God’s gift of learning from the past.
History was always my favorite subject to study in school. My dad is a bona fide “history buff” (he being a former history teacher), so it was natural, then, that I would take up a similar interest. I remember poring over Civil War and World War II encyclopedias as a young boy, looking at all the photos and reading all the facts and names and dates and such. There was a time when I used to be able to name all the major conflicts in the American Civil War and which generals strategized each side in each of those skirmishes. The 1993 epic retelling Gettysburg was (and still is) one of my favorite dramatizations of war from that era and is a true testament to historical storytelling.
I love history; perhaps not to the same degree as I used to, but even still, I love reading and studying and learning from historical accounts and anecdotes. Some, however, groan at the idea of studying history. Those same folks have probably been duped into the understanding that history is the study of cold facts and dead people. And to a degree, that is true. But to a larger extent, the study of history has been grossly misunderstood. History comes alive when you are made to realize that these dead people of which you are reading were, in fact, people. They are not merely ancient silhouettes, faceless figures in paragraphs that aid the rising or lowering of your overall grade point average. They were human beings, like you and me, with lives and hopes and dreams and families. They were real.
The same is true for biblical history and the assortment of characters listed throughout the biblical narrative. All the weird names we read about in the pages of Scripture had lives behind them and homes to which to return with families waiting to embrace them. They had good days and bad days. They had desires and dreams they longed to fulfill. They were living, breathing people, just like you and me. Biblical history is animated at the recognition of the real people behind the stories.
Such is what we must keep in mind as we read Psalm 78, in which we are essentially given an extended history lesson by the psalmist, Asaph. For 72 verses, Asaph walks the reader through the history of the people of Israel, warts and rebellions and revivals and all. “Hear my instruction,” he announces; “listen to the words from my mouth.” (Ps 78:1) What he’s about to declare is of supreme importance for everyone, including “children yet to be born.” (Ps 78:6) Asaph is determined to relay the history of Israel’s failures and fiascos so that generation after generation might be able to declare God’s stubborn faithfulness to them and for them.
We will not hide them from their children, but will tell a future generation the praiseworthy acts fo the Lord, his might, and the wondrous works he has performed . . . so that a future generation . . . might put their confidence in God and not forget God’s works. (Ps 78:4, 6–7)
Asaph proceeds, then, to take the reader through a comprehensive retelling of Israel’s national history. He reminds them of the Lord’s provision, how he “gave them drink as abundant as the depths” and “made water flow down like rivers.” (Ps 78:15–16) Every need God’s people faced, God abundantly supplied. When they were lost, “he led them.” (Ps 78:14) When they were thirsty, he “gave them drink.” (Ps 78:15) When they were hungry, “he gave them grain from heaven.” (Ps 78:24) The wilderness wandering wasn’t a time of starvation or rationed supplies. It was a time of “abundant supply.” (Ps 78:23–25, 29)
He also reminds the people of the Lord’s protection and how he fights on behalf of his own people. (Ps 78:12–13) Israel was not traversing the wasteland alone. They had a God who fought for them, who was on their side. (Ps 78:43–51) He defended them through conflict and directed them through the turbulent badlands “to his holy territory.” (Ps 78:52–54) All along, he was working and willing and intervening on their behalf.
Asaph also brings to mind the Lord’s patience with them, reminding them that despite display after display after display of sovereign protection and divine provision, “they forgot what he had done, the wondrous works he had shown them.” (Ps 78:11) They questioned God’s goodness (Ps 78:19–20), even while evidences of his goodness were “still in their mouths.” (Ps 78:30–32) God’s people were fickle and forgetful, “rebelliously” and “treacherously” testing God’s forbearance. (Ps 78:56–58) Israel’s forgetfulness of their own history had led to ingratitude — and ingratitude always leads to disbelief. “They did not believe God or rely on his salvation,” Asaph incisively reports. (Ps 78:22)
But such is why this history was so important. Such is why Israel needed to remember. Because despite their insipid erraticism and faithlessness, God was still faithful to them.
He chose instead the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion, which he loved. He built his sanctuary like the heights, like the earth that he established forever. He chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; he brought him from tending ewes to be shepherd over his people Jacob — over Israel, his inheritance. He shepherded them with a pure heart and guided them with his skillful hands. (Ps 78:68–72)
I am continually bewildered by Asaph’s concluding remarks, that notwithstanding Israel’s incompetence, incoherence, and disbelief, God chose them, established them, guided them, and shepherded them with unflagging patience.
But what is the relevance for us in the twenty-first century? What is the takeaway from reading a history lesson about Israel? There is certainly a great deal we can grasp from these words but chief among them is that all our days are held by God’s sovereignty. Man’s history is an ongoing testimony to the boundless patience of God. This was true for Israel and it is true for you, too. Humanity’s biography is still being written by a God who incessantly abides and inexhaustibly provides. (2 Tm 2:13) History testifies to man’s perpetual failures and God’s persistent grace.
