Psalm 78 is a review of God’s marvelous works in His dealings with Israel. Throughout this long chapter of 72 verses, there are a number of contrasts between God’s mighty works, and Israel’s unfaithfulness and disobedience.
The first eight verses of the chapter declare the psalmist’s purpose. His goal is to encourage God’s people to teach each new generation the lessons from history—lessons from the past. Then, from verse 9 on through verse 72, the psalmist talks about Israel’s history, and tells about the blessings of God and the disloyalty of the people.
In verses 9-20 the writer reviews God’s miracles in Egypt: the crossing of the Red Sea, the cloud that led the Israelites through the Wilderness, and the giving of water to survive. In verses 21-39 he records God’s anger at the people because of their unbelief—but he also tells about God’s provision of manna, and His providing meat by sending flocks of quails to supply food for the people. The last verses of the chapter describe how the people in the wilderness forgot God’s power that was displayed in each of the plagues in Egypt. They seemed to forget that God turned the waters of the Nile into blood, and dried up the Jordan River to allow their entrance into the Promised Land in the days of Joshua.
The message in this lesson covers the first eight verses of Psalm 78. Things of the past are to be recounted to our children, so that the upcoming generation will have confidence in God, and will not forget God’s commandments.
When we talk about educating children, the usual advice is to look toward the future. People will say, “Let bygones be bygones; the past is water over the dam; it’s time to get a new and fresh start; we’re living in a new age; don’t look back.” Even Jesus says that he who puts his hand to the plow should not look back; that is, he should persevere and seek to be faithful to God.
But Psalm 78, oddly enough, is preoccupied with the past. It is our duty to bring up children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). One important part of that responsibility is to recite for the next generation some of the wonders which God performed in the past on behalf of His people.
There are two major sections in our lesson: Learning from the past (verses 1-3), and Teaching for the future (verses 4-8).
1. Learning From the Past (Psalm 78:1-3)
As the Psalm opens, God is issuing a call to learn from history. History is really “His story”—a recital of God’s works among the human family. The review of God’s marvelous works over the years is designed to impress upon the minds of the young the important truth that obedience to God leads to great blessing, and disobedience always leads to disaster. The text says: “Give ear, O my people, to my law; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us” (Psalm 78:1-3).
In verse 1, the people are called upon to “give ear to my law”—that is, give obedient attention to God’s teaching and instructions.
The word “parable” in verse 2 means “to place one incident alongside something else so that we might learn by comparison.” In this case, the past history of Israel is placed alongside the present, so that those living today might not repeat the sins of the past. The lessons from Israel’s slavery in Egypt, and the Red Sea experience, and the provision of manna in the Wilderness—along with the complaining and dissatisfaction of the people—taught some important concepts. For example: God is all powerful and intervenes for His people; many who were unbelieving and rebellious died in the wilderness; God is angry with those who are ungrateful and forget about His mighty works in their behalf.
These are lessons that all of us need to learn. The lessons from Israel’s past are examples intended to help us avoid repeating their errors (1 Corinthians 10:11 says so). And the key to remembering is to study the Bible on a regular basis, so that the lessons found there will remind us how God wants us to live.
The phrase “dark sayings of old” (verse 2), speaks of things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world. Jesus quoted this concept in Matthew 13 when He declared that truth was to be concealed from the unbelieving masses, and was to be revealed only to those who would accept it.
Verse 3 plainly says that what we have learned from our fathers is what (in verse 4) we are to pass along to our children. We are not told to teach new and updated ideas. Instead, we are to teach that “which we have heard and known,” and that which “our fathers have told us.”
I get weary of all the talk about being relevant and teaching lots of newfangled ideas. Of course changes take place over the years, and we must relate truth to current situations—but the Scriptures are relevant to every age. It’s interesting to note (in 2 Timothy 1:5) that Paul commends Timothy for the fact that his faith was the same as his grandmother’s! Paul rejoiced when he remembered the sincere faith “which dwelled first in thy grandmother, Lois, and thy mother, Eunice, and I am persuaded that [is] in thee also.” Timothy was a man of deep Christian conviction. He didn’t mind being accused of having an old-time religion. He was glad to sing, “It was good for our fathers, it was good for our mothers, and it’s good enough for me.”
