The Agora
Bible Commentary

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Psalm 78

Psa 78:1

SUPERSCRIPTION: "A MASKIL OF ASAPH". See Lesson, Psalms, "Maschil".

A Passover psalm:
  1. The 7-fold emphasis on the instruction of children (vv 1-8) matches Exo 10:2; 12:26,27; 13:8-10,14,15.
  2. The deliverance from Egypt: vv 10-13,42-51 here.
  3. Relevance to Hezekiah's great Passover: 2Ch 30.
  4. "The Holy One of Israel" (v 41) is a common phrase (about 30 times) in Isaiah.
O MY PEOPLE: These are God's words, as in Isa 1:1,2 and Deu 32:1.

GIVE EAR: Cp Psa 81 for similarities, esp vv 8,11,13 there. See also Psa 50:7; 89:30; Isa 51:7.

Psa 78:2

Quoted in Mat 13:35 as a commentary on the parabolic teaching of Jesus (and so also the "Give ear" of v 1 = Mat 13:13,14,16). Since the parables in the gospels are not superficial stories, but are certainly to be interpreted detail by detail, so also Psa 78 is to be read as an allegory of the experiences of others chosen to know God's redemption and providential leading. Cp Paul's use of a portion of Israel's history ("types of us") in 1Co 10:1-11.

I WILL UTTER: "Naba": water bursting forth or overflowing (cp Psa 19:2; Pro 18:4). Hence, prob, the word for "prophet" -- nabi.

HIDDEN THINGS: Sw Pro 1:6; lit, "knots" (like Samson's riddle: Jdg 14:12). Behind Psa 78 is the Messianic rivalry between Ephraim and Judah. Similarly the parables (esp in Mat 13) develop the same theme -- how men lose Christ or gain him. The purpose of the parables is to confound the wise (1Co 1:18-20) while instructing the childlike. Thus the ct between teachable children (vv 4-6) and independent, rebellious "adults" (v 8).

Psa 78:4

WE WILL NOT HIDE THEM: The context suggests a strong understatement here. Or is it an allusion to the serious lack of proper instruction in Ephraim (v 9)?

WE WILL TELL THE NEXT GENERATION THE PRAISEWORTHY DEEDS OF THE LORD: To show someone why he should praise God is better than to show him how! If men understand the reasons, then the mechanics will take care of themselves.

"The message of this psalm is very clear. Tell your children of God's faithfulness, his power and his wonders so that they will learn to put their trust in God and obey him. The psalmist very powerfully illustrates this with lesson after lesson from Israel's history. He tells how God did great things for Israel, brought them through the Red Sea, led them out of Egypt, delivered them by the plagues that came on Egypt, gave them water and food in the wilderness, drove out nations before them in the land and gave them a land flowing with milk and honey. But no sooner had they learned their lessons than they forgot them. They did not teach the lessons they had learnt to their children -- they did not even reinforce what they had learnt for themselves. So what happened was that the next generation fell into the same ways and repeated the same mistakes as the last. This happened time after time until, at the end of the psalm, David began to break the cycle. Let us also break the cycle of ignorance for the next generation. Tell your children of God's faithfulness, His power and wonders so that they will learn to trust in God and obey Him too" (RP).

Psa 78:5

HE DECREED STATUTES FOR JACOB: That is, with all the twelve tribes, all of whom were represented at Hezekiah's Passover.

WHICH HE COMMANDED OUR FOREFATHERS: Besides the seven-fold instruction in these vv, see also Deu 4:9; 6:7,20; 11:18-21; 31:26; Pro 1:8; Jos 4:22; Eph 6:4.

Psa 78:6

THEY IN TURN WOULD TELL THEIR CHILDREN: That is, our grandchildren, as in Deu 4:9 ("thy sons, and thy sons' sons"). "Scripture has no room for parental neutrality" (Kidner).

Psa 78:8

A STUBBORN AND REBELLIOUS GENERATION: True of Israel as a whole (Deu 21:18,20; 9:6,7,24; 31:27; 32:5,20)? Or, in this context, true of Ephraim particularly? Cp similar censures by Peter against the Jews (Act 2:40) and by Paul against the "world" in general (Phi 2:15).

WHOSE HEARTS WERE NOT LOYAL TO GOD: A ref to Ephraim in the days of Hezekiah's reformation (2Ch 30:10,18).

