Lesson and Legacy: Tell the Coming Generation (Sermon from Psalm 78:1-8)

father-son

The following is the manuscript of a sermon I preached at Fellowship Church in Louisville, Kentucky (audio here).

Psalm 78:1-8 (ESV)

1 Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
2 I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
3 things that we have heard and known,
that our fathers have told us.
4 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 that he has done.
5 He established a testimony in Jacob
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers
to teach to their children,
6 that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,
7 so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
8 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.

Introduction

Alexandre Dumas was a French novelist from the 1800’s and the author of The Count of Monte Cristo. In this book we meet a handsome 19-year-old named Edmond Dantès. Dantès is a successful merchant sailor about to marry his beautiful fiancé Mercédès and be commissioned as captain of his own ship. But he is arrested, framed by a corrupt judge, and sentenced to prison in “the dreaded Chateau d’If, an island fortress from which no prisoner had ever escaped.”[1]

After years of torturous solitary confinement, Dantès meets an old Italian priest who teaches him “reading, mathematics, science, languages, philosophy, history, sword fighting, and economics.”[2] On the verge of death, the priest tells Dantès about a secret treasure on the island of Monte Cristo. Dantès escapes in the priest’s body bag, finds the treasure of Monte Cristo, and builds a subterranean complex where he trains for the next nine years, masters all forms of combat, and creates three different identities, including the Count of Monte Cristo. He then reenters high French society and dazzles the elites as a mysterious, wealthy, sophisticated new figure, exacting revenge on his betrayers while helping those oppressed by the powerful. His is the ultimate story of youthful dreams, unthinkable betrayal, unjust imprisonment, electrifying escape, hidden treasure, patient plotting, a messianic reentrance into society, and of course, his final revenge.

But of course the Count of Monte Cristo is fictional.

Except when it isn’t. See, the novelist Alexandre Dumas’ father died when Alexandre was just four years old. Alexandre would later write:

I worshiped my father . . . I love him still with as tender and as deep and as true a love as if he had watched over my youth and I’d had the blessing to go from child to man leaning on his powerful arm.[3]

So who was this beloved father, and how does he relate to the Count of Monte Cristo? The father was General Alex Dumas, the half-black son of a European noble and a slave woman. He would grow up to be the equivalent of a four-star general, marching alongside an envious Napoleon Bonaparte and commanding 50,000 men. One biographer writes, “He was a soldier’s general, feared by the enemy and loved by his men, a hero in a world that did not use the term lightly.”[4]

Over six feet tall, with a striking physique and the high-class heritage of his father, he dazzled and confounded the all-white aristocracy in an age of absolute segregation. He was ambitious, aggressive, courageous, and unbendingly fair.

Picture young Alex Dumas sauntering into an elite 19th century French dinner party and being the strongest, most handsome, most striking man in the room, a room in which a black man did not belong. Picture this general sailing across the Mediterranean, then marching shoulder-to-shoulder across the Egyptian desert with Napoleon Bonaparte. Picture a towering man on his cavalry horse, fitted in a blue uniform with a red-white-and-blue sash, raining down saber blows with “a sword arm . . . so powerful he could unseat a horseman with one blow.”[5] Picture that same general now languishing in an island prison, the glory of his youth and military accomplishments all but forgotten, the victim of Napoleon’s overpowering jealousy and betrayal. Picture him dying in his own home at 44 years old, a betrayed and broken man, leaving behind a four-year-old boy who grew up cherishing a beloved father, a remarkable story, and unfinished business.

When that boy, the novelist Alexandre Dumas, grew up and wrote his own autobiography, he spent the first 200+ pages on his father.[6] Biographer Tom Reiss writes:

To remember a person is the most important thing in the novels of Alexandre Dumas. The worst sin anyone can commit is to forget. The villains of The Count of Monte Cristo do not murder the hero, Edmond Dantès—they have him thrown into a dungeon where he is forgotten by the world. The heroes of Dumas never forget anything or anyone: Dantès has a perfect memory for the details of every field of human knowledge, for the history of the world and for everyone he has encountered in his life.[7]

When you are enamored with your heritage and legacy; when you know you’ve inherited a powerful story; when you love your father; and when you know there’s unfinished business—then you know that the worst thing you can do is to forget.

