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Old Testament Israel Can Do No Wrong. Except When It Can’t Do Anything Right.


What a pair of seemingly contradictory psalms teaches us about telling the church’s story.

Every Christian storyteller has a dilemma. When you want to communicate the history of your people—your church, your denomination, or the church as a whole—how do you frame it? As an encouraging story of corporate faith, courage, obedience, and success? Or a chastening story of God’s faithfulness and mercy despite corporate sin, confusion, and stubbornness?

If you’re casting vision or fundraising, you’ll want the former. Everybody likes hearing their victories celebrated and their sacrifices noted. But if you’ve read the Old Testament recently, you’ll notice how often the latter approach prevails. If anything, the Hebrew prophets and poets go out of their way to replace cheery pep talks with cold, hard looks at human intransigence and divine grace.

The storyteller’s dilemma is how to do justice to both. Simply repeating the encouraging version on loop (or whenever you need money) risks blowing smoke, and Pelagian smoke at that; people will assume their good works have merited God’s blessing. But hammering home the chastening version risks despair and apathy. If we’re all such miserable failures, riddled with incompetence and sin, then why bother?

Scripture provides a fascinating way through. Hidden in the Psalter at the end of book 4 lie two adjacent songs that tell Israel’s story in opposite ways. Psalm 105 gives encouragement, depicting an Israel that never puts a foot wrong. Then Psalm 106 chastens, with Israel getting hardly anything right. If we didn’t know the full Old Testament background, it would be hard to credit both portrayals as true.

In Psalm 105, the successes of the patriarchs (vv. 7–25), and especially of Israel during the Exodus and …

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