“Lord, please protect my children.” From the earliest days of parenting, Christian moms and dads have prayed these words a thousand times—I know I have—prayers for safety through the night, protection at school, and preservation from harm and evil. As a parent in the 21st century, these words are never far from our lips and hearts—and for good reason. Recent statistics have raised the alarm. A 2019 survey by Lifeway said that two-thirds of “American young adults who attended a Protestant church regularly for at least a year as a teenager say they also dropped out for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22.” More teens are not only walking out of church, but are walking away from the Bible’s teaching about gender and sexuality. The currents of today’s culture seem to be more treacherous than ever before.
Yet these dark waters are nothing new. In the New Testament, Jesus prayed for the safeguarding of his own in the world. He said, “I am not praying that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15, CSB). And in the Old Testament, Psalm 78—that justly famous chapter on the next generation—also sounds the alarm over two perilous currents that endanger God’s children. In its 72 verses, Asaph unfolds a cautionary tale in two acts.
Act 1: Psalm 78:9-39 highlights the bad example of the Ephraimites—one of the tribes of Israel. In the day of battle, Ephraimite archers, armed with bows, turned back (Ps. 78:9-10). And this was not a neutral battlefield decision made in the fog of war. This was retreat.
Act 2: Psalm 78:40-66 tells another tale of failure. When the generation whom God had rescued out of the greenhouse of Egypt, encountered an idolatrous culture, they embraced it. “They enraged [God] with their high places and provoked his jealousy with their carved images” (Ps. 78:58). This isn’t retreat. This is surrender.
Together these two cautionary tales are a matched set. They offer side-by-side contrasts of the two undercurrents that threatened God’s people. Both accounts deliberately use the word “bow” (as in bow and arrow) to describe the problem (78:9 & 78:57, the only occurrences in this chapter). The Ephraimites carried bows but did not use them. The Exodus generation were like bows that did not work. Both verses also use the same Hebrew word, which means “twisted” (hphk), a word used only one other time (78:44). The Ephraimites “turned back,” while the Exodus generation “turned away” (twisted) like a warped bow.
The Ephraimites turned from risk in order to save their lives. This is running away out of fear of something bad. In contrast, the Exodus generation turned to idolatry to meet their needs. This is blending in out of hope for something better. And aren’t these the two missteps of every generation?
On the one hand, we are tempted to flee from the enemy—just like the Ephraimites. We are tempted to run from the threats and dangers of our day, of our culture. And on the other hand, we are also tempted to embrace the enemy—just like the Exodus generation. We are tempted to assimilate with the opportunities and benefits of our day, of our culture.
Yet as Jesus prayed, every generation must remain “in the world,” yet they are not “of the world” (John 17:14-15). But, with the riptides of withdrawal on the one hand and capitulation on the other, how do we as parents steer a course between these two perennial threats?
A countercultural people
Psalm 78’s answer might surprise you. The root problem with both the Ephraimite’s retreat and the Exodus generation’s surrender is the same. In their present moment, they had forgotten the works of God in the past. So Asaph, the author of this psalm, rehearses what each group should have remembered.
Act 1: When the Ephraimite archers went out to battle, they should’ve recalled how God had previously provided for them. They should’ve recalled his provision in opening the Red Sea (78:13), in leading them through the wilderness by day and night (78:14), in giving water in the desert (78:15-16), and in sending bread from heaven and meat to eat (78:17-28). In spite of all this, the Ephraimites did not trust God’s ability to provide (78:17-22; 32-33; 37). Yet God, showing compassion, continued to provide for his people (78:38-39).
Act 2: Similarly, Asaph recounts the works of the Lord which the Exodus generation should have remembered. God sent plagues on Egypt and all their false gods (78:42-51). God delivered his people, but swallowed up their enemy at the Red Sea (78:52-53). He brought his people into the land, but drove out the nations before them and gave their land to his own people (78:54-55). In sum, God wielded supernatural power to deliver his people and defeat their enemies.
Both groups failed because they forgot what the Lord had done. The Ephraimites gave up because they didn’t remember how God had provided what they needed, and the Exodus generation gave in because they didn’t remember how God had defeated their enemies.
But isn’t that counter-intuitive? It’s not what I would have written.
A counterintuitive counterculture
On the one hand, if I had sketched out the history lesson for the Ephraimites, who fled from battle, I’d have wanted them to remember that God is a warrior who defeats his enemies. But Asaph puts this truth with the other bad example.
And, on the other hand, if I were summoning the Exodus generation to remember what God had done, I might say: Don’t look to idols to provide what you need—because God has always provided for you.
But that is not what Asaph says. Instead, he says, when you face the enemy, remember how God has provided. And when you’re tempted to idolatry, remember how God has triumphed over his enemies.
This is counterintuitive. And this is wisdom. Because, if we face hostility under the banner—“God will defeat you”—we might be overly optimistic of what God will do through us. We’d be tempted to relate to the culture in pride and combativeness: “We will crush you people.” Instead, we can face cultural opposition calmly knowing that “God will provide.”
Or if we face the promises of idolatry, armed only with—“God will meet my needs”—then we might be overly pessimistic about what God can do around us. We’d be tempted to relate to the culture in fear and doubt: “Is this really the right and better way for everyone?” Instead, we should face the lure of idolatry confidently knowing that our God has routed any supposed rivals and is infinitely superior to them all.
Bringing it home
We must protect ourselves and our children against the lure of an idolatrous culture that is increasingly hostile toward Christianity in a demonstrable way. We must not retreat. We must not give up out of fear of something bad. But we must stand with the calm assurance that no matter what happens, our God will provide.
Whether we lose the culture war, whether we are marginalized and canceled, whether we are slandered as bigots and hate-mongers, whether they take away our constitutional liberties—despite all these things, our God will still provide.
And we must not surrender. We must not give in out of hope for something better. But we must resist the little compromises, the tiny bargains, the costly silences in confidence that we know how this story will end. We humbly know that it is not the world nor us who sits on the throne of this world, “and though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.”
Recalling this balance—that God will provide and deliver—will help us and the next generation to engage our culture without wavering, and without fear.