Lesson and Legacy in Psalm 78

Psalm 78 retells the rhythmic history of Israel: rebellion and redemption, sin and forgiveness, wrath and mercy. It tells us the story of how Israel was always breaking God’s covenant while God was always keeping it. The author speaks like a prophet, urging us to listen. He is jealous over our hearts, yearning for us to learn a lesson from those who’ve gone before us and leave a legacy for those coming after.

Listen to this gospel rhythm:

  • v. 13: “He divided the sea…”
    v. 11: “They forgot his works…”
  • v. 14: “he led them with a cloud…”
    v. 17: “they sinned still more against him…”
  • v. 18: “They tested God in their heart…”
    v. 24: “he rained down… manna to eat…”
  • v. 32: “In spite of this, they still sinned…”
    v. 38: “he… atoned for their iniquity…”
  • v. 43: “he performed his signs in Egypt…”
    v. 42: “They did not remember his power…”
  • v. 54: “he brought them to his holy land…”
    v. 58: “they moved him to jealousy with their idols…”
  • v. 59: “he utterly rejected Israel…”
    v. 72: he sent a king to shepherd them…

Proposition

This story should not be forgotten. This legacy must not slip between the generational cracks. So I want to challenge you to share the lessons and legacy of the Christian story by personally investing in those God has placed in your life, whether through evangelism, teaching, discipleship, or parenting. This is a three-part challenge. The first challenge:

1. Soften your heart to the story of Scripture (vv. 1-3).

A Maskil of Asaph.
1 Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
2 I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
3 things that we have heard and known,
that our fathers have told us.

This psalm is a “maskil” (title), which probably means “a wisdom-song.” This song is “a parable” (v. 2) filled with “dark sayings from of old.” A parable is a comparison, a story laid alongside your life with a meaningful bridge between the two.

Jesus often spoke in parables. But why? We often assume that Jesus spoke in parables so that everyone would understand him. But there’s much more to his method: Jesus spoke in parables so that he could reveal the truth to his followers and conceal the truth from the hard-hearted. In Matthew 13:10-15, when his disciples asked, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (v. 11). He goes on to say (paraphrasing) that “they see but don’t see . . . they hear but don’t hear . . . their hearts are rock-hard, they’re covering their ears, and they don’t want to repent and be healed” (vv. 13-15). They’re sick, and they’re flipping off the doctor. They’re bleeding out, and they’re stiff-arming the medic. Jesus’ parables conceal the truth from them, not reveal the truth to them.

By telling parables, Jesus is doing what Asaph does in Psalm 78. In fact, Matthew quotes Psalm 78:2 to explain what Jesus is doing.

Matthew 13:34-35:

34 All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. 35 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet [Ps 78:2]: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”

Psalm 78 is a 72-verse account of Israel’s history. It’s a long, dark psalm, and it’s not pretty. It shows the ugliness of the Israelites: their constant complaining, their spiritual prostitution, their covenant rebellion. These stories are not hard to hear and know. The psalmist admits in v. 3 that these are “things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us.” But we can read and hear and study and even teach these stories and misunderstand our place in them. It’s human nature to place ourselves in every story we hear. But we can be like King David when Nathan the prophet came to confront him about his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah in 2 Samuel 12:1-7:

12:1 And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds, 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” 5 Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, 6 and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” 7 Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”

David, living in sin, assumes that Nathan is coming to him as Israel’s judge. “Tell me what’s happened in my kingdom, Nathan, and I’ll give you a judgment.” But in Nathan’s story, David is not a judge standing outside the story. David is the rich, merciless, thieving man who — in his own words — “deserves to die.”

Neither are we judges standing over Israel in Psalm 78, ridiculing their rebellion and applauding their punishment. We are like Israel—”prone to wander, Lord we feel it, prone to leave the God we love.” The person who’s heart is soft to God’s Word will sense this.

What you receive from God’s Word each week has less to do with the clarity of the preacher and more to do with the condition of your heart. If your heart is humble and eager, you can be fully fed by a snack of a sermon. But if your heart is hard and cold, you can starve at a feast. Asaph, and Jesus, would warn us: If you want to be fed, come hungry. If you want to reap a harvest, till the soil. It all depends on your heart.

As John MacArthur often says, “The same sun that melts the wax hardens the clay.”

Now what does a soft heart do? In Psalm 78:1, it listens.

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth!

