George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 3

Psalm 78

1. Title

Like all the Asaph psalms (50, 73-83), this belongs to the time of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:18). Maschil (= Instruction) is pointedly appropriate to vv. 1-8, and in a broader sense to all the rest of the psalm, with its simple lesson: Let Israel learn from its past history. This is a characteristic of most of the Korah and Asaph psalms, as well as the prophecy of Isaiah.

2. Analysis

Dark sayings

Teaching the next generation
The reproach of Ephraim
Learning from history
(subdivisions are given in the commentary)
The exaltation of Judah
(cp. Psalm 89: God’s choice of the line of David)

3. A Passover psalm

The seven-fold emphasis on the instruction of children (vv. 1-8) matches Exodus 10:2; 12:26,27; 13:8-10,14,15.
The deliverance from Egypt: verses 10-13, 42-51 here.
Relevance to Hezekiah’s great Passover: 2 Chronicles 30.
“The Holy One of Israel” (v. 41) is a common phrase (about 30 times) in Isaiah.

4. Links with other passages

Psalm 77: see notes there.
For the “Learn from history” theme, see also Psalms 105 and 106.
Stephen’s defense: Acts 7.

5. Ephraim and Judah

The Ephraim-Judah counterpoint is itself an inheritance from past history:

Ephraim was told by Joshua to fight for its own inheritance (Josh. 17:14-18), but...
They captured Bethel by deceit (Judg. 1:24,25).
Ephraimites gave easy tolerance to the indigenous Canaanites (Judg. 1:29). Contrast with the vigorous opposition put up against them by Judah (1:8-20).
They were cantankerous in the days of Gideon (Judg. 8:1-3) and Jephthah (12:1).
They supported secession (Judg. 9:2-6).
They chose a false priesthood (Judg. 17; 18).
When Judah was leader in the retribution against Benjamin (Judg. 20:18), the Ephraimites sulked again (cp. Hos. 10:9).
Shiloh in Ephraim was a failed sanctuary, run by corrupt or ineffective priests (v. 60 here; 1 Sam. 2-4).
Jeroboam of Ephraim “made Israel to sin” by dividing the kingdom and introducing a debased religion.
The words “law” (torah) and “bow” (vv. 9,10) are closely connected, and “shooters of the bow” (v. 9) would suggest “men of a deceitful law” (the Hebrew is very similar)...
Yet Ephraim was intended to be an instructor in righteousness (Gen. 49:24; hence v. 57 here and Hos. 7:16).
The contrast with the good emphasis on Judah is very marked (vv. 67-70).

6. Commentary


Give ear... incline your ear. Compare Psa. 81 for similarities, especially vv. 8,11,13 there. See also 50:7; 89:30; Isa. 51:7.

O my people. These are God’s words, as in Isa. 1:1,2 and Deut. 32:1.
I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old (cp. Psa. 49:4). This is quoted in Matt. 13:35 as a commentary on the parabolic teaching of Jesus (and so also the “Give ear” of v. 1 = Matt. 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 Psalm 78 is to be read as an allegory of the experiences of others chosen to know God’s redemption and providential leading. Compare Paul’s use of a portion of Israel’s history (“types of us”) in 1 Cor. 10:1-11.

I will utter. The word naba describes water bursting forth or over-flowing (cp. Psa. 19:2; Prov. 18:4). Hence, probably, the word for “prophet” — nabi.

Dark sayings is s.w. Prov. 1:6; literally, “knots” (like Samson’s riddle: Judg. 14:12). Behind Psalm 78 (see Par. 5) is the Messianic rivalry between Ephraim and Judah. Similarly the parables (especially in Matt. 13) develop the same theme — how men lose Christ or gain him. The purpose of the parables is to confound the wise (1 Cor. 1:18-20) while instructing the child-like. Thus the contrast between teachable children (vv. 4-6) and independent, rebellious “adults” (v. 8).


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)?

Shewing to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, i.e., His praiseworthy actions. 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.
For he established a testimony in Jacob. That is, with all the twelve tribes, all of whom were represented at Hezekiah’s Passover.

Which he commanded our fathers. Besides the seven-fold instruction in these verses, see also Deut. 4:9; 6:7,20; 11:18-21; 31:26; Prov. 1:8; Josh. 4:22; Eph. 6:4.
And declare them to their children. That is, our grandchildren, as in Deut. 4:9 (“thy sons, and thy sons’ sons”). “Scripture has no room for parental neutrality” (Kidner).
The works of God recalls Psa. 77:11.


