A Time to Look Back
By Christopher Raley
Psalm 95 warns Israel not to “harden your hearts as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test” (v. 8-9). In the larger context of Book Four of the Psalter, Psalm 95 a is short summation of a major theme. Namely: learn the lessons of
Psalm 105 and 106, which form the conclusion of Book Four, put Israel’s history in both a positive and negative light. Psalm 105 begins by exhorting the people to “remember the wonderful works that [God] has done” (v. 5). The psalm recounts God’s protection of the fledgling nation in the land of Canaan and his provision of Joseph whom he used to pave the way to Egypt.
The psalm is so focused on God’s goodness that it ignores Israel’s response to it. About certain events in the wilderness it says simply, “They asked, and [God] brought quail, and gave them bread from heaven in abundance” (v. 40). And Israel’s unfaithfulness in the land is not mentioned. The psalmist reminds us that, from God’s point of view, he did not give them the land to fail in, he gave it to them so “that they might keep his statutes and observe his laws” (v. 45).
This is a crucial perspective setter. God gave His people the land so that they could freely participate in laws and statutes that were for their good. It is easy to sympathize with a hardened heart. But when we see God’s works to the exclusion of their response to them, we see how those works were intended to be received: with joy.
This makes Psalm 106 that much more compelling as it details the unbelieving response of God’s people through similar history. Of the provision of quail, the psalmist reminds us that “they had a wanton craving in the wilderness, and put God to the test in the desert; he gave them what they asked, but sent a wasting disease among them” (v. 14-15).
Of their residence in the land it says, “They did not destroy the peoples, as the Lord commanded them, but they mixed with the nations and learned to do as they did . . . They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters” (v.34-25, 37-38).
Just as the writer of Hebrews warns his first century audience about unbelief, the psalmists in Book Four remind their audience of the depths to which the unbelieving heart can sink. But even that heart is not without hope.At the end of Psalm 106, the Psalmist writes, “Many times [God] delivered them . . . he looked upon their distress, when he heard their cry. For their sake he remembered his covenant, and relented according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (v.43, 44-45).
In our struggles with unbelief we are warned, but we are also reminded that God is infinitely gracious and merciful to us and always willing that we should turn our hearts to him.