Paul the Apostle and the other New Testament authors frequently look to the wilderness wanderings of Israel after their liberation from Egyptian slavery as a cautionary example for the new covenant people of God. For example, Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 10:1–5 that most of those who left Egypt never entered the Promised Land because the Lord was not pleased with them. Verses 6–11 explain that the history of these people is a lesson for us, demonstrating that we should not impenitently engage in idolatry, sexual immorality, or testing God lest we meet the same fate that they did.
The Apostle was not the first to use the wilderness generation as a negative example. Hundreds of years before Paul wrote, the psalmist Asaph also turned to the wilderness generation and what readers should learn from it. We have seen that the purpose of Psalm 78 is to emphasize the fact that God’s people must continually tell of His deeds to the coming generations so that they will preserve the faith once delivered and not fall away. This involves the negative examples of what happens when we do not follow the command to hand down the Lord’s teaching and when we fail to be faithful to His other statutes.
That first generation of Israelites is one of the best examples in Scripture of what not to do because those Israelites illustrate two of the chief sins condemned in the Word of God. First, the wilderness generation exemplifies ingratitude, which along with idolatry is one of the primal sins of humanity (Rom. 1:21). From the start, Asaph tells us, the liberated Israelites were never thankful for the Lord’s provision. It was almost immediately after their dramatic rescue at the Red Sea that the people started complaining and demanding food and water (Ps. 78:9–20). One would think that the miraculous provision of these resources would have been met with thankfulness, but that is not what happened. Manna was not enough; the people also demanded meat. And when God judged them for their sinful grumbling, the people complained all the more (vv. 21–32; see Ex. 16:1–17:7; Num. 11).
Asaph also reminds us that the Lord was longsuffering toward their ingratitude, not destroying them utterly but forgiving them time and again (Ps. 78:33–39; see Ex. 33; Num. 14:1–38). But as Asaph notes in Psalm 78:36, the repentance that prompted God to relent from disaster was fake, a mere show that was not rooted in their hearts. Thus, most of them did not make it to Canaan (Num. 14:35; Deut. 1:34–38).