Psalm 78: Story Shapes Life

Christ Covenant Church
Rev. Marq Toombs
13 January 2019

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[ sketch notes ]


Mini-series on the Gospel according to Psalms.

Preaching is weird. As a pastor I want to speak the truth in love, I want to do it in a way that is meaningful and interesting, I want to speak with substance and style, and I want to do it for the glory of God and the good of his church.

So, preaching is also hard. But so is listening to preaching.

I have gotten lots of advice and counsel about preaching over the years, but, once upon a time, on our way home from church, my son Dagan offered this insight: “Not every sermon has to be epic.”

That might be obvious to everyone else, but for me, it was an epiphany.

This sermon might not be epic, but the psalm of the evening is.

Psalm 78 has the look and feel of an epic poem.

What do we mean by epic poem?

“An epic is a long, often book-length, narrative in verse form that retells the heroic journey of a single person, or group of persons. Elements that typically distinguish epics include superhuman deeds, fabulous adventures, highly stylized language, and a blending of lyrical and dramatic traditions. Many of the world’s oldest written narratives are in epic form, including the Babylonian Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid.” Source:

To that list we can add John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, (middle-to-late 1600’s / 17th century). It is considered one of the world’s greatest works of literature.

I mention this because a book on Milton’s Epics and the Book of Psalms says that “In the margins of his own Bible, Milton singled out fifteen psalms in some way: he underlined, initialed, ticked, bracketed, or marked parts of some Psalms; and smudged Psalm 78 with wear.”

Milton considered Psalm 78 a psalm worthy of reading and re-reading and re-reading again. When an epic poet wears out a psalm, you know the psalm is epic.

Stand for the Reading of the Word of God:

Psalm 78

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.
He established a testimony in Jacob
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers
to teach to their children,
that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
and that they should not be like their fathers,
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation whose heart was not steadfast,
whose spirit was not faithful to God.

May God add his blessings to the reading, preaching, and hearing of his word.

A Prophetic Nudge

The Gospel of Matthew (13) tells us that Jesus spoke in parables in order to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet. Then he quotes from Psalm 78.

I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old.

The point here is that the Psalmist is a Prophet.

He speaks with artistic creativity and he speaks with concrete authority.

He echoes the Law in a poetic fashion.

The Law requires fathers to instruct and correct their children according to the word of God.

You shall teach the words of God diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deut 6:4-9).

The Scripture readings before the sermon show us how Jesus and the apostles also echoed the Law and re-inforced this command for us.

Luke 18:15-16 — Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them.

Acts 2:38-39 — Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children.

Ephesians 6:1-4 — Children, obey your parents in the Lord “that it may go well with you.” Fathers, bring up your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

The Psalmist gets around our “been there done that” defense-mechanisms by telling us the same old truths in a new poetic way.

He pulls together people, events, and stories from Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings.

The psalmist tells in 7 minutes of poetry what takes about 70 minutes of history to read.

The psalm centers on the story of the saving acts of God in space-time history for his people Israel.

He shows us how God initiated a covenant relationship with his people and entered into their experience in the world. He shows how God delivered his people from Egypt by his power and glory.

He shows how God was so devoted to his people even when his people were not so devoted to him. He shows how God disciplined his people to help make them a more disciplined people.

This psalmist encourages parents to catechize their children, to teach their children the story of God, to tell them who God is, what God has done, and why God does it.

That meant parents needed to know the story of God in the Exodus, in the wilderness, in Canaan, and in Jerusalem. And they needed to tell the story over and over and over again.

Now, for us it means knowing and telling that story — and much more.

We must know the story of God — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — in the true and better Exodus — the story of the birth, the ministry, the death, and life of Jesus Christ. We need to know the story of the gospel. And we need to tell it over and over and over again.

Now, the reason the psalmist encourages us to catechize our children in the story of God is crucial: he wants to see our children and grand-children

set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God,
keep his commandments;
and not be stubborn and rebellious,
like some of their family and friends, 
but to become a generation whose heart is steadfast,
whose spirit is loyal to God. (78:6-8)

In other words, the psalmist wants us to rear a faithful generation of children who love the Lord their God with all their heart, all their mind, all their soul, and all their strength.

