A Table in the Wilderness

Tom Groelsema, Speaker

Psalms 78:1-29 | November 7 - Sunday Morning,

Sunday Morning,
November 7
A Table in the Wilderness | Psalms 78:1-29
Tom Groelsema, Speaker

Unveil yourself, God of glory. Wake us to know You. Savior, King, enlighten the eyes of our hearts. Draw away the darkness that blinds, chokes, and shrinks us. Show us your beauty. Make us glad in God and help us to see. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Let’s turn in our Bibles today to Psalm 78. We’re going to be reading the first 31 verses of this psalm. It’s a long psalm, a history psalm. Again, we’ll read the first 31 verses, Psalm 78.

Listen carefully now to God’s Word.

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

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

The Ephraimites, armed with the bow,
turned back on the day of battle.
They did not keep God’s covenant,
but refused to walk according to His law.
They forgot His works
and the wonders that He had shown them.
In the sight of their fathers He performed wonders
in the land of Egypt, in the fields of Zoan.
He divided the sea and let them pass through it,
and made the waters stand like a heap.
In the daytime He led them with a cloud,
and all the night with a fiery light.
He split rocks in the wilderness
and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.
He made streams come out of the rock
and caused waters to flow down like rivers.

Yet they sinned still more against Him,
rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
They tested God in their heart
by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God, saying,
“Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
He struck the rock so that water gushed out
and streams overflowed.
Can He also give bread
or provide meat for His people?”

Therefore, when the Lord heard, He was full of wrath;
a fire was kindled against Jacob;
His anger rose against Israel,
because they did not believe in God
and did not trust His saving power.
Yet He commanded the skies above
and opened the doors of heaven,
and He rained down on them manna to eat
and gave them the grain of heaven.
Men ate of the bread of the angels;
He sent them food in abundance.
He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens,
and by His power He led out the south wind;
He rained meat on them like dust,
winged birds like the sand of the seas;
He let them fall in the midst of their camp,
all around their dwellings.
And they ate and were well filled,
for He gave them what they craved.
But before they had satisfied their craving,
while the food was still in their mouths,
the anger of God rose against them,
and He killed the strongest of them
and laid low the young men of Israel.”

Thus far our reading in God’s holy Word.

Dear friends, in the Lord Jesus Christ, I find that when it comes to history, thinking about historical studies, thinking about the past, most people fall into two categories: They either enjoy history a lot or they intensely dislike it.

Now which of those two groups do you fall into? Do you like history? Or do you kind of think about history and say, well, that’s done and over with. Why pay attention to history?

I love history. I was an American History major in college, so I love learning about the past. I love particularly war history. But not everybody is like that. Some people, of course, find history good and satisfying to learn about the past and to learn about the lessons of the past, and then again there are some people who say, “You know, the past is the past. Why bother thinking about yesterday? Let’s just live in today.”

Well, history matters for all of us. In fact, it matters in our daily lives, in a very practical level. So pretend you’re starting college, or you’re starting a new semester in college, and you want to know something about the professor that you’re going to have, and so you might look up, for example, “Rate My Professor,” over 1.7 million evaluations, and you can read about your professor, what kind of professor he’s like, what students have thought about him, so you kind of go back and do a little history on the professor that you’re about to have.

Or think about buying a car. If you’re going to buy a car, and you’re going to buy it from somebody that you don’t know, it’s wise, isn’t it, of course, to do a little history, to do a little fact finding. Has this car been in any accidents? What is the maintenance record of the car? I’m going to look on Carfax, find out a little about it. So I’m going to do history on this car.

You might do the same thing with a doctor. You might find out what the ratings are on the doctor that you’re going to visit.

Or you might do the same thing when you’re going to a restaurant. I was just telling somebody, actually, in the last two weeks about a restaurant that I had been to and they said to me, “Have you seen the ratings? 78.9.” And then I realized, he wasn’t actually talking about the food ratings, he was talking about the sanitation ratings. I was like, hmm, how well did I feel after eating at that restaurant?

Psalm 78 is a history psalm. It tells the history lesson of Israel from Egypt to the establishment of David as the King of Israel, and it was history as we read in the very first part of the Psalm, history that is meant to be passed down from generation to generation. The Psalm writer says, “We will not hide what the Lord has done from the generations that are going to follow. They need to hear from our mouths what God is like, what God has accomplished. It’s passed down from parents to children so that history would not be repeated again. That they will not be like their forefathers, a sinful and rebellious generation but rather walk in the ways of the Lord.”

There are two things that are particularly highlighted in the psalm. Israel’s failures and God’s faithfulness. It’s a refrain all through the psalm. Israel fails, God is faithful; Israel fails, God is faithful.

