Tuesday: “Where Is Their God?”

By James Boice

Theme: When Trouble Comes

In this week’s lessons we learn that when hard times come, we are to wait upon and praise the Lord with expectant hope.

Scripture: Psalm 79:1-13

We have already commented on Asaph’s distress over the destruction of Jerusalem when we were discussing Psalm 74. In that psalm Asaph took God by the hand, as it were, and walked him through the ruins of the desolate and abandoned city. “Look, that is where they broke in,” he seemed to be saying. “They set up their military standards over there. That is where they attacked the carved paneling. After that they burnt the temple. Look at those ashes. That is all that is left. Then, as if the damage to the temple were not bad enough, they went through the whole land to destroy every place where you were worshipped. And they have done it!”

Both psalms ask how long this terrible state is to continue: Is it to go on forever? Both ask God to rise up and destroy those who have destroyed Judah. Both look forward to a day when the people of God will be able to praise him for his mighty acts of deliverance once again.

But there are differences, too. In the earlier psalm Asaph seemed to be troubled about the temple: chiefly, that the Babylonians had destroyed the sanctuary where God used to meet with his worshippers. A description of the ruins fills the second stanza. In Psalm 79 Asaph is chiefly concerned for the people—for those who have been killed, whose bodies lie in the street with none to bury them, those who were taken prisoner, and those who have been left desolate after the terrible destruction and slaughter.

The fact that there would be so many killed and so few survivors that there would be no one to bury the dead, as the psalm says in the first four verses, had been prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 7:33). It was regarded as a terrible calamity and disgrace not to be able to bury the dead, but it had happened.

None of us has been witness to a disaster of this magnitude. Bad things happen to us sometimes. We get sick or someone close to us dies, or a fire destroys our home or we lose a job. But here everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. Everything that could possibly be destroyed has been destroyed. The destruction was political, because the nation no longer existed. There was no king, no counselors, no people in authority, no army. The destruction was economic, because the land was devastated. No one could earn a living, and there was no one to buy anything that might be produced. The destruction was social, because entire families were wiped out and there was no one who had not lost a husband, son, father, mother, wife or child in the conflict. Worst of all, the destruction was religious, for there was no temple and the worship of God had ceased.

As I say, neither you nor I have ever experienced anything as sweeping as that. But most of us have experienced losses of some sort or another, and the question we ask is, how do we cope with them? This psalm does not set out to find an answer to that question as Psalms 73 or 77 do, for example. Rather it is itself the answer! The answer is, by hanging on to God, by trusting him.1 That is exactly what it does from the beginning. We cannot overlook the fact that even when relating details of the disaster that had overtaken them, the psalmist speaks of their enemies as having “invaded your [that is, God’s] inheritance…defiled your holy temple…given the bodies of your servants as food to the birds of the air, and the flesh of your saints to the beasts of the earth” (vv. 1, 2).

In other words, even though the people have suffered a great calamity, they are nevertheless the people of God and can continue to appeal to him, which is what Asaph does. Do you have that confidence? Do you do it? There is nothing like it to get you through life’s most difficult times.

1Tate says, “This psalm deals with one of the basic issues in religious thought: how do the people of God cope with disaster in the face of God’s seeming absence? The answer is: by hanging on to hope in him” (Marvin E. Tate, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 20, p. 301).

Study Questions:

  1. List some similarities found in Psalms 74 and 79. Name some of the chief differences between the two psalms.
  2. What question does Asaph ask of God? What has gone wrong in Jerusalem?

Reflection: Reflect on tragedies you have seen and compare them with those in this psalm. How do you cope with dark times in your life? What does the psalm say to do?

 


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Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Monday: “Where Is Their God?”

By James Boice

Theme: The Historical Setting

In this week’s lessons we learn that when hard times come, we are to wait upon and praise the Lord with expectant hope.

Scripture: Psalm 79:1-13

It is hard to find perfect scholarly agreement on anything relating to the interpretation of the Bible, including the historical setting for Psalm 79. But the psalm describes the destruction of Jerusalem, the defiling of the temple and the slaughter of the people, and the most obvious historical setting for this is the period following the destruction of the city by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C.

