Practical Reflections on the Psalms: Psalms 78-80

Psalm 78‑80  •  12 min. read  •  grade level: 6
(Psa. 78-80)
Although Psa. 78 be evidently a recapitulation of the history of Israel, convicting them of their disobedience and unbelief—the uselessness as to their hearts of all God's dealings with them, and then, so magnificently, His turning to His own sovereign grace to bless, yet there are some of the marks of unbelief, and warnings as to it, which it will be profitable to us to note. The great principle of the psalm which I have noticed is itself of the highest interest. Sovereign grace is the only resource of God if He is to bless man. All dealings, however gracious, fail of their object. He loves His people, but He has no resource for blessing them but His own grace. If He acted on the effect of His dealings, He gives them up; they only turned aside like a deceitful bow. So ever. But when all was at the worst, He awakes in His love to His people, because of their misery and His love to them. Then He accomplishes the purpose of His own grace in His own way. “He chose the tribe of Judah.... He chose Mount Zion, which He loved.... He chose David his servant.” Such is the general instruction of the psalm. But there are the characters of unbelief which are instructive. The past mercy and faithfulness of God will not give courage for a present difficulty. God must be known by a present faith. No reasoning from former mercies will give us confidence “Can God furnish a table in the wilderness? . . . He smote the rock. . . Can He give bread also?” Experience of goodness and power will not make man trust it, when some new need is there, or lust is at work. Nor was it better, though He commanded the clouds from above, and opened the doors of heaven, and rained down manna upon them. Nor did the correction of their lusts in the matter of the quails stop this unbelieving will. When under His hand, man remembers Him. A little ease brings forgetfulness and self-will. But He was full of compassion, and stayed His hand in judgment. “They tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel” —mistrust of God's power to effectuate all His grace, to do what is needed in any case for His people, and carry out His purposes for them. The moment I suppose anything cannot be for blessing, I limit God. This is a great sin—doubly, when we think of all He has done for us. The Holy Ghost ever reasons from God's revealed, infinite love to all its consequences. He reconciled; surely He will save to the end. He did not spare His Son; how should He not give all things? This, however, is goodness infinite; but doubt of power is doubting He is God. It hinders setting our hope in God. Experience ought to strengthen faith; but there must be present faith to use experience. The gracious Lord keep us from limiting God in His power, and so in His power to bless, and lead us not to remember Him only when His hand is upon us, but for His own sake, and in the midst of present blessing, because the heart is set on Him! Then, in trials, we shall be able to count upon His goodness and have no disposition to limit His power.
Psa. 79 looks for judgment on the heathen. That I leave aside here. The only point I have to notice is the way, when brought very low, the heart turns to God. It does not even here avenge itself; but—the extreme of evil being come upon it—turns to God, and thus remembers its own sins. Nor has it any plea but God's own name. “Remember not against us former iniquities: let thy tender mercies speedily prevent us . . . Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name! Deliver us, purge away our sins, for thy name's sake.” Such is the effect of chastisement. It supposes that we know God. It produces lowliness of heart, true confession, no pretension to any title to deliverance but God's own goodness and name—what He is. Yet the soul rests on that: there is compassion—that God attends to the sighing of His prisoners; and (however strong the hand that holds them appointed to die) will act in the greatness of His power to preserve. The enemy had reproached the Lord, in injuring His people. “Where is their God?” —their confidence. And the Lord showed Himself; and this is looked for, and His people praise Him. This, too, shows another point we may often notice in Scripture—not that God simply is glorious, and must maintain His glory; but that He, having taken a people in the earth, has identified His glory with that people. Faith feels this, with deep sense of it and thankful, entering into it, and reckons on deliverance and grace. God delivers and secures His own glory. But for the very same reason God allows no evil, because His name is connected with His people, as we see in Israel: “Thee only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore will I punish you for your iniquities.” Here the punishment was on them, and the name reproached. So, humbling themselves, and looking for mercy and purging, they look for deliverance, because God's people were brought low.