The Bible message is the same now as it was centuries ago. And the basic human problem is the same. The theme of the Bible is redemption—the message telling how a sinful human being can become reconciled to a holy God. Our settings today are different from those of many years ago, but the sinful human heart is still the same. A man can hate his wife while traveling 600 miles per hour just as much as he did in the days of Abraham, when people traveled by walking at 3 miles per hour. So it is our duty to learn from the past, and we should seek to avoid the errors that former generations have made.
2. Teaching For the Future (Psalm 78:4-8)
The psalmist appeals in this section to all of God’s people, urging us to diligently teach our children the truth about God, as revealed in all His dealings with humanity in the past. Psalm 78:4-8 says: “We will not hide them from their children, showing to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done. For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children. That the generation to come might know them . . . [that they may] arise and declare them to their children; that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments, and might not be as their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation; a generation that set not their heart aright, and whose spirit was not steadfast with God.”
The things that we are to pass along (verse 4), should include “the praises” (i.e., the glorious deeds) of the Lord. We are to teach lessons about His strength and might, and tell about the “wonderful works that He has done.” Parents and grandparents are to teach children lessons about who God is, what He has done, and how the people responded to Him.
God has appointed a law in Israel, and ordered that His laws are to be faithfully transmitted to our children. The Ten Commandments are sometimes called a “testimony” (a declaration of truth from our Creator)—and we have a duty to teach those laws to our children (verse 5). We should want to teach God’s laws because they are the means by which our children may come to put their trust and hope in God (verse 7a). In Deuteronomy 6, immediately after the second listing of the Ten Commandments, Moses wrote: “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart; and thou shall teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).
A little later, in the same chapter, God says in essence: “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What do the testimonies and statutes and judgments mean which the Lord has commanded you?’ Then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s bondmen in Egypt; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and showed us signs and wonders upon Egypt, and upon Pharaoh, and He brought us out from thence, to give us the land which he sware unto our fathers'” (Deuteronomy 6:20-23 paraphrased).
The teaching is not to be an occasional or sporadic thing. We are to talk about “the wonders of God” when we sit at the supper table, when we travel by car, when bedtime comes, during the morning family worship time—when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.
Grandparents too have wonderful opportunities to contribute to the teaching task. When your grandchildren beg for stories about their parents, their uncles and aunts, their grandparents and great-grandparents—make use of every opportunity to pass along accounts of God’s faithfulness in the midst of the ups and downs of life. Sharing Christian beliefs, and explaining their meaning to children, is one of the primary ways to keep the faith alive.
Of all the attitudes which parents sometimes adopt, the worst attitude by far is to say, “I’m not going to force religion on my children; I’m going to let them make up their own minds when they are old enough.” During the impressionable years of childhood, the world will try and force its views upon their minds, and sometimes secular and unbelieving teachers will mold their tender hearts with philosophies that are foreign to the Christian faith.
Parents, make it a point to tell your children how you came to believe in God. Tell them what you believe and why you believe it. Explain to them the meaning of the foundational doctrines and principal themes of God’s Word. Illustrate the benefits of trust and obedience for them. Remind them of the results of rebellion and sin. Fanny Crosby wrote the words, “Tell me the story of Jesus; write on my heart every word.” That should be the goal of every parent.
Verse 6 states the purpose of Christian education. We are to teach God’s laws to “the generation to come”—and that generation is to teach God’s laws to their children—in order that God’s truth will be handed down diligently from generation to generation.
Verse 7 states the goals for such teaching. One goal is “that they might set their hope in God.” Teaching truth about the marvelous works of God in the past reveals the living God as One who keeps His covenant, and redeems His people. Another goal is “that they might . . . not forget the works of God.” A child’s mind is never so fascinated as when he hears the works of the Lord as recorded in Scripture. Children are gripped by the story of Daniel in the den of lions, the story of David when he slew Goliath, and the story of Moses placed in a basket by the Nile River. Many, in later years, will remember the works of God and claim His promises for their own circumstances. Yet another goal for teaching children is “that they might . . . keep God’s commandments.” It was the psalmist who said, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.” Sin is a hard taskmaster. The wages of sin is death. The path of sin leads to hardship and disaster.