FAITHFUL: A key word here: see vv 22,32,37 also (in vv 22 and 32, "believed" is sw "stedfast").

Psa 78:9

When? Was Ephraim a ringleader in resisting Joshua and Caleb's advice (Num 14:4)? Or is this v an addition to Moses' history?

Psa 78:10

The whole, mostly sordid history of the ten tribes may be summarized in this v.

Psa 78:11

Psa 78:11.

See Psa 106:13,21.

Psa 78:12

ZOAN: A city in the northeastern part of the Nile Delta, of some consequence (cp v 43; Num 13:22). It is also called Tanis. Kidner has called this psalm: "From Zoan to Zion" (ie v 68)!

Psa 78:13

HE DIVIDED THE SEA: See Isa 63:12; cp Exo 14:21.

HE MADE THE WATER STAND FIRM LIKE A WALL: The Red Sea (Exo 14:22; 15:8) and the Jordan River (Jos 3:13,16). Cp the language of Psa 33:7. Also see Psa 66:6, notes.

Psa 78:16

A ROCKY CRAG: "Sela", sw Num 20:8,11; Deu 32:13. Sw used of God Himself in Psa 18:2; 31:3; 42:9; 71:3.

Psa 78:18

THEY WILLFULLY PUT GOD TO THE TEST: In Exo 16:2,3,8,13 the murmuring was directed against Moses and Aaron, but only outwardly. In their heart they were saying, 'Can God furnish a table in the wilderness (v 19)? No, He cannot!' Men tempt -- or "test" -- God when they (a) covet what is unlawful (here); (b) limit God's power (v 41); and (c) do not keep God's laws (v 56).

BY DEMANDING THE FOOD THEY CRAVED: "Lust" ("demanding": RSV) is merely the translation of the common Heb word nephesh (soul!). The situation (whether Exo 16 or Num 11) was closely matched in Joh 6:26,30 after the feeding of the 5,000. There, in v 31, the critics had the perversity to quote from Psa 78:24, out of a context which condemned their own attitude utterly.

Psa 78:19

THEY SPOKE AGAINST GOD: And as they tempted Him, He tested them (Deu 8:3).

CAN GOD...?: Cp Gen 18:12-14 (Sarah's doubts) and Mar 9:22,23 (the father of a son with a "dumb spirit"). This doubt should not go unrebuked. Are those who say "God can, but will He?" so much better?

SPREAD A TABLE: "Furnish a table" (AV) is the very phrase of Psa 23:5. But what a difference!

(NT) See Joh 6: Christ does provide a table in the desert!

Psa 78:20

Allusion to Num 11:6,31 -- not Exo 16 -- since the Numbers incident (the quail) comes well after the incident of the smitten rock. The provision of manna (Exo 16) comes before that miracle, and, if meant here, would disrupt the historical order of the psalm.

Psa 78:21

WHEN THE LORD HEARD THEM, HE WAS VERY ANGRY: Hebrew is profuse in words for anger, but none of them are stronger than this (sw in vv 59,62 also).

HIS FIRE BROKE OUT AGAINST JACOB: Num 11:1-3 seems to be a summary of the main crisis described in the rest of the ch.

Psa 78:23

THE DOORS OF THE HEAVENS: May be opened in blessing ("a storehouse whereof God keeps the key") or judgment: (a) Mal 3:10; (b) Gen 7:11; 8:2; Isa 24:18.

Psa 78:25

THE BREAD OF ANGELS: Prob this phrase indicates origin; the angels did not eat it -- they brought it. Lit, "bread of the Mighty (or 'Mighty Ones')" -- with possible ref to God Himself. Or possibly "food fit for their finest men (Heb 'abbirim')".

ALL THE FOOD THEY COULD EAT: "To the full" (AV) was the word used by the grumblers: see Exo 16:3.

Psa 78:26

The quails were evidently caught in a violent storm which God "led forth" from the southeast.

Psa 78:27

DUST: Gen 13:16; 28:14; Num 23:10; 2Ch 1:9.

SAND ON THE SEASHORE: Gen 22:17; 32:12; Isa 10:22; 48:19; Hos 1:10; Rom 9:27.

