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 know, 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 which he has wrought. 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.
My aim in this message is to give a biblical exposition of the motto of our children’s ministries at Bethlehem, and then to apply that exposition to our situation today in training children.
Psalm 78 and Our Motto for Children’s Ministries
When Char Ransom was called as our Minister for Children in August 1984, she chose a motto for children’s ministries that comes straight from Scripture. You can see it on most of the pamphlets she puts out: “That the next generation might put their hope in God.” It comes from Psalm 78:6–7, “ . . . 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.”
The Bible teaches that in God’s order it is the parents who have primary responsibility for teaching children the truth about God and his will (Deuteronomy 6:4–9; Ephesians 6:4). But the church family has a very important secondary responsibility to assist the parents, and to confirm these teachings, and to help children whose parents are negligent in their duties (Matthew 18:5–6; Hebrews 3:12–13). Therefore it is important for all of us in the church — married and single, old and young, men and women, boys and girls — to understand the biblical teaching behind the motto of our children’s ministries from Psalm 78: “That the next generation might put their hope in God.”
Let’s think about it together in its context, especially the first eight verses of the psalm.
Psalm 78 in Context
The psalm was apparently written by Asaph, who was a Levite and a music leader in the service of King David (1 Chronicles 16:4–5). It is a long psalm (72 verses) and tells the history of Israel’s disobedience and God’s repeated mercy on them from the time of the Exodus, when God brought them out of Egypt, until the time of David. In one sense it is a depressing psalm, because it shows us how mysteriously stubborn and rebellious our own hearts are. But in another sense the psalm inspires hope for sinners because of how mysteriously longsuffering and gracious God is.
The first eight verses set the stage and let us in on what the psalm is intended to accomplish.
We will divide these eight verses into three parts.
- First, we will deal with verse 5 and we will call it GOD’S WORK.
- Second, we will deal with verses 1–4 and call it ASAPH’S ACT.
- Third, we will deal with verses 6–8 and call it GOD’S AIM.
- Then finally, we will apply our exposition of these three sections to our own ministry to children today.
First, then, let’s look at verse 5.
He established a testimony in Jacob,
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers
to teach to their children.
Notice two things.
1. God’s Revealed Will
First, God has revealed his will. He has given a testimony and a law. “He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel.” We begin here because this is absolutely basic. If God has not spoken, if he has not given us instruction about his will or testified about his work, then we are utterly adrift in a sea of confusion about the meaning of life.
People who do not orient their lives on the testimony of God in Scripture cannot know what is good for them or for their children. They may have strong opinions about what is right or helpful, but those opinions will be based on what feels good or on some cultural pressure or on some human tradition or authority less than God.
But the Scripture says that God has established a testimony; he has appointed a law. And Jesus Christ has won our confidence and for his sake we believe the revelation of God in the law and the testimony. We have a God-given compass that keeps us from being lost in the forest of twentieth-century confusion, the compass of God’s law and his testimony in Scripture.
Very briefly what is the law and the testimony referred to in verse 5? Exodus 31:18 gives the answer:
And God gave to Moses, when he had made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.
What was written on these “tables of testimony”? Exodus 34:28 tells us:
And God wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.
So Psalm 78:5 sends us back to Mount Sinai where God made a covenant with Israel to be their God. The Ten Commandments are the central statement of how we are to live if we submit to that covenant and trust in God as our God.
But there is something very crucial to notice about the tables of the testimony as they are called. The Ten Commandments do not begin with commandments. They begin like this: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” In other words, the tables of the testimony begin not with a testimony about God’s demand but with a testimony about God’s grace and power for the sake of the people he had chosen. With an outstretched arm and a mighty hand God saved Israel from bondage, before he gave them the Ten Commandments.
So when Asaph says in Psalm 78:5 that God established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, he doesn’t just mean that God told us things to do. He means that God has testified about what HE has done and about what our response should be. This is going to be important to remember when we try to understand Asaph’s act in verses 1–4 and God’s aim in verses 6–8.
2. God’s Command to Teach It to Our Children
But before we turn to that, notice one other thing in verse 5, namely, that God not only established a testimony, but he also commanded us to teach it to our children. The second half of the verse:
. . . which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children.