Verse 8 says that teaching children some lessons from history can help them overcome stubbornness and rebellion, so that they will not follow the path of their forefathers. The Israelites in Old Testament times were thoroughly rebellious, as the remaining portion of this long historical psalm shows.
The thrust of Psalm 78 is the call to teach children the wonders of God. We must uphold the Scriptures as God’s truth, and declare to the next generation that the words of the Bible are not mere stories from mythology.
Truth which our fathers held will become truth that I hold. Truth that I hold will become truth which my children hold. It is not truth that I hold just because my father held it; rather, it is truth I hold because it is true; it is truth based on the clear teachings of God’s Word.
Here are some hints for teaching children:
1) Start very early. Some have proposed that half of all growth in human intelligence takes place by the time a child reaches the age of five. During those early years, habits are formed and basic rules of life are learned. There is a critical period during the first years of a child’s life when he can be taught proper attitudes, and if we miss the opportunity of those years, his openness to receiving instruction will likely never return in the same way.
2) Teach with love. One of the best ways to show children that they are loved is to spend time with them. Pity the child whose parents don’t have time for a family picnic, or a walk in the woods, or a day at the zoo. Parents should have a regular story time and play time with their children.
3) Teach knowledge of the Bible. One of the best ways to teach a child in a structured way is to conduct brief, regular daily family worship periods. Take the Bible (or for small children, a good Bible story book), and each day read a portion from its pages, followed by a time of family prayers.
4) Teach immediate obedience. When you ask that something be done, there should be no delays. Let your children plainly see that it is going to be done; and if it is not done, there will be immediate appropriate punishment. Unquestioning obedience is the cornerstone of a child’s future character.
I was born in 1930. Here in the United States of America, there was a general acceptance of Judeo-Christian values. People worked hard. Stores were closed on Sundays. There was a spirit of friendliness among most neighbors. Public schools were places where learning occurred. Today, however, there is a growing generation that is ignorant of what the Bible teaches, and intolerant of the country’s rich spiritual past.
The 78th Psalm reminds us that “teaching” means not only pointing the way to live in the present, but also the importance of remembering the past. And we must keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of people who become believers in Christ, make that decision early in life.
83% of all decisions for Christ are made before age 20.
92% of decisions for Christ are made by the age of 25.
Only one out of a thousand becomes a child of God after age 30.
Therefore it is urgent that the gospel message must be proclaimed by parents and grandparents during the early years. Reminders about the greatness of God need to be drilled into the minds of children at an early age.
From the very early years, our children must be taught a morality grounded in the character of God, and supported by the principles displayed in the life of Jesus. Many in our day are not doing a good job of teaching moral principles. As a result, many youth seek to avoid hard work, laugh at scrupulous honesty, and have no conscience against stealing from employers.
Whole congregations can quickly turn away from the Lord if they are not diligently instructed week after week. In the days of Joshua, many Israelites affirmed his statement, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). That entire generation remained loyal to God as long as Joshua lived (Joshua 24:31), but the situation reversed itself in the succeeding generation. Judges 21:25 says that everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
The public schools concentrate on the 3 R’s—reading, writing, and arithmetic, and rightly so. But Christian parents (godly people) must focus on the 3 R’s also—repentance, regeneration, and righteousness!
To younger persons, I would recommend that if your Christian grandparents have never written down some of their memories and spiritual experiences from earlier years, that you prepare a number of questions for them, and interview them, jotting down their answers; and then write those stories in a journal for your children to read.
Religious instruction is a key tool that godly parents have at their disposal to help pass on the torch of faith to their children. If parents are diligent in telling the accounts of God’s saving acts, and explaining His commands, and emphasizing the mercy He showed to a floundering people, they will most likely see their children turn their hearts to God.