Telling the Next Generation – Psalm 78

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Psalm 78:1-8

INTRODUCTION: One of our core values as a church is that the church is for children. This section of our values statement reads as follows:

We believe that children can become believers, grow spiritually and serve the church body, and therefore, we will have ministries designed to equip and facilitate this process.

That’s one of the reasons why we have so many ministries for kids here – things like Sunday School, Children’s Church, VBS, kids’ activities, youth group, and why we encourage our young people to participate and serve where they can. You will notice we even have a number of young people who serve on our worship team.

Children are important to us as a church, because children are important to God. And that’s what our passage is all about this morning. These opening verses of Psalm 78 stress the importance of passing our faith on to our kids, of telling the next generation about the Lord. Our children are one of our most precious resources. They are the world of tomorrow. And therefore the nurture of our children must be one of our greatest priorities.

It is important that we teach our children when they are still young. The classical poet Virgil wrote, “As the twig is bent, so the tree inclines.” Francis Xavier said, “Give me a child for the first seven years, and you may do what you like with him afterwards.” The formative years of a child’s life are critically important for their spiritual development. And that spiritual development takes place largely in the family and in the church. If we’re not doing it at home and we’re not doing it at the church, where will our children learn about the Lord? That’s why it is so important to bring your children to church as well as to teach them at home.

Throughout the message this morning I will repeatedly refer to “your children,” “our children.” If you are a parent then I am obviously talking to you. But even if you do not have children or children at home, this message also applies to you. For the church is the household of faith; we are the family of God. And so the children in the church really are “our children.” We all share the responsibility tot ell the next generation about the Lord.

I. A Call to Attention (vv. 1-2)

So let’s look at the Psalm. This Psalm was written by a man named Asaph. Asaph was both a prophet (1 Chronicles 25:2) and a poet. He was one of King David’s three chief musicians. The book of 1 Chronicles tells us played the cymbals. And as one of the Levites he helped lead the music before the ark in Jerusalem.

    A. A call to listen and obey

Asaph wrote a number of Psalms including Psalm 50 and 73-83. But he begins this one in a unique manner. He cries out, “O my people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth.” (Psalm 78:1) As a prophet of God, he demands a hearing from the people.

The word “hear” means more than just “hear what I am saying.” Asaph is saying, “Give ear to me; listen to me; be obedient to my words.” For example, when a parent says to their child, “Listen to me!” it implies obedience. It is the same here. The word translated “teaching” is the Hebrew word “torah.” This was the Hebrew word for their law, but it could also be used for any authoritative instruction.

When Asaph says “Listen to the words of my mouth,” the Hebrew language is very descriptive. It literally says, “Incline your ears,” “stretch your ears to the words of my mouth.” Asaph is talking about an active, eager and responsive listening which results in learning and obedience. He wants his listeners to put forth some effort. “Don’t just sit there. Stretch out your ears towards me, lean forward in your chairs and catch every word. Don’t miss a syllable!”

That’s good advice any time God’s Word is taught or preached. Asaph is like the military officer who enters a room with something important to say and calls everyone to attention. He wants every eye focused upon him, every ear soaking in his words. He commands a willing, attentive hearing. That’s what Asaph does in this first verse. He calls his readers to attention.

    B. The history of Israel set forth as a parable

In verse two he tells us why we should listen to him so closely. “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things, things from of old.” (Psalm 78:2) A parable is a teaching device. It is a story with a spiritual meaning or application. Jesus taught in parables. In fact, the gospel of Matthew later quotes this very verse from Psalm 78 as pointing towards Jesus’ teaching ministry (Matt 13:34).

The “hidden things” usually refer to riddles, puzzling stories or sayings which the audience must ponder to determine their meaning. So what is Asaph getting at here? The emphasis once again is on the effort to be put forth by the hearers. “Listen closely — why? Because I will tell you a parable, something hidden, and if you don’t listen closely, you are going to miss it.”

What is Asaph’s parable? He sets forth the history of Israel as a parable, as a story with a lesson to be learned. Verses 1-8, the verses we’re looking at today, are only the introduction to the Psalm. The rest of the Psalm recounts the history of Israel — from their going out of Egypt, to their entering of the Promised Land, to the reign of King David. It is a Psalm of instruction, demonstrating Israel’s cycle of unbelief. Verses 34-38 provide a good summary:

Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer. But then they would flatter him with their mouths, lying to him with their tongues; their hearts were not loyal to him, they were not faithful to his covenant. Yet he was merciful; he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath. (Psalm 78:34-38)

Asaph says that this extended parable or story teaches us a lesson “from of old.” In other words, the application is timeless. What he says in Psalm 78 applied to the generations before him, and it still applies to us. So what exactly is the lesson he wants us to learn?