This means that God does not intend to speak to every generation the way he spoke to the generation that came out of Egypt. Succeeding generations must learn about the will of God and the mighty works of God from their fathers. Our children must learn about it from us.
So there are two things to remember from verse 5. One is that God has spoken; he has given a law and a testimony to his will and his saving work. The other thing is that he commands every generation to teach this law and testimony to their children.
Now the second section of the psalm that we look at is verses 1–4, which we will call Asaph’s act. We call it Asaph’s act because these verses describe what Asaph does in response to God’s work in verse 5. In a word, Asaph obeys the command of verse 5 and makes known God’s will and work to the next generation.
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 which he has wrought.
The Deeds and Wonders of God
Two things stand out in these verses. One is that when Asaph teaches the coming generation, he focuses on the deeds and wonders of God, not first the commandments. Notice verse 4: “ . . . tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders which he has wrought.” This is why I said it would be important to remember that the testimony referred to in verse 5 is more than commandments.
The Ten Commandments begin, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” So Asaph first declares to the next generation the great stories of rescue and judgment and the glorious deeds of God: like the ten plagues of frogs and gnats and flies and bloody water and darkness and hail, and like the dividing of the Red Sea and the miraculous manna and water from the rock, and so on.
That’s the first thing that stands out in Asaph’s act: in obedience to God’s command in verse 5, he teaches the next generation about the greatness of God rather than just about what God demands in his law.
A “Parable” and “Dark Sayings”
The other thing that stands out in Asaph’s act is the description of his teaching as a “parable” and as “dark sayings.” Verse 2: “I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings [or riddles] from of old.” The reason this stands out is that when you read the 72 verses of the psalm, they don’t seem like a parable or a dark saying. They seem to be pretty straightforward history of Israel’s repeated rebellion and God’s amazing grace.
There are some word pictures and comparisons that you expect in parables. For example, verse 19, “They spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness?’” And verse 35: “They remembered that God was their rock.” And verse 65: “Then the Lord awoke as from sleep, like a strong man shouting because of wine.”
These are the kind of word pictures and comparisons that you get in parables. But I have another suggestion why Asaph would say he is speaking in a parable and in dark sayings. Could it be that the psalm poses two of the most fundamental riddles or puzzles of Israel’s history and leaves it for you and me to answer?
1. Why Did Israel Not Trust and Obey God?
The psalm poses the riddle: How could Israel have been so rebellious and stubborn again and again and again? Why did they not learn to trust and obey God?
Verses 40–41 describe this strange rebellion:
How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert! They tested him again and again, and provoked the Holy One of Israel.
2. Why Is God So Patient and Merciful?
The other riddle posed is why God should be so amazingly patient, and return again and again in mercy to Israel in her misery.
Verse 38 describes this strange grace:
Yet he, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; he restrained his anger often, and did not stir up all his wrath.
The psalm just leaves you stunned at the amazing wickedness of man and the amazing grace of God. It leaves you asking, “How can these things be?” It does what Jesus’s parables so often do: It causes you to ask questions about yourself — Could my heart be like that toward God? Could God be so gracious to me?
So I would suggest that the psalm is a parable and a riddle not because the whole thing is a made-up story, but mainly because it poses two profound riddles: Why was Israel so incorrigibly rebellious, and why was God willing to return again and again to help them?
In summary, then, Asaph’s act in verses 1–4 was to do what God commanded in verse 5; namely, to declare the testimony of God to the next generation, especially God’s testimony about his glorious deeds and the wonders he wrought in saving Israel. And Asaph did this in a way that pushes us to examine our own hearts. Are we not like Israel? Is there not the same rebellion against God’s law in our own heart? And might there not be hope for us that God might be gracious to us even though we feel like we have thrown away our last chance?
That brings us now to the last section of our text, verses 6–8, which we will call GOD’S AIM. Here we learn why Asaph wrote the psalm the way he did for the next generation. And here we learn what our goal in educating our children should be. Verse 6 continues verse 5 where God had commanded us to teach his testimony to our 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.
God’s aim in the education of our children is threefold.
1. That They Might Have the Knowledge of God
First, that they should have knowledge of God. Verse 6: “That the next generation might know.” I think it is right to prize love for God above knowledge of God. The devils have knowledge of God, and tremble! But what a tragedy when we see the demonic pride that knowledge can bring, and then draw the wrong conclusion that the best way to inspire love to God is to somehow take a detour around knowledge.