Psa. 80 is bold in its appeals. It passes from Egyptian deliverance to the knowledge, not of Christ, but of the Son of man. Still it looks at Him as the branch which God has made strong for Himself. It is not, “I am the true vine, ye are the branches,” which makes the introduction of that 15th of John clear. Still it goes now far in owning the man of God's power, the Son of man, whom He made strong for Himself. But if, in this confidence in God, and looking to the Son of man, it speaks boldly, and refers all to grace. It is thoroughly Jewish. It refers to the order of the tribes in the wilderness. It knows God as sitting between the cherubim. Israel was His own vine; but it takes the fullest Jewish light—the Son of man. But it has no hope but God's turning them again. It is this expression, which characterizes the cry of the psalm, which we must examine a little. It is found in verses 3, 7, 19. We may find it again in the same use in Jer. 31:18, 1918I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus; Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke: turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God. 19Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth. (Jeremiah 31:18‑19), and Lam. 5:2121Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old. (Lamentations 5:21)—a similar cry. This gives it much interest. Mere discipline in itself does not turn to God. It may break the will, humble where God is working, and so do a preparatory work; but it does not turn to God. So they are brought here; and in the desolations of Ephraim and Judah, when they are down to the lowest, because nothing less would do, to say, “Turn thou me,” “Turn us again.” It is not simply godly sorrow and the consciousness of sin. Nor is this exactly the thought or feeling here. There is the sense of belonging to God, being God's people, and the rebuke of God being upon them— “they perish at the rebuke of thy countenance.” It is the dealing of God with His people, or a saint in his testimony as now, when God deals with him in it. There is the sense of being His, but God's work, which is repassed when it was carried out in blessing by God, is seen foiled and a witness of the enemy's power; but this power is not what faith rests on, but the rebuke of God. Faith turns to Him, to Him as the original source of blessing and power that wrought it; as the One whose work it is that is always interested in His people. It rests on the beauty and delight of God's work to Himself, as He had planted it, and now it was rooted up; and hence draws the conclusion of His present intervention in grace. But it looks for this first as a turning of themselves. The state they are in is connected with the ruin, though not the main thought; they cannot separate their own state from God's interposition. They needed it, but His first act must be restoring them, turning them. Blessing is their thought, but God's blessing them as He blesses; hence beginning with them and turning them. But with this God's face would shine on them, and they would be saved. How well that we can look to God when our face is set wrong, that He may turn us, and so His face shine on us, was to bring blessing and present deliverance on His people. It looks to God; remark, too, returning and visiting the vine, but it does not look for the restoration of the original state of things (that is not God's way), but to the setting up the branch God had made so strong for Himself. And so we now; we look to Christ's being exalted even in details. If we have failed, it does not become us to look to God's setting it right as before, as if nothing had happened—this could not be for His glory—but to the coming in of Himself to show His goodness in that which manifests His own grace, and hearing the cry of His people. “Let thy hand,” says the faith of Israel, “be on the man of thy right hand.” Here they see their strength and safety—their being kept, right. “So will we not go back from thee.” So it will be fully with Israel in the last day, and so with us practically. His presence is what keeps us. There is another thing that faith seeks. Dullness and death are in turning away from God, and going their own ways. They need, in being thus turned, to be quickened—the reviving life-giving power which calls the heart back to God. It then, with increased seriousness and new confidence, calls upon Him. It is more than the prayer which cries in trial. It is the heart confidingly calling on God, as turned again to Him. The prophetic scene is clearly the restoration of Israel. God does not hide His face from His saints now—He has from Israel: but in their work, and service, and state, as a body, they may find these ways in government.
But I would turn for a moment to the connection of this with personal turning and repentance in the similar passages to which I have alluded. In Jeremiah, we have first, “Turn thou me and I shall be turned.” First, then, we have the action of God in grace turning the sinner round, converting him. He was looking away from God, had turned his back on God, and now in heart and will turns round towards Him. Repentance comes after this— “surely after that I was turned I repented.” I set about, and as brought into the light, my heart towards God, I judged all my ways in my departure, my state of heart, and all. Instructed, then, in true blessing, having the mind of God as to good, one is confounded, one could have thoughts of such vanity and evil with desire. But another thing is brought before us in the Epistle to the Corinthians. The turning of God brings into sorrow. (2 Cor. 7) The apostle's first epistle came with the power of the Spirit to their souls. It was not yet a full judgment of their state in the light, but the will being divinely arrested, there was grief in the sense of having gone wrong: conscience, not will, began to be at work; self may have partially mixed itself with it. Still it was godly sorrow, a broken will, brokenness of heart; the feeling—I have been following my own will, I have forgotten God. The illusion of a perverse will is gone, and the effect of having to say to God, the working of God's nature in us begins. It is not with fear where rightly felt; no thought that God will impute, condemn, but sorrow and grief of heart at the perverseness and delusion of self-will having been followed. This works a far more active, deliberate judgment of evil, called repentance here. Godly sorrow worketh repentance which we shall never regret. The soul by being turned, having by the operation of God's grace been brought to grieve at having listened to will, now re-enters (or enters it at first) into the natural effect and working of the new man at liberty. It judges with spiritual energy the whole evil as God judges it in principle. The sense of fault is not gone, but what characterizes the state is judgment of the fault—of self as far as self is in it. The heart is clear of the evil when it judges it as God judges it, and separates it from itself as a thing external to itself, as God does. And this is holiness, often deeper from better knowledge of self than before. We see an example of this in Peter's address in Acts 2 Their sin was set before the people. They were pricked to the heart, and said unto Peter, What shall we do? The boisterous will was gone: no more, “Crucify Him, crucify Him.” Sin has done its act, and can no more undo it. The folly of it comes home with distress to the heart. “What shall we do?” They are turned, have come to distress and godly sorrow. What are Peter's words? Repent and be baptized every one of you for the remission of sins. Turned they were, grieved at heart at their folly in sinning, they had yet to repent. It is a larger, deeper, fuller thing of a soul brought into the light, and the new man exercising its judgment on what self had been. Not now as pressed on by God, and bowing in sorrow of heart to the effect of His grace and presence in the sense of the evil, but in our own spiritual rejection, with God, of the evil as such from the standing ground of the new man with God. This is accompanied with brokenness and lowliness of heart, but the soul has re-entered into its own liberty with God. True repentance is there when self is proved clear in the matter, when the new standing has possession of the judgment and will, and judges freely as a rejected thing all that the flesh delighted in and had been misled by.