezekiel gives the prescription for heart change: "And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules" (36:26-27).

Pray, whether it be for yourself or anyone else; pray not for spirits to appear, but for the Spirit of God to work within the heart.

3. Consider further the interplay of memory and obedience that the psalm presents — they are inseparable. As we remember what the Lord has done for us, so we will obey his commandments. And as that memory fades, so are we likely to stray from obedience. We cannot maintain obedience merely from the sense of duty or from a personal moral code. We will fail or turn legalistic and embittered.

Why does memory fade? Time is a factor, but the real culprit is the tendency of the heart to disobey. As James points out in his letter (1:22-25), the lack of doing what the Word of God says makes us forgetful of that very Word. The trouble with the Israelites was not time impeding their memory — they had manna and the pillar of cloud and of fire everyday. It was the combination of enduring trial and of being tempted by the ways of their neighbors. They wanted to turn to other gods. Forgetfulness can make us disobedient; but disobedience can likewise make us forgetful.

4. This is the poor example of the Israelites in Psalm 78. Let's close with the good example presented in Psalm 77. Here, too, is a person struggling with trial, feeling God as distant. In his despondency, what does he do? Read beginning with verse 11:

11 I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
12 I will ponder all your work,
and meditate on your mighty deeds.
13 Your way, O God, is holy.
What god is great like our God?
14 You are the God who works wonders;
you have made known your might among the peoples.
15 You with your arm redeemed your people,
the children of Jacob and Joseph.

In his moment of weakness, he remembered. And note what it was. He did not think about his own personal experiences. He remembered the story of redemption, of how God redeemed his people from bondage. Do you remember the story of redemption? However you look back on this year, do you look back to the greater redemption than the psalmist ever knew — that mighty deed by which our Lord delivered his people from the bondage of sin and death? And when you look forward, can you see beyond your personal hopes and pleasures to the hope of the redemption story — that our Redeemer will return, and we will live without trial either outward or inward. The day will come when the only memory lapse we will have is that of pain and sin. And it will come, for we have the testimony of God's Word; we have the seal of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us; we have the promise of our Deliverer who will not forget us, nor will ever disobey his Father.

As yet another year comes to a close, recall the deeds of your God that brought you redemption. Look to the great work yet to come when your Redeemer appears. Look past your temporal troubles and above your temporal hopes to the great redemption that cannot be lost and the future glory that cannot be taken away. Come, Lord Jesus.

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