Psa 78:33

FUTILITY: Heb "hebel" (from whence comes "Abel") = a breath, nothingness (Psa 39:5; 62:9). The key word of Eccl ("vanity").

TERROR: The judgment of death during the wilderness wanderings for those who were 20 years of age and above (Num 14:22,23,28-35; sw Lev 26:16). Cp the ideas in Psa 90:9-12 (Moses!) and Psa 91:5-7 (Joshua!).

Psa 78:36

But none of this is mentioned in Exodus or Numbers.

LYING: Along with v 41 = Act 5:4,9 (Ananias and Sapphira) -- a deliberate allusion to this psalm.

Psa 78:37

Peter quotes this in Act 8:21, re Simon the sorcerer, who thought to possess the Holy Spirit for a price.

THEY WERE NOT FAITHFUL TO HIS COVENANT: V 38 suggests that Exo 34:5-7 is the covenant alluded to.

Psa 78:38

According to Edersheim and others, this v was recited when the stripes (such as the "forty save one" of 2Co 11:24) were being administered to offenders.

Psa 78:39


Psa 78:40

Num 14:22 says at least ten times in the first two wilderness years (see Exo 14:11,12; 15:24; 16:2,10,27; 22:1; Num 11:1-3,4; 14:1; 20:2,13). Here v 38 says "many a time"!

Psa 78:41

VEXED: The word "limited" (AV) means they marked off a boundary. Human nature is good at setting limits to the power (and willingness) of the Almighty. LXX reads "provoked". Also, in another, related, sense, their lack of faith set limits to what God could do for them: see Mat 13:58.

THE HOLY ONE OF ISRAEL: Though occurring often in Isa, comes only three times in the Psalms (here; Psa 71:22; 89:18).

Psa 78:44

Vv 44-51: Not all the ten plagues are mentioned in this paragraph; there are no lice, boils, or darkness enumerated. Nor is there any attempt at historical sequence; instead: here, in order, are #s 1, 4, 2, 8, 7, 5, and 10.

HE TURNED THEIR RIVERS TO BLOOD: This plural may be explained either as an intensive plural ('their great river'), or as the Nile Delta.

Psa 78:49

DESTROYING ANGELS: "Evil angels" (AV) are not "wicked angels" -- there are no such beings! "All" the angels exist as God's ministers to do His will (Heb 1:14). So also these angels through whom the plagues came on Egypt. Isa 45:7 and Amo 3:6 are emphatic that evil, in the sense of unpleasant experience (ie, "evil" from man's viewpoint) is under the control of God. There are angels of blessing (Psa 34:7; Mat 18:10; Act 12:7), and there are angels of "evil" (2Sa 24:16; Act 12:23; 1Co 10:10; Pro 17:11; and many instances in Rev; cp esp the "evil spirit" upon Saul in 1Sa 16:14), or -- as RSV (NIV) puts it -- "a company (band) of destroying angels". In the 10th plague, both angels of good and angels of "evil" operated in Egypt: Exo 12:23 (see Kingston, Angels 136). See Lesson, Angels of evil?

Psa 78:51

THE TENTS OF HAM: Mizraim (Heb name for Egypt) was the son of Ham (Gen 10:6). An Egyptian god and also the Egyptian name for Egypt were very similar to "Ham". See Psa 105:23,27; 106:21,22.

Psa 78:52

HE BROUGHT HIS PEOPLE OUT LIKE A FLOCK: A favorite figure in Asaph psalms; eg Psa 74:1; 79:13; 80:1. // Isa 63:11-14 also.

Psa 78:53

So when Moses commanded: "Fear ye not" (Exo 14:10,13), they obeyed and went through the Red Sea in faith and confidence (Heb 11:29).

Psa 78:55

All these terms occur in Exo 15:16,17.

Psa 78:56

THEY DID NOT KEEP HIS STATUTES: An indirect allusion to the smashing of the Tables of Stone at the apostasy of the golden calf.

Psa 78:58

HIGH PLACES: Local centers of worship, referred to repeatedly in Jdg. But because of later perversions they fell into disrepute; hence 2Ki 17:16-23.