It can’t be done. We love God because of what we KNOW of him, or our love is artificial emotionalism. The first task in the education of our children is to impart genuine knowledge of the testimony and law of God. It need not lead to pride, especially if we do it the way Asaph did it. So the first aim of education is knowledge.
2. That They Might Put Their Hope in God
Second, the aim of education should be that children come to put their hope in God. Verse 6 goes on to say, “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.”
Knowledge should lead to hope. What goes into the head should make a new heart. If one person errs in education by saying knowledge is not the main thing, but the heart is the main thing, another person errs on the other side by saying that imparting knowledge is our only goal, not the changing of the heart.
The Word of God is very clear on this: The aim of education is to teach the truth in such a way that young people will come to love it and put their hope in God. Changed hearts are the goal of education, not just more knowledge. The aim is that they might set their hope in God.
3. That They Might Obey
Third, the aim of education is obedience. Verse 7 goes on: “so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.” Education has to do with how our young people act as well as what they know and what they feel. We have not succeeded in our God-given responsibility if our children’s heads are full of true thoughts, but their behavior is contrary to the law of God. That’s why hope is essential, because you always bring your life into sync with whatever you hope in. “Everyone who thus hopes in Christ purifies himself even as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).
So the motto of our children’s ministries at Bethlehem goes right to the heart of the educational task — “that the next generation might hope in God.”
Summary of the Exposition
1. In summary, we have seen in verse 5 GOD’S ACT, he has established a testimony and appointed a law, and he has commanded us to teach it to our children.
2. In verses 1–4 we saw ASAPH’S ACT in response to God’s command: He declares the glorious deeds of God to the next generation, and does it in such a way as to make the issue of our sin and God’s grace very urgent. I would say now in retrospect that Asaph tells the story of Israel’s history in a way that promotes humility and hope. He shows us the incredible rebellion of our heart (for by nature we are no different from Israel), and he shows us the amazing, longsuffering grace of God. So we are humbled because of what we are in ourselves, and we can be hopeful because of what God is in himself!
3. And finally in verses 6–8 we have seen GOD’S AIM: knowledge of God, hope in God, and obedience to God. This is the aim of all true Christian education. Asaph was right to tell a long story of Israel’s history, because knowledge is important. And he was right to tell it in a way that raised the question of sin and grace so that when the next generation read it, they would be drawn to hope not in themselves but in God; and then in the strength of that hope to keep the commandments of God.
First I would say that it is the command of God especially to us parents, but also to the whole church, that the knowledge of God be taught to our children, and that they be brought by prayerful reliance on the Holy Spirit to hope in God. Martin Luther put it like this 457 years ago:
We are plagued by the miserable fact that no one perceives or heeds this truth. All live on as though God gave us children for our pleasure or amusement, as though He gave us servants to use, like a cow or an ass, for work only, or as though we were to live with our subordinates only to gratify our whims, ignoring them, as though what they learn or how they live were no concern of ours. No one wants to see that education or training is the command of the Supreme Majesty, who will strictly call us to account and punish us for its neglect, or that the need to be seriously concerned about young people is so great. (What Luther Says, vol. 1, p. 140)
Very specifically I would ask all parents: Do you have some kind of plan to impart to your children a knowledge of Scripture and a knowledge of its doctrine so that they will be able to stand firm in the hope of the gospel when they face grief and pain and pleasure and scoffing secularism?
What in your life is more important than teaching your children the very Word of God? It will only take ten minutes to sing a verse or two of a hymn, read a portion of Scripture, draw out a lesson for life, ask a question from some good catechism, and have one or two pray. If you say you are too busy, I beg you to rethink your priorities. This is a commandment of God. And it will prove to be the source of much joy. A wise son makes a glad father, says the Lord, and it is the Word of God that makes a son wise.
I would like to help you as much as I can, and so I commit myself, as the Lord gives me strength, to make a regular part of the STAR a new section containing several catechetical questions with biblical support that parents can use with their children. And when the whole range of basic biblical teaching has been covered, we will put it in a booklet for ongoing use.
May the Lord give us the will and the strength in the home and in the church to teach our children the testimony of the Lord, “that the next generation might put their hope in God.”