There are a few arguments to the contrary, which cause some scholars to date the psalm from the time of the Maccabees and to view the destruction as that caused by Antiochus Epiphanes. I reviewed some of these arguments in the earlier study of Psalm 74, because Psalm 74 seems to be about the same period of history and by the same writer. A comparison will show how similar the outlines of the two psalms are and even how many expressions are common to each. In this case the only points that have any real bearing on the matter of dating are the citations of Psalm 79:6, 7 in Jeremiah 10:25, and Psalm 79:3 in 1 Maccabees 7:16. Scholars who prefer the later dating argue that the psalm is quoting Jeremiah and that it must be contemporaneous with 1 Maccabees in order to refer to the same incidents.

Neither of those arguments holds up well. Jeremiah is in the habit of quoting earlier Scriptures, and in this case his citing of Psalm 79 follows after his citation of another verse from the Psalms, namely Psalm 6:1. Besides, the verse in Jeremiah sounds more like a quotation of an earlier source rather than the other way around. The psalm seems original.

As for the quotation of verse 3 in 1 Maccabees, it is significant that it is introduced by the formal expression, “according to the word that has been written,” which is the writer’s usual way of quoting Scripture. This probably means that the words must have been written far enough in the past to have been regarded as Scripture by the time of the Maccabees, which would place the psalm earlier than their age.1 In other words, it would refer to the destruction of the city by Nebuchadnezzar, and would have been used by 1 Maccabees only because the earlier destruction had become a pattern of all subsequent judgments on Jerusalem and its people.

The Jews seem to regard the psalm as describing the classic destruction of the city and temple by Nebuchadnezzar, because the psalm is recited at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem on Friday afternoons even today, as well as being used in the liturgy for the Ninth of Ab, a fast day that commemorates the temple’s destruction.2

How should the psalm be outlined? A number of writers see it as having two parts: 1) an initial lament in verses 1-4, followed by 2) a prayer for God’s deliverance and for judgment on the people’s enemies in verses 5-13, some detaching verse 13 as a suitable postscript. The stanzas in the New International Version mark useful units, but verse 12 would be better attached to stanza three since it is part of the prayer that asks for God’s intervention.

1For a careful discussion of this evidence from the side of the later dating, see J.J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 2, pp. 73-77. Maclaren also holds to this dating (Alexander Maclaren, The Psalms, vol. 2 [New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1893], pp. 397, 398). In support of the earlier dating, that is, from the time of Nebuchadnezzar, see Marvin E. Tate, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 20 (Dallas: Word, 1990), pp. 298, 299.

2See Marvin E. Tate, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 20, p. 303.

Study Questions:

  1. What historical event does this psalm describe?
  2. What is the outline for this psalm?
  3. Why is this psalm still recited today at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem?

For Further Study: Dr. Boice’s classic studies on the Psalms combine careful analysis of the text, historical and theological explanations, as well as clear and pointed application. Order your copy of this three-volume paperback set, and receive 25% off the regular price.

 


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Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Friday: A Sermon from Israel’s History

By James Boice

Theme: Every Spiritual Blessing Given

In this week’s lessons we see the importance of remembering all the blessings that God has given to us.

Scripture: Psalm 78:1-72

At the end of stanza five there are two verses that bring the people to the borders of the Promised Land and even into it, which causes some writers to join these verses to stanza six. The actual arrangement does not make much difference. What matters is that in stanza six the rebellion of the people once they are in the land reached even worse levels than when they were still in the desert. Their rebellion extended to idolatry (v. 58). The result is that God’s anger also reached new heights, so that the northern kingdom of Israel, led by Ephraim, was “rejected… completely” (v. 59), the Ark of the Covenant was allowed to go into captivity to the Philistines, and many of the young men of the people were killed.1

This is why I said earlier that the second half of the psalm is not just a repetition of part one. It repeats the same great themes, but the themes intensify. On the one hand, ingratitude and rebellion lead to outright apostasy. On the other, the anger of God leads to the rejection of the northern kingdom. It is always that way. One sin leads to another, hearts harden, and the end is death and damnation.

But there is good news, too, and this is where the final stanza and the psalm itself end (vv. 65-72). We have seen that the anger of God builds against entrenched human sin. But his mercy does not end. We saw this at the end of stanza four (vv. 38, 39). Here the last stanza is given to it.

One commentator calls this “a new beginning,” but it is new only in the sense that there are always new beginnings with God. Ephraim is rejected, but here Judah is chosen. Shiloh is abandoned, but the Ark is brought to Mount Zion. Asaph’s point is that it was entirely of grace that God chose Judah and elevated its shepherd boy David to be a great king.2 The people did not deserve this, any more than they deserved God’s other blessings. But the fact that they received such mercies multiplied their obligations to serve God. It is the same for us, only our mercies are even greater than those experienced by Israel since in Jesus Christ we have been given “every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3). We deserve nothing, yet we have received everything. Don’t forget it! Remember God’s blessings. Remember his mercy. And remember to tell the next generation, too.

