Covenant Psalms: The Necessity of Obedience

tencommandmentsheart

Our Bible is divided up into two parts, but it wasn’t always like this. The designations “Old” and “New Testaments” are not part of the original texts of the Bible; they were added early in the third century AD when Tertullian referred to “two testaments of the law and the gospel” in his description of the Bible. But what do those appellations actually mean?

The last 27 books of the Bible form what we have come to call the New Testament. There is an interesting verse in an Old Testament book that ties the two Testaments together, and yet also serves to separate them:

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. (Jeremiah 31:31 NIV)

The fact that this Old Testament verse is quoted in the New Testament ties the two testaments together, but at the same time we read about a “new covenant” that God will make with His people. The Greek word for “covenant” is diatheke, and is also translated “testament” and “will.” That’s why we also call the New Testament the “New Covenant.”

God made small covenants all the time throughout the history of Israel. But the Israelites understood that they were God’s people because He made a big, binding Covenant with them – the Old Covenant. Christians understand the same thing: we are made God’s people because of the New Covenant God had made with us through the atoning work of Jesus Christ:

And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks for it and gave it to them and said, “Each one drink from it, for this is my blood, sealing the new covenant. It is poured out to forgive the sins of multitudes.” (Matthew 26:28 TLB)

The blood of Jesus forms the basis of the New Covenant God is making with His people, replacing the Old Covenant. Our “Old Testament” is the history of the people (Israel) of the Old Covenant, and our “New Testament” is the story of the people of the New Covenant (Christians).

Though the Covenants have changed, God hasn’t. That’s why studying the Old Testament is so important. We, as signatories of God’s New Covenant, don’t want to make the same mistakes as those of the Old. We can learn a lot about how to live within the bounds of God’s Covenant by looking at their occasionally good example, but more often than not, their bad example. And we can see how God relates to those who live in obedience to the Covenant, and how He relates to those who do not.

Psalm 81:8 – 16

Psalm 81 is, at its heart, a psalm of adoration. It is also a Covenant Psalm. Verse 3 gives us the purpose for which this psalm was written:

Blow the ram’s horn on the day of the New Moon Feast. Blow it again when the moon is full and the Feast of Booths begins. (Psalm 81:3 NIrV)

So it seems that Psalm 81 was intended to be used during the fall festivals in Israel, including the Feast of Trumpets in connection with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles. It’s an anonymous psalm, but because Joseph is mentioned by name in verse 5, there are some scholars who think it was written in the northern kingdom, late in the history of the divided kingdom.

God had been very good to His people down through the years. Verses 5, 6, and 7 give some examples of His goodness. In light of that, God has some simple expectations of the people who signed onto His Covenant:

Don’t have anything to do with the gods of other nations. Don’t bow down and worship strange gods. (Psalm 81:9 NIrV)

That’s idolatry the psalmist was writing about. Israel knew a lot about idolatry. In fact, if the scholars are right, then by the time this psalm was written idolatry had become the norm in Israel and the worship of Yahweh very rare. The Lord claimed the exclusive loyalty of His people. This was the most basic component of the Old Covenant and was the first of the Ten Commandments, Israel’s national constitution and spiritual manifesto.

You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3 NIV)

The very foundation of God’s Covenant with Israel was that He did a momentous thing for them, and they owed Him for that. Giving Him their loyalty was His expectation. Perhaps that has a tinge of harshness, but that expectation is not given in isolation. There’s this:

Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it with good things. (Psalm 81:10b NIrV)

The limitless power of God gives (or should give) His people encouragement to ask for big things (“open your mouth wide”). This isn’t just an Old Covenant idea, by the way. Jesus, who established the New Covenant, made it part of His Covenant, too!

You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. (John 14:14 NIV)

You’d think Israel would hold up their end of the Covenant, but the lure of idolatry was strong and persistent and the worship of idols seemed more appealing to them. You’d think that God’s pleading with His people for their loyalty over the centuries would have been heard, yet He was ignored. This is the gist of the remainder of this covenant psalm. God delivered His people (vs. 10), but they didn’t appreciate it and rebelled (vs. 11). So God abandoned them to their own wills (vs. 12). He yearned for them to return and obey (vs. 13). God was willing to take them back and punish their enemies (vs. 14, 15) and bless them with the finest of food (vs. 16).

French novelist Alphonse Karr originally wrote:

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Or as Snake Pliskin and Bon Jovi put it:

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Psalm 81 is all about Israel, but it’s message should resonate with the Church, members of the New Covenant. Sadly, many of these verses are a spot-on commentary on the lives of way too many Christians. In spite of all that God has done to save us, we ignore Him. Even though God’s one and only Son gave His very life to save us, we refuse to yield our lives in obedience to Him. We are the ones with the deaf ears, stubborn hearts and selfish ambitions now. Every sin that characterized Israel now characterizes the Church of Christ. Is it any wonder why America is declining so quickly?

So I let them go their own stubborn way. I let them follow their own sinful plans. (Psalm 81:12 NIrV)

What if the state of America is really God’s judgment on the Church and not on the sinners?