That’s easier said than done, but it can be done.

Some days will be better than others, but you gotta keep in mind:

This is a marathon, not a sprint; a long-journey, not a quick-trip. A sojourney, not a stroll.

Things might not always turn out exactly as you wish; but they will turn out exactly as God wills.

So, Mommy and Daddy, if you want your children to trust and obey God from the heart, you must show them the way, even if it means stumbling towards eternity every inch of the way.

Show them how the gospel story shapes life.

Speaking of stories, a few days ago I was at Starbucks, drinking coffee and jotting down notes on Psalm 78. At the table next me sat a middle-aged black man. He asked if I was a pastor and we struck up a conversation. At one point he asked what I was working on. I told him, “A sermon on Psalm 78.” He said, “Psalms? Oh — what I like are the stories. Yeah, I can still remember the Bible stories my Momma told when I was a kid.”

I told him what I’m telling you.

“God gave us a book full of stories. This psalm tells a story. The stories are for kids, but not just for kids. They are for big people as well.”

Now, speaking of kids, let me take a moment to say something to all the little children.

A Pastoral Nudge for Children

Little children, listen to the words of my mouth. Pay close attention as I tell you an old story in a new way:

This Psalm tells us the story about the mighty works and amazing things that God did for his people when he brought them out of Egypt, led them through the desert, and gave them a king in the promise land.

Now, that’s what God did for our forefathers a long time ago. Do you want to know what God has done for you?

Like the psalmist, I want to tell you the story of the mightiest work and most amazing thing that God has ever done.

I want to echo the psalm and tell you the story of the gospel. Do you know what the gospel is?

The gospel is the power of God — for salvation — for everyone — who believes — including you.

[Psalm 78:69-72]

God came into the world and became a man named Jesus to save you.

Jesus was a man after God’s own heart. He served God’s people as a faithful pastor with an upright heart and skillful hand.

Jesus obeyed the Law of God. He loved God and he loved people — not just family and friends, but even strangers and enemies.

[Psalm 78:69-72]

Jesus came to save you and me and lots of other people from all our bad attitudes and bad actions — he came to rescue us from the Devil and death.

This is how God showed his love for us: He gave his one and only son as a sacrifice for our sins. Jesus laid down his life at the cross. He took our place at the cross and he was punished for our sins. He gave up his spirit and died and was buried. On the third day he rose up from the dead.

Jesus did all this to prove that he is the one true God, and that all other gods are fake gods.

He also did this to protect us from the angels of death. When judgment comes, these destroyers will pass over us because Jesus — our passover lamb — was sacrificed for us and his blood is sprinkled on our hearts.

[Psalm 78:11-12, 20, 23-25, 51-53]

God sent us his Spirit to guide us from slavery into freedom. He helps us escape the power of the Devil.

Remember what God did when our forefathers came to the Red Sea? God blew apart the waters with his Spirit and the people crossed over on dry ground. At that time, all the people — men, women, and children — were baptized by the rains that poured down from the glory cloud above them. (cp Psalm 77:16-18)

Little children, I want you to remember your baptism. And every time you see a baptism, and you see the water poured and sprinkled, coming down from above, remember what God has done for you — and how he has delivered you from evil.

And rejoice and worship God.

Remember you are not alone. The Spirit of Christ is with you. He is leading you out of everything that is wrong and bad in the world — into everything that is right and good in God’s eyes.

The Holy Spirit is helping you become more like Jesus.

[Psalm 78:15, 16, 20, 23-25, 51-54, 69-70]

Like our forefathers, we are living in the desert between Egypt and the Promise Land.

God is with us and he gives us everything we need for life.

When we get hungry and thirsty, God gives us water from a Rock and Bread from heaven — — the Spirit of Christ and the Word of Christ.

He also gives us the sacraments — baptism and the Lord’s supper — water, bread, and wine — the Spirit, body, and blood of Jesus.

