Psalm 78: Wrath and Redemption
Recently I visited a friend who lives in a suburb occupied mainly by Bengalis from Bangladesh. I must have timed it right because the annual Bangladeshi food fair was going on. I got to sample some exotic food. But then something happened that really fascinated me.
Three Bengali teenage boys were standing around looking bored. “You guys look like you're waiting for the fun and festivities to start!” They sort of grunted. “Where are you guys from?” I asked. “How long have you been here? What's it like living here?”
As I was about to move on, I noticed one of the guys was wearing a T-shirt with the word redemption emblazoned across the top. I asked him how he chose that shirt and he looked confused. I guess I was revealing my age when I suggested that he may have seen a movie like 'Shawshank's Redemption' because he obviously didn't know what I was talking about.
The Holy Spirit prompted me to keep going. “I know a story with the word redemption in it. Would you like me to email it you?” Without hesitation, he agreed. When I got home I wrote him a letter and sketched out the amazing story of the prophet Moses and how God rescued the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. I recommended two movies he could watch that tell the story in more detail, The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt.
Did you know that 98% of the people from Bangladesh are Muslim? Did you know that most Muslims are familiar with the basic plot of the Exodus story? A personal friend who is also an Imam told me that the story of Pharaoh and Moses is mentioned more often in the Qur'an than any other OT story. By the way, the Qur'anic account doesn't mention the 10th plague or the Passover Lamb, which is why Muslims miss the real meaning of the story. The rest of the story, for the most part, is in the Qur'an. Most Muslims are inclined to agree with the redemptive theme implicit in the Passover Lamb, since they perform a ransom sacrifice each year in remembrance of Abraham (Qurbani). This makes it useful as a starting point for conversation.
Do you recall reading in Acts 8 how Philip meets a man unexpectedly on the road to Gaza, an Ethiopian? The young man I met unexpectedly on a modern city street was from Bangladesh. Undoubtedly there are different kinds of people in your city. Are you ready to make the most of possible opportunities the Lord might bring across your path this week?
Today we're looking at Psalm 78, written by the psalmist Asaph, written some 500 years after Moses and 1000 years before Christ. The majority of the psalm recounts the Israelites' miraculous escape from Egypt. It tells how Moses led them out of slavery to the border of the promised land, a journey that took 40 years. The remainder of the psalm briefly records the continuing history of the the nation up until the reign of King David. His reign reignited hope and foreshadowed the greater son of David, the Messiah. (Luke 1:69) The Exodus or Redemption story, as it is sometimes called, forms part of the bigger story of the Bible – a vital thread in the salvation story which unfolds through the OT and is fulfilled in the NT in Christ's death and resurrection.
We see redemption specifically mentioned in verse 35 where it says the Israelites repented and “remembered that God was their rock, that their redeemer was the Most High.” In the next paragraph the Psalmist again touches on redemption mentioning how the eldest sons of the Egyptians were killed but God spared the Israelites. (v. 50)
Before examining how the plot unfolds let's see how the psalmist introduces the story.
A psalm of Asaph.
1 O my people, listen to my instructions. Open your ears to what I am saying, 2 for I will speak to you in a parable. I will teach you hidden lessons from our past— 3 stories we have heard and known, stories our ancestors handed down to us. 4 We will not hide these truths from our children; we will tell the next generation about the glorious deeds of the Lord, about his power and his mighty wonders.
5 For he issued his laws to Jacob; he gave his instructions to Israel. He commanded our ancestors to teach them to their children, 6 so the next generation might know them—even the children not yet born—and they in turn will teach their own children. 7 So each generation should set its hope anew on God, not forgetting his glorious miracles and obeying his commands.
Did you notice two words that are repeated again and again – children and next generation? In fact, the term next generation basically means the same thing so why not combine them? There are 4 references to children and 3 references to generation making a total of 7! Somehow I get the impression the writer wants us to pay attention. So what is he driving at?
From the beginning of Israel's history as a nation, God ensured there was a way for his people to pass the torch to the next generation. Exodus 12:24-27 tells of their amazing experience, how they were redeemed, how this memory was to be passed on to their children and, then, in turn, to the next generation.
