The “Saw-Toothed History of Israel”

Psalm 78 recounts the troubled history of God’s people in ancient times. It recounts the wonderful miracles God performed on behalf of his people, rescuing them from Egypt, providing for them in the desert, establishing them in the land of Israel, and raising up David as their king. But over and over again, the psalm recalls how the people turned away from God: “A generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God” (verse 8), “They did not keep God’s covenant, but refused to walk according to his law” (verse 10), “Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert” (verse 17), “In spite of all this they still sinned; they did not believe in his wonders” (verse 32), “Their heart was not steadfast toward him; they were not true to his covenant” (verse 37), “How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert” (verse 40), and “Yet they tested the Most High God, and rebelled against him” (verse 56). 

Over and over again, the psalm recalls that the sin and rebellion of the people was met by God’s discipline to bring the people back to him. And through it all we find reminders to God’s grace and goodness extended to them: “Yet he commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven; he rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven” (verses 23-24), “Yet he, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; often he restrained his anger, and did not stir up all his wrath” (verse 38), and “With upright heart he tended them, and guided them with skillful hand” (verse 72).

Eugene Peterson sums up beautifully what we find in Psalm 78: “A couple of years ago a friend introduced me to the phrase the saw-toothed history of Israel. Israel was up one day and down the next. One day they were marching in triumph through the Red Sea, singing songs of victory, the next they were grumbling in the desert because they missed having Egyptian steak and potatoes for supper. One day they were marching around Jericho blowing trumpets and raising hearty hymns, and the next they were plunged into an orgy at some Canaanite fertility shrine…. But all the time, as we read that saw-toothed history, we realize something solid and steady: they are always God’s people. God is steadfastly with them, in mercy and judgment, insistently gracious. We get the feeling that everything is done in the sure, certain environment of the God who redeems his people. And as we learn that, we learn to live not by our feelings about God but by the facts of God. I refuse to believe my depressions; I choose to believe in God. If I break my leg I do not become less a person.  My wife and children do not repudiate me. Neither when my faith fractures or my feelings bruise does God cast me off and reject me.” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p. 82-83)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: