The Spirit of a People
I'm still making my way through the NASB in audio form. Getting to hearing Psalm 78 once again reminded me of why this is slowly growing to be one of my favorite psalms and passages in the Old Testament. I'll grant that it is not a particularly encouraging psalm in its entirety but the real value comes in the helpfulness of the early portions of the text,
5 For He established a testimony in Jacob
And appointed a law in Israel,
Which He commanded our fathers
That they should teach them to their children,
6 That the generation to come might know, even the children yet to be born,
That they may arise and tell them to their children,
7 That they should put their confidence in God
And not forget the works of God,
But keep His commandments,
8 And not be like their fathers,
A stubborn and rebellious generation,
A generation that did not prepare its heart
And whose spirit was not faithful to God. - Psalm 78:5-8
The major portion of my enjoyment comes from the generational focus. The people of Israel took the law seriously and knew their children needed to as well (Deut 6:7-9). God had chosen them and thus they were to return in like manner to love the Lord their God (Deut 6:5). Many Christians still affirm these important verses but they lack the theology to support them organically.
What do I mean when I say that? I'm insinuating a couple things. First, our love for God's law is included by election. Second, this election is both corporate and individualistic. These propositions are reflected in the fact that God has saved His people apart from their faithfulness and He had saved them as a corporate community to be faithful to Him.
Coming at the law from anything less than this perspective will be confusing and contradictory. God's law does not merit us God's election. Election must come first. But this election is not an individualistic election. It is a corporate election. So when we raise our children we do not first wait for signs of election and salvation to teach them God's word. On the basis of their being born into a household of the elect they are to join the covenant community and be taught God's word. All of these factors play into the opening lines of Psalm 78. The children must be taught (Psa 78:5) that even their children may be taught (Psalm 78:6). Forgetting God's work is the opposite of obedience (no works based salvation here). But the people are still warned to not be rebellious with their unprepared hearts (it is their responsibility). Historically, the corporate spirit of Israel (the spirit of an entire generation) was unfaithful to God.
Why does any of this matter? Well because I see a lot of these elements in God's promise of the new covenant (Jer 31). God is renewing what has been broken (Jer 31:32). This includes a new and more intimate law (Jer 31:33). This new law will not need to be taught because the heart of the people will be different (Jer 31:33) and iniquity will be forgiven (Jer 31:34). Both these elements are contained in Psalm 78 as something that has happened before,
37 For their heart was not steadfast toward Him,
Nor were they faithful in His covenant.
38 But He, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity and did not destroy them;
And often He restrained His anger
And did not arouse all His wrath. - Psalm 78:37-38
There is a significant semblance in Jeremiah to these musical passages. The covenant is broken because of a poor heart. The spirit of the people is poor but God forgives iniquity to restore the people. All of this is corporate, covenantal language that finds itself described as fulfilled in the Old Testament before the people even reach the Holy Land for the first time (Psalm 78:40-58)! It should not be surprising then that this type of language is carried over by both Ezekiel and Jeremiah,
And I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me always, for their own good and for the good of their children after them. - Jeremiah 32:39
And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them. And I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh. - Ezekiel 11:19
From Egypt on to the modern day, God is in the business of changing the corporate heart from covenant unfaithfulness. He is in the business of replacing the covenant communities spirit with one that will follow Him. He does it for the God of His covenant people and their offspring and He calls them to faithfulness.