Psalm 78:32 (ESV) … “In spite of all this, they still sinned; despite his wonders, they did not believe.”
I. Man’s provocation of God. In the verses before us the Psalmist mentions two chief features of their provocation of God.
1. Their persistence in evil. They persevered in their unbelief. All the wondrous works which they had witnessed failed to quicken faith in them. Notwithstanding the many miracles which God had wrought in their sight, they still doubted His power. Notwithstanding His great and constant kindness to them, they still doubted His goodness. It was thus that they “limited the Holy One of Israel.” They regarded His willingness and ability to aid them as bounded. Man’s unbelief ever limits and dishonours God. They also persevered in their murmuring and rebellious spirit. “How often did they rebel in the wilderness, and grieve Him in the desert?” When any inconvenience met them, or any difficulty or privation confronted them, they at once fell to murmuring against Moses and against the Lord. Their mean and ungrateful spirits were constantly turning to thoughts and feelings of rebellion against God. And this, notwithstanding all God’s efforts to effect their moral reformation. His mercies awoke no feeling of humility, gratitude, or trust in them; but were followed by exhibitions of selfishness and unreasonable exaction. His judgments produced no lasting improvement in their character; for, as soon as they were removed, the people returned to their old courses. “For all this they sinned still.” What a correct representation is this of many sinners to-day! God has enriched them with countless blessings, but His goodness has not led them to repentance. He has smitten them with the rod of affliction, but they have not turned in penitence to Him. He has stripped them of temporal prosperity, He has taken from them the desire of their eyes at a stroke, He has shut them up in loneliness and sorrow of heart, yet have they not turned unto Him. He seems to have used every means for their salvation; yet “for all this they sinned still.”
2. Their spurious repentance. When God’s severe judgments were upon Israel they sought Him in apparent humility and penitence. But their penitence was neither deep nor sincere. (1.) The confessions and promises which they made to God were untrue. “They did flatter Him with their mouth, and they lied unto Him with their tongues. They could not deceive Him. Yet their repentance was false. Their prayers and professions made in affliction were not hearty, but were extorted by suffering. And the promises they made to God were not kept, but forgotten when the pain and peril were removed. (2.) Their heart was not really turned to God. “Their heart was not right with Him.” In true repentance the soul turns from sin with loathing and abhorrence, and seeks God with humility, and faith, and prayer. It was not the sin that they shrank from, but the penalties of the sin. (3.) Their life remained unchanged. “Neither were they stedfast in His covenant.” The promises made in affliction were speedily broken. Addison says that repentance is “the relinquishment of any practice, from the conviction that it has offended God. Sorrow, fear, and anxiety are properly not parts, but adjuncts of repentance; yet they are too closely connected with it to be easily separated.” Shakspeare defines it thus: “Repentance is heart’s sorrow, and a clear life ensuing.” But the Israelites did not relinquish their sinful practices. A “clear life” did not follow their pretended repentance. “He who seeks repentance for the past, should woo the angel virtue for the future.” But they provoked God by their frequent rebellions. His heart was grieved, and pained by their many and heinous sins against Him.
II. God’s patience with man. This was manifested in—
1. His judgments upon them. “Their days did He consume in vanity, and their years in trouble. He slew them.” His judgments were severe, but not so severe as they had deserved. They were not sufficiently severe to restrain the people from returning to their evil ways. And when they cried unto him, or Moses entreated Him for them, He withdrew His stroke away from them. And as for their bootless wanderings in the wilderness—were such craven-hearted creatures the men to go up against the Canaanites and conquer them? Retaining, as they did, the spirit of slaves, were they fit to be intrusted with freedom and independence in a land of their own? In His very judgments God manifested His patience and mercy, or, instead of leaving them to live out their life in the wilderness, He would have consumed them in His anger when they had provoked Him by their unbelief, and murmurings, and rebellion.
2. His mercies to them. “He being full of compassion forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not; yea, many a time turned He His anger away, and did not stir up all His wrath.” In their base rebellions He did not destroy them. Though they had provoked Him many times, yet many times He turned His anger away from them. And when He did visit them in judgment, He did not pour the full flood of His fury upon them. “He did not deal with them after their sins, nor reward them according to their iniquities.” “He forgave their iniquity.” He not only removed the dark and threatening clouds of His wrath, but He lifted upon them the light of His forgiving and favouring countenance. How graciously and completely God forgives! “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us.” “Thou hast cast all my sins behind Thy back.” “Thou hast cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.” “He will abundantly pardon.” Thus graciously and patiently God has dealt with us.
3. His remembrance of them. “He remembered that they were but flesh; a wind that passeth away, and cometh not again.” He remembered their frailty and corruption. “They were flesh,” and liable to suffering and pain. “They were flesh,” and exposed to temptation, and prone to evil; and, therefore, He had long patience with them. He spared them when He would otherwise have destroyed them. He had compassion on them. He remembered their evanescence. “A wind that passeth away, and cometh not again.” “Life is a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.”
“How short is human life! the very breath
Which frames my words, accelerates my death.”—H. More.
The Lord remembered this, and spared them when their sins loudly called for their destruction.
This subject urges its—1. Warning to all who have long persisted in evil. This generation so patiently borne with, so mercifully dealt with, at last found their graves in the wilderness. Beware lest through further persistence in evil your life ends in utter failure as regards all that is true and good. 2. Encouragement even to the most sinful to seek the Lord. His long patience with you proclaims His willingness to pardon and save you. Turn unto Him heartily in true repentance (Isa. 55:6, 7). 3. Counsel to all. Let us not frustrate God’s gracious dealings with us. By judgments and by mercies He seeks to save us. Let us trust Him, and earnestly enter into His gracious designs concerning us.