1The tabernacle had been at Shiloh during the whole period of the Judges (see Josh. 18:10; Judges 18:31; 1 Sam. 4:3), but God rejected Shiloh when the Ark was given into the hands of the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:1-22), and it was never brought back. Instead, it was taken to Kiriath Jearim, to the house of a man named Abinadab (1 Sam. 6:21-7:1). The Tabernacle itself was removed first to Nob (1 Sam. 21) and afterwards probably to Gibeon (1 Kings 3:4). It was David who finally brought the Ark to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:1-19).

2There is a significant link here with Psalm 77. Psalm 77 ended with God pastoring his flock by the hands of Moses and Aaron. Psalm 78 ends with God pastoring his flock by the hand of David. So we have two pastoral psalms, though in the first the psalmist is not aware of this until near the end.

Study Questions:

  1. How far did the rebellion of the people of this psalm go? How did God respond?
  2. Describe the extent of God’s mercy.
  3. What accompanies increased mercy from God?

Application: List mercies you have received from God. What obligations to him do you have as a result of those mercies?

For Further Study: In the Psalms we not only see how God has been at work in the lives of his people in the past, but we also learn that he is at work in our lives as well. Order your copy of James Boice’s three-volume study and take 25% off the regular price.


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Thursday: A Sermon from Israel’s History

By James Boice

Theme: Remembering All That God Has Done

In this week’s lessons we see the importance of remembering all the blessings that God has given to us.

Scripture: Psalm 78:1-72

There is a sense in which the stanza of Psalm 78 beginning with verse 40 goes back to the beginning and thus starts to tell the story of Israel’s base ingratitude to God all over again, beginning with the exodus from Egypt and with the people’s failure to remember God’s miracles of redemption on their behalf. Some commentators outline the psalm around these two halves.1 In my judgment, the last half does not exactly repeat the first. But the fresh start is significant, for it is as if Asaph is acknowledging that God had done everything possible to win the people over. They had not responded. Thus, the only thing to do is to tell the entire story all over again, hoping that something about it might stick with them this second time.

Think back on what God has done. In stanza one, we were reminded that he had done miracles, but the people had forgotten them. In stanza two, we were reminded that God provided for the people’s needs abundantly, but they had remained unsatisfied. In stanza three, we were reminded of God’s just judgments, but these only produced a false repentance. In fact, not even his mercy was effective. For in spite of his mercy, the people “often … rebelled against him in the desert and grieved him in the wasteland” (v. 40)! Miracles! Provision! Judgment! Mercy! Four great actions. Yet in spite of them, the outcome was rebellion and unbelief.

How is this possible? The answer is in verse 42, which is perhaps the most important verse in the psalm. It says, “They did not remember his power the day he redeemed them from the oppressor.”

That is it! That is it exactly! They had forgotten God’s redemption (v. 42). They had forgotten what God did on their behalf. Do we? I am sure we do, or we would not sin as grievously or as often as we do. Commentator Derek Kidner says on this point, “If redemption itself is forgotten…faith and love will not last long.”2 He means that if we forget what it cost God to redeem us from our sins through Jesus’ death, we will not long trust him in life’s trials or love him enough to obey him in times of temptation.

What is the cure? Certainly, we should be getting it by this time. It is to remember, which is what this psalm is about. We need to remember all that God has done.

What Asaph calls to mind particularly in this section are the plagues God brought on the Egyptians, surely one of the greatest single displays of God’s power and judgments in history. He does not list all the plagues, but he gives a good description of at least six of them. The psalm omits the plague of gnats, the disease inflicted on the livestock, the boils visited on the people, and the days of darkness. There is no discernable reason either for the choice of the six judgments or the omission of the other four. The plagues that are mentioned build forcefully toward the last terrible judgment of God against the firstborn, which is then placed in sharp and beautiful contrast to the way God led his people out of Egypt like a flock of timid but safe and trusting sheep.

1See J.J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1, vol. 2, p. 58; and Marvin E. Tate, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 20 (Dallas: Word, 1990), pp. 287, 288.

2Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150: A Commentary on Books III-v of the Psalms (Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1975), p. 284.

