"HOW OFTEN THEY REBELLED against him in the desert and grieved him in the wasteland! Again and again they put God to the test; they vexed the Holy One of Israel" (Ps. 78:40-41).
Thus Asaph pauses in the course of his recital to summarize one of his main points in this psalm. In fact, one could outline some of the dramatic points Asaph makes as follows:
(1) The repeated rebellion of the people of God is presented not merely as disobedience, but as putting God to the test. That is one of the elements in rebellion that is so gross, so odious. A heavy dose of "in your face" marks this rebellion, an ugly pattern of unbelief that implicitly charges God with powerlessness, with cruelty, with selfishness, with thoughtlessness, with foolishness. Chronic and repeated unbelief "with attitude" always has this element of putting God to the test. What will God do about it? Small wonder that the apostle Paul identifies the same pattern in the conduct of the people during the wilderness years and warns Christians in his day, "We should not test the Lord, as some of them did — and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did — and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us" (1 Cor. 10:9-11).
(2) Although the first part of the chapter notes God's wrath replying to the pattern of the people's rebellion, it also insists that time after time God "restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath"(78:38). But the pattern now becomes grimmer. Eventually the idolatry was so gross that God "was very angry; he rejected Israel completely" (78:59). The context shows that what Asaph had in mind is the judgment of God on the people when he permitted the ark of the Lord to be captured by the Philistines: "He sent the ark of his might into captivity, his splendor into the hands of the enemy" (78:61; cf. 1 Sam. 4:5-11), with the entailment that the people faced terrible destruction at the hand of their enemies.
(3) The closing verses (78:65-72) focus on the gracious choice of Judah and of David as God's answer to the wretched years of the wilderness, of the judges, of the reign of Saul. "And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them" (78:72). Living this side of the Incarnation, Christians are especially grateful for David's line.
(4) Christians know how the storyline of Psalm 78 develops. David's dynasty descends into corruption; God's wrath is greater yet, and the Exile ensues. But worse wrath, and more glorious love, were yet to be displayed in the cross.
Numbers 34; Psalm 78:40-72; Isaiah 26; 1 John 4