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Psalm 78 Biblical Commentary:
The purpose of this psalm is to encourage parents and the community at large to teach children about the wondrous works of Yahweh (vv. 1-4).
The psalm reminds people of Yahweh’s commandment that the people “should make (Yahweh’s deeds) known to their children; that the generation to come might know, even the children who should be born; who should arise and tell their children, that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (vv. 5-7). The ultimate purpose, then, is that generations to come might faithfully observe Jewish law––keeping Yahweh’s commandments.
However, this psalm doesn’t emphasize teaching the commandments, but instead focuses on teaching the story of God’s interactions with the people of Israel––his mighty works and his responses to their unfaithfulness.
The verses included in this reading tell part of that story. First, they tell of the crossing of the Red Sea and some of the events of the wilderness journey (vv. 12-16). Second, they tell of Yahweh’s giving manna and quail to feed the Israelites (vv. 23-29).
A contemplation (Hebrew: maskil) by Asaph.
The word maskil is found in the titles of Psalms 32, 42, 44, 45, 52-55, 74, 78, 88, 89, and 142––as well as in Psalm 47:7. While we cannot determine its meaning with exactness, it has to do with insight, wisdom and the success that flows from those virtues.
Asaph, the son of Berechiah, was a Levite musician, appointed (along with Heman and Jeduthun) by David to preside “over the service of song in the house of Yahweh” (1 Chronicles 6:31, 39).
David also appointed Asaph as chief over a group of Levites “to minister before the ark of Yahweh, and to celebrate and to thank and praise Yahweh, the God of Israel” (1 Chronicles 16:4-6). Asaph’s sons became important temple musicians (1 Chronicles 25:1).
The superscriptions of Psalms 50 and 73-83 identify Asaph as the author.
PSALM 78:1-4. HEAR MY TEACHING, MY PEOPLE
1 Hear my teaching, my people.
Turn your ears to the words of my mouth.
2 I will open my mouth in a parable.
I will utter dark sayings of old,
3 Which we have heard and known,
and our fathers have told us.
4 We will not hide them from their children,
telling to the generation to come the praises of Yahweh,
his strength, and his wondrous works that he has done.
“Hear my teaching (Hebrew: torah), my people.
Turn your ears (Hebrew: natah) to the words of my mouth” (v. 1). The psalmist’s first task is to get the attention of those whom he would address, so he orders them to “hear” and “turn (their) ears”––both imperative verbs.
The noun torah means instruction or law. In this context, it means instruction.
The verb natah means to stretch out, extend, or pay attention. In this context, it means “pay attention,” but “turn your ears” blends that with the idea of “stretching out.”
People who have suffered hearing loss can especially appreciate “turn your ear,” because they routinely must turn their ear toward the person who is speaking––a mark of attentiveness, of active listening.
“I will open my mouth in a parable” (Hebrew: masal) (v. 2a). A masal is a short, pithy statement, a parable, prophetic utterance, or proverb.
The psalmist announces his intent to “utter dark sayings of old” (v. 2b). These dark sayings have to do with the sins of their ancestors.
“Which we have heard and known,
and our fathers have told us” (v. 3). The people know about the sins of their ancestors, because they have heard about them from their fathers. Their scriptures also tell those stories––the book of Exodus, for instance, reveals the Israelites as grumbling, complaining, and failing to believe. The book of 2 Samuel tells of David’s infidelity with Bathsheba––and his murder of her husband. The prophets tell of a host of sins.
“We will not hide them from their children” (v. 4a). Just as their parents recounted these stories to these people, the psalmist insists that the current generation must recount them to their children. If one generation fails to pass along their faith and the stories behind their faith, the chain will be broken and faith likely lost forever.
That was especially true in the days before the invention of printing. Only wealthy people could afford a handwritten copy of the scriptures for their personal use. Community resources, such as synagogues, performed an essential service teaching people about the faith. Parental leadership was (and still is) crucial to faith development. Even now, with the scriptures widely available, passing on the heritage of faith still depends largely on the influence of parents and the faith community.
telling to the generation to come the praises of Yahweh” (v. 4b). This could mean teaching future generations about the attributes of Yahweh deserving of our praise. It could also mean teaching them songs of praise (such as the psalms) that will serve as their instruments of praise. Most likely, it means both.
“his strength, and his wondrous works that he has done” (v. 4c). The scriptures begin with the creation story––stories of Yahweh’s might and his marvelous works. All through Israel’s story, Yahweh’s power is revealed in his great works.
