Psalm 78 – Learning from God’s Faithfulness to His Rebellious People
This Psalm is titled, A Contemplation of Asaph. The author Asaph was the great singer and musician of David and Solomon’s era (1 Chronicles 15:17-19, 16:5-7, 16:17, 2 Chronicles 25:6 and 29:13). 1 Chronicles 25:1 and 2 Chronicles 29:30 add that Asaph was a prophet in his musical compositions.
“Psalm 78 is the longest of the historical psalms. Its lesson is that history must not repeat itself. The people must never again be unbelieving.” (James Montgomery Boice)
A. Introduction: Learning from the past, teaching for the future.
1. (1-4) Gaining the attention of the people of God.
Give ear, O my people, to my law;
Incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings of old,
Which we have heard and known,
And our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
Telling to the generation to come the praises of the LORD,
And His strength and His wonderful works that He has done.
a. Give ear, O my people, to my law: Psalm 78 is a wisdom Psalm, written to instruct God’s people. The theme is the goodness and kindness of God to His stubborn and rebellious people. Asaph began by asking for the attention of God’s people for the wisdom he would speak.
i. Psalm 78 begins with a principle sometimes neglected among those who would speak wisdom to others: you must first gain the attention of your listeners if you would teach them and reach them.
ii. Incline your ears: “Inclining the ears does not denote any ordinary sort of hearing, but such as a disciple renders to the words of his master, with submission and reverence of mind, silent and earnest, that whatever is enunciated for the purpose of instruction may be heard and properly understood, and nothing be allowed to escape. He is a hearer of a different stamp, who hears carelessly, not for the purpose of learning or imitation, but to criticise, to make merry, to indulge animosity, or to kill time.” (Musculus, cited in Spurgeon)
b. I will open my mouth in a parable: Psalm 49 is another wisdom Psalm with reference to the parable and the dark sayings. The phrase dark sayings does not have in mind hidden or mystical knowledge, but in things that can simply be difficult to understand; riddles that are good topics for instruction.
i. In a parable: “The word for parable (masal) gives the book of Proverbs its title. Basically this means a comparison, i.e., a saying which uses one realm of life to illuminate another.” (Kidner)
ii. Matthew 13:35 quotes Psalm 78:2 as a prophecy of the way Jesus would teach.
c. Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us: Asaph will not bring up new things for discussion, but things already within the mind of Israel.
d. Telling to the generation to come the praises of the LORD: Asaph knew what followed in Psalm 78 came from events and themes received from their fathers. He also knew that what they had received they had to pass on to the next generation; they had a responsibility to not hide them from their children.
i. “For the classic passage on teaching this faith to one’s children see Deuteronomy 6:6-9, for Scripture has no room for parental neutrality.” (Kidner)
ii. “The more of parental teaching the better; ministers and Sabbath-school teachers were never meant to be substitutes for mothers’ tears and fathers’ prayers.” (Spurgeon)
e. The praises of the LORD, and His strength and His wonderful works that He has done: Asaph was concerned to pass on at least three things to the next generation.
· The praises of the LORD, teaching them that God was worthy of our adoration and gratitude.
· God’s strength, His power and greatness above and beyond all.
· His wonderful works – that is, God’s power and greatness in active assistance to His people.
i. It is still good and necessary for us to pass these things on. We should speak often about them and tell the continually unfolding story of how God has done wonderful works in and through His people.
ii. This speaks to the importance of seeing and understanding the hand of God as He moves in and through history. “History should ever be the record of the works of God. That is to emphasize the important factor. History thus written, and thus taught, will so affect hope and memory in youth, as to constrain it to obedience to the God revealed; and this is the way of life for man and nation.” (Morgan)
iii. This Psalm emphasizes the strength and the wonderful works of God, and not the strength or wonderful works of His people. Psalm 78 is remarkably honest about the failings of God’s people. “The supreme quality of this psalm is that throughout all its measures, over against the repeated failure of His people God’s persistent patience is set forth in bold relief.” (Morgan)
iv. “Those who forget God’s works are sure to fail in their own.” (Spurgeon)
2. (5-8) Teaching one generation to avoid the errors of previous generations.
For He established a testimony in Jacob,
And appointed a law in Israel,
Which He commanded our fathers,
That they should make them known to their children;
That the generation to come might know them,
The children who would be born,
That they may arise and declare them to their children,
That they may set their hope in God,
And not forget the works of God,
But keep His commandments;
And may not be like their fathers,
A stubborn and rebellious generation,
A generation that did not set its heart aright,
And whose spirit was not faithful to God.
a. He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel: Using poetic repetition for style and emphasis, Asaph described first one of the greatest of God’s wonderful works (Psalm 78:4) – the giving of God’s word to Israel.
i. Centuries later the Apostle Paul would explain that one of the great advantages God gave to Israel was that He committed to them His word, the oracles of God (Romans 3:2).