A stubborn and rebellious generation. True of Israel as a whole (Deut. 21:18,20; 9:6,7,24; 31:27; 32:5,20)? Or, in this context, true of Ephraim particularly? Compare similar censures by Peter against the Jews (Acts 2:40) and by Paul against the “world” in general (Phil. 2:15).

A generation that set not their heart aright. A reference to Ephraim in the days of Hezekiah’s reformation (2 Chron. 30:10,18).

Stedfast is a key word here: see vv. 22,32,37 also (in vv. 22 and 32, “believed” is s.w. “stedfast”).
The children of Ephraim, being armed, and carrying bows. See Par. 5, j and k.

Turned back in the day of battle. When? Was Ephraim a ringleader in resisting Joshua and Caleb’s advice (Num. 14:4)? Or is this verse an addition to Moses’ history?
They kept not the covenant of God, and refused to walk in his laws. The whole, mostly sordid history of the ten tribes may be summarized in this verse.

11-67. Learning from history (cp. 1 Cor. 10:12)


And forgat his works, and his wonders that he had shewed them.

“They soon forgat his works; they waited not for his counsel... They forgat God their saviour, which had done great things in Egypt” (Psa. 106:13,21).
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” (i.e., v. 68)!
He divided the sea.

“[The Lord] that led them by the right hand of Moses with his glorious arm, dividing the water before them, to make himself an everlasting name” (Isa. 63:12; cp. Exod. 14:21).

He made the waters to stand as an heap. The Red Sea (Exod. 14:22; 15:8) and the Jordan River (Josh. 3:13,16). Compare the language of Psa. 33:7. Also see 66:6, notes.


In the daytime also he led them with a cloud, and all the night with a light of fire. Exod. 13:21; 14:24.
He clave (s.w. Isa. 35:6; 48:21) the rocks (tzurim: s.w. Exod. 17:6) in the wilderness. The plural suggests that it was done more than once (cp. Num. 20:11).
He brought streams out of the rock (sela, s.w. Num. 20:8,11; Deut. 32:13). The s.w. sela is used of God Himself in Psa. 18:2; 31:3; 42:9; 71:3.
And they sinned yet more against him by provoking the most High in the wilderness. Deut. 9:22.
And they tempted God in their heart. In Exod. 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).

Asking meat for their lust. “Lust” (“demanding”: RSV) is merely the translation of the common Hebrew word nephesh (soul!). The situation (whether Exod. 16 or Num. 11) was closely matched in John 6:26,30 after the feeding of the 5,000 (see comparisons in Par. 7). 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.
They spake against God. And as they tempted Him, He tested them (Deut. 8:3).

Can God... ? Compare Gen. 18:12-14 (Sarah’s doubts) and Mark 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?

Furnish a table is the very phrase of Psalm 23:5. But what a difference!
Behold, he smote the rock, that the waters gushed out, and the streams overflowed: can he give bread also? can he provide flesh for his people? This implies an allusion to Num. 11:6,31 — not Exod. 16 — since the Numbers incident (the quail) comes well after the incident of the smitten rock. The provision of manna (Exod. 16) comes before that miracle, and, if meant here, would disrupt the historical order of the psalm.
Therefore the Lord heard this, and was wroth. Hebrew is profuse in words for anger, but none of them are stronger than this (s.w. in vv. 59,62 also).

So a fire was kindled against Jacob. Num. 11:1-3 seems to be a summary of the main crisis described in the rest of the chapter.


The doors of heaven 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.
And had rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given them of the corn of heaven. Exod. 16:4. Compare Rev. 2:17.
Angels’ food. Probably this phrase indicates origin; the angels did not eat it — they brought it. Or: ‘food fit for their finest men (Hebrew abbirim)’.

Meat is, of course, archaic English for ‘food’. In v. 27, there is the more specialized “flesh”.

To the full was the word used by the grumblers: “When we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full” (Exod. 16:3).
He caused an east wind to blow in the heaven; and by his power he brought in the south wind. The quails were evidently caught in a violent storm which God “led forth” from the southeast.
Flesh as dust (Gen. 13:16; 28:14; Num. 23:10; 2 Chron. 1:9)... fowls like as the sand of the sea (Gen. 22:17; 32:12; Isa. 10:22; 48:19; Hos. 1:10; Rom. 9:27). That is, enough for all Israel!
Their habitations. Mishkan is generally used of God’s dwelling; here it is probably an intensive plural, meaning ‘His special dwelling’: cp. Psa. 132:7.
They were not estranged from their lust. “They had not (i.e., even) sated their craving... ” (RSV). This is a classic example of a request answered to the detriment of the petitioner! “It is as easy to quench the fire of Etna, as the thoughts set on fire by lust” (Trapp).