Asaph says to us, “Incline your ears.” “Lean in.” “Quiet down… and listen up… even though you’ve already heard this before.” Psalm 78 is filled with stories “that we have heard and known” (v. 3).

In v. 3, we’ve already heard. But in v. 1, we’re told to listen. Why? We don’t remember what we don’t review. We can’t be renewed and refreshed and restored without being reminded. Anyone who thinks you can shape people without reminding them doesn’t have children. And when it comes to needing reminders, we are all children.

We’re meant to feed on God’s Word, and feeding is a repeated activity. No one in this room is going to sit down at lunch today and go, “Hey, I’ve had this meal before, so I’m not gonna eat today.” You’re eating because you’re hungry, not because the food is novel. Matt Smethurst writes, “I don’t remember 99% of the meals I’ve eaten, but they’ve kept me alive. God uses faithful, forgettable sermons to [nourish] his [people].”

The only way we’re going to remember is reminder.

What’s the implication? When God opens his mouth, open your mind. When God turns on his microphone, turn up the volume. When God sows the seed, soften the soil. When God uncovers the well, lower your bucket.

“But the Bible is familiar to me…” Well what a blessedly dangerous thing to feel. Familiarity breeds contempt. But there’s one step between, and that’s neglect. Familiarity breeds neglect . . . and then contempt.

Can I give you a simple word? Do your devotions. Do what it takes to soak each day in God’s Word. The world is a cold place that will leave the heart hard. But God’s Word is a fire that both warns and warms, guarding us from going astray and keeping us in the garden of grace.

So get practical: set (1) a time, (2) a place, and (3) a plan to nourish your soul and warm your heart and warn your steps with God’s Word. Because no church will rise above its knowledge of God’s Word. A church can know God’s Word without obeying it, but no church can obey God’s Word without knowing it.

Ask yourself the question Rosaria Butterfield asks: Am I growing or just aging?[8]

REVIEW & TRANSITION: I am challenging us to share the lessons and legacy of the Christian faith by personally investing in those God has placed in our lives. The first part of the challenge is this: Soften your heart to the story of Scripture. Now for the second part:

2. Commit your days to the duty of discipleship (vv. 4-5).

What should we do with these stories and warnings and promises and commands? As we soak the sponge of our souls in Scripture, what should we do next? Squeeze:

4 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 that he has done.
5 He established a testimony in Jacob
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers
to teach to their children . . .

William Gurnall says, “Children are their parents’ heirs; it [would be] unnatural for a father, before he dies, to bury up his treasure in the earth, where his children should not find or enjoy it; now the mercies of God are [the best] part of a good man’s treasure, [and] the [best] of his children’s inheritance.”[9]

If I do not teach my children the truth; if I fail to pass the story of Scripture along to the next generation, I am not just neglecting something. I am “hiding” the most precious possession in the universe from my own children and from the next generation. I am severing an omnigenerational line that’s meant to outlive death.

In v. 5, fathers are “commanded” to “teach.” John Calvin writes that “these things should be published from age to age without interruption; so that being transmitted from father to child in each family, they might reach even the last family of man” (p. 230). May verse 3 be the testimony of every child who grows up at Fellowship Church: “our fathers have told us.” And may verse 4 be the unflinching legacy of their parents: “We did not hide them from our children.” When they face challenges to their faith, may they say with Psalm 44:1:

O God, we have heard with our ears,
our fathers have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days,
in the days of old . . .

This idea of cross-generational training is not just Asaph’s novel idea. Notice in Psalm 78:5:

[God] established a testimony in Jacob
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers
to teach to their children
. . .

What is this “testimony” and this “law”? The covenant God made with Israel. This “testimony” and “law” that God established are the “sealed” records of his work (Calvin: God “sealed up his grace,” p. 231). And generational training is part of this covenant! It’s an implication of salvation (Exod 10:2; Deut 6:7). God saved you! Tell the next generation.

“Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children . . .” (Deuteronomy 4:9).

Parents: Bury the seed deep in the soil so the tree will stand strong in the storm.[10]

But the point is not just nuclear family. These eight verses are oozing with generational language: “fathers” 3x (vv. 3, 5, 8), “children” 3x (vv. 4, 6 [2x]), and “generation” 3x (vv. 4, 6, 7).