b. That they should make them know to their children: Then and now, God gives His word that it would be transmitted to following generations. In theory, the revelation of God’s word can perish or become utterly irrelevant if not passed on to the next generation.
i. “Through Moses he had commanded all Israelites, regardless of tribal descent, to instruct their children at home (Deuteronomy 6:6-9, 20-22; cf. Exodus 10:2; 12:26-27; 13:8).” (Van Gemeren)
c. That they may arise and declare them to their children: Not only should our children be taught, they should be taught to teach their children so that the word and the work of God continue throughout the generations.
i. “Five generations appear to be mentioned above: 1. Fathers; 2. Their children; 3. The generation to come; 4. And their children; 5. And their children. They were never to lose sight of their history throughout all their generations.” (Clarke)
d. That they may set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God: The goal of communicating to the next generation is so that they would learn to trust God for themselves, never forgetting His wonderful works.
e. But keep His commandments; and may not be like their fathers: To the Psalmist, losing trust in God and forgetting His works leads to disobedience. If the younger generation is well instructed they might be more obedient, avoiding many of the errors of their fathers.
f. A stubborn and rebellious generation: Asaph described the sins of previous generations in Israel. They were stubborn and rebellious; they did not set their hearts aright, and their spirit was not faithful to God. These have some direct reference to action, but are more focused on heart and attitude.
3. (9-11) Preview and overview: losing the spiritual battle.
The children of Ephraim, being armed and carrying bows,
Turned back in the day of battle.
They did not keep the covenant of God;
They refused to walk in His law,
And forgot His works
And His wonders that He had shown them.
a. The children of Ephraim: The tribe of Ephraim was one of the larger tribes of Israel, and sometimes God called Israel “Ephraim” and in 2 Chronicles 25:7 God used the phrase children of Ephraim to refer to the people of Israel as a whole.
i. “As the largest of the breakaway tribes, their subsequent history was to make them almost a symbol of backsliding and apostasy.” (Kidner)
ii. “The prophetic writings (especially Hosea) show that Ephraim became the leader in the rebellion and disloyalty that cursed the nation, and so, figuratively and standing for the rest, Ephraim is here addressed.” (Morgan)
iii. “They were the children of Ephraim. Joshua was of that line, and he was the greatest of conquerors, who led the people into the promised land. And you professors, you profess to be descended from our Joshua, Jesus the Conqueror, and will you turn back? Are you followers of the Savior who gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair, and are you afraid or ashamed of anything? He gave his face to be spat upon, and will you hide your faces at the mention of his name, because fools choose to laugh at you? Followers of Joshua, and yet afraid? Followers of Jesus, and yet blush?” (Spurgeon)
b. Being armed and carrying bows, turned back in the day of battle: Because it is difficult to match this with a known instance in Israel’s history, perhaps the sense here is of a spiritual battle. Spiritually speaking, God equipped Israel for conflict. They were armed and had bows. Yet they often failed in the day of battle, because they did not keep the covenant of God.
i. “The incident referred to is not known. It was a time when ‘Ephraim, though armed with bows, turned back on the day of battle’ (Psalm 78:9). Nothing exactly like this is found anywhere in the Old Testament.” (Boice)
ii. Yet, “The psalmist’s description ‘armed with bows’ fits well with their aggressiveness as portrayed in the Book of Judges (Judges 8:1-3; 12:1-6).” (Van Gemeren)
iii. “The reference to Ephraim in Psalms 78:9-11 is not to be taken as alluding to any cowardly retreat from actual battle. Psalms 78:9 seems to be a purely figurative way of expressing what is put without a metaphor in the two following verses. Ephraim’s revolt from God’s covenant was like the conduct of soldiers, well armed and refusing to charge the foe.” (Maclaren)
iv. God makes spiritual resources available to His people for the spiritual conflicts they face (Ephesians 6:10-18). However, the effectiveness of those resources depends in some regard on their decision to actually make use of them. Ultimately, God’s people are assured of victory in Jesus. Day to day there may be defeats and setbacks – being turned back in the day of battle – because available resources are not used.
v. Spiritually considered, there are any who are turned back in the day of battle, though in different ways.
· Some turn back before the battle begins.
· Some turn back as soon as the battle is engaged.
· Some turn back when the first injury is received.