For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17 NIV)

Psalm 78

Psalm 78 is another covenant psalm, and it is also the second longest psalm in the psalter, clocking in at an amazing 72 verses! And while it is a long covenant psalm, it can also be called a “historical psalm,” along with psalms 105, 106, 114, and 136. The big theme in Psalm 78 is Israel’s history, with many verses recounting the things God did for His people. Generally speaking, it’s hard to get excited about Psalm 78; it could be considered depressing as you read how poorly the people responded to the all the good things God did for them.

Verses 1 – 8

The first eight verses are filled with history, or “His-story,” because they are a recital of God’s works designed to teach people – young people, especially – the unavoidable truth that disobedience always leads to disaster, on both an individual level and a national level. Both hearing “His-story” and telling it is vital and are things all believers should be doing. Pastor, author, and Puritan John Flavel was absolutely correct when he wrote:

If you neglect to instruct (your children) in the way of holiness, will the devil neglect to instruct them in the way of wickedness? No; if you will not teach them to pray, he will teach them to curse, swear, and lie; if ground be uncultivated, weeks will spring.

The state of our nation testifies to the wisdom of the Bible and, sadly, to the veracity of Flavel’s observation.

Verse 4 is an interesting principle unique to Israel:

We won’t hide them from our children. We will tell them to those who live after us. We will tell them about what the Lord has done that is worthy of praise. We will talk about his power and the wonderful things he has done. (Psalm 78:4 NIrV)

Israel never tried to cover up the failures of their forefathers, unlike other nations did and do. Nations don’t usually write volumes about their military failures, foreign policy screw ups, or ruinous economic policies they enacted. But God, in His Word, never whitewashes any of His people, not even His “heroes.” All the patriarchs and prophets of Israel were full of shortcomings and we know all about them. Abraham, Moses, David, Jonah and other men of renown all did great things for God and His people but God’s Word makes sure to record their failures, too. Why? Because the weaknesses and greatness of even the best of God’s people serve to show everybody’s desperate need for Christ’s atoning death.

A rebellious spirit: Ephraim, verses 9 – 16

Beginning at verse 9, the psalmist singles out a single tribe for special rebuke, Ephraim.

The soldiers of Ephraim were armed with bows. But they ran away on the day of battle. They didn’t keep the covenant God had made with them. They refused to live by his law. (Psalm 78:9, 10 NIrV)

Why would He do that? Was Ephraim worse than all the other tribes? Ephraim became the leading tribe of the northern group of tribes, which would eventually become the Northern Kingdom, which was frequently referred to only as “Ephraim.” The Northern Kingdom existed neck-deep in a state of almost constant apostasy. But their godless attitude really began back in Egypt! That’s a nation starting their downfall early!

He did miracles right in front of our people who lived long ago. At that time they were living in the land of Egypt, in the area of Zoan. (Psalm 78:12 NIrV)

The psalmist’s account of God’s faithful doings is briefly interrupted by yet another account of the people’s unfaithfulness.

But they continued to sin against him. In the desert they refused to obey the Most High God. They were stubborn and put God to the test. They ordered him to give them the food they longed for. (Psalm 78:17, 18 NIrV)

The psalmist does this numerous times throughout this long psalm and points out the two lessons Hebrew children were to learn from their parents: God’s unlimited love and power, and man’s persistent sin. This is also a lesson Christians need to be reminded of. God’s love is unlimited and it is undeserved. We are not loveable people, yet God loves us constantly and fully. Even when we succumb to the temptations to sin, God still loves us. The temptations never stop; they are relentless. The people of Ephraim – the Northern Kingdom – couldn’t seem to get the victory over the temptation to worship idols. Maybe you are also struggling with the persistent temptation to sin or worse, some persistent sin your life you just can seem to get a handle on. Verse 22 gives us the reason the people of Israel didn’t stop their sinning and it’s the reason why we Christians won’t stop ours:

That was because they didn’t believe in God. They didn’t trust in his power to save them. (Psalm 78:22 NIrV)

How else can you explain why God’s people rebelled? In response to all God did for them, they rebelled continually. From God’s perspective the reason was obvious: they were not overwhelmed by His ability to deliver and to provide for them. In fact, Israel was completely unconcerned with God and His wonders. With the passing of each generation, their society became more and more secular and its basic orientation was not spiritual but fleshly. Verses 61 – 64 describe what happened to their society as a result of God’s letting them go:

He allowed the ark to be captured. Into the hands of his enemies he sent the ark where his glory rested. He let his people be killed with swords. He was very angry with them. Fire destroyed their young men. Their young women had no one to get married to. Their priests were killed with swords. Their widows weren’t able to cry. (Psalm 78:61 – 64 NIrV)

Very bad things happen when God lets His people pursue the life the want instead of the life He wants for them. The lessons of Psalm 78 are simple and are as old as man. It is sin that separates us from God. God is merciful but He is also just. We deserve stern punishment, but receive grace instead. Given what God has done for us and what He promises to do for us, we Christians should stop acting like spoiled children, like the Israelites as they wandered in the desert or like arrogant ingrates like Ephraim.

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