The point is that the scriptural stories, the covenant truths, the biblical commands—the gospel of grace—should pulse like a wave through our multi-generational community. This should be happening every day in every family, throughout the week in our community, and every Sunday in this sanctuary.

Every Christian in every generation has a daily duty to disciple others in the faith. Our factory setting is a three-part cycle: listen-obey-teach. No Christian is operating properly until we’re doing all three! When my kids set our dishwasher on “Normal,” it does three things: wash, rinse, dry. If it doesn’t do all three, that means it’s broken and needs to be fixed. And the button my kids push doesn’t say “super-cycle” or “crazy-clean” or “awesome-wash.” It just says, “Normal.” So it is with the Christian. The listen-obey-teach button should be your normal setting. It’s the button God pressed when he saved you. The listen-obey-teach setting is not called “pastor.” It’s not called “professor.” It’s not called “parent.” It’s called “Christian.” The factory setting of every Christian is listen-obey-teach.

We simply aren’t doing our jobs if we’re not evangelizing and discipling others. Verses 1-4 make it clear: learn, practice, teach. Listening and learning is not enough. Obeying and doing is not enough. Teaching and discipling is the third activity that every Christian must be doing at all times.

REVIEW & TRANSITION: If we want to invest the lessons and legacy of Scripture into the next generation through evangelism and discipleship and teaching and parenting, we must first soften our hearts to the story of Scripture, then recommit our days to the duty of discipleship. What does this discipleship then look like? Here’s the third part of my challenge to you:

3. Fill your mouth with the mighty deeds of God (vv. 4-8).

4 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 that he has done.
5 He established a testimony in Jacob
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers
to teach to their children,
6 that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,
7 so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
8 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.

It’s important to think through your evangelistic methodology. It’s good to become more skillful at spiritual conversations and counseling. It’s helpful to learn how to preach and teach and disciple and parent. But sometimes we make it far too complicated, and complication produces intimidation.

It’s quite simple in Psalm 78:4: share God’s “glorious deeds,” his “might,” and his “wonders” with the next generation. And remember the context of the psalm: it’s all about Israel’s disobedience and God’s faithfulness. So what are we telling the next generation, according to Psalm 78:4? We’re sharing how God’s mighty deeds have met our many needs.

Perhaps this is why Asaph says, “We will not hide them from their children.” There’s a temptation for one generation to hide difficult past issues from their children so as not to expose what really happened in our ugly history. But the psalmist wants to tell the truth about Israel’s past so that the next generation can learn from what truly happened—both sin and grace.

There’s a gospel logic in this psalm. We are to testify about our faithlessness and God’s faithfulness. We are to testify about our sin and his grace, our failures and his faithfulness. But the point of these testimonies is not to glorify sin or encourage failure. We are to use these examples to urge one another on to obedience (1 Corinthians 10:6).

If we want to be faithful to tell of God’s “mighty deeds,” we must share all of his mighty deeds: the justice of his wrath, the fury of his anger, the faithfulness of his provision, the beauty of his mercy. And we must not hide the bad news about ourselves. We must tell our children (and we must pass down to the next generation) that we are not saved because God aborts his wrath. We are saved because Christ absorbs God’s wrath on the cross.

Hiding the bad news of God’s wrath against sin and sinners makes the good news of his grace unnecessary, unintelligible, and unamazing.

Allen Ross writes that “the overall point of the psalm needs to be made clear: the people of God must remember his marvelous works on their behalf and tell them to their children. And that telling will necessarily include the rebellious acts of people, because God’s most marvelous works are his compassion, patience, and forgiveness of a sinful people.”[11]

Older saints, I hope you recognize that you are rich in stories. You have stories to tell, and we need to hear them. We need to hear about your trials and temptations, about your sin and God’s grace, about your need and his provision. We need to hear about your greatest challenges; about the hardest lessons you’ve learned along the way; about the Scriptures that have sustained you; and about the friends God’s brought your way. We need to hear about your life, and hear about your God. We need you to keep studying the sacred Scriptures each day; we need you to sense your sacred duty to disciple us; and we need you to share with us the mighty deeds of God in your life.

What’s the goal? What does God intend to do in the next generation as we fill our mouths with God’s mighty deeds?

Just look at the verbs in vv. 6-7: “know,” “arise,” “tell,” “hope,” “not forget,” “but keep.”

6 that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,
7 so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;

In verses 6-8, there are four purposes in shaping this next generation:

  1. So that they will know God’s Word (v. 6).
    “that the next generation might know them”
  2. So that they will trust God’s promise (v. 7).
    “so that they should set their hope in God”
  3. So that they will obey God’s law (vv. 7, 8).
    “so that they should . . . not forget the works of God,  but keep his commandments” (v. 7)
    “and that they should not be like their fathers” (v. 8)
  4. So that they will tell their children (v. 6).
    “and arise and tell them to their children”

If you will soften your heart to the story of Scripture and commit your days to the duty of discipleship and fill your mouth with the mighty deeds of God, then you will embed and implant the true story of the world in the coming generation of Christians.

But it’s more than the coming generation. You will shape the coming generations—plural. Those you tell will tell others. You will shape the lives of “the children yet unborn,” because they will “arise and tell them to their children.”

These eight verses span five generations.

  1. “our fathers” (vv. 3, 5)
  2. “us” (v. 3)
  3. “their [grand]children” (v. 4)
  4. “the children yet unborn” (v. 6)
  5. “their children” (v. 6)

God has designed every wave of discipleship to shape the distant shores of future generations. A pebble may be small, but its ripples always run far and wide. If you want to have children and grandchildren and great grandchildren in the faith, befriend and mentor and disciple younger Christians.

Conclusion

Langley, VA is home to CIA headquarters—our Central Intelligence Agency. In the central atrium, there’s a white marble wall engraved with 117 gold stars. This is the Memorial Wall, and these 117 stars remember CIA agents who’ve died in service to their country since the wall was established in 1974. Below the stars is displayed a “black Moroccan goatskin book” encased “in stainless steel and topped with an inch-thick plate of glass.”[12] In this book, names representing 84 of the 117 stars are written. For security reasons, the rest must remain anonymous, still protecting their country in death.

Six years ago, in 2010, Michael Morell became the deputy director of the CIA. And he made an early leadership decision. He insisted that the swearing-in ceremony be moved to the main lobby at the main headquarters building, so it could be held in front of the stars. He got a lot of pushback, because it would take a lot of work to set up that space for each ceremony. But he kept saying, “I don’t care. Just do it.” That ceremony now takes place in the shadow of that wall, and every new CIA employee raises their right hand and takes their oath in the light of those stars.

Michael Morell is a wise man. He wanted to soften people’s hearts to the story they were joining. He was calling them to commit their days to their sacred duty of protecting their nation and its citizens. And he was filling their minds and their motives with the heroic deeds of those who had gone before them. “I worked by a simple motto,” he writes: “that what I did every day needed to live up to the sacrifices represented by those stars.”[13]

Don’t leave the teaching and training to the seminaries and the Bible colleges. Don’t leave the evangelism for the campus ministries and the parachurch organizations. Don’t leave the discipleship to the paid pastors and the church staff. Don’t leave the parenting to the kids’ program or AWANA or VBS or your Christian school. Soften your heart to the story of Scripture. Commit your days to the duty of discipleship. And fill your mouth with the mighty deeds of God.


Notes

[1] Wikipedia, “Edmond Dantès,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmond_Dantès, accessed Aug 27, 2016.

[2] Wikipedia, “Edmond Dantès,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmond_Dantès, accessed Aug 27, 2016.

[3] Tom Reiss, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (New York: Broadway, 2013), Prologue, Part 2.

[4] Reiss, Black Count, Prologue, Part 2.

[5] Reiss, Black Count, Chapter 14 (“The Siege”).

[6] Reiss, Black Count, Prologue, Part 1.

[7] Reiss, Black Count, Prologue, Part 1 (emphasis added).

[8] Rosaria Butterfield, Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.

[9] William Gurnall quoted in C. H. Spurgeon, Treasury of David, 2:348.

[10] Inspired by C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David: Volume 2 (Psalms 58-110) (reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1966), 348. “The tree when it is old stands strongly against the wind, just as it was set when it was young.”

[11] Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 2 (42–89) (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2013), 666.

[12] Information from Wikipedia, “CIA Memorial Wall,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CIA_Memorial_Wall, accessed Aug 28, 2016 and Michael Morell, The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism—From al Qa’ida to ISIS (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2015), 328-329.

[13] This story is taken from Morell, The Great War of Our Time, 328-329.


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