From Learning to Love the Psalms
Psalm 106 is the last and longest psalm of Book Four. It is one of the new songs of praise for God’s redemptive work. If looking to creation builds up faith, so too does looking at God’s great saving works of the past. This historical psalm reviews Israel’s past with special attention to the exodus and wandering in the wilderness. But it also looks beyond that time to Israel’s present sufferings. As a conclusion to the fourth book of the Psalter, it shows that whatever comfort may be found in creation and covenant, Israel’s full redemption is still a future reality.
This psalm begins and ends with praise and contains repeated evidence of God’s saving mercies for his people. It is truly a psalm of praise. But while it praises God, most of the content of the psalm is a review of the sinfulness and disobedience of Israel. God’s saving acts are in sharp relief against the background of Israel’s forgetfulness and faithlessness. Yet, God has saved in the past, and that encourages the hope that God will save again in the future. (Psalm 105, by contrast, is a new song that focuses more positively on Israel’s reception of God’s covenantal mercies from the time of Abraham to her entering the Promised Land.)
Psalm 106 seems to divide into three large sections. The first, (vv. 1-12) begins with praise and a prayer that relief will come to the people and to the psalmist: “Remember me, O Lord, when you show favor to your people; help me when you save them,” (v. 4). The early verses also contain a word of blessing on the righteous: “Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times!” (v. 3) This recognition of God’s promise of blessing for a holy people is a stark contrast with the record of Israel’s sin to which the psalmist soon turns.
The psalmist knows that the suffering of the nation is a result of Israel’s sin. “Both we and our fathers have sinned; we have committed iniquity; we have done wickedness,” (v. 6). Here we find an evaluation of Israel’s past like the one offered by Stephen before his martyrdom, (Acts 7). One important difference is that the psalmist confessed clearly the sin of the people while in Stephen’s day the people were outraged when he said: “You always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you,” (Acts 7:51).
This first section of the psalm focuses historically on Israel at the edge of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army in pursuit. The people, in panic, forgot the great works of God in bringing them so far. But God continued to be their savior: “Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power,” (Psalm 106:8). The psalmist knows that the deepest cause of salvation is certainly not the worth of the people or even the need of the people. The deepest cause is God’s own glory and the demonstration that he keeps his promises even when others break theirs. And for a time, his salvation moved the people: “Then they believed his words; they sang his praise,” (v. 12).
The second section (vv. 13-33) presents in summary form six episodes of the people’s sins in the wilderness. Each of the episodes could have begun with the first verse of this section: “But they soon forgot his works; they did not wait for his counsel,” (v. 13). They demanded meat when they became dissatisfied with manna (vv. 14-15); they envied the leadership of Moses and Aaron (vv. 16-18); they worshiped a golden calf (vv. 19-23); they refused to enter the Promised Land (vv. 24-27); they worshiped Baal (vv. 28-31); they provoked Moses to sinful anger (vv. 32-22). In each of these sins, Israel provoked the anger of God and some form of judgment or punishment.
The most serious of these episodes of sin were the cases of gross idolatry with the golden calf and with the Baal of Peor. The anger of the Lord was so great on these occasions that he announced that he would destroy Israel. The people were only saved by mediators who put themselves between the Lord and the people. Moses was the mediator at Horeb after Israel’s idolatry with the golden calf: “Therefore he said he would destroy them – had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them,” (v. 23).
Less well known than the story of Moses and the golden calf is the story of Phineas, the grandson of Aaron, and the Baal of Peor. When Israel was living in Shittim, the men of Israel engaged in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who led them into worship of the Baal of Peor. The anger of the Lord burned against Israel and a plague broke out among the people when a leader in Israel brought a Moabite woman into the very camp of Israel within sight of the Tent of Meeting. Phineas ran a spear through the two of them and the plagued stopped. The Lord declared, “Phineas, the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy,” (Numbers 25:11). Psalm 106 says of the act of Phineas, “And that was counted to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever,” (v. 31). Phineas was a second Moses.
Now what exactly do we learn from the actions of these mediators? Did they get God to change his mind? No, of course not. Rather, God used them in the salvation of his people to begin to teach us how his righteous anger and his mercy could meet. Someone must be the mediator or go-between for sinful people or they will be consumed in God’s wrath. But God himself raises up the mediators. And the mediators of the old covenant were only types and shadows of the true mediator to come. Even faithful Moses was not a perfect mediator but was provoked to serious sin that kept him out of the Land of Promise.
The only perfectly faithful mediator is Jesus Christ. He never spoke a rash word. He is not only as zealous for the honor of God as God is, but he was also consumed by zeal for the house of God, (Psalm 69:9; John 2:17). He was so zealous for the righteousness and mercy of God that he was consumed on the cross so that both could come together.
The last section of the psalm (vv. 34-38) presents the continuing sinfulness, compromise, and idolatry of the people from the time they entered the Promised Land (vv. 34-35) until they were scattered among the nations (v. 41). The pattern was sad indeed: “Many times he delivered them, but they were rebellious in their purposes and were brought low through their iniquity,” (v. 43). But God did not utterly destroy them when he sent them into exile. He preserved them: “He caused them to be pitied by all those who held them captive,” (v. 46). He also left them with hope. In spite of their suffering, they continued to pray: “Save us, O Lord our God, and gather us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise,” (v. 47).
The psalm encourages God’s people in their praying by reminding them that God had always heard their prayers in the past: “Nevertheless he looked upon their distress, when he heard their cry. For their sake he remembered his covenant, and relented according to the abundance of his steadfast love,” (vv. 44-45). God does not forget his people, thanks to his covenant promises given out of his love. He remembers his covenant, fulfilled in Jesus.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- This psalm begins and ends with praise and contains repeated evidence of God’s saving mercies for his people. What are some of these evidences?
- Why were the most serious episodes of sin mentioned in this psalm the cases of gross idolatry with the golden calf and with the Baal of Peor? What do we learn from the actions of the mediators in those episodes? Did they cause God to change his mind?
- In what ways can we be assured that God does not forget his people?