THEY AROUSED HIS JEALOUSY WITH THEIR IDOLS: They broke the second commandment (Deu 32:16; Eze 8:3; Psa 79:5). Poss an allusion to the waters of jealousy (Num 5:14; as between God, the Husband, and His nation, the unfaithful wife: cp Exo 32:20). Once in the Land the great sin of Israel was no longer discontent -- "murmuring" -- but idolatry. When Israel were under stress, they complained against God, but when they were at ease -- instead of thanking and praising him -- they amused themselves with abominable diversions. Is not this, on the whole, an epitome of unregenerate man's thought processes at all times?

Psa 78:60

HE ABANDONED THE TABERNACLE OF SHILOH: So the Philistine sack of that sanctuary, which is only implied (1Sa 4; 5), was God's doing; 500 years later, the ruin of Shiloh still bore its eloquent witness of warning (Jer 7:12,14; 26:6,9).

Psa 78:61

The ark was so called because it was the sign of God's Kingship in Israel, and the focal point for the display of His power and glory (Psa 26:8; 63:2). This then ref to the Philistine capture of the ark (Psa 132:8; 1Sa 4:21,22). The withdrawal of the Glory ("Ichabod"!) happened again in Ezekiel's day (Eze 9:3; 10:4,18,19; 11:22,23; ct Eze 43:2-5).

Psa 78:63

FIRE: An image of destructive warfare, as in Num 21:28.

THEIR MAIDENS HAD NO WEDDING SONGS: Jer 7:34; 16:9; 25:10 -- the reason being they had not been honorably married, because men were so scarce due to the wars (Isa 4:1; Jer 31:22).

Psa 78:64

1Sa 4:11-22. And for similar ideas, see Eze 24:15-24 (the prophet commanded not to mourn for his dead wife).

Psa 78:65

A remarkable figure of speech! Jehovah, apparently indifferent or even powerless, suddenly goes into action -- exulting and exhilarated.

Psa 78:66

HE BEAT BACK HIS ENEMIES: 'He put them to flight' -- ie 1Sa 7:11 -- so that their only wounds were on their backs!

EVERLASTING SHAME: From the reign of David onwards, all Philistine aggression against Israel ceased.

Psa 78:67

HE REJECTED THE TENTS OF JOSEPH: This suggests an unsuccessful attempt on Ephraim's part to reinstate the Shiloh sanctuary, which would have been in his territory. Instead, God chose the tabernacle of David (Isa 16:5; Amo 9:11; Act 15:16,17), so called because David brought about its transfer to Zion (2Sa 6).

HE DID NOT CHOOSE THE TRIBE OF EPHRAIM: An end to Ephraim's Messianic aspirations (apart from Jeroboam's misguided intentions).

Psa 78:68

BUT HE CHOSE THE TRIBE OF JUDAH: The boundary between Judah and Benjamin ran through the middle of Jerusalem (Jos 15:63; 18:28; Jdg 1:21; Deu 33:12), and in fact, according to some, right through the middle of the Temple area (Blunt 167).

MOUNT ZION, WHICH HE LOVED: "Which he (already) loved." The Heb text has a past tense, alluding to the special place in God's plan which Zion had held long before (Gen 14:18; 22:2).

Psa 78:69

HE BUILT HIS SANCTUARY: Therefore it would appear that the temple was already built when this psalm was written. If so, this would rule out a date for the psalm during the reign of David.

LIKE THE HEIGHTS: Nsw "bamoth" (high places). The RSV has: "Like the high heavens".

Psa 78:70

Blessings given in the path of home duty: shepherds at night (Luk 2:8-20), Moses keeping flock (Exo 3:1,2), David in sheepfolds (Psa 78:70), Gideon threshing (Jdg 6:11,12), Abraham in tent-door (Gen 18:1), and a woman coming to draw water (Joh 4:7,26).

HE CHOSE DAVID HIS SERVANT: This suggests that David was already God's servant before his anointing in 1Sa 16:11,12. The fact that God Himself chose David made the sin of Jeroboam of Ephraim all the worse.

Psa 78:71

"From following the ewes great with young" (AV), which need more rest and special patient attention if their newborns are not to be lost.

TO BE THE SHEPHERD OF HIS PEOPLE: A quotation from 2Sa 7:8. It also implies that Ephraim had not done this.

Psa 78:72

INTEGRITY: Heb "tom", singleness, completeness, fullness. That is, to have a single, integrated, uncompromised message in one's life.

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