Study Questions:

  1. Why is having a fresh start significant for Asaph?
  2. List God’s actions and the people’s response that is seen in the first half of Psalm 78.
  3. What is the primary error committed by the Israelites in verse 42?
  4. Why does the psalmist recall the plagues?

Reflection: What has God done on your behalf? How can you remember all that God has done for you?

 


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Wednesday: A Sermon from Israel’s History

By James Boice

Theme: Hypocritical Repentance

In this week’s lessons we see the importance of remembering all the blessings that God has given to us.

Scripture: Psalm 78:1-72

The judgment mentioned at the end of the third stanza of Psalm 78 leads to the subject matter of the fourth stanza (vv. 32-39), namely, repentance. When the people were judged they repented. Unfortunately, their repentance was seldom true repentance. Therefore, in words that echo Hosea’s later description of this sickening hypocrisy (in Hosea 6:1-3), Asaph says, “Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer. But then they would flatter him with their mouths, lying to him with their tongues; their hearts were not loyal to him, they were not faithful to his covenant” (vv. 34-37).

A hypocritical repentance like this must be nauseating to God. For as Hosea notes at the end of his prophecy, true repentance involves an honest acknowledgement of sin, a turning from it and an appeal to God’s grace (see Hosea 14:1-3). All this is absent here. Nevertheless, says Asaph, God did not deal with the people as their hypocrisy deserved. Instead of destroying them, God “was merciful” and “atoned for their iniquities” (v. 38). “He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return” (v. 39).

This is precisely how God has dealt with us. If God had not chosen to be merciful to us, we would all have perished long ago. But instead of not being merciful and allowing us to perish, God made atonement for our sins by the death of Jesus Christ. He atoned for our iniquities. Certainly a love like this demands a genuine repentance from us and a true following after God in faith and deep gratitude. As Isaac Watts wrote:

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.

True. But do we actually respond like this? Isn’t it more often the case that we only give God lip service while nevertheless continuing to go our own way?

Study Questions:

  1. What is true repentance?
  2. What does Hosea 6:1-3 teach you about true repentance? Describe the false repentance evident in Hosea’s day.
  3. How did God deal with his people in the psalm? How does God deal with us today?

Reflection: Is there a recurring sin in your life for which you need to have true repentance?

Application: Begin a list of the many things God has given you. Give him thanks and praise.


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Tuesday: A Sermon from Israel’s History

By James Boice

Theme: Ingratitude and Unbelief

In this week’s lessons we see the importance of remembering all the blessings that God has given to us.

Scripture: Psalm 78:1-72

The second stanza of this psalm begins its rehearsal of the historical dealings of God with Ephraim, one of the twelve Jewish tribes (vv. 9-16). This seems a strange place to begin, first, because Ephraim does not seem to us to be a very prominent tribe, and second, because the incident referred to is not known. It was a time when “Ephraim, though armed with bows, turned back on the day of battle” (vv. 9). Nothing exactly like this is found anywhere in the Old Testament.

The answer to why Asaph begins here is probably to be found at the end of the psalm where we are reminded that God rejected Ephraim as the tribe out of which the great and enduring kingship of David should come, choosing Judah instead (vv. 67, 68); and that God even “abandoned the tabernacle of Shiloh,” which was in Ephraim’s territory, and replaced it by Mount Zion (vv. 60, 68). In the early days of this history, at the time of the invasion and conquest of Canaan, Ephraim was the largest and most prominent of the twelve tribes. By the time of the writing of Psalm 78 Judah had eclipsed her. This is important for what Asaph wants to say. For what he is recalling to our minds is that sin brings judgment and that unbelief has consequences.

The problem with Ephraim is that its people forgot God’s miracles in bringing them out of Egypt, taking them across the Red Sea and leading them and providing for them in the desert (vv. 11-16). However, as the rest of the psalm will make clear, this was also a failure of the people as a whole. Therefore, the replacement of Ephraim by Judah is intended as a warning to all. Learn from the past, says Asaph, or you, too, may be moved aside by God as a result of his onward march in history. Should we not also learn from this? Jesus told the church at Ephesus, “If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev. 2:5).