· Some turn back when the battle becomes long.
vi. John Trapp represents the opinion that there was a definite event connected to this turning back in the day of battle: “This the Rabbis interpret of eight thousand Ephraimites, who would needs break prison, as it were, out of Egypt (before the time that God had set for their deliverance thence), and seize upon Palestine, the promised land; but with evil success; for they were slain by the men of Gath, to the great grief of their father Ephraim, 1 Chronicles 7:21-23, and to the increase of their servitude in Egypt, Exodus 1:8-14.” (Trapp)
c. They refused to walk in His law, and forgot His works and His wonders: This was losing the battle. Disobedience and ignorance among God’s people were examples of being turned back in the day of battle. This is a warning to all generations: the spiritual battle may be lost.
i. And forgot His works: “It would seem almost past belief to us as we read that a people so led could forget. Yet is not this sin of forgetfulness with us perpetually? In some day of danger and perplexity we become so occupied with the immediate peril as utterly to fail to think of past deliverances. Such forgetfulness is of the nature of unbelief in its worst form.” (Morgan)
ii. “Forgot; not historically, but practically. They did not so remember them, as to love, and serve, and trust that God of whose infinite power and goodness they had such ample experience.” (Poole)
iii. “Ere we condemn them, let us repent of our own wicked forgetfulness, and confess the many occasions upon which we also have been unmindful of past favours.” (Spurgeon)
B. Stubborn, rebellious Israel in the Exodus from Egypt.
1. (12-16) God brought Israel out of Egypt, through the sea, and gave them water in the wilderness.
Marvelous things He did in the sight of their fathers,
In the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan.
He divided the sea and caused them to pass through;
And He made the waters stand up like a heap.
In the daytime also He led them with the cloud,
And all the night with a light of fire.
He split the rocks in the wilderness,
And gave them drink in abundance like the depths.
He also brought streams out of the rock,
And caused waters to run down like rivers.
a. Marvelous things He did in the sight of their fathers, in the land of Egypt: Asaph remembered how God helped His people as described in the first part of the Book of Exodus. Through a series of miraculous plagues and demonstrations of God’s power, Pharaoh was compelled to let Israel go from their slavery and they left rewarded with riches from the Egyptians (Exodus 5-13).
i. “Zoan is better known as Tanis, in the north-east of the Nile Delta, a city which was either identical with Rameses II’s capital (Raames, which the Israelites helped to build: Exodus 1:11) or not many miles from it.” (Kidner)
b. He divided the sea and caused them to pass through: As pharaoh’s armies pursued Israel, God miraculously brought them through the sea as they walked on dry ground as God made the waters stand up like a heap (Exodus 14).
c. In the daytime also He led them with the cloud, and all the night with a light of fire: As Israel came into the wilderness of Sinai, God assured them and guided them with the two demonstrations of His presence – the cloud by day and the fire by night (Exodus 40:36-38).
i. “A cloud; which was very comfortable, both for a shadow from the scorching heat of the climate and season, and for a companion and director in their journey.” (Poole)
d. He split the rocks in the wilderness, and gave them to drink: Often in the wilderness the nation of Israel needed water and many times God miraculously provided. One occasion was at Meribah where Moses struck the rock and it presumably split, bringing forth water (Numbers 20:10-13, Isaiah 48:21).
i. “Rocks; he useth the plural number, because it was twice done; once in Rephidim, Exodus 17:6, and again in Kadesh, Numbers 20:1,11.” (Poole)
2. (17-20) Israel stubborn, rebellious response to God’s wonderful works.
But they sinned even more against Him
By rebelling against the Most High in the wilderness.
And they tested God in their heart
By asking for the food of their fancy.
Yes, they spoke against God:
They said, “Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?
Behold, He struck the rock,
So that the waters gushed out,
And the streams overflowed.
Can He give bread also?
Can He provide meat for His people?”
a. But they sinned even more against Him: God repeatedly did great and amazing things for Israel in bringing them out of Egypt and preserving them in the wilderness. Yet Israel’s response was to sin even more and to rebel against the Most High.
b. They tested God in their heart by asking for the food of their fancy: God provided Israel’s needs in the wilderness, but sometimes they demanded more. He gave them manna, but they soon demanded meat (the food of their fancy (as in Numbers 11:4-10, 11:18-23, and 11:31-34). This tested God.
i. God promised to provide our needs. He never promised to give us the food of our fancy. “Alas, how have we also quarrelled with our mercies, and querulously pined for some imaginary good, counting our actual enjoyments to be nothing because they did not happen to be exactly conformed to our foolish fancies.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “Nothing is more provoking to God, than our quarrelling with our allotment, and indulging the desires of the flesh.” (Henry, cited in Spurgeon)
iii. We could say that Israel was guilty of at least two sins.
· They were dissatisfied with what God provided.