From their lust. Not the specialized meaning of modern English, but (in the Bible) simply what a man wants or craves (s.w. Num. 11:4,34,35). This is the Genesis 3:6 situation all over again.
In spite of all this (NIV, RSV) they sinned still, and believed not for his wondrous works.
Therefore their days did he consume in vanity. Hebrew hebel (from whence “Abel”) = a breath, nothingness (Psa. 39:5; 62:9). The key word of Ecclesiastes (“vanity”).

And their years in trouble, or “terror” (RSV). The judgment of death during the wilderness wanderings for those who were 20 years of age and above (Num. 14:22,23,28-35; s.w. Lev. 26:16). Compare the ideas in Psa. 90:9-12 (Moses!) and 91:5-7 (Joshua!).


By all means, compare Hosea 5:15—6:4, and note how the sudden change in v. 4 there tells the real truth, as here in vv. 40,41, about Israel.
God was their rock (tsur: s.w. 19:14), and the high God (El Elyon) their redeemer (gaal, near-kinsman: s.w. 19:14 again).
Nevertheless they did flatter him with their mouth, and they lied unto him with their tongues. But none of this is mentioned in Exodus or Numbers.

Lied, along with v. 41 = Acts 5:4,9 (Ananias and Sapphira) — a deliberate allusion to this psalm.
For their heart was not right with (loyal to: NIV) him. Peter quotes this in Acts 8:21, with regard to Simon the sorcerer, who thought to possess the Holy Spirit for a price:

“Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God.”

Neither were they stedfast in his covenant. Verse 38 suggests that Exod. 34:5-7 is the covenant alluded to.


But he, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not: yea, many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath. According to Edersheim and others, this verse was recited when the stripes (such as the “forty save one” of 2 Cor. 11:24) were being administered to offenders.
He remembered. A neat indirect way of referring to God’s memorial, the Covenant Name. Compare Psa. 103:14-16, and contrast vv. 11 and 42 here: they forgot God’s works, they remembered not, but He remembered...

A wind (ruach) that passeth away, and cometh not again. “A passing breeze that does not return” (NIV). This is James’s figure:

“For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away” (James 4:14).
How oft did they provoke him in the wilderness, and grieve him in the desert! Num. 14:22 says at least ten times in the first two wilderness years (see Exod. 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”!
Yea, they turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel. The word “limited” 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:

“And he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief” (Matt. 13:58).

The Holy One of Israel, though occurring often in Isaiah, comes only three times in the Psalms (here; 71:22; 89:18).

42-51. WONDERS IN EGYPT (CP. 105:28-36).

They remembered not his hand. So it is wrong not to build on one’s past experience of God’s goodness.

Nor the day when he delivered them from the enemy. The plagues were a battlefield between God and the gods of Egypt.
The field of Zoan is a phrase found in Egyptian inscriptions.
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.
And had turned their rivers into blood. This plural may be explained either as an intensive plural (‘their great river’), or as the Nile Delta.
Vines are mentioned or shown in many Egyptian monuments.
Evil angels 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 Amos 3:6 are emphatic that evil, in the sense of unpleasant experience (that is, “evil” from man’s viewpoint) is under the control of God. There are angels of blessing (Psa. 34:7; Matt. 18:10; Acts 12:7), and there are angels of “evil” (2 Sam. 24:16; Acts 12:23; 1 Cor. 10:10; Prov. 17:11; and many instances in Revelation; cp. esp. the “evil spirit” upon Saul in 1 Sam. 16:14), or — as RSV (NIV) puts it — “a company (band) of destroying angels”. In the tenth plague, both angels of good and angels of “evil” operated in Egypt: Exod. 12:23 (see D. Kingston, Angels, p. 136).
The chief of their strength is parallel to “the firstborn” of the earlier phrase. By metonymy, a man’s “strength” is demonstrated in his many sons (Deut. 21:17; Gen. 49:3). NIV: “the firstfruits of manhood”.

The tabernacles of Ham. Mizraim (Hebrew 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.