The devil tempted the Lord Jesus Christ, as recorded in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, inviting him to jump from the temple, trusting for his safety to the words of Psalm 91: “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone” (vv. 10, 11). Jesus rightly responded by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:16, which says, “Do not put the LORD your God to the test” (Matt. 4:7; Luke 4:12). None of us is to tempt God by getting into situations that require him to do a miracle to save us or by demanding of him miracles he has not promised to do. Yet that is what Israel did in the wilderness, says the psalmist in this next stanza (vv. 17-31): “They willfully put God to the test” (v. 18).

What seems to be the problem here is not that the people expected God to provide the necessary food and water for them, since he had brought them into the desert and they needed these necessities lest they perish. The problem was, first, that the people were dissatisfied with what God had done, wanting more; and second, that they considered that the reason why God did not give them everything they wanted was because he could not. In other words, their sins were first, ingratitude and, second, unbelief. In both they “put God to the test,” contrary to the law’s teaching.

The way Asaph highlights the base nature of these sins is by contrasting them with the abundance of God’s blessings. God had “rained down manna” on them (v. 24); it was “all the food they could eat” (v. 25). As for water, “When he struck the rock, water gushed out, and streams flowed abundantly” (v. 20). This food was not poor fare. It was “the bread of angels” (v. 25), and the water was no mere trickle. Still the people complained, “Can God spread a table in the desert” (v. 19)? “Can he supply meat for his people” (v. 20)? The rest of the stanza reminds us that God did exactly that. He gave meat, causing flying birds to descend on their camp so they could eat as many as they could catch and stuff down. But God was angered by the ingratitude and judged them by making them sick on the fowl. The text says, “He put to death the sturdiest among them, cutting down the young men of Israel” (v. 31).

Study Questions:

  1. Why is it significant that Asaph talks about the history of Ephraim?
  2. Why were the people of Ephraim eclipsed by the people of Judah?
  3. How did Jesus respond to temptation?
  4. To what did Asaph contrast the Israelites’ sins?

Reflection:

  1. How are you like the people of Ephraim? Of what do you need to repent?
  2. In what ways do you put God to the test?
  3. What were the sins of the people in the desert? In what way do you share in those sins?

Prayer: Bring your sins to God and repent of them. Pray that you will never willfully put God to the test.

 


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Monday: A Sermon from Israel’s History

By James Boice

Theme: A Great Historical Psalm

In this week’s lessons we see the importance of remembering all the blessings that God has given to us.

Scripture: Psalm 78:1-72

During the ten years that I was a part of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, which was upholding the high, historic view of the Bible, one of the arguments against our position was that the Scriptures are authoritative and inerrant in matters of faith and morals, but not in matters of history or science. We answered then, as I still do today, that for Christians faith and morals cannot be separated from history or even from science, because Christianity is an historical religion; attacks on its roots in history inevitably and always undermine it.

This is clearly true of the New Testament, for Jesus Christ was an historical figure and because our salvation is grounded on what he actually accomplished in history by his atoning death for sins. This is true for the Old Testament, too. Psalm 78 is a good example. It is one of the great historical psalms, that is, one of the psalms that rehearse the history of the people of Israel in order to draw lessons from it—lessons as to who God is, what he has done, how the people responded to him wrongly in the past and how they should learn from those past failures today. Other psalms that do this are Psalms 105-107, 114, 135 and 136. But there are other examples too, the best known being Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin recorded in Acts 7. Stephen’s point was that the Jewish people had always killed the prophets God sent them, and now they had also killed Jesus.

Psalm 78 is the longest of the historical psalms. Its lesson is that history must not repeat itself. The people must never again be unbelieving. But they were, of course, especially when they rejected Jesus Christ.

The first eight verses of this psalm are a compelling preamble to the history that is to be reviewed. In these verses two very important points are made.

1. We must learn from the past. This is what I have been saying in the introduction to this study, but it is worth saying again if only because the past is either unknown, disregarded or just not taken seriously by most people. The key word here is “parables” (v. 2), which is what the psalmist calls the history he is going to recall. To us the word parable means a story, usually a fictitious one; we think of the stories Jesus told. But “parable” actually has more in it than this. Para means “alongside of,” and bolein means “to throw.” So a parable is the placing of one incident or story alongside of something else so we might learn by the comparison. In this case, the past history of Israel is set alongside the present so that those living today might not repeat the people’s past sins.1

This means that we can learn from this past history too; in fact, we must learn from it. “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). If we do not learn from Israel’s failures, we are bound to repeat them. And we might anyway!