PSALM 78:5-7. MAKE THEM KNOWN TO YOUR CHILDREN
5 For he established a testimony in Jacob,
and appointed a teaching in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers,
that they should make them known to their children;
6 that the generation to come might know, even the children who should be born;
who should arise and tell their children,
7 that they might set their hope in God,
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments.
“For he established a testimony (Hebrew: edut) in Jacob,
and appointed a teaching (Hebrew: torah) in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers,
that they should make them known to their children” (v. 5). Jacob and Israel are two names for one man. The nation took the name of Israel. The two names in this verse are synonymous––a poetic means of emphasis.
While the word testimony (edut) can refer to the testimony brought by witnesses in a legal action, it is most often used in the Bible to refer to the tablets of stone on which Yahweh inscribed his laws (Exodus 24:12ff). These laws reflected Yahweh’s testimony––his will for his people. Yahweh commanded the Israelites to place those tablets (edut) into the ark, which represented Yahweh’s presence in the midst of his people.
The noun torah means instruction, teaching, or law. In this context, it can mean both––and probably does.
“that the generation to come might know, even the children who should be born;
who should arise and tell their children” (v. 6). The scriptures emphasize the teaching of children (Deuteronomy 4:9; 5:29; 6:1-2; Psalm 34:11).
Teaching children is an ongoing proposition. This generation teaches the next generation, so that they might teach their children.
“that they might set their hope in God” (v. 7a). The first purpose of teaching children about God is “that they might set their hope in God.”
That in which we place our ultimate hope is our highest power. Some place their hope in idols––or money––or education––or a nation––or political party. Except for idols, all of those have value, but all will disappoint if we elevate them above all else.
“and not forget the works of God” (v. 7b). The second purpose of teaching children about God is that they might “not forget the works of God.”
For the Hebrew people, the creation story (Genesis 1:2) and the Exodus (Exodus 1-15) are the most important Godly works. However, there are many more, such as the rise of Joseph in Pharaoh’s house and the groundwork that laid for the future of the Hebrew people (Genesis 37-50)––and the bread from heaven (Exodus 16)––and the water from a rock (Exodus 17)––and a host of others. By learning these stories, the children will also learn that Yahweh is powerful––and dependable.
“but keep his commandments” (Hebrew: miswa) (v. 7c). The third purpose of teaching children about God is that they might “keep (God’s) commandments.”
The noun miswa means commandment. While we are subject to commandments set by governments or other authorities, such as employers, the commandments that stand above all others are those issued by God.
Keeping God’s commandments serve at least two purposes.
- First, our faithfulness in keeping God’s commandments pleases God.
- Second, keeping God’s commandments contributes to stable and happy family life and national life. It helps us to avoid the potholes and snares that life puts in our way. Keep in mind that God designed and created us, so he knows better than anyone what we need and how we function.
We might liken God’s commandments to the owner’s manual that comes with a new car. That manual will teach us the capabilities of the car and how to make use of them. It will give us a maintenance schedule that we need to follow to keep the car trouble free.
In like manner, following God’s commandments will help us to make the most of our lives––will help us to maximize our enjoyment of life––and will help us to sidestep the problems that attend human life.
PSALM 78:8-11. NOT IN THE LECTIONARY READING
8 and might not be as their fathers,
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation that didn’t make their hearts loyal,
whose spirit was not steadfast with God.
9 The children of Ephraim, being armed and carrying bows,
turned back in the day of battle.
10 They didn’t keep God’s covenant,
and refused to walk in his law.
11 They forgot his doings,
his wondrous works that he had shown them.
The purpose of teaching children also includes that they “might not be as their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation.” See the comments on verse 3 above.
Ephraim and Manasseh were sons of Joseph, Jacob/Israel’s son. The twelve tribes of the nation of Israel included ten of Jacob’s twelve sons plus Ephraim and Manasseh. The two sons of Jacob/Israel not included among the twelve tribes were Joseph (represented by Ephraim and Manasseh) and Levi (commissioned to carry on religious duties and supported by sacrifices offered by the other tribes instead of produce from their own lands, of which they had none).
After the nation of Israel was split into northern and southern kingdoms following Solomon’s death, Ephraim came to symbolize the northern kingdom of ten tribes. This might have been because Ephraim was located geographically in the heartland of the northern kingdom, and it might have been because Jeroboam, the first king of the northern kingdom, was from the tribe of Ephraim. The northern kingdom (ten tribes) became known as Israel, and the southern kingdom (composed of Judah and Benjamin) became known as Judah. In 722 B.C., Assyria conquered the northern kingdom and took its survivors into exile. The people of Israel became so assimilated after that time that Israel ceased to exist as a nation or a people.