· They thought the reason why God didn’t give them what they wanted was because He couldn’t; that it was beyond His power.
c. Can God prepare a table in the wilderness? With these words they spoke against God, they tested Him, expressing their lack of faith in His power and lack of trust in His care. They didn’t believe that God could give them a banquet in the wilderness.
i. “Israel had seen the wonderful works of God, cleaving the sea, lighting the night, and giving water from rocks. Yet they questioned God’s ability to give bread, and to spread out a table in the wilderness.” (Meyer)
ii. “It was no sin to be hungry and thirsty; it was a necessity of their nature. There is nothing living that does not desire and require food: when we donor we are dead, and that they did so was no sin. Their sin was to doubt that God could or would support them in the wilderness, Or allow those who followed his leadings to lack any good thing. This was their sin.” (North, cited in Spurgeon)
iii. “The expression, spread a table, uses the same words as Psalm 23:5, whose serenity is a shining contrast to this.” (Kidner)
iv. In 1933 – the middle of the Great Depression – a young Irishman named J. Edwin Orr left a good paying job and with no fixed source of income he trusted that God would provide for him and his mother. He planned to travel around Great Britain with the message of prayer, salvation, and revival. He left Belfast with 2 shillings and 8 pence – about 65 cents. He had a bicycle, a change of clothes, and a Bible. He spent the next year travelling to every county in Great Britain and organized some 300 prayer groups dedicated to pray for revival. He wrote a book about it all and somehow convinced a publisher to take it – after being rejected 17 times. That first book was titled Can God — ? based on Psalm 78:19, and was published in 1934. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was a tremendous inspiration to Christians in that day. Orr’s book and his life was a remarkable demonstration of the fact that God can prepare a table in the wilderness.
v. “Though behind us lay the gift of the Cross, the miracles of the Resurrection and Ascension, the care exercised by God over our early years, the goodness and mercy of our after lives, we are disposed to say, ‘Can God?’ … Argue from all the past to the present and future. Fetch arguments for faith from the days that have gone.” (Meyer)
vi. “The words are wrongly placed. Never say again, ‘Can God?’ but God can.” (Meyer)
d. Can He give bread also? Can He provide meat for His people: Repeatedly God showed Israel that He could do all this and more. They asked these doubting questions with the miraculously provided manna in their stomachs.
i. “Who will say that a man is thankful to his friend for a past kindness, if he nourishes an ill opinion of him for the future?” (Gurnall, cited in Spurgeon)
3. (21-25) God’s anger with the unbelief and mistrust of Israel.
Therefore the LORD heard this and was furious;
So a fire was kindled against Jacob,
And anger also came up against Israel,
Because they did not believe in God,
And did not trust in His salvation.
Yet He had commanded the clouds above,
And opened the doors of heaven,
Had rained down manna on them to eat,
And given them of the bread of heaven.
Men ate angels’ food;
He sent them food to the full.
a. Therefore the LORD heard this and was furious: God blessed and provided for Israel in the Exodus out of Egypt and in the wilderness; Israel responded with complaining and unbelief. God did not ignore this; He heard it and He was furious with their sin against Him.
i. Keep in mind that the sins Asaph had mainly in mind were the sins of ingratitude, testing God, and doubting His power and His care. These were sins God was furious with. We often think God takes little account of such sins.
ii. “He was not indifferent to what they said. He dwelt among them in the holy place, and, therefore, they insulted him to his face. He did not hear a report of it, but the language itself came into his ears.” (Spurgeon)
b. So a fire was kindled against Jacob: Asaph may have had in mind what happened at Taberah, where in judgment the fire of the LORD burned among Israel (Numbers 11:1-3).
c. Because they did not believe in God, and did not trust in His salvation: In case we didn’t get it before Asaph stated it clearly for emphasis. These were the sins that made God furious and made His judgment burn like fire to Israel. Unbelief and mistrust toward God are counted as small sins by many today.
i. “In the text it appears as if all Israel’s other sins were as nothing compared with this; this is the peculiar spot which the Lord points at, the special provocation which angered him. From this let every unbeliever learn to tremble more at his unbelief than at anything else. If he be no fornicator, or thief, or liar, let him reflect that it is quite enough to condemn him that he trusts not in God’s salvation.” (Spurgeon)
d. Yet He had commanded the clouds above, and opened the doors of heaven: Their dark sin is set against the white background of God’s goodness and constant care for them. He gave them and kept giving them bread of heaven and angels’ food, and they ate to the full.
i. There have been many attempts to understand the giving of manna by known natural phenomena. It’s possible that there is a link to something along these lines, such as the sugary substance modern Arabs call mann; yet the sense of Psalm 78:24-25 is that there was something supernatural and even other-worldly about manna.
ii. “‘Tis called “angels’ food,” not because the angels do daily feed upon it, but because it was both made and ministered by the ministry of angels, and that phrase sets forth the excellency of it.” (Ness, cited in Spurgeon)
e. And given them of the bread of heaven: John records in his Gospel that in trying to persuade Jesus to keep providing miraculous bread, those who had been fed quoted this line from Psalm 78:24 (Our fathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat,” John 6:31). In quoting this Psalm to Jesus they fulfilled it in a negative way, showing the same ingratitude and willingness to test God that Israel showed in the wilderness.
i. “In appealing to this very psalm, the arguers were handling too sharp a weapon.” (Kidner)
ii. In verse 24, bread of heaven is more literally grain of heaven – or, corn in the King James Version. “The manna was round, like coriander seed, and hence was rightly called corn; it did not rise from the earth, but descended from the clouds, and hence the words of the verse are literally accurate.” (Spurgeon)
4. (26-31) The sending of fowl for meat.