But made his own people to go forth like sheep. A favorite figure in these Asaph psalms; e.g. 74:1; 79:13; 80:1. Isa. 63:11-14 is a fine parallel passage.
But he led them on safely, so that they feared not. So when Moses commanded: “Fear ye not” (Exod. 14:10,13), they obeyed and went through the Red Sea in faith and confidence (Heb. 11:29).
And he brought them to... (as RV mg.) his holy border.
Sanctuary... mountain... purchased... inheritance are all terms which occur in Exod. 15:16,17:

“Fear and dread shall fall upon them; by the greatness of thine arm they shall be as still as a stone: till thy people pass over, O Lord, till the people pass over, which thou hast purchased. Thou shalt bring them in, and plant them in the mountain of thine inheritance, in the place, O Lord, which thou hast made for thee to dwell in, in the Sanctuary, O Lord, which thy hands have established.”

This mountain surely implies that this psalm was written in Jerusalem (cp. v. 68).


Yet they... kept not his testimonies. An indirect allusion to the smashing of the Tables of Stone at the apostasy of the golden calf.
But turned back to Egypt: Num. 14:4.

And dealt unfaithfully, i.e., v. 36.

They were turned aside like a deceitful bow. Here the commentators are hopelessly astray through failure to recognize the “Ephraim” idiom (Hos. 7:16; see Par. 5).
For they provoked him to anger with their high places. These “high places” were local centers of worship, referred to repeatedly in Judges. But because of later perversions they fell into disrepute; hence 2 Kings 17:16-23.

And moved him to jealousy with their graven images. They broke the second commandment (Deut. 32:16; Ezek. 8:3; Psa. 79:5). Possibly an allusion to the waters of jealousy (Num. 5:14; as between God, the Husband, and His nation, the unfaithful wife: cp. Exod. 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?


When God heard implies prayers from the faithful remnant.
So that he forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh. So the Philistine sack of that sanctuary, which is only implied (1 Sam. 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).
And delivered his strength into captivity, and his glory into the enemy’s hand. 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 refers to the Philistine capture of the ark (Psa. 132:8; 1 Sam. 4:21,22). The withdrawal of the Glory (“Ichabod”!) happened again in Ezekiel’s day (9:3; 10:4,18,19; 11:22,23; contrast 43:2-5).
The fire consumed their young men. Fire here is an image of destructive warfare, as in Num. 21:28.

Their maidens were not given in marriage. Literally, they “had no wedding songs” (NIV), as in 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).
Their priests fell by the sword; and their widows made no lamentation. For the details of this paragraph, see 1 Sam. 4:11-22. And for similar ideas, see Ezek. 24:15-24 (the prophet commanded not to mourn for his dead wife).

65-67. GOD'S PITY

Then the Lord awaked as one out of sleep, and like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine. A remarkable figure of speech! Jehovah, apparently indifferent or even powerless, suddenly goes into action — exulting and exhilarated.
And he smote his enemies in the hinder parts. Referring to: (1) the “emerods” of 1 Sam. 5:9, or (2) ‘He put them to flight’ — i.e., 1 Sam. 7:11— so that their only wounds were on their backs!

He put them to a perpetual reproach. From the reign of David onwards, all Philistine aggression against Israel ceased.
Moreover he refused the tabernacle 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; Amos 9:11; Acts 15:16,17), so called because David brought about its transfer to Zion (2 Sam. 6).

And chose not the tribe of Ephraim. An end to Ephraim’s Messianic aspirations (apart from Jeroboam’s misguided intentions).


But chose the tribe of Judah. The boundary between Judah and Benjamin ran through the middle of Jerusalem (Josh. 15:63; 18:28; Judg. 1:21; Deut. 33:12), and in fact, according to some, right through the middle of the Temple area (Blunt, Undesigned Scriptural Coincidences, p. 167).

The mount Zion which he (already) loved. The Hebrew 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).
And 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 high (palaces is italicized). Not the same as bamoth (high places). The RSV has: “Like the high heavens”.
He chose David also his servant. This suggests that David was already God’s servant before his anointing in 1 Sam. 16:11,12. The fact that God Himself chose David made the sin of Jeroboam of Ephraim all the worse.
From following the ewes great with young, which need more rest and special patient attention if their newborns are not to be lost.

To feed (i.e., ‘shepherd’) Jacob his people is a quotation from 2 Samuel 7:8. It also implies that Ephraim had not done this.

7. Psalm 78 and John 6

Psalm 78

John 6
Believe his wondrous works
Turned back
Forgat his works / Not because of the miracle
Provoked, tempted; “Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?”
Water, bread, flesh
Believed not
Opened the doors of heaven / Cometh down from heaven
Rained down manna from heaven / Bread of God... cometh down from heaven
The wrath of God / Your fathers died
Heart not right / Evermore give us this bread
Flesh, a wind / Spirit, flesh
The Holy One of Israel
69 (RV)
Greatly abhorred Israel, chose David / “Him hath God the Father sealed”
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