II. The Passing of the Torch (vv.3-6)

The lesson is this: we must pass the torch on to the next generation. We must pass our faith on to our kids. It is sort of like passing the baton in a relay race. It’s a lot harder than it looks, as a number of the relay teams at the Olympics this summer could tell you. But as parents, we have a responsibility to pass the torch on to the next generation.

Verses 3 and 4 go together, like this, “What we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us, we will not hide these things from their children.” (Psalm 78:3-4) Asaph wants us to learn the vital importance of passing along our spiritual heritage to our children. Asaph says, “We heard these things from our fathers. The reason we know them is that they passed them along to us. Now we must not hide them from their children.”

The verb “hide” in this verse has a very specific meaning. It means to keep something back, to refuse to make something known. When someone was asked to report something, they were often charged “not to hide anything,” similar to asking someone to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth today. (Ex. Joshua with Achan in Joshua 7:19; Eli with Samuel in 1 Samuel 3:17).

Asaph says, “We will not neglect to share with our children what we have learned. We will not refuse them what God has commanded us to share.” You see this was a command of God early on in the life of Israel. It’s interesting that this Psalm begins Israel’s history with God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt. Because on that very night God gave Israel instructions to teach their children what God had done for them. He commanded them to hold a yearly Passover Feast and told them: “On that day tell your son, `I do this because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” (Exodus 13:8) In fact the entire Passover Feast was designed as an elaborate teaching ritual.

In the book of Deuteronomy God commanded the people through Moses, “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.” (Deuteronomy 4:9)

You see, God has commanded us to teach our children. This begins in the home. Ephesians 6:4 says, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4) But the church’s role is also essential. As believers we are part of a community of faith. And the local church is the vital, local expression of that community. The church can never replace the role of the family, but the family cannot do it alone without the church.

If we fail to teach our children, if we do not nurture them spiritually, then we are refusing to make known what God has commanded us. We hide the revelation of God from our children, and we do them a grave injustice. Spiritual nurture is their due. It is their right. It is their proper inheritance from us. What parent would hide his children’s inheritance from them?

Imagine someone finding a letter after their parents died that read, “My dear child, I have left you a great inheritance but first you must find my will. I have hidden it. I cannot disclose to you the exact location, but I can tell you it is buried somewhere in the state of Montana. I wish you all the best, and good luck!” No parent would purposely hide their will from their children. But if we fail to teach our children about the Lord, we rob our children of their true inheritance — the knowledge of God and his will.

Asaph says, “What we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us, we will not hide these things from their children.” (Psalm 78:3-4) Notice he does not even say “our children.” Yes, they are our children, but they are also their children, their descendants. Our responsibility is not only to the new generation, but also to those who have gone before us. They nurtured us, so that we might nurture others. Asaph’s words apply to you even if you do not have children of your own. Someone nurtured you in your faith; now you owe it to the next generation to help nurture them.

    A. Teach them the works of God.

What are we supposed to teach our children? What should we pass on to the next generation? Two things. First, we must teach our children the works of God. We must tell them what God has done. Look at verse 4: “We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done.” (Psalm 78:4) Notice the threefold phrase Asaph uses to describe this: the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done. We need to share with our children the wonderful things God has done. Praiseworthy things, powerful things, things of wonder. Our children should be awestruck at God’s wonderful works. So should we for that matter!

Share with them God’s mighty deeds recorded in the Bible. Share with them about men and women whom God has used mightily throughout history. Check out some good biographies at the Christian book store. Share with them personal stories of how God has answered prayer in your life. Let them see the impact God has on your faith in everyday struggles and trials. Most of all, share with them what God has done through the sending of his Son Jesus to bring us salvation. Teach your children to praise God for his mighty deeds. It is their heritage. Don’t hide it from them.

    B. Teach them the word of God.

Secondly, we should share with them not only the works of God (what God has done), but also the word of God (what God has said). Look at verse 5: “He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our forefathers to teach their children.” (Psalm 78:5) Asaph talks about the statutes of God and the law of God. The word “statutes” is sometimes translated testimony. It refers to God’s testimony, not man’s, and it carries the general idea of a warning. God’s statutes are his testimony to us of what is good for us and what can harm us. “Law” is a more general word encompassing all of God’s Word to us. And so we must teach our children the works of God and the word of God — his law, his commandments, his warnings, his promises.