Well, there’s one period of history that we’re going to focus in on today, and that is the wilderness years, the 40 years that Israel spent in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land.

And they asked this question, Israel asked this question of God, do you see it in verse 19? They said, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness for us?” Can God do that? Can God spread a table in the wilderness?

People of God, this is first of all part of a food test that Israel endured. The wilderness, as you remember from biblical history, was a period of testing, a time of testing for God’s people. The wilderness is a difficult place, of course. It was hot and dry, dusty, barren. Snakes in the wilderness that Israel encountered. It was a place of hunger. It was a place of thirst. It was a place of death. In fact, as you remember an entire generation of Israelites dies in the wilderness, they do not make it to the Promised Land.

There were very things that are able to live and thrive in a wilderness.

I remember when Sheri and I were living in California in our early married years. I was going to seminary and we were going to travel from Los Angeles out to the Midwest. We began to think about that trip and particularly thought about the high desert region, so the area between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. We’d been hearing from people, as you think about making that trip, you need to think ahead. When are you going to pass through the high desert? You’re going to do this in the middle of the day? When the sun is bearing down? Or are you going to do it in the evening? Are you going to do it at night when the temperatures fall? And you’ve got to think ahead because you want to make it through there, right? You want your car to make it through that wilderness.

A number of years back Sheri and I took a trip to Israel and one of the places that our trip took us was to the Negev, the southern part of Israel, 109 degrees. And our tour guide, he gets us out of the bus and we just kind of wandered around through the wilderness, just like Israel, and it wasn’t long before we started complaining. Just like God’s people, “Get us out of here, we don’t want to be in the wilderness any longer.”

And of course, that’s what God’s people did. The wilderness was hard for them. God tested them to see how much they trusted Him. They had to trust God for water and food and survival.

But turn that around. Not only was the wilderness a place where God tested His people, but it was a place where they tested God. They questioned and challenged His character and His love. They wanted God to prove His promises.

In fact, there are three tests that really form the structure of this psalm that God’s people brought against the Lord.

There was a power test. Is God powerful enough to help us and to save us?

There was a worship test. Would they worship in their own strength or depend upon the nations, or would they worship God alone?

And then as I mentioned, there was also this food test. Look at verse 18 to 20 again. They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” He struck the rock so that water gushed out and streams overflowed, but can He also give bread or provide meat for His people? Can God spread a table in the wilderness?”

Think of a Thanksgiving table. We might have that in a couple of weeks at your home. A Thanksgiving table so full that there’s barely any room for more food on the table.

“Can God do that for us, in the wilderness,” they said, “a table that is lush and lavish, in the middle of a wilderness that is barren and empty. Food and drink galore versus no food or water in the wilderness.”

You see what they were taking for from God, it was a miracle. Can God spread a table in the middle of emptiness, of barrenness.

And God, of course, had done the miraculous before for them. They should have remembered, but they didn’t. They forgot. And friends, this was not a mental lapse. This was due to a hardened heart.

Verse 18 points that out to us, that it all began with a disordered heart that led to a demanding spirit. They tested God in their hearts, and what flowed out of their heart was the demand that God would give them the food that they craved. They wanted, of course, what they once had.

Book of Numbers reminds us of this. The litany of God’s people complaint: “Oh, how wonderful Egypt was. Can’t we go back? I mean, just think about it. We had fish. We had cucumbers and we had melons and onions and garlic. Oh, that we could just be back in Egypt. Better to be slaves in Egypt,” they were saying, “with a buffet of food than to be free with a limited menu.”

I mean, how absurd this was. It’s like somebody saying, “You know, I’d love prison because the food is so good.” Or your doctor says to you, “You know, you’ve been in the hospital for a few days, and I think we’re going to send you home today, this afternoon.” “Oh, doc, I mean, can I say one more night? I mean, I get to order off a menu.”

I mean, this is what it was like for Israel. We would rather be slaves and have all the food that we want than to be free and be hungry in the wilderness.

It was ingratitude, wasn’t it? Ungrateful for what God had provided. Friends, ingratitude is a root sin. What I mean by that is that it heads up the train of a long line of sins. It leads to other things. Ingratitude can lead to greed, it leads to disordered worship, leads to prayerlessness. It can lead in all kinds of places.

But a reminder to us this morning that when you sense your heart is discontented, when you’re not satisfied with what God has provided, that is not a sin to just take lightly, “In the category of sins, I mean, this is just way down here. No problem.” And God says, “No, you need to fight that.” That is something to root out before it leads into other sins or other directions away from God.

