Do not “harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years.” That’s the warning of Psalm 95 to the people of Israel, and it is a major theme of the Psalms: learn the lessons of history.
The Psalms put Israel’s history in both a positive and negative light. Psalm 105 begins by exhorting the people to “remember the wondrous works that [God] has done.” It recounts God’s protection of the fledging nation in the land of Canaan and his provision of Joseph whom he used to pave the way to Egypt.
This psalm is so focused on God’s goodness that it ignores Israel’s response to it: “They asked, and [God] brought quail, and gave them bread from heaven in abundance.” Israel’s unfaithfulness is not mentioned. This is the Psalmist’s reminder that God did not give them the land so they would fail, he gave it to them so “that they might keep his statutes and observe his laws.”
When we see God’s works to the exclusion of Israel’s response to them, we see how those works were intended to be received: with joy.
This makes the unbelieving response of God’s people detailed in Psalm 106 all the more shocking. 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.”
Just as the writer of Hebrews warns his first century audience about unbelief, the psalmists remind their audience of the depths to which the unbelieving heart can sink: “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 daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters.”
But even from these depths, the Psalmist offers hope. At the end of the psalm, he 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.”
In our struggles with unbelief we are warned, but also reminded that God is infinitely gracious and merciful. He always desires that we turn our hearts to him.