Psalm 78 expresses both hope and a warning. The hope is that the faith of God’s people will continue through their children. The warning is that God’s people must be sure to tell them the glorious deeds of the Lord if they want that hope to be realized.
But there’s a curious phrase in verse 4: “We will not hide [God’s works] from our children.”
Why would Asaph say that? Who would actually hide the things of the Lord from their children? This is part of the warning. If we were to read this full psalm, we would see that in particular, the tribe of Ephraim hid God’s Word from their children, and thus they forsook their inheritance, and there is certainly a similar danger that we could hide God’s Word from our children, certainly not purposefully, but rather because we have not purposefully told them the glorious deeds of the Lord.
Let me suggest a couple ways we might actually hide God from our children.
Passing it off the the church
First, parents often assume that it is the responsibility of other spiritual leaders to tell the coming generation the things of the Lord, and they many times unwittingly forsake their own responsibility to do so. Now, I will talk in a moment about the importance of the church in this, but the responsibility is given to tell the coming generation primarily to fathers. Not priests, not elders, not judges, not prophets—no, as verse 3 says, our fathers have told us, and we also must not hide them from our children.
This was the command given to fathers as part of the Shema, the great statement of faith for Israel in Deuteronomy 6:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
And this is exactly the emphasis of the New Testament: “Fathers,” Paul admonishes in Ephesians 6:4, “bring up your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Not pastors, not elders, not Sunday School teachers—no, fathers are to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
Telling the next generation the wonderful deeds of the Lord cannot be passed off to anyone else; parents, we must make this a regular, faithful part of our everyday lives in our homes, lest our children forget God.
Removing them from the Community of Faith
However, there is another ditch many families also fall into that is just as problematic. It is true that the primary responsibility for brining up children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord falls not to pastors or Sunday School teachers but to parents. However, if we parents try to fulfill our responsibility on our own, we will be doomed to failure.
Keep in mind that these commands in Psalm 78 are given within the context of the community of Israel. Notice what the psalmist says in verse 5:
He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children.
Yes, it was the parents’ responsibility to tell their children God’s Law and his works, but these were laws and works given to the community of God’s chosen people, and it was within this community that parents should bring up their children to know God.
This very psalm does what is commanded—it recounts the works of the Lord among his people. But notice who wrote this recounting of history and in what form it has been given. Psalm 78 was written by Asaph; who was Asaph? He is a Levite, one of the chief musicians serving in the temple worship. This is a recounting of the works of the Lord meant to be passed on to the next generation, not just in the privacy of the home, but in the context of the community of Israel in the temple.
When we remove our children from the community of God’s people, we are removing the necessary means God has given to parents to help us tell our children God’s wonderful deeds. There is no better place for us to tell our children the wondrous deeds of the Lord than for them to witness and hear and experience that goodness in the corporate gatherings and community of God’s people. We parents must raise up our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord within the community of God’s people, the local church.
What will result
Now again, this Psalm is a warning, but it is also an expression of hope. Notice verses 6 and 7:
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.
Asaph lists several results that come from parents and churches who faithfully pass on God’s Word to their children:
It Cultivates a God-Fearing Tradition
First, when we faithfully pass God’s Word to our children, it helps to cultivate a God-fearing tradition. What do I mean by “tradition”? Well, notice what is happening in verse six. When we tell the next generation God’s works, then that generation comes to know God’s works, and that then has benefits for even the next generation because our children will tell their children, their children will tell theirs, and on and on and on.
This reminds me of Paul’s admonition to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2:
And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.
This is what I mean by a God-fearing tradition—a pattern that is established and cultivated and perpetuated through each successive generation of remembering God’s Word and works.
And here’s the really powerful thing about establishing such a tradition: the longer it is cultivated and grows and is established within a community of God’s people, the harder it is to completely forget. Even if one generation drops the ball and fails to actively tell their children the things of the Lord, a cultivated tradition of telling God’s works provides the means by which perhaps the next generation can pick it up again and continue to tell the things of the Lord.