24 "Remember, these instructions are permanent and must be observed by you and your descendants forever. 25 When you arrive in the land the LORD has promised to give you, you will continue to celebrate this festival. 26 Then your children will ask, 'What does all this mean? What is this ceremony about?' 27 And you will reply, 'It is the celebration of the LORD's Passover, for he passed over the homes of the Israelites in Egypt. And though he killed the Egyptians, he spared our families and did not destroy us.'" Then all the people bowed their heads and worshipped.
Why God was angry
Unfortunately most subsequent generations of Israelites did not faithfully commemorate the Passover festival as God had commanded. Over the next several hundred years some Israelites celebrated Passover but the biblical accounts suggest that many Israelites were, at best, inconsistent. (2 Kings 23:21-23) In fact, the psalmist Asaph rebuked the Israelites for not keeping this memory alive. Indeed, he described them as disobedient, stubborn and rebellious. We see this in verses 8-12, immediately after the introduction.
8 Then they will not be like their ancestors -- stubborn, rebellious, and unfaithful, refusing to give their hearts to God. 9 The warriors of Ephraim, though fully armed, turned their backs and fled when the day of battle came. 10 They did not keep God's covenant, and they refused to live by his law. 11 They forgot what he had done -- the wonderful miracles he had shown them, 12 the miracles he did for their ancestors in Egypt...
And these negative traits set the tone for most of the Psalm as we see from the following examples;
17 Yet they kept on with their sin, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. 18 They wilfully tested God in their hearts, demanding the foods they craved. 19 They even spoke against God himself, saying, "God can't give us food in the desert. 20 Yes, he can strike a rock so water gushes out, but he can't give his people bread and meat." 21 When the LORD heard them, he was angry. The fire of his wrath burned against Jacob. Yes, his anger rose against Israel, 22 for they did not believe God or trust him to care for them...
29 He gave them what they wanted. 30 But before they finished eating this food they had craved, while the meat was yet in their mouths, 31 the anger of God rose against them, and he killed their strongest men; he struck down the finest of Israel's young men. 32 But in spite of this, the people kept on sinning. They refused to believe in his miracles. 33 So he ended their lives in failure and gave them years of terror. 34 When God killed some of them, the rest finally sought him. They repented and turned to God. 35 Then they remembered that God was their rock, that their redeemer was the Most High. 36 But they followed him only with their words; they lied to him with their tongues...
38 he was merciful and forgave their sins and didn't destroy them all. Many a time he held back his anger and did not unleash his fury! 39 For he remembered that they were merely mortal, gone in a moment like a breath of wind, never to return. 40 Oh, how often they rebelled against him in the desert and grieved his heart in the wilderness. 41 Again and again they tested God's patience and frustrated the Holy One of Israel...
56 They rebelled against the Most High and refused to follow his decrees. 57 They turned back and were as faithless as their parents had been.
The list of rebukes goes on and on endlessly, but its not as boring as you may think. If you had read the 'omitted' parts in between the rebukes, you definitely wouldn't be bored. These unread sections show example after example of God's goodness, kindness, forbearance and forgiveness of the Israelites. However, in spite of all God did for them they were unthankful and rebellious. If we look at the story from this vantage point it is definitely not boring. However, you might feel frustrated or angry!
If Muslims were reading this they would definitely say “amen” because the Qur'an teaches that Jews are an evil and accursed people!
However, on further reflection, this story appears to be somewhat one-sided. In all fairness we should ask, “Were the Israelites the only sinners? Did God not have a rebuke for Pharaoh and the Egyptians?” Certainly he did, just look at verses 43-52.
43 They [Israelites] forgot his miraculous signs in Egypt, his wonders on the plain of Zoan. 44 For he turned their [the Egyptians'] rivers into blood, so no one could drink from the streams. 45 He sent vast swarms of flies to consume them and hordes of frogs to ruin them. 46 He gave their crops to caterpillars; their harvest was consumed by locusts. 47 He destroyed their grapevines with hail and shattered their sycamores with sleet. 48 He abandoned their cattle to the hail, their livestock to bolts of lightning. 49 He loosed on them his fierce anger -- all his fury, rage, and hostility. He dispatched against them a band of destroying angels. 50 He turned his anger against them; he did not spare the Egyptians' lives but handed them over to the plague. 51 He killed the oldest son in each Egyptian family, the flower of youth throughout the land of Egypt. 52 But he led his own people like a flock of sheep, guiding them safely through the wilderness.