These are the gifts of God for the people of God.

He also gives us the church, a family and a community of people to help keep us safe and secure.

When we need to know how to live, what to do and where to go, God gives us his Word in the OT and the NT to show us the way to go.

When we face enemies (like the world, the flesh, the devil), God drives them away.

When we need leaders, God raises up pastors, teachers, and elders to feed his flock and fight off wolves.

When we come to end of this life, God brings us home, into the promise land, and gives us a new place to live, move, and rest.

[Psalm 78:17-22, 32-42, 56-66]

Now, even though God does all these good and glorious things for his people, some of them still whine and complain, and throw temper tantrums and grumble.

They test God’s patience and push his buttons and make him upset and angry.

And do you know what God does? He disciplines them. He gets them in trouble. He puts them in time out. He takes away privileges. He grounds them. He reminds them of what is right and wrong. He loves and forgives them.

That’s what good father does with his children.

Our God is a good father, so he disciplines his children. They might cry and feel bad for a little while, but God’s discipline helps them change their ways.

Little children, this is the story of the psalm and the gospel. It’s the story your parents and pastors are teaching you. It’s also the story you must ask for, believe, and confess.

Now, if you believe the gospel story with your heart, that Jesus was crucified on the cross for you, and died for your sins; and if you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, and lives for you — if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is the Lord!” — you will be saved. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

A Personal Nudge for Parents —

My interest in treating children as disciples of Christ, followers of Jesus was kindled as far back as 1992 / Sunset School of Preaching — when I had to write a paper on Psalm 78 = a plan for raising a faithful generation.

As I recall, I did not do so well = “not specific enough”. In his own subtle way, the teacher was nudging us towards some form of catechesis = a thoughtful, well-ordered method of teaching our kids the word of God from Genesis to Revelation. (Remarkable — considering our former tradition relied on Sunday School and VBS to instruct kids, but it did not prioritize catechesis in the home per se.)

A few years later, when Shannon and I had kids of our own, these questions became more pressing and real.

By trial and error, we came across resources and communities beyond our own tradition that helped us immensely.

So, early on in our family life, we started applying the wisdom of Psalm 78 with one over-arching purpose and goal in mind:

We wanted our family to be God-centered and word-based.

We wanted to raise Christian children — not CoC children, not Baptist children, not American evangelical children, not even Presbyterian and Reformed children (per se), but cross-bearing children — who are devoted to the Lord Jesus Christ, whose hearts are solid and steady, and whose spirits are loyal to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Although their stories have already been written in God’s book, and he knows the end of each one from the beginning, from our POV their stories are still being revealed one line at a time, one page after another.

God is faithful and gives more grace — and we praise God for what he has done in our family so far (some times because of and some times in spite of our efforts).

What seemed so radical to us in twenty-plus years ago is ordinary and normal to y’all. What we did all alone as odd-balls, y’all get to do together in gospel-community.

With that in mind, I want to remind you of the vows you took when your children were baptized into Christ.


  1. You acknowledged your children’s need of the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ, and the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit.
  2. You claimed God’s covenant promises in their behalf, and looked in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ for their salvation, as you do for your own.
  3. You devoted your children to God without reservations.
  4. You promised, in humble reliance upon divine grace, that you will endeavor to set before them a godly example, that you will pray with and for them, that you will teach them the doctrines of our holy religion, and that you will strive, by all the means of God’s appointment, to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

In other words, you promised before God and his church to make disciples of your children. That started when they were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And it continues as you teach them to obey the Lord Jesus Christ.

So keep on reading stories from the Bible, telling stories from the Bible, singing stories from the Bible.

Keep on participating in the life of the church, Sunday School and Missional Communities help supplement your efforts.

Keep on gathering for worship on the Lord’s day.

Keep on pointing your children to the Lord Jesus Christ — their Savior and yours.

Pastoral Prayer

Almighty God, heavenly Father, who has blessed us with the joy and care of children; Give us light and strength to train them, that they may love whatsoever things are true and pure and lovely and of good report, following the example of their Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.