This is the beauty and power and importance of sound, biblical tradition. As we cultivate biblical teaching, books, hymns, worship practices, and customs in our churches and homes that faithfully embody and teach the wondrous works of God, we are preserving a deposit of truth for future generations to take up and tell their children God’s Word and works, even if a few others before them have failed to do so.
This is also why it is so necessary that, even though rearing children is primarily the responsibility of parents, we must do so within the context of the church, where we and our children can benefit from the rich heritage of theology and worship that is being cultivated within the church, where we and our children can benefit from the diligent study and preparation by God-called elders within the church, and where we and our children can benefit from the wisdom of other mature believers. Each one of us as parents has blind spots, personal weaknesses, sins; we need the leaders of the church and other members of the church to help us in our spiritual growth and to help our children as they grow in their knowledge of God.
It Will Produce Children Who Know, Love, and Obey God
And when we faithfully tell our children the wondrous deeds of the Lord, not only does it create a tradition that perpetuates that knowledge, but notice the result Asaph lists in verse 7:
So that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.
Notice something very important about the way Asaph describes this result. It is a result with three parts—do you see that? And what is included in these three parts is important and instructive for us. Let’s look at each one in turn, beginning with the third.
They will keep God’s commandments
What is our end goal? That our children will keep God’s commandments. We know this brings God glory, and we know that this is what is best for our children. We want them to glorify God with their lives, and we want them to thrive and succeed. The only way that will happen is if they obey God.
They will know God
But what is necessary before they can obey God? They must know God; they must know who he is; they must know his works. This is why it is so critically important that we faithfully teach our children God’s Word—who he is and what he has done and what he expects of them.
This is why the Word of God must be prominent in the lives of our children from the earliest of ages. This was true of Timothy, to whom Paul says, “and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
Timothy’s grandmother and mother had faithfully communicated truth about God from the Scriptures to him as a child. Children need regular biblical teaching just like adults do, and the fact is that children can often grasp more truth than we give them credit for. Certainly some deeper theological truths may be challenging for a child to comprehend, but we must teach the core truths of Scripture to our children from the earliest ages so that they will come to truly know God.
They will set their hope in God
But notice that intellectual knowledge about God and his works and what he requires will not be enough. Fueling everything is that our children will set their hope in God.
This is critically important for us to remember when we seek to lead our children to Christ and disciple them: we must teach their minds and their wills to be sure—unless they know who God is, what he has done, and what he expects, they cannot please him.
But we must be concerned ultimately to teach not only our children’s minds and wills, but also their hearts. Our hearts—the seat of our desires, our affections—is what drives us to follow what we know in our heads. Our children may know who God is and what he expects, but unless they love God, unless they desire to please God, unless they have set their hope in God, they will not follow God or obey him when the pressures of life arise or the allurements of the world’s delights grow strong. And it is not merely intellectual assent to God’s truth or obedience out of duty or expediency that brings glory to God, but rather love for him and devotion to him and hope in him.
We absolutely must teach God’s truth to our children’s minds, but we must also be sure to cultivate our children’s hearts for God, so that they might set their hope in him.
So how can we do that? How do we lead them to hope in God? Well, this is one of the powerful functions of worship, both in our homes and in our church. The didactic elements of our worship teach necessary truth to our children’s minds—the Scripture readings, the lyrics of hymns, the preaching.
But what we might call the aesthetic elements of our worship shape and form our children’s hearts—the poetry of the hymn lyrics, the musical forms we employ, the instrumentation, the reverence we embody as we engage in these things. Poetry and music and the way we act when we worship shape our hearts in ways that words alone cannot.
This is why the content of our worship is so important, but also the way in which we worship is also important, because how we worship shapes our hearts and our children’s hearts.
And this is also why worshiping together as families at home and actively including our children in the corporate worship of our church is so critically important for the spiritual development of our children—this is what moves our children not just to know about God, but to set their hope in God.
These three together—to know God, to love God, and to obey God—are the essence of what it means to worship God. This admonition in Psalm 78, the Jewish confession of faith in Deuteronomy 6, the New Testament commands to parents are each a call to worship the one true and living God exclusively with the entirety of a person’s being—mind (beliefs), will (obedience), and affections (love).
In other words, the ultimate goal for our children is that they will worship God.