Ingratitude and also unbelief and doubt. Is God able to spread a table in the wilderness? Can God provide bread and meat for His people? We know that He has made water flow from rocks, water gushing out in the wilderness, but can God give us what we need to eat?

There’s a difference between having a struggling faith and unbelief. It makes us, you know, wonder here in Psalm 78 what was going on with the people of God? Was this simply a struggle of faith, or was this rank unbelief? And you see the words of the text, as they demanded the food that they craved and they spoke against the Lord.

This was not just sort of a momentary doubt on their part, but this was unbelief in the promises of God, and the goodness of God and the love of God and the power of God.

And you take the demands that they made of God and the doubt that they had of God and you bring them together and you see them testing God. God, you need to prove yourself. God, you need to bow to our will rather than us bowing to Your will. God, we look at Your ways of providence, how Your hand has been active, and God, there’s something missing here, and God, we want you to act, we demand that You act in the way that we desire.

Almost like a distorted petition. You take the Lord’s Prayer and flip it on its head. Almost as if God’s people were saying, “Lord, our will be done on earth as it should be in heaven,” rather than Your will be done. Give us what we want.

Well, friends, how did God respond to that? Well, you see His mercy written all over the psalm, but we also see His justice.

Derek Kidner in his commentary on the psalm says that God answered in two ways. He answered with a fiery “no” to the spirit of their demand, and with a gracious “yes” to the substance of their demand. A fiery “no” to the spirit of their demand, and a gracious “yes” to the substance of their demand.

You can see God’s “no” in the psalm, beginning at verse 21. You actually see it at the front and the back of God’s provision. At the front side, verse 21, at the very end of the provision in verse 31. And the psalm reflects here nicely the account that we have of this in Numbers 11, just the way that Numbers 11 tells the story, the psalm reflects that.

So God heard their demands and His anger was kindled, verse 21, fire rained down upon the people of God and killed some on the outskirts of the camp. As that happened, this place took on a new name. It was called Burning. Given a new name so that Israel would remember, “Hey, remember that place of burning? Remember what happened there? Remember when we complained against God and demanded that He would give us what we want and fire came down? We need to remember that. Don’t forget that, because we don’t want to live through that again.”

And then at the end, verse 30 and 31, at the end of God’s provision: Before the Israelites could finish eating the quail that was in their mouths, while the food was still there, the anger of God rose against them and He killed the strongest of them and laid low the young men of Israel. God sent a plague through the camp.

And they gave this place a name as well. They called it Graves of Craving. Graves where you bury people, Graves of Craving. A new name so that they wouldn’t forget. “Remember what happened there? Again how we had complained, again against the Lord and this plague came. We cannot forget that at all.”

You see, God would not just overlook the spirit of their demand. He knew what was in their hearts. His justice fell against the people of God and His aim was to bring them to repentance. “Remember what happened and turn your hearts to God, rend your hearts, not your garments. Repent for the Lord. Turn back to God, see His forgiveness and His grace.”

So there’s a “no” as part of God’s answer, but also a “yes.” God, along with His justice, also gracious to His people.

Can He spread a table in the wilderness? He can, and He did.

We’ve already noted how He split rocks in the wilderness. Water flowing in the desert, two times. We read about it in Numbers chapter 20, and it also happens earlier in the book of Exodus, Exodus 16. Two different times. Imagine it. We get sometimes familiar with the stories and just read through them, but rocks, out of rocks, water began to flow for the people of God as the Lord provided by His hand.

And they demanded meat, and the Lord gave it to them. Verse 26 and 27 and following recount this. He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens, and by His power He let out the south wind and he rained meat on them like dust, winged birds like the sand of the seas.

In the Numbers account, God provided so many quail, they came down, the Bible says, to about 3 feet above the ground in every direction a day’s walk. I’m trying to think how far can you walk in a day? I don’t know. Maybe 15 miles, 20 miles? Maybe more. But 3 feet, down to 3 feet off the ground, a miles’ walk in every single direction, front, back, and both sides. This is the amount of meat that the Lord provided for His people, so much so that no one gathered less than 10 homers, 60 bushes of quail. God poured it out, rained it down, upon His people.

And of course He gave them manna. Verses 24 and 25, He rained down on them manna to eat and gave them, and notice the descriptions here, He gave them the grain of heaven. Men ate of the bread of the angels and He sent them food in abundance.

When the dew was gone in the morning, these thin flakes like frost appeared on the ground, had their own frosted flakes, we could say, a little pastoral humor for you.