Notice the long-range vision of verse 6: “He commanded our forefathers to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children.” (Psalm 78:6) This command requires long-range planning, a love for future generations, and complete unselfishness on the part of parents. It is similar to the environmental concern we often voice for future generations. But how much more important is the spiritual nurture of our children!

III. The Forging of a Child’s Faith (vv 7-8)

What results does Asaph foresee when we teach our children in this way, when we provide proper spiritual nurture them? Look at verse seven: “Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.” (Psalm 78:7)

    A. That they will put their trust in God

Asaph lists three benefits in verse seven which we may expect our children will reap. First, that they will put their trust in God. This should be our greatest hope for our children. Not that they might graduate at the top of their class, not that they might become a world-class athlete, not that they might pull down a six-figure income, not that they might get married and settle down.. Hey, all of those would be nice, but if they do not trust God and put him first in their lives, then it is all for nothing. Children learn faith from people who practice faith. You cannot expect to lead your child any higher in the Christian faith than you are willing to go yourself. So put God first in your life. Demonstrate to your children what it means to trust God in all areas of life. Model it for them.

    B. That they will remember God’s deeds

Secondly, that they will remember God’s deeds. This was Israel’s problem. Israel had selective memory when it came to God’s works for them. They conveniently forgot God’s miraculous deeds on their behalf, and so they forgot all that they owed him. Charles Spurgeon commented on this verse, “Those who forget God’s works are sure to fail in their own.” Remembering God’s deeds is a wonderful incentive to continue trusting him, to commit all your ways to him, to look for his hand at work all around you. Remembering that God is a God of action will spur you on to good works as you allow God to work through you. Nurture your child in the mighty works of God, and they will not soon forget them.

    C. That they will keep God’s commands

Thirdly, that they will keep God’s commands. Teach them the commands of God. Teach them his statutes. Talk with them about the consequences of disobedience. Share with them examples from Scripture. Share from personal experience. Help them to understand the Biblical principle that a person reaps what they sow. Explain to them the problem of sin and how none of us can keep God’s commands on our own. Lead them to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ so that Jesus can come and live within them through the Holy Spirit and enable them to live a life of righteousness and peace.

The spiritual nurture of our children is the forging of their faith. It is through careful, loving instruction in the works of God and the word of God that our children will learn to trust God, to remember his deeds, to keep his commands. Then, says Asaph, they will not be “like their forefathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, whose hearts were not loyal to God, whose spirits were not faithful to him.” (Psalm 78:8)

Asaph ends his introduction to the Psalm with a contrast and a warning. Instead of looking forward to the next generation, he looks back at the past generations of Israelites. He says that the spiritual nurture of our children will protect our children so that they will not be like their forefathers, whose hearts were not loyal to God and who did not remain faithful.

Two generations

Who were these unfaithful forefathers? In the rest of the Psalm, Asaph specifically mentions two generations of forefathers who were marked by stubbornness and rebellion. One was the generation that perished in the wilderness. What was their problem? They forgot the wonderful works of God. Listen to what Psalm 78:40-43 says about them:

“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. They did not remember his power — the day he redeemed them from the oppressor, the day he displayed his miraculous signs in Egypt, his wonders in the region of Zoan.” (Psalm 78:40-43)

The other generation was the one that settled in the promised land following Joshua’s death. What was their problem? They failed to pass the torch on to the next generation. The book of Judges says this about them:

“The people served the LORD throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the LORD had done for Israel … But after that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel.” (Judges 2:7-10)

Joshua’s generation failed to pass the torch. They neglected the spiritual nurture of their children. And so a whole generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel.

You see, we must understand that the church is always only one generation away from extinction. We have a sacred trust to pass on to our children — as families and as a church. We have everything we need for the task. We know the works of God. We have the word of God. We are empowered by the Spirit of God. We are motivated by the love of God. We have everything we need to raise our children in the faith.

CONCLUSION: Let me close with this. One of the saddest verses in Psalm 78 is verse 9: “The men of Ephraim, though armed with bows, turned back on the day of battle.” (Psalm 78:9) Wouldn’t it be great if each generation improved over the previous one? If each new generation loved God more, followed God more, praised God more? It’s possible — we are fully armed for the task. But too often, like the men of Ephraim in verse nine, we turn back on the day of battle. We get distracted from our task.

There is a battle going on for the spiritual lives of our children. Let us not turn our backs on them. Let us devote ourselves to teaching them the works and the word of God. Let us tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord.

© Ray Fowler

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