2. We must instruct our children. The second point made in the preamble is that the history of God’s dealings with us must be taught to our children. We have a duty to do this because God has commanded us to do it (v. 5), and we should also want to do it because it is the means by which our children may come to “put their trust in God” and “not forget his deeds” (v. 7). Then, says the psalmist, “They would not be like their forefathers—a stubborn and rebellious generation, whose hearts were not loyal to God, whose spirits were not faithful to him” (v. 8).

Actually, in these words Asaph is only echoing for a later generation what God had said clearly to the generation of the exodus. For example, in Deuteronomy 6, in the chapter immediately following the second listing of the Ten Commandments, Moses wrote, “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (vv. 6-9).

And later in the same chapter:

In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Before our eyes the LORD sent miraculous signs and wonders—great and terrible—upon Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land that he promised on oath to our forefathers. The LORD commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the LORD our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today. And if we are careful to obey all this law before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness” (vv. 20-25).

Let me make this relevant to our time by saying that one thing we are to abhor as Christian parents is “values-neutral” education. Our culture wants it. If fact, it fights for it. But then we get a world in which the young avoid hard work, laugh at honesty, steal, and in some cases kill with no apparent conscience. We should not be surprised. But we should struggle to make sure that our children are taught morality grounded in the character of God and supported by the life and power of our Savior Jesus Christ.

1This is what Jesus’ parables did, which is why Matthew quotes verse 2 in 13:35, saying that Jesus spoke in parables to fulfill “what was spoken through the prophet.” This is only one of many verses from Psalm 78 that are either cited or reflected in the New Testament: 1 John 1:1-4 echoes verse 3; Ephesians 6:4 builds on verse 4; Acts 2:40 may be referring to verse 8; 1 Corinthians 10:4 to verse 15; 1 Corinthians 10:9 cites verse 18; John 6:31 quotes, and Revelation 2:17 echoes, verse 24; 1 Corinthians 10:3 refers to verses 24-29; 1 Corinthians 10:5 echoes verse 31; Acts 8:21 is like verse 37; and Revelation 16:4 may be thinking of verse 44.

Study Questions:

  1. Why is it significant that Christianity is an historical religion?
  2. How do you answer when challenged that the Bible is not scientifically accurate?
  3. What is a biblical parable?
  4. What is taught in this psalm about the relationship of biblical principles to quality of life?

Reflection: Have there been times in your life when you did not learn a lesson God was trying to teach? Did you repent?

Application: How can you teach a child or younger person the history of faith?

For Further Study: To learn more about how the Lord Jesus Christ is the meaning and center of history, download and listen for free to Sinclair Ferguson’s message, “The Christ of History.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Friday: Remembering

By James Boice

Theme: The Loving God

In this week’s lessons we are reminded that when we are discouraged and God seems distant, we are to remember who God is, what he has done in the past, and what he promises to do in the future.

Scripture: Psalm 77:1-20

The last stanza of Psalm 77 (vv. 16-19, plus verse 20) carries through the theme introduced in stanza five, describing the Exodus more fully and in poetic language. Indeed, stanza five calls for it. For not only does it introduce the idea (“you redeemed your people,” referring to the Exodus), it also echoes words and themes from Moses’ great Song of the Exodus after the crossing of the Red Sea (see Exod. 15).

In the account of the Red Sea crossing in Exodus 14 we are told of the cloud that came between the Israelites and the Egyptians, and of the strong east wind that drove back the water to make a passage. This is reflected in the description of the water and whirlwind in the psalm. But the psalm adds details that are missing in the original account: rain, thunder, lightning and the shaking of the earth (vv. 17, 18). Either these are details missing from the original account but preserved in the historical memory of the people, or they are a poetic embellishment of the incident. Whatever the case, there is nothing improbable about these additional manifestations of God’s power on that great night of nights for Israel.

The last verse of the psalm has to do with the people’s wanderings and God’s gentle shepherding of them by the hand of Moses and Aaron. This verse seems abrupt and even an anticlimax to the psalm—some commentators speculate about a lost ending or interpolation—but the ending is intended to be exactly as it is. For what it says is that the God who acted in mighty ways in the past to redeem his people also acts in calm, tender and loving ways; and that is what he is doing at the present time even though it has not been evident to the psalmist before this.1

The great German commentator Franz Delitzsch has a wonderful suggestion at this point, namely that the prophecy of Habakkuk, which echoes some of this language, picks up where Psalm 77 leaves off. “The prophet begins with the prayer to revive that deed of redemption of the Mosaic days of old, and in the midst of wrath to remember mercy; and in figures which are borrowed from our psalm, he then beholds a fresh deed of redemption by which that of old is eclipsed.”2 In the meantime, says Habakkuk, in words that could end Psalm 77, “The righteous will live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4). And as Habakkuk goes on to say: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (3:17, 18)

1It might also be said in answer to the objection that this is an abrupt ending, that the psalm was intended as a prelude to the next one, which deals with Israel’s history more fully and ends with God shepherding the people by the hand of David, just as he is described as shepherding the people through the hands of Moses and Aaron here.

2Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), vol. 2, p. 349.

Study Questions:

  1. What account in Exodus teaches us about God, and what do we learn?
  2. Why is the last verse seen as being anticlimactic?

Reflection: In what ways can you see God’s calm, tender and loving ways in your life?

Prayer: Use the passage from Habakkuk 3 to pray through adversity.

For Further Study: We believe that God knows all things and controls all things, but sometimes events come into our lives that make it seem as if God is distant. Nevertheless, during seasons of hardship and confusion, we cling to God’s promises to work for our good and for the glory of his holy name. One of the attributes of God we need to remember during these times is his wisdom. Download and listen for free to James Boice’s message, “The Wisdom of God.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Thursday: Remembering

By James Boice

Theme: Three Important Matters

In this week’s lessons we are reminded that when we are discouraged and God seems distant, we are to remember who God is, what he has done in the past, and what he promises to do in the future.

Scripture: Psalm 77:1-20

Verse 10 is difficult to translate or interpret, because it contains two words that are of doubtful meaning. The word the translators of the New International Version render “appeal” (“To this I will appeal’”) might be the word for “supplication,” hence, “appeal.” Or it could be the word for “affliction,” hence, “wound” or “grief.” Likewise, the word rendered “years” could be either “years” or “change.” Those variations give four possible meanings of the verse:

  1. “This is my appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
  2. “This is my grief: the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
  3. “This is my grief: the right hand of the Most High has changed.”
  4. “This is my appeal: the right hand of the Most High has changed.”

The interesting thing is that each of these gives a tolerable meaning. If we choose the first, the idea is that in his present depressed state the psalmist will encourage himself by appealing to the merciful acts of God in past years. If we choose the second, he is explaining that his distress comes from remembering what God has done in the past, precisely what we have found in earlier stanzas. The third view is like the second; it would say that Asaph’s grief comes from the fact that God is acting differently from what he did in the past. The fourth meaning is not a good one, but it could mean that since God has changed in one direction, from mercy to indifference, he might change back again and be favorable. That would give the psalmist a ground for some hope.1

There are two factors that tip the balance in the direction of the NIV reading. First, the Hebrew word translated “years” in verse 10 also occurs in verse 5 where it must mean years since it is parallel to the words “former days.” Second, from verse 10 onward the psalmist reviews what God has done in past years. At this point his review of the past is not a cause for grief but a foundation for spiritual growth and comfort.

In verse 11 the word “remember” comes back after being introduced in verses 3 and 6. Earlier he was remembering the past and how wonderful it was compared to his grim present. In this stanza he is remembering God and his works, which makes all the difference.

What the psalmist remembers about God when he reflects on the years of his working is in the stanza comprising verses 13-15. This is all about God, just as the opening stanzas of the psalm were mostly about Asaph. Here, in a manner that makes us think of the musings of Habakkuk in the first chapter of his prophecy, the psalmist muses on the attributes of God as seen in Israel’s history. He recalls three matters.

1. That God is holy. The holiness of God is a rich concept, having to do more with God’s transcendence than his uprightness. Yet it embraces his moral qualities, and here “holy” must refer to the fact that whatever God does is upright. This has been true in the past; therefore, it must be true in the present, too. Consequently, however matters may seem to the poet from his personal perspective in history, his review of the past teaches him that God can always be trusted to do the right thing. This is true of all his “ways,” including those in which the poet himself is called to walk.

2. That God is great. In the previous stanza Asaph has reflected on God’s “deeds” and “miracles” (v. 11), and also his “works” and “mighty deeds” (v. 12). This leads him to ask, “What god is so great as our God” (v. 13)? The implied answer is “No god at all,” and then repeats that Israel’s God “performs miracles,” “display[s] [his] power” (v. 14) and bares his “mighty arm” (v. 15). This is important because it tells us that God is not only an upright God (“Your ways, O God, are holy,” v. 13), but also that he is able and does put all his holy decrees into action. In other words, nothing frustrates him; nothing turns him aside from his perfect right and moral path.