He caused an east wind to blow in the heavens;
And by His power He brought in the south wind.
He also rained meat on them like the dust,
Feathered fowl like the sand of the seas;
And He let them fall in the midst of their camp,
All around their dwellings.
So they ate and were well filled,
For He gave them their own desire.
They were not deprived of their craving;
But while their food was still in their mouths,
The wrath of God came against them,
And slew the stoutest of them,
And struck down the choice men of Israel.
a. He also rained meat on them like the dust: Numbers 11:31-33 describes how God sent quail to Israel when they complained of manna. He literally let them fall in the midst of their camp, bringing the meat they craved to them.
b. So they ate and were well filled, for He gave them their own desire: Asaph wrote this with a strong sense of irony. Israel was well filled, but not with good quail meat in their stomachs. God gave them their own desire, but because their craving was rooted in their self-will the result would not be good.
i. They ate and were well filled: “But better they had fasted. Many eat that on earth which they must digest in hell; these here were murdering morsels.” (Trapp)
ii. He gave them their own desire: “The Lord shewed them that he could ‘provide flesh for his people,’ even enough and to spare. He also shewed them that when lust wins its desire it is disappointed.” (Spurgeon)
iii. “Consider that there is more real satisfaction in mortifying lusts than in making provision for them or in fulfilling them: there is more true pleasure in crossing and pinching our flesh than in gratifying it; were there any true pleasure in sin, hell would not be hell, for the more sin, the more joy. You cannot satisfy one lust if you would do your utmost, and make yourself never so absolute a slave to it; you think if you had your heart’s desire you would be at rest: you much mistake; they had it.” (Carmichael, cited in Spurgeon)
c. While their food was still in their mouths, the wrath of God came against them: Numbers 11:33 stated it like this: while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was chewed, the wrath of the LORD was aroused against the people, and the LORD struck the people with a very great plague. God gave a disobedient and rebellious Israel all they desired and craved and it turned to a plague of judgment among them.
5. (32-39) A merciful response to great sin.
In spite of this they still sinned,
And did not believe in His wondrous works.
Therefore their days He consumed in futility,
And their years in fear.
When He slew them, then they sought Him;
And they returned and sought earnestly for God.
Then they remembered that God was their rock,
And the Most High God their Redeemer.
Nevertheless they flattered Him with their mouth,
And they lied to Him with their tongue;
For their heart was not steadfast with Him,
Nor were they faithful in His covenant.
But He, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity,
And did not destroy them.
Yes, many a time He turned His anger away,
And did not stir up all His wrath;
For He remembered that they were but flesh,
A breath that passes away and does not come again.
a. In spite of this they still sinned: In some ways this is the most tragic line of Psalm 78. Despite all the blessings and the strongest of corrections, they still sinned. Israel wouldn’t learn either from God’s goodness or from His wrath.
b. Therefore their days He consumed in futility and their years in fear: God said that the generation of unbelief could not enter the Promised Land, and that generation would be consumed in the wilderness (Numbers 14:22-24). The futility was expressed in the idea that they came out of Egypt, but never into Canaan. The fear was expressed in their unwillingness to take the land by faith (Numbers 14:1-4).
c. When He slew them, then they sought Him: It took the most extreme correction from God, but eventually a generation of faith grew and sought earnestly for God.
i. “But such seeking after God, which is properly not seeking Him at all, but only seeking to escape from evil, neither goes deep nor lasts long.” (Maclaren)
ii. “As iron is very soft and malleable while in the fire, but soon after returneth to its former hardness; so many, while afflicted, seem very well affected, but afterwards soon show what they are.” (Trapp)
iii. “Who would not be pious when the plague is abroad? Doors, which were never so sanctified before, put on the white cross then. Even reprobates send for the minister when they lie a dying. Thus sinners pay involuntary homage to the power of right and the supremacy of God, but their hypocritical homage is of small value in the sight of the Great Judge.” (Spurgeon)
d. Nevertheless they flattered Him with their mouth: Their seeking of God was sincere but short lived. Soon they came to God only with flattering, insincere words. Strange to think a man could think he could lie to God, yet they (and often we) lied to Him with their tongue.
i. “False on their knees, liars in their prayers. Mouth-worship must be very destestable to God when dissociated from the heart: other kings love flattery, but the King of kings abhors it.” (Spurgeon)
e. But He, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity: God’s response to their stubborn rebellion, to their insincere seeking, to their failure to be faithful in His covenant was surprising. God showed His compassion, He forgave, and many a time He turned His anger away.