Grain of heaven. The bread of angels. Not because angels eat bread, or anything else, but a graphic way of saying that the manna came down from where angels live. It came down from the hand of God. The very nature of the manna itself, of course, reminds of that, doesn’t it? But this didn’t come from anybody else. This came from God Himself. It was something that was completely unfamiliar, both for Israel and all the peoples around them. They didn’t know anything like this before. And it came every single day from God and it was there all through the desert, no matter where Israel was. When they were camping here, there was manna; and camping there, there was manna. All through the journey, the Lord provided it for them.

We think about how they would crave food from the kingdom, food from Egypt.

And Spurgeon says God gave them something so much better. He says the delicacies of kings were not outdone, for the dainties of angels were supplied. They craved for the delicacies of kings, but instead God gave them something better. He gave them the dainties of angels. Bread of the mighty ones fell, he says, on feeble men.

Pharaoh’s feast or angels’ bread? God says what more could you want? The bread of angels. God did spread a table for them in the wilderness.

Now, people of God, that is exactly what the Lord has done for us here this morning. in just a few minutes we’re going to come to this table, and God has spread a table for us here in the wilderness of our lives. We think about the metaphors, the images that the Scriptures give, particularly the image of redemption and how that lines up with our own life. God has delivered us from an Egypt, as it were. Not from bondage to Pharaoh, bondage to a nation, but from the bondage of our own sin with a mighty hand and outstretched arm, God has delivered us.

Where are we going? We’re heading to the Promised Land, aren’t we? We’re heading to the land of promise, to glory, to heaven itself, and just before we get to the Promised Land, we must verge Jordan, cross over Jordan, when we take our last breath here. And in between God’s deliverance from Egypt to glory to the Promised Land, where are we? We’re in the wilderness.

Life can be like that, can’t it? Dry, barren, thirsty, hungry, sick, temptations, testings, grumbles, complaints. And the lesson of Psalm 78 is don’t test God but trust God. Don’t put God to the test but trust in God. Don’t let your doubts turn into demands.

And in the middle of this wilderness, here is a feast. A feast of word, God’s Word. A feast of sacrament. God has for us here an oasis. Some of you need that desperately this morning, an oasis of His grace, an oasis for the strengthening of our faith, to be built up.

And He is here, of course, to satisfy us with Jesus Himself.

Paul saw that the manna, meat, and water in the wilderness all were pointers to Christ. 1 Corinthians 10:3 and 4: Israel, they all ate the same spiritual food, drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ.

Paul’s reminding us there, of course, that all these things are pointing to the supernatural satisfaction of our souls that can only come through Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of these things, and Paul reminds us these things, too, took place as examples that we might not desire evil as they did. Learn the lesson of Psalm 78 is what Paul is saying.

Why Jesus? Well, He endured the same tests that Israel had. There was a good test for Him in the wilderness, not for 40 years, but 40 days and 40 nights Satan came to Christ, “If you are the Son of Man, then just tell these stones to become bread. Prove your Son-ship. Test God. See if He comes through for you.” And you remember what Jesus said? “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Bread won’t do it ultimately. Yes, we need bread every single day for bodily nourishment and sustenance, but Jesus is saying bread is not the answer. You can eat all the bread that you want and you’ll still die. Man lives by, not by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. It is God’s Word that gives life, eternal life.

Jesus was so clear about this, and the connection between Himself and manna. We find Jesus speaking about this a lot in John chapter 6. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread of heaven, but My Father who gives the true bread from heaven, for the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will not hunger and whoever believes in Me will never thirst. I am the Bread of Life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness and they died. But this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat of it and not die.”

Friends, Jesus is our manna. And He has spread a table for us in the wilderness. He does this as our friend, He does this as our Shepherd, and if we have fed on Christ, we have tasted something better than angels’ food. We have a Savior who will satisfy us eternally. Satisfy our hearts, satisfy our souls, and He is the One who will bring us home.

Why Jesus and why only Jesus? Remember, He passed the test. Psalm 78, I mentioned those three tests; the food test, the power test, the worship test. And not only did Jesus pass the food test, but He also passed the power test and He also passed the worship test. You see, Christ was obedient where Israel failed, and therefore He is our only Savior, the One who can feed us eternally.

So this morning we come and here are the emblems of His grace. He points us to the cross, He calls us to come and to feed on Him so that we will hunger and thirst no more. Yes, it’s just tiny pieces of bread, just small little cups, but God has spread a feast that points us to the sufficiency of Christ to save us.

So let’s pray as we prepare now to come to this table.

Father, we do pray that You’ll bless us at this table. You have spread a feast for us, to satisfy us with Christ Himself. So now, Lord, make our hearts tender to You, give us faith to put our eyes not on the things that we’ll hold and see and taste, but give us eyes to see Jesus and to trust in him, and we pray these things in Christ’s name. Amen.