They did not keep God’s covenant, but refused to walk according to His law. – Psalm 78:10 (ESV)
That’s quite an indictment. As if that was not bad enough, we go on to hear that “They forgot His works and the wonders that He had shown them” (78:11) as well. Who did not keep the covenant? Who refused to walk according to His law? Who forgot His works and His wonders? Well, that would be God’s people, of course. The Psalmist is referencing the people that God had declared to be His treasured possession, the children of Israel, the descendants of Abraham. Whenever we find that word covenant, we will do well to hearken back to Abraham, and the covenant that God entered into with Abraham, because that is the story that a member of Israel would have in mind when “covenant” is mentioned. At the same time that the effort to remember that is made, it is also to be remembered that all that become children of Abraham through the faith that shows itself forth through and as belief in Jesus, also stand in the line of that covenant and should always be cognizant of that fact.
The covenant to Abraham can be found in Genesis, and in it, God promises to bless those who bless Abraham, and also to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham. This use of “Abraham” must be understood as incorporating, and makes reference to the family of Abraham. As the Scriptural narrative goes, this covenant is passed along to Isaac, who was the son and evidence of God’s promise to Abraham, to Jacob (Israel), and to the renewed Israel, those who are sons and daughters of Abraham by faith.
The Psalmist says that they, meaning Israel, did not keep God’s covenant, as evidenced by the fact that they refused to walk according to His law. This is interesting, as Abraham kept God’s covenant though Scripture indicates that he was never given any specific law by which to walk. His call was to represent the Creator God (to bear the divine image) by being a blessing to those with whom he came into contact. So why the seemingly greater burden on Abraham’s descendants? This goes to the purpose of the law. God gave His people the law for numerous reasons, one of which, to be sure, was to mark them out as a people set apart for Himself.
God promised His people, when He gave them His law, that through its keeping they would be blessed. It appears that Israel is supposed to operate according to the understanding that through their keeping of the law, and the subsequent blessings that God would rain down upon them, that all the families of the earth would be blessed. How so? At least partially because the nations of the world---those that were nearby Israel and those that were far off---would hear of and experience the blessings upon this particular nation and would come to find out why they had been made so prosperous.
The people of Israel would be able to respond that they were blessed for one reason only, which was because they were, in grateful response to the obvious provision of His hand, following the law that their God had given them, and that Israel’s God alone possessed the power to deliver such prosperity and blessing. In this, the God of Israel would be glorified, and knowledge of Him would be extended beyond Israel, to others of earth’s families. By this, God’s great blessings would be made manifest.
Israel, however, had forgotten their God’s works and wonders. According to the Psalmist, who would always have the long story of Israel in mind, they sinned against Him (78:17) by not trusting that He could provide for them in the wilderness, according to His promises. They challenged His power by speaking against Him (78:19). From the beginning, almost immediately after their exodus from Egypt and the receiving of God’s laws, it was made clear that Israel was going to be unable to walk according to that law and so be a blessing according to God’s covenant, because “they did not believe in God and did not trust His saving power” (78:22). This was quite the contrast from that which we find in the original recipient of the covenant, that being Abraham, of whom it is said that He simply believed God, and trusted in His power to perform according to His promises.
Like those that believe in the Gospel message that Jesus is the resurrected Lord of all, in spite of His shameful execution, Abraham trusted God even when the promise seemed ridiculous, such as having a son with his wife, when they were both approaching one hundred years old, and believing even though he did not see the massive displays of God’s power, as would Israel, both before and after their escape from Egypt. Unlike Israel, Abraham not only believed in God’s promise, but also trusted in His saving power, when he took Isaac to the mountain to offer him as a sacrifice, seemingly believing that God would raise his son from the dead if necessary.
The thirty-seventh verse of this chapter says that “Their heart was not steadfast toward Him; they were not faithful to His covenant” (78:37). Naturally, this is where believers can often be found as well. Not being faithful, Israel stood outside of God’s covenant, deserving no more than the cursing detailed in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy. However, we go on to read “Yet He, being compassionate, atoned for their iniquity and did not destroy them; He restrained His anger often and did not stir up all His wrath” (78:38).
In the Christ and the Christ-event, God did this for the entirety of His desired covenant family as well. It was these, having had their iniquity atoned for and the decree of destruction set aside, through whom He would bless the world and all of creation. This blessing would be manifested through the eternal life (the presence of the life of the age to come) that they would have in union with Christ (calling Jesus Lord and living accordingly), being renewed creations in Him and harbingers of the new creation, and would be executed as a result of the faith that believes in Him, through which God would carry out His plans and purposes for His creation, because He is faithful.