i. “It is indeed a great song of God’s patience, and there is no story more fruitful than if men will but learn it.” (Morgan)
ii. “Though not mentioned in the text, we know from the history that a mediator interposed, the man Moses stood in the gap; even so at this hour the Lord Jesus pleads for sinners, and averts the divine wrath.” (Spurgeon)
f. He remembered that they were but flesh, a breath that passes: In part, God’s understanding of the weakness of humanity prompted His compassion and forgiveness. One reason He was merciful to them was because of their frail nature.
i. “His compassion found expression in his forgiveness (cf. Psalm 65:3) of their sins, his forbearance with their stubborn spirits, and his empathy with the human condition, so that the full brunt of his anger did not destroy them.” (Van Gemeren)
ii. “Now, what is man (saith Nazianzen) but soul and soil, breath and body, a puff of wind the one, a pile of dust the other, no solidity in either?” (Trapp)
iii. “How gracious on the Lord’s part to make man’s insignificance an argument for staying his wrath.” (Spurgeon)
6. (40-55) From Egypt to Canaan, Israel’s failure to remember the power of God.
How often they provoked Him in the wilderness,
And grieved Him in the desert!
Yes, again and again they tempted God,
And limited the Holy One of Israel.
They did not remember His power:
The day when He redeemed them from the enemy,
When He worked His signs in Egypt,
And His wonders in the field of Zoan;
Turned their rivers into blood,
And their streams, that they could not drink.
He sent swarms of flies among them, which devoured them,
And frogs, which destroyed them.
He also gave their crops to the caterpillar,
And their labor to the locust.
He destroyed their vines with hail,
And their sycamore trees with frost.
He also gave up their cattle to the hail,
And their flocks to fiery lightning.
He cast on them the fierceness of His anger,
Wrath, indignation, and trouble,
By sending angels of destruction among them.
He made a path for His anger;
He did not spare their soul from death,
But gave their life over to the plague,
And destroyed all the firstborn in Egypt,
The first of their strength in the tents of Ham.
But He made His own people go forth like sheep,
And guided them in the wilderness like a flock;
And He led them on safely, so that they did not fear;
But the sea overwhelmed their enemies.
And He brought them to His holy border,
This mountain which His right hand had acquired.
He also drove out the nations before them,
Allotted them an inheritance by survey,
And made the tribes of Israel dwell in their tents.
a. How often they provoked Him in the wilderness: Asaph just explained God’s compassionate response to Israel’s sin. Yet he did not want to ignore Israel’s sin, their great debt of ingratitude and rebellion against God.
b. Again and again they tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel: Not only did Israel’s stubborn disobedience provoke and tempt God, there was a real sense in which it limited the Holy One of Israel. In one sense it is impossible for the creature to limit the Creator. Yet, when God ties His work to man’s faith and/or obedience, there is a sense in which man can and does limit God.
i. Matthew 13:58 says of the ministry of Jesus in Nazareth, Now He did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief. As long as God chooses to work in concert with human agency, developing our ability to partner with Him, our unbelief can and may hinder the work of God.
ii. It’s possible that limited the Holy One of Israel isn’t the best translation of the Hebrew. “The rare verb in 41b probably means hurt or provoked (LXX and most moderns) rather than AV’s ‘limited’, appropriate though the latter might seem.” (Kidner)
c. They did not remember His power, the day when He redeemed them from the enemy: Asaph had in mind the great power God showed in setting Israel free from their 400 years of slavery in Egypt. The Exodus redemption is often presented in the Hebrew Scriptures as the demonstration of the power of God.
i. In the New Testament we have a new and ultimate demonstration of the power of God: the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:4, Ephesians 1:19-20, Philippians 3:10). Paul might rephrase Psalm 78:42, They did not remember His power, the day when He raised Jesus from the dead.
ii. “The psalmist traces Israel’s sin to forgetfulness of God’s mercy, and thus glides into a swift summing up of the plagues of Egypt, regarded as conducing to Israel’s deliverance. They are not arranged chronologically, though the list begins with the first.” (Maclaren)
d. When He worked His signs in Egypt: Asaph recounted how God demonstrated His power for Israel and against Pharaoh by sending the plagues upon Egypt. The plagues were special demonstrations of God’s power because they were focused against supposed Egyptian deities.
· When God turned their rivers into blood He showed He was greater than the supposed Egyptian gods Khnum (said to be the guardian of the Nile), Hapi (supposedly the spirit of the Nile), and Osiris, said to have the Nile as his bloodstream (Exodus 7:17-20).
· When God sent swarms of flies and lice He showed that He was greater than the supposed Egyptian god Imhotep (the god of medicine) and that He was able to stop the whole worship of the Egyptian gods with loathsome lice and swarms of insects (Exodus 8:20-32).
· When God sent frogs He showed that He was greater than the supposed Egyptian goddess Heqt, the frog-goddess of fertility (Exodus 7:25-8:15).
· When God gave their labor to the locust He showed that He was greater than the Egyptian god Set, thought to be the protector of crops (Exodus 10:1-20).
