Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our fathers have told us. (Psalm 78:1–3)
There is a story we should be telling. It’s about a people who forget an unforgettable God. This forgetfulness encourages them to ignore his patience and provision. It enables them to dismiss his miracles. The story is captivating because of God’s power, but it’s dreadful because of man’s sin.
I picture a Sunday school class full of kids sitting cross-legged, leaning forward, eyebrows arched. The flannel graph has been abandoned and it’s just a teacher telling her students something true.
In Psalm 78, Asaph tells us he will “utter dark sayings from of old” (v. 2). He won’t hide these stories from children, because God didn’t (vv. 5–8). The story turns out to be familiar, but the purpose is clear: we share it so our children won’t forget the works of God (v. 7).
And by watching Israel in some of her grittiest moments of unfaithfulness, we gain insight into our own complex relationship with sin.
The Miracles We Forgot
The psalmist mentions some of the most famous stories in Israel’s history—the ten plagues (v. 12), the parting of the Red Sea (v. 13), and water from desert rocks (vv. 15–16). Yet somehow, incredibly, these are the very miracles God’s people forget (vv. 9–11).
This should register shock, not just in kids, but in us. How could anyone forget the fearsome power behind the plagues or the parted sea? But we so often live as though those miracles aren’t really enough. That’s what Ephraim did (v. 9).
We test God when our desire to satisfy our cravings is greater than our desire to honor him. After his repeated deliverance, Israel tested him in their heart by demanding the food they craved. So God gave it to them. They wanted meat, so he rained it on them like dust. Have you ever heard a child ask for more food while they’re still chewing? Do you ever demand more from God before appreciating what he’s given you—before thanking him for the food still in your mouth? Instead of accepting God’s good gifts, Israel questioned his ability to provide. They found his mercy in the past insufficient for the present.
It reminds me of the scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where Violet demands a piece of Wonka’s new experimental chewing gum. Despite being surrounded by edible plants and wallpaper, she wants the gum. Wonka warns her not to eat it, but she grabs it anyway and pops it into her mouth. He watches, shaking his head. When she turns into a blueberry, he isn’t surprised.
After the Lord punished Israel, a positive arch should’ve developed. They should’ve learned their lesson, repented, and moved forward in faith. This was a time to sit around the desert campfire and share stories about God’s faithfulness. Time to tell little Benjie just how red the Nile looked that day, how breathlessly eager they felt escaping from Egypt during the first Passover. It was time for them to recall how God guided them out of slavery like sheep and guided them in the wilderness like a flock (v. 52). How he acted as a Father to them, faithful and strong.
But they didn’t.
When God punished Israel after yet another rebellion, they seemed repentant for a while. They paid lip service. But in their hearts they didn’t submit to him (vv. 34–37).
Can you relate? Do your kids ever say sorry simply to avoid discipline? Do you ever mumble a prayer of repentance before communion, knowing full well sin still has a hiding place in your heart? It’s absolutely incredible the way God responds to Israel, and to us, when we’re insincere:
Yet he, being compassionate,
atoned for their iniquity
and did not destroy them;
he restrained his anger often
and did not stir up all his wrath.
He remembered that they were but flesh. (vv. 38–39)
I wish I could say this incredible compassion was embraced by humble hearts. But, like we so often do, Israel abused grace by letting sin abound (Rom. 6:1). They mocked God’s patience (vv. 58–59) and found idols they liked better. It’s a dark, dark day when the Good Shepherd is asked to hang up his staff of protection. This is what Asaph recounts in the second half of the psalm. As with the meat, God gives them what they crave. He removes his presence, leaving their idols to protect them.
But divine punishment, though fearsome, isn’t the darkest part of this story. The darkest part is human sin—the reason God’s judgment must exist at all. Sinning is the most outrageous response in the universe to a faithful and patient God (Deut. 7:9; 2 Thess. 3:3; Heb. 10:2; 2 Tim. 2:13).
In spite of all this, they still sinned;
Despite his wonders, they did not believe. (v. 32)
The Scariest Story
Do our children grasp the depth of God’s wonders? Do you? If we don’t, they won’t.
We need to talk with them about what God has accomplished in our lives, in the lives of our friends, in human history, in his Word. Stories of his faithfulness should flood our living rooms and be stacked high on our night tables. Stories of his creation, his hard-to-fathom knowledge, and his extravagant love in Christ should be so often on our lips that the idea of forgetting him causes us to gasp.
Tell your kids this story until they gasp—not when God punishes Israel, but when Israel rejects God.
What is the scariest story you can think of? The darkest one God can think of is when his own people—whom he purchased and led to safety—forget him, complain about his provision, and leave him for other gods.
If this isn’t the darkest story we can think of, we’re not telling it right.