This psalm focuses on God’s mercy displayed towards a rebellious people. Since the psalmist knows that the Lord is merciful, he is able to begin the psalm with a confident expression of praise (vv. 1-5). The Lord retains his character at all times, unlike his people who depart from him frequently. Yet he did great things for them throughout their history and their response should have been to live righteously. It is important to note the strong love the psalmist has for God’s people and he expresses this love by praying that he would share in their blessings. Despite their failings, it is better to be with a weak church than with a strong world.
In the remaining verses, the psalmist catalogues various times of failure in the lives of their ancestors. They had departed from God shortly after he had rescued them from Egypt and expressed their departure by complaining against his dealings with them through his chosen leaders, Moses and Aaron. A complainer against God has already begun to be a backslider. The Israelites even became idolaters and would have been destroyed by God had Moses not interceded for them. Yet they persisted in their sins and even meek Moses lost his temper with them.
When the Lord brought them into the Promised Land, they soon forgot him and even adopted the horrid rituals of the pagan religions of Canaan, for which they were punished justly by God who delivered them again and again into the hands of their enemies (vv. 35-43). Persistent rebellion by God’s people always brings spiritual captivity into their experience. Yet whenever they repented and turned to God, he forgave them (v. 44). The reason why he forgave them was because he remained true to his covenant with them (v. 45), a covenant that expressed his mercy.
Past deliverances encouraged the psalmist and others to pray for a contemporary rescue (vv. 47-48). They knew that the Lord had not lost his power or his willingness to help. And they also knew that the Lord responds to repentance and restores his people in order that they would praise him together. We live in such a time and the only way of recovery is repentance and prayer, neither of which we see very much. This does not mean we should not evangelise; after all, a failure to evangelise is an obvious flaw about which we need to repent.