· When God destroyed their agriculture with hail and frost and their flocks to fiery lightning He showed that He was greater than the supposed Egyptian goddess Nut, the sky goddess (Exodus 9:13-35).
· When God gave up their cattle to the hail He showed that He was greater than the supposed Egyptian goddess Hathor, a cow-like mother goddess (Exodus 9:1-7).
i. “The psalm omits the plague of gnats, the disease inflicted on the livestock, the boils visited on the people, and the days of darkness. There is no discernible reason either for the choice of the six judgments or the omission of the other four.” (Boice)
e. By sending angels of destruction among them: The worst of all the plagues was the last, the death of the firstborn. Egypt and Pharaoh would not give God His firstborn – Israel (Exodus 4:22-23); so God took the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 11:1-12:36).
i. “His last arrow was the sharpest. He reserved the strong wine of his indignation to the last. Note how the Psalmist piles up the words, and well he might; for blow followed blow, each one more staggering than its predecessor, and then the crushing stroke was reserved for the end.” (Spurgeon)
f. He made His own people go forth like sheep: After the death of the firstborn the Egyptians begged the Israelites to leave and sent them away with gifts, happy to be rid of them. Asaph then summarized the next many years.
· He led them on safely; God protected them all the way.
· The sea overwhelmed their enemies; God destroyed the pursuing Egyptian army when the waters of the sea came crashing down upon them.
· He brought them to His holy border; that is, the border of His holy land of promise.
· He also drove out the nations before them, clearing many of the Canaanite peoples before Israel ever came to the land.
· He allotted them an inheritance by survey, dividing the land among those who whom He had made an eternal promise of the land.
i. “The contrast is striking, and ought never to have been forgotten by the people. The wolves were slain in heaps, the sheep were carefully gathered, and triumphantly delivered. The tables were turned, and the poor serfs became the honoured people, while their oppressors were humbled before them.” (Spurgeon)
C. Stubborn, rebellious Israel in the Promised Land.
1. (56-64) The terrible tragedy at Shiloh.
Yet they tested and provoked the Most High God,
And did not keep His testimonies,
But turned back and acted unfaithfully like their fathers;
They were turned aside like a deceitful bow.
For they provoked Him to anger with their high places,
And moved Him to jealousy with their carved images.
When God heard this, He was furious,
And greatly abhorred Israel,
So that He forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh,
The tent He had placed among men,
And delivered His strength into captivity,
And His glory into the enemy’s hand.
He also gave His people over to the sword,
And was furious with His inheritance.
The fire consumed their young men,
And their maidens were not given in marriage.
Their priests fell by the sword,
And their widows made no lamentation.
a. Yet they tested and provoked the Most High God: The previous long section of Psalm 78 (verses 42 through 55) recounted God’s great faithfulness from Egypt to Canaan. Yet once Israel came into the Promised Land they did not keep His testimonies, but turned back and acted unfaithfully.
i. Turned aside like a deceitful bow: “In this they were unreliable, like a ‘faulty bow’ that springs wrongly when needed (cf. Psalm 78:9; Hosea 7:16).” (Van Gemeren)
ii. “The figure of a ‘deceitful bow,’ in Psalms 78:57, well describes the people as failing to fulfil the purpose of their choice by God. As such a weapon does not shoot true, and makes the arrow fly wide, however well aimed and strongly drawn, so Israel foiled all Divine attempts, and failed to carry God’s message to the world, or to fulfil His will in themselves.” (Maclaren)
iii. “Israel boasted of the bow as the national weapon, they sang the song of the bow, and hence a deceitful bow is made to be the type and symbol of their own unsteadfastness; God can make men’s glory the very ensign of their shame.” (Spurgeon)
b. They provoked Him to anger with their high places, and moved Him to jealousy with their carved images: When Israel came into the Promised Land they often worshiped the gods of the Canaanites, setting up altars on the high places and worshipping gods of carved images.
i. “The characteristic sin is no longer discontent (the paradox of the wilderness years with their daily miracles) but idolatry — the paradox of the years in Canaan, whose idolaters God had used Israel to judge.” (Kidner)
c. He forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh: Asaph remembered the tragedy at Shiloh, where the Philistines overran the tabernacle, killed the priests, and captured the ark of the covenant (1 Samuel 4).
d. Delivered His strength into captivity, and His glory into the enemy’s hand: When the ark of the covenant was captured at Shiloh, the daughter-in-law of Eli the high priest also learned that her husband, her brother-in-law, her father-in-law, and 30,000 Israeli soldiers were killed.
i. She was pregnant and the news was so overwhelming that she went into labor and died giving birth. With her last words she said to name the child born on such a tragic day, Ichabod – meaning, the glory has departed (1 Samuel 4:20-22). There certainly was a sense in which the glory had departed from Israel, but it wasn’t the glory of the ark of the covenant. The glory that departed was the glory of God’s blessing and presence upon an obedient Israel.
e. The fire consumed the young men… their priests fell by the sword: Asaph reminded Israel that the losses at Shiloh were more than just the ark of the covenant. There was also a great loss of life, including the priests (1 Samuel 4:10-22).
i. Their maidens were not given in marriage: “They had not been honoured with nuptial songs according to the customs of those times, see Jeremiah 7:34; 16:9; 25:10. The meaning is, they had not been honourably married, because men were grown scarce by reason of the wars, Isaiah 4:1; Jeremiah 31:22. Or, they had been married without any solemnity, like poor bond-women; or privately, as in the time of public calamities.” (Diodati, cited in Spurgeon)
2. (65-66) God’s triumph after Shiloh.