Additionally, Asaph displays a penchant for openly speaking to national disgraces. He doesn’t cower from or make excuses for all the sullied, sour, and sinful moments in his nation’s history. Instead, he presses into them because he knows that that is where true knowledge comes from. “We will not hide them from their children,” he declares, “but will tell a future generation the praiseworthy acts of the Lord.” (Ps 78:4) Asaph was conscious of history’s uncanny ability to speak words of wisdom into the present and inform the future. Without history, or by forgetting history altogether, we’re able to pretend the past didn’t happen.
In a trenchant essay for Quillette, Anna Porter examines the Hungarian involvement in the Second World War. Hungary’s part in opposition to the Allies in World War II remains, perhaps, one of the long-hushed chapters of recent history. And even though Hungary’s participation was not quite on the same scale as Germany’s or Italy’s, their role as a member of the Axis powers is irrefutable, notwithstanding the tactics the Hungarian officials employ to alter the events of the past in, as Porter describes, an “apparent determination to distort the country’s historical record.” Porter continues:
Early during [Miklós Horthy’s] rule, Hungary enacted some of Europe’s first 20th-century anti-Jewish laws. Jews were capped at 6% of university admissions, and subsequent measures limited Jewish participation in elite professions to the same benchmark. Jews also were prohibited from working in the public service and judiciary, or as high school teachers. During World War II, an additional law was passed prohibiting marriage or sex between Christians and Jews, on the grounds that such unions were harmful to the “national soul.”
Even before Hungary actively rallied to the German war effort, most of Hungary’s young Jewish men had been dispatched to so-called labour battalions, serving unarmed near the front, where they were as likely to be killed by their commandants as by enemy fire . . . By late 1944 . . . most of the country’s Jews already had been deported to concentration camps. In all, an estimated 565,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Historical documents show that even some Germans were amazed by the speed and efficiency of the Hungarian government’s co-operation, and by the cruelty of its gendarmerie.
In his Memoirs, Horthy uses terms such as “regrettable excesses” to describe massacres of Jews . . . He also claimed that in mid-1944 — after he had been marginalized by the Germans, who by now were taking direct control of the country — that he did what he could to save the Jews who remained . . . It was lost on no one that Horthy was changing sides in the war only after it had become obvious that the Nazis would lose.
The Hungarian government hasn’t ceased, though, in its movement to fundamentally erase its atrocious history. Porter describes Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party as one that is committed to promoting a “whitewashed form of national history.” She writes:
As someone who grew up under Hungary’s communist dictatorship, I have a complicated relationship with the past — as my memories of family and friends are intermingled with the fears of saying the wrong thing in a country where judges, schools, the judiciary and the education system were all controlled by the government. And I can see why the country itself also has a complicated relationship with the horrors that its citizens witnessed, endured — and inflicted. But the only way to start healing from these crimes is to acknowledge how they happened.
This reminds me of 2014’s The Giver. In The Giver, a national calamity known as “The Ruin” has fundamentally altered society forever. All remembrances of the past are erased from the collective memory. This, the leadership of this new society asserts, will cultivate true equality and harmony and peace. Only the Receiver of Memory maintains a remembrance of what the past held. His function, therefore, is to shield society from pain by keeping society’s past from being known. But the notion of censoring history from its citizens as an act of preservation has actually resulted in the castration of their entire society. Overcoming the ills of the past doesn’t happen by erasing them or pretending they didn’t exist.
Pretending history didn’t happen does nothing for the flourishing of mankind. It actually has a reverse effect and exacerbates the problems. As long as we continue believing that scribbling out the names and places of history can actually lead to change, we will never change. Change only happens as you are forced to stare starkly in the mirror and realize that the problem lies in you, in humanity itself. And in the attempt to convince ourselves that the darkness of sin didn’t or doesn’t exist — or that it wasn’t as bad as fear it is — we ignore the very platform on which the gospel is meant to speak to us. Such is what Scottish preacher Horatius Bonar pinpoints when he describes the necessity of our own spiritual sickness:
He could not be seen as the Healer till some were sick. He could not be known as the Helper till there were some to succor. He could not be known as the renewer of the world unless it were seen how far that world could go into decay.1
Christ Jesus’s good news comes to us in the darkness, in the mess, in the wreckage of our own rebellion. The best platform for the gospel, therefore, is the mayhem of our very existence. For it is precisely “the mess of history,” writes Robert Capon, that “is fixed once and for all in the mystery of death.”2 Good news is best heard in the midst of bad noise. By pretending history doesn’t exist, we cannot speak accurately or eloquently to our children on how to move forward in the years to come.
Horatius Bonar, The Story of Grace (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1857), 39.
Robert Capon, The Foolishness of Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel against the Wisdom of the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 12.