Psalm 78:39 (ESV) … “He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and comes not again.”
The judgment mentioned at the end of the third stanza of Psalm 78 leads to the subject matter of the fourth stanza (vv. 32–39), repentance. When the people were judged, they repented. Unfortunately, their repentance was seldom true repentance. Therefore, in words that echo Hosea’s later description of this sickening hypocrisy (in Hosea 6:1–3), Asaph says,
Whenever God slew them, they would seek him;
they eagerly turned to him again.
They remembered that God was their Rock,
that God Most High was their Redeemer.
But then they would flatter him with their mouths,
lying to him with their tongues;
their hearts were not loyal to him,
they were not faithful to his covenant (vv. 34–37).
A hypocritical repentance like this must be nauseating to God. For as Hosea notes at the end of his prophecy, true repentance involves an honest acknowledgment of sin, a turning from it, and an appeal to God’s grace (see Hosea 14:1–3). All this is absent here. Nevertheless, says Asaph, God did not deal with the people as their hypocrisy deserved. Instead of destroying them, God “was merciful” and “forgave their iniquities” (v. 38). “He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return” (v. 39).
This is precisely how God has dealt with us. If God had not chosen to be merciful to us, we would all have perished long ago. But instead of not being merciful and allowing us to perish, God made atonement for our sins by the death of Jesus Christ. He forgave our iniquities. Certainly, a love like this demands a genuine repentance from us and a true following after God in faith and deep gratitude. As Isaac Watts wrote,
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
True. But do we actually respond like that? Isn’t it more often the case that we only give God lip service while nevertheless continuing to go our own way? J. J. Stewart Perowne seems to be on target when he calls this passage “a most striking and affecting picture of man’s heart, and God’s gracious forbearance, in all ages—man’s sin calling for chastisement, the chastisement producing only temporary amendment, God’s goodness forgotten, and yet God’s great love never wearied.” It is indeed affecting!