Notice in verse 49 how the momentum builds as the psalmist heaps one synonym on top of another. Clearly the psalmist intends a cumulative effect mounting to a crescendo. It reinforces God's fierce anger. Listen as I read it again, “He loosed on them his fierce anger -- all his fury, rage, and hostility.” It's interesting to see the effect of this terrible 10th plague. We read in Exodus 11:6 that never before had Egypt experienced so much wailing and weeping!
Modern Perspective on Anger
At this point, its helpful to look at this seemingly never ending story of judgement and destruction from a modern perspective. People in our post-modern world feel awkward and uncomfortable reading about God's fierce anger. (By the way, most Bible translations use the word, 'wrath') In fact, today many professing Christians struggle to accept ideas such as wrath and judgement. Of course, it is only natural that we feel uncomfortable reading this long series of tragedies involving thousands of people dying under God's wrath. It is so much easier to talk about God as a loving Father who mainly (only?) shows mercy. But let's not forget: God's fatherly love is expressed in discipline and even punishment. (Hebrews 12:5,6)
Also, we shouldn't forget: God's patience and mercy shines brighter against the backdrop of sin and rebellion. This is exactly what Psalm 78 shows. Notice especially verse 38, “Yet the Lord was merciful and forgave their sins and didn't destroy them.” Similarly, the apostle Paul writes in Romans 2:1-4,
“You may be saying what terrible people we have been talking about!” But you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you do these very same things. And we know that God in his justice will punish anyone who does such things. Do you think that God will judge and condemn others for doing them and not judge you when you do them, too? Don't you realise how kind, tolerant and patient God is with you? Or don't you care? Can't you see how kind he has been in giving you time to turn from your sin? *
Yes, God is angry with sin. Yes, God will judge sinners. These are sobering facts. Mercifully, however, God has provided a way to escape his wrath and he wants us to tell others this Good News. The apostle Paul says it well in Romans 5:8-9, “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God's sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God's condemnation.” (Note the NLT translators chose 'condemnation' though in the original language the word is clearly 'wrath'. What is the problem with this?)
The death of Christ expiated and averted God's anger. But, notice, this is not the only place where Scripture speaks of God's anger. We see God's wrath in Revelation, where it foretells how the world will end with an outpouring of severe judgements. Not only so, Jesus himself spoke of 'wrath' when he described the calamitous events that will befall the world in the end times. (Luke 21:23) He predicted the distress of those days will be worse than the world has ever experienced. (Matthew 24:21; cf. Jeremiah 30:7; Daniel 12:1,2) Considering all these things we cannot dismiss God's wrath as an outdated OT concept.
Interestingly, there are many other Bible passages that tell of God's anger as it relates to God's enemies. Should we be surprised that speaking of enemies correlates with God's anger? The fact that enemies exist, implies there is a battle, spiritual warfare. Throughout Scripture it is clear that God's people had to contend with enemies.
Warfare and Courage
We already caught a glimpse of warfare near the beginning of Psalm 78 where it says the Israelites “fled when the day of battle came.” Let's take a closer look at this battle and ask if there are lessons that can help us face the challenges of our day.
Committed Christians agree: the church's Great Commission is to preach the Gospel to unreached people worldwide. Up to this very day, the unfinished mandate continues to pose a huge challenge. There are about 6,000 unreached people groups who still need to hear the Gospel. Not only so, a major cluster of these are the 1.5 billion Muslims – a particularly daunting challenge! Reaching Muslims is, in effect, the 'Goliath' of our times – a challenge exacerbated by the minute percentage of missionaries who are reaching out to Muslims.
Joel Richardson a scholar and missionary to Muslims says he is “firmly convinced that Islam is the single greatest challenge that the church will face before the return of Jesus.” Several other respected leaders who minister to Muslims globally agree with Richardson. Why take such a hardline approach? At the very root of Islam lies an anti-Christ attitude as seen in Islam's emphatic denial of Christ's deity and his death on the cross. Another reason to agree with Richardson is that persecution of Christians by Muslims is increasing worldwide. This trend is another indicator of Islam's underlying anti-Christ spirit. Another reason Richardson believes Islam poses the greatest challenge is that demographic trends show a definite resurgence of Islam.