I consulted numerous sources regarding “the children of Ephraim…turned back in the day of battle” and found almost nothing––and certainly nothing definitive.
The point of this section, of course, is to say outline how the fathers were unfaithful. The purpose of instructing children in the faith is so that they, unlike their fathers, might be faithful.
PSALM 78:12-16. YAHWEH DID MARVELOUS THINGS
12 He did marvelous things in the sight of their fathers,
in the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan.
13 He split the sea, and caused them to pass through.
He made the waters stand as a heap.
14 In the daytime he also led them with a cloud,
and all night with a light of fire.
15 He split rocks in the wilderness,
and gave them drink abundantly as out of the depths.
16 He brought streams also out of the rock,
and caused waters to run down like rivers.
This section outlines some of Yahweh’s mighty works in behalf of the Israelites.
“He did marvelous things in the sight of their fathers,
in the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan” (v. 12). Zoan was a city in the eastern delta of Egypt. Verses 43-48 of this psalm speak of Yahweh working signs and wonders in the fields of Zoan, and say that the plagues constituted these signs and wonders.
The plagues, including the death of the firstborn, finally persuaded the pharaoh to let Israel escape from captivity (Exodus 11-12).
“He split the sea, and caused them to pass through.
He made the waters stand as a heap” (v. 13). This refers to Yahweh’s splitting the Red Sea so that Israel could make good its escape (Exodus 14).
“In the daytime he also led them with a cloud,
and all night with a light of fire” (v. 14). This refers to the pillars of cloud and fire that Yahweh provided to guide Israel by day and night (Exodus 13:17-22).
“He split rocks in the wilderness,
and gave them drink abundantly as out of the depths.
He brought streams also out of the rock,
and caused waters to run down like rivers” (v. 15-16). This refers to the place that became known as Massah (test) and Meribah (quarrel) when the Israelites “quarreled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink'” (Exodus 17:2, 7). Yahweh told Moses to take the staff that he had used to split the waters of the Red Sea and use it to strike a rock, promising, “water will come out of it, that the people may drink” (Exodus 17:6). See Numbers 20:1-13 for another account of this story.
PSALM 78:17-22. NOT IN THE LECTIONARY READING
17 Yet they still went on to sin against him,
to rebel against the Most High in the desert.
18 They tempted God in their heart
by asking food according to their desire.
19 Yes, they spoke against God.
They said, “Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?
20 Behold, he struck the rock, so that waters gushed out,
and streams overflowed.
Can he give bread also?
Will he provide flesh for his people?”
21 Therefore Yahweh heard, and was angry.
A fire was kindled against Jacob,
anger also went up against Israel,
22 because they didn’t believe in God,
and didn’t trust in his salvation.
This refers to the Israelites’ grumbling about their lack of food in the wilderness (Exodus 16:1-3).
PSALM 78:23-29. HE RAINED DOWN MANNA ON THEM TO EAT
23 Yet he commanded the skies above,
and opened the doors of heaven.
24 He rained down manna on them to eat,
and gave them food from the sky.
25 Man ate the bread of angels.
He sent them food to the full.
26 He caused the east wind to blow in the sky.
By his power he guided the south wind.
27 He rained also flesh on them as the dust;
winged birds as the sand of the seas.
28 He let them fall in the midst of their camp,
around their habitations.
29 So they ate, and were well filled.
He gave them their own desire.
Verses 23-25 refer to Yahweh’s provision of manna to satisfy Israel’s hunger (Exodus 16:4-12).
Verses 26-29 refer to Yahweh’s provision of quails to provide meat for Israel (Exodus 16:13; Numbers 11:31-32).
However, “While the flesh was yet between their teeth, before it was chewed, the anger of Yahweh was kindled against the people, and Yahweh struck the people with a very great plague. The name of that place was called Kibroth Hattaavah, because there they buried the people who lusted” (Numbers 11:33-34).
In other words, the quails constituted punishment rather than Godly provision.
The psalmist relates that story in verses 30-31, which are part of the succeeding verses that I have not included in this commentary.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150, Vol. 14b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 42-89, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2013)
Tate, Marvin E., Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
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Copyright 2018, Richard Niell Donovan