Then the Lord awoke as from sleep,
Like a mighty man who shouts because of wine.
And He beat back His enemies;
He put them to a perpetual reproach.
a. Then the Lord awoke as from sleep: When the Philistines captured the ark of the covenant they placed it as a trophy in the temple of their pagan god Dagon. Even while the symbol of His presence was captive in a pagan temple, God demonstrated His glory (1 Samuel 5).
i. Like a mighty man: “The renewal of his acts of mercy to Israel was so overwhelming that the psalmist likens God to a ‘hero’ (gibbor, NIV, ‘man’) who feels himself more heroic when intoxicated with wine (Psalm 78:65).” (Van Gemeren)
ii. “One who, going forth to meet his enemy, having taken a sufficiency of wine to refresh himself, and become a proper stimulus to his animal spirits, shouts-gives the war-signal for the onset; impatient to meet the foe, and sure of victory. The idea is not taken from the case of a drunken man. A person in such a state would be very unfit to meet his enemy, and could have little prospect of conquest.” (Clarke)
b. He beat back His enemies: The story of how God exalted Himself over the Philistines and put them to a perpetual reproach is found in 1 Samuel 5. In it all God demonstrated that He was able to guard His glory when His people neglected His glory.
i. The King James Version translates the line from Psalm 78:66 he smote his enemies in the hinder parts. “Smote his enemies in the hinder part, with the disease of the emerods, which was both painful and shameful. He caused them to perpetuate their own reproach by sending back the ark of God with their golden emerods, the lasting monuments of their shame.” (Poole)
ii. “With emerods, 1 Samuel 5:6; 1 Samuel 5:9; 1 Samuel 5:12, infami podicis ignominia affecit illos, he punished them, as we do puny boys on their posteriors.” (Trapp)
iii. Put them to a perpetual reproach: “Orientals are not very refined, and we can well believe that the hemorrhoids were the subject of many a taunt against the Philistines, as also were their frequent defeats by Israel until at last they were crushed under, never to exist again as a distinct nation.” (Spurgeon)
3. (67-72) The hopeful choice of Jerusalem and David.
Moreover He rejected the tent of Joseph,
And did not choose the tribe of Ephraim,
But chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion which He loved.
And He built His sanctuary like the heights,
Like the earth which He has established forever.
He also chose David His servant,
And took him from the sheepfolds;
From following the ewes that had young He brought him,
To shepherd Jacob His people,
And Israel His inheritance.
So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart,
And guided them by the skillfulness of his hands.
a. But chose the tribe of Judah: Asaph explained how God did not choose the other tribes to be the home of His sanctuary. He rejected the tent of Joseph, and instead chose Jerusalem (Mount Zion) to be the spiritual center of Israel.
i. “There are always new beginnings with God. Ephraim is rejected, but here Judah is chosen. Shiloh is abandoned, but the ark is brought to Mount Zion.” (Boice)
ii. He built His sanctuary like the heights: “The MT’s ‘like the high ones’ (ramim) does not specify what the height of the sanctuary is being compared with. It may denote the high mountains or the heavenly temple.” (Van Gemeren)
b. He also chose David His servant: In some ways Jerusalem was an unlikely choice to be the center of Israel. In the same pattern, David – the humble shepherd boy following the ewes that had young – was God’s choice to shepherd Jacob His people and Israel His inheritance.
c. So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them by the skillfulness of his hands: Psalm 78 ends on a hopeful note. It concludes with recognition of and gratitude for the goodness of God in the integrity and skillfulness of David’s rule.
i. According to the integrity of his heart: “David was upright before God, and never swerved in heart from the obedient worship of Jehovah. Whatever faults he had, he was unfeignedly sincere in his allegiance to Israel’s superior king; he shepherded for God with honest heart.” (Spurgeon)
ii. Like many aspects of David’s rule, this was fulfilled in a much greater way in David’s Greater Son, Jesus the Messiah. David’s heart mostly had integrity; the heart of Jesus was perfect in integrity. David guided Israel with great skill; Jesus leads His people with perfect skill.
iii. “If Israel’s record is her shame, God’s persistent goodness emerges as her hope (and ours) for the unfinished story.” (Kidner)
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission