“Therefore, when the Lord heard, He was full of wrath;
a fire was kindled against Jacob;
His anger rose against Israel,
Because they did not believe in God
and did not trust His saving power.
Yet He commanded the skies above
and opened the doors of heaven,
And He rained down on them manna to eat
and gave them the grain of heaven.
Man ate of the bread of the angels;
He sent them food in abundance.
He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens,
and by His power He led out the south wind;
He rained meat on them like dust,
winged birds like the sand of the seas;
He let them fall in the midst of their camp,
all around their dwellings.
And they ate and were well filled,
for He gave them what they craved.
But before they had satisfied their craving,
while the food was still in their mouths,
The anger of God rose against them,
and He killed the strongest of them
and laid low the young men of Israel.”
I can count on one hand the number of sermons in my 30 years as a believer, and 40 years as a regular church attendee, where Psalm 78 was the central focus. Taken at face value, it is a difficult Psalm to process. However, once you get to the heart of the matter and examine the context of each verse you realize very quickly why. It’s not a Psalm that is full of “feel good” theology. It is not a Psalm that is filled with images of soft meadows and flowing streams and dancing children. It is not a Psalm that is intended to fill you with peace, but rather to spur you to holiness.
This Psalm paints a picture of remembrance of the juxtaposition of judgement and mercy. It is a Psalm that fluctuates between God’s great love for His people and His great wrath at their rebellion and ingratitude. It is a Psalm that warns of the dangers of self-sufficiency and urges us to trust the all-sufficiency of His grace. How often do we find ourselves gorging our spiritual bellies on the blessings of God, and then pushing away from the table of grace to run with the world? How often do you find yourself dolling yourself up for Sunday worship only to find yourself rolling in the prodigal’s pigpen on Monday morning? How often do I find myself celebrating my own successes and minimizing my failures on Friday and then falling on my face in false humility of worship on Sunday morning?
Over and over again Israel has taken God’s grace for granted. Undeserving and having earned nothing to warrant God’s favor, He freed them from the slavery of Egypt out of faithfulness to His word to His servant Abraham. As they traveled across a barren wilderness for forty years, he provided rain, daily manna in abundance, eastern winds to cool the day and southern winds to cool the nights. He provided them daily meat in the form of quail as numerous as the grains of sand on the beach. Mind you that quail was not native to the wilderness of Sinai. Yet all the while as they enjoyed the fruits of His grace, they grumbled and complained and expected more. And their ingratitude was their downfall. Their pride was their own destruction. And God’s judgement and holiness came to bear.
We cannot experience the fullness of God’s mercy and grace without recognizing the truth of His holiness and judgement. Mercy, by definition, implies that we deserve a fate far worse than we receive. Grace, by definition, implies we have done nothing to deserve the blessings we do receive. Our sin demands judgement. His holiness demands repentance. The holiness is the flip side of the coin of grace. Judgement is the flip side of the coin of mercy. There is a price to be paid for our sin, and He pays it on our behalf. We cry out for the shekels of our own self-reliance, and then we trample on His shekinah glory, turning our heads and hearts back to the shackles of Egypt that separates us from His eternal promises.
The late Rev. R. C. Sproul was once asked why the punishment of Adam was so severe. And His response was shockingly honest and was met with laughter as if he was joking, but he sternly retorted and corrected the audience in attendance:
This creature from the dirt defied the everlasting, holy God after God has said ‘The day that you shall eat of it, you shall surely die.’ And instead of dying…that day, he lived another day and was clothed in his nakedness by pure grace and had the consequences of a curse supplied for quite some time. But the worse curse would come upon the one who seduced him, whose head would be crushed by the seed of the woman. And the punishment was too severe?! What’s wrong with you people?!– R.C. Sproul (c 2014)
We must remember who God is. We must remember His holiness. When we truly and humbly confront Him and recognize Him for who He is, we are exposed and recognize who we really are. When we truly recognize His holiness, we can do nothing but fall our face before Him exposed. His holiness exposes our sin. His grace covers our sin. His holiness demands judgement. His mercy takes His judgement upon Himself. We must learn to confront the holiness of God on a daily basis instead of just once in a long while. Until we do, we will never recognize our rightful place at the feet of His throne. Until we do, we will never full appreciate the fullness of His grace.