In North America the Muslim population is growing rapidly, partly because they are immigrating in large numbers. It is estimated that currently about half of the immigrants into Canada are Muslim. In London and Mississauga more than 10% of the population are now Muslim. In fact, these trends are also evident in other western, so-called Christian, nations. Is there perhaps a reason why we are seeing such a huge influx of foreigners, especially from predominantly Muslim nations? And how does God want us to respond? Leviticus 19:33-34 gives us a clear answer,
“Do not take advantage of foreigners who live among you in your land. Treat them like native-born Israelites, and love them as you love yourself. Remember that you were once foreigners living in the land of Egypt.”
Unfortunately many Christians either ignore or avoid Muslims – few of us are actively befriending and witnessing to them. There are many ways to show immigrants that we love them but lets be sure not to overlook sharing the greatest act of love the world has ever known, as found in John 3:16. The sad fact is that we are intimidated, just like the Israelites who feared the Canaanite giants and fled. Instead of trusting God and engaging the giants, the Israelites retreated. Let's remember, “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self discipline.” (2 Tim. 1:7) There's no place for being ashamed or intimidated. Let us, therefore, boldly step out of our comfort zone, befriend our Muslim neighbors and share the Good News - not forgetting that our conversation should be full of grace and seasoned with salt.(Colossians 4:3-6)
Let the redeemed say so
Obviously the Gospel isn't just for Muslims, though they represent a significant percentage of those who need to hear. The redemption story isn't just relevant to Muslims, although there are significant parallels between the Exodus account and the Quranic account. The story of the Lamb is for everyone. And it is a story that everyone, in every generation, needs to hear.
Psalm 78 makes this abundantly clear, “We will not hide these truths … we will tell the next generation about the glorious deeds of the Lord.” (v. 4) With these words the writer also draws attention to the true hero of the story. And the hero is not Moses, the Lord is the hero. God is the One who deserves the credit and the praise for the incredible rescue that would never have happened without his powerful intervention. God deserves the glory.
Three hundred years after the time of the psalmist Asaph the Lord spoke through another prophet, Isaiah. He also recalled the rescue from Egypt and, like Asaph, he saw this as an opportunity to glorify God. He recounted how the Lord defeated Pharaoh and established for himself “a lasting reputation … a magnificent reputation.” (Isaiah 63:12-14) Other versions render the word reputation as fame or renown. But behind all these words is the idea of glory. How fitting it is to acknowledge God as the famous hero, especially considering how the Exodus has been filmed more often than any other epic story!
The two most well known films are, The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt. Did you know that The Prince of Egypt was dubbed into 17 languages? And did you know Stephen Spielberg has begun producing another blockbuster movie on the Exodus which should be finished in 2013! Imagine how many millions of people around the world have seen, and will see, this rescue story where God provides a lamb as the ransom and saves his people!
Countless people see the movies, true enough, but do they realize that the true hero of Moses' generation is also the hero of ours? Do they realise the hero of Israel is the hero of the whole world! Isaiah put it this way,
There is no other God but me, a righteous God and Saviour. There is none but me. Let all the world look to me for salvation! For I am God; there is no other. (Isaiah 45:21-23)
We can, and we should, help those who watch these movies to grasp the real meaning. This doesn't need to be complicated. The Israelites who rehearsed the story repeatedly each year at Passover festival explained it in simple ways, appropriate to their children. Over the last 60 years movie producers have been retelling this epic story, and this is what God intends. In fact, we too ought to tell the story over and over again.
How can people, including Muslims, understand the true significance of the Exodus story as retold in Psalm 78? Acts 8 tells us how God arranged for Philip to meet an Ethiopian eunuch on the road just when he was reading from Isaiah, “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter. And as a lamb is silent before the shearers ...” So Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The man replied, “How can I unless someone instructs me.” (Acts 8:30-32) In the same way, God wants to use you and I today, to help people discover the great things God has done in the past. One way to do this could be to suggest they watch one of these movies. But more than that, we can help them to grasp the true meaning of what they've seen, as Philip did with the Ethiopian. Then God will receive what he deserves,
Blessing and honor and glory and power belong to the one sitting on the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever. Revelation 5:13
A more detailed article unveiling the hidden truth of the Lamb of God is available online here: The Mystery of Abraham’s Sacrifice
All biblical quotes are taken from the New Living Translation unless otherwise indicated.
I would be happy to continue this discussion with you. Please feel free to contact me.
* Interestingly, the New Living Translation does not use the word wrath in Romans 2:1-5, (or in Romans 5:9) but this word is in the Greek NT and most English translations have retained it as they should. Zane Hodges, a respected authority in Greek, has written a helpful article explaining and applying the meaning of wrath in this passage. It is available online.
Appendix: Revealing 'Hidden Lessons' from our Past
Buried in the epic Exodus story is a precious truth which the psalmist describes as a 'parable', illustration or analogy. Of course, this analogy points to the Messiah – who Abraham prophesied as the Lamb of God. I want to share a simple way to help people probe the underlying meaning of this parable. It is useful to ask questions based on the Exodus – questions that can stimulate conversation and open people's eyes. These questions are relevant to everyone. They're not just suited to one particular group, like Muslims, who happen to have this story in their own scripture. Earlier we saw how Hebrew children asked their parents questions when they saw the lamb being sacrificed. Such inquisitiveness is only natural in children, but as adults, we should also ask probing, insightful questions.
Imagine for a moment, that you ask your friend, “Did you see the movie The Ten Commandments?” (or The Prince of Egypt.) Obviously you're curious to know whether he liked it so you ask what he thought of it.
Then you pray for an opportunity to probe the turning point. But before you can do this, you realise it is necessary to briefly review the story. The summary might look like this: The Lord commanded Pharaoh through Moses to let the slaves go free. But Pharaoh refused. As God sent one plague after another, Pharaoh kept on refusing and becoming more stubborn. Finally God sent the most devastating plague. And it was this last plague that finally broke Pharaoh's resistance. Only then was he willing to let the Hebrew slaves go free.
As you review the story you will want to occasionally ask a question, e.g. “Do you remember what the 10th plague was?”
As you discuss this plague you should explain that this judgement was effectively a death sentence against every first born in the land of Egypt. Both Egyptians and Hebrews were under the threat. Also remember that God had promised Moses' people they would be freed the next morning, nevertheless, they weren't spared from feeling the shadow of this death threat. We may wonder, “Why did God do it this way?” Wouldn't it have been easier if God had simply focused the death plague on the Egyptians? (Undoubtedly, this would have achieved the desired outcome – freedom of the slaves.)
This raises another interesting question, “Was God unnecessarily harsh? … As you discuss this with your friend, God willing, the light will gradually dawn.... The fact of the matter is: from God's perspective, the Israelites were on a level playing field with the Egyptians. God is impartial. At the end of the day, the Israelites were no more innocent than the Egyptians – they too deserved to die. This makes it clear why God 'threatened' the Israelites. God is not on a power trip, getting a kick out of terrorizing people!
Ultimately, mercy shines brightly as God provided a way of escape – a way to spare their first born sons from dying. He instructed them to sacrifice a lamb (or goat) in place of their first born. I trust these thoughts help make sense of the puzzling question, “Was God being severe and harsh by threatening to kill the Israelites' first born sons?” Incidentally, if you find out that your friend hasn't seen one of the two movies on the Exodus why not loan it or suggest a place where he can download it or maybe even stream it online.
Is the Exodus a relevant story for Muslims?
The retelling of the Exodus in Psalm 78 – with its emphasis on wrath – has particular relevance to Muslims for four main reasons:
The Qur'an touches on various aspects of the life of Moosa, more so than any other prophet.
Moosa features prominently in Muslim thinking for another reason: he was instrumental in receiving the Ten Commandments (note especially the first command which Muslim's view as the bedrock foundation of their religion, i.e. tawhid).
The wrathful rebukes which literally pervade this psalm seem like the Qur'an. In fact, most Muslims have a strong hostility towards Jews who are said in the Qur'an to be under Allah's curse.
Muslims believe strongly in Allah's power. They acknowledge that God is sovereignly working out his purpose behind the chaotic and violent events which are shaking many Muslim nations today. We see a hint of how this principle might be relevant to Muslims. Notice in verses 34, 35 of Psalm 78 that God's discipline and judgement of the Israelites caused them to seek the Lord and turn to him. In a similar way, the prophets teach that God's shaking of the nations is not just punitive. It also has a positive aspect. The positive purpose is “so that men will seek your name, O LORD.” (Psalm 83:18, NKJV) Three noteworthy articles in this regard are worth checking out: Is God Able to Humble the Haughty? and When Nations Shake: A Prophetic Perspective and Who/What is Ultimately Responsible for Tsunamis?