3. That God is caring. How do we know that God is caring? It is because he “redeemed” the people, meaning that God delivered them from their bondage under the slave lords of Egypt (v. 15). Therefore, if God is caring as well as being powerful or sovereign, he can be counted on to work in each detail of history for his people’s good. And this means that even allowing the psalmist to fall into the depression with which the psalm began is not carelessness on God’s part, but rather a part of his total loving plan. Do you believe that? Can you reason that way? This is practical theology of the best sort, for it reasons from the immutable character of God to reasons for his acts in history and takes comfort from such truths.

1For helpful discussions of these variations see H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms, pp. 560, 561; J. J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 2, p. 50; Alexander Maclaren, The Psalms, vol. 2, p. 377; and Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), vol. 2, pp. 352, 253. Leupold prefers: “This is my grief, that the right hand of the Most High has changed” (p. 555). Perowne is similar: “This is my sorrow, that the right hand of the Highest hath changed” (p. 50). Maclaren reads, “It is my sickness; [But I will remember] the years of the right hand of the Most High” (p. 371). Delitzsch translates, “My decree of affliction is this, The years of the right hand of the Most High” (p. 348). Marvin E. Tate, who discusses the problem only briefly in the notes, has, “My sorrow is this: the changing of the right hand of the Most High” (Marvin E. Tate, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 20, Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word, 1990), p. 268.

Study Questions:

  1. What is thought to be the best interpretation of verse 10 and why?
  2. Name the attributes of God contained in verses 13-15.

Reflection:

  1. What does each attribute of God mean in terms of your everyday life?
  2. How do you know God is caring?
  3. How are your hard times a reflection of God’s caring?

 


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Wednesday: Remembering

By James Boice

Theme: Asking Questions

In this week’s lessons we are reminded that when we are discouraged and God seems distant, we are to remember who God is, what he has done in the past, and what he promises to do in the future.

Scripture: Psalm 77:1-20

But at least he has begun to think about God, which is what his memories of past days inevitably lead him to do. For whether he senses the presence of God with him now, at least he did then and he had reason to be happy. Ah, but that is just the problem, isn’t it? He was happy with God then. He is not now. God seems to be utterly absent, to have abandoned him. And what he is afraid of is that this apparent abandonment will go on forever. He is afraid that he will never get out of his depressed state and that depression will only lead to blank despair.

So he asks a series of questions that give voice to the very root of his dismay. There are six of them (vv. 7-9), and they are all rhetorical: “Will the Lord reject us forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

Well, what of it? Does the Lord reject his own forever? Can he ever cease to love those he has once loved? Has his character changed so that he is no longer merciful? Even to ask such questions is to answer them. The answer is, Of course not. God does not change. God does not break his promises. His mercies are new every morning. Therefore, if the psalmist does not believe that God is favorable, it must be because he is seeing things incorrectly. He is the one who is wrong, not God. As the Apostle Paul was to write, “Let God be true, and every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4).

Remember that we are looking at the pronouns and other references to God in each stanza. Here we can do so usefully again. In the last stanza “God” began to be considered, though in a negative way. In this stanza references to God predominate: “the Lord” (v. 7), “God” (v. 9) and the pronouns “his” or “he” throughout (six times).

The questions in this stanza are still negative in form, of course. They are asking whether God has forgotten. But even in this form it is better to ask them than not to ask them, because asking them sharpens the issue and pushes us toward the right, positive response. Alexander Maclaren insists that asking such questions is good. He writes, “Doubts are better put into plain speech than lying diffused and darkening, like poisonous mists, in his heart. A thought, be it good or bad, can be dealt with when it is made articulate. Formulating vague conceptions is like cutting a channel in a bog for the water to run. One gets it together in manageable shape, and the soil is drained.”1 What is impossible to deal with is dissatisfaction that will not express itself openly or submit to reason.

1Alexander Maclaren, The Psalms, vol. 2 (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1893), p. 376.

Study Questions:

  1. How does knowing God’s character help us in dark days?
  2. What are the psalmist’s rhetorical questions? What do they lead him to conclude?
  3. Why is it better to express doubt than to ignore questions you may have?

Application: If you are going through a dark period now and feel that God is absent or indifferent, what evidences of his compassion and love from the past can you draw on to remind yourself that he has not abandoned you and is at work for your good?


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.