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Psalms 78 Summary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

In Psalms 77 the poet recalls God’s wonderful works of old for the encouragement of his faith in the hour of distress. In this Psalm he invites his hearers to draw a lesson of warning for themselves from the past history of the nation. Again and again Israel had forgotten the great works which Jehovah had done for them, and with base ingratitude and short-memoried faithlessness had rebelled against His government, or tempted Him by distrust of His goodness. The Psalmist holds up the picture to his contemporaries, in the hope that they may be taught to avoid repeating the sins of their forefathers.

Though the Psalm refers to the behaviour of the whole nation, Ephraim (if the text of Psa 78:9 is sound) seems to be singled out at the outset as especially guilty; and the Psalm concludes with the choice of Zion as the seat of the sanctuary and David as the king of Israel, in a way which indicates that the writer had some reason for dwelling upon the position of Jerusalem and the Davidic kingdom as the special objects of Jehovah’s favour. But the rebuke of Ephraim is not the main purpose of the Psalm. Its intention is evidently positive, to draw warnings for the present and the future from the consideration of the past.

It is impossible to fix the date of the Psalm with any certainty. That the history is brought down to the time of David and no further does not prove that it was written then. It presumes the existence of the Temple ( Psa 78:69), and apparently the separation of the kingdoms. It has been said that “the didactic use of past history is in itself decisive against a pre-Exile date,” and that “it would be foolish to separate it from Psalms 105-107.” But the didactic use of past history is to be found in the earliest prophets; and though Psalms 105, 106 belong to the same class of historical Psalms, it does not necessarily follow that they all belong to the same period. There are some remarkable differences, and Psalms 105-107 contain clear allusions to the Captivity, which this Psalm does not. Psa 78:69 speaks of the Temple in language which makes it difficult to suppose that it had already been destroyed. Moreover it is at least noteworthy, that the Psalmist refers to those plagues only which are described in the Jehovistic narrative in Exodus (J), and according to a very probable reading and explanation of Psa 78:48, to all of them. He does not refer to the plague of darkness described in the Elohistic narrative (E) only, nor to the plagues of lice and boils described only in the Priestly code (P). Of course the poet was not bound to mention every plague, but it is a not unnatural inference that he was familiar with J only, while it was still in circulation as a separate work. If so, the Psalm must have been written at a relatively early date. On the other hand the use of the title “the Holy One of Israel” ( Psa 78:41) indicates that it is not earlier than the time of Isaiah, who originated this title to express the truth revealed to him in the vision of his Call. It may however belong to that period, and may have been written in view of the hostility of the Northern Kingdom to Judah (Isaiah 7, 8), or more probably in view of the fall of the Northern Kingdom, as a warning to Judah to beware lest, though Zion was the city of God’s choice, and the house of David chosen to rule His people, they too, like Shiloh and Ephraim, might be rejected. At such a time moreover the thought of the divine choice of Jerusalem might naturally be offered as a ground of hope and confidence.

The Psalm falls for the most part into stanzas of eight and sixteen verses. Psa 78:17-18 ; Psalms 40, 41; Psalms 56, 57, form a kind of initial refrain, in which the dominant idea of the Psalm, Israel’s rebellion and temptation of God is repeated and emphasised. The Psalmist does not follow the historical order of events, but relates first the care of Jehovah for Israel and Israel’s ingratitude towards Jehovah in the wilderness (Psa 78:12-39), and then the miracles of the Exodus and the settlement in Canaan (Psa 78:40 ff.).

i. The purpose of the Psalm stated; to draw warning and instruction for the present from the past history of Israel, by recapitulating its course and enforcing its lessons in accordance with the divine command, that the ingratitude and unfaithfulness of the past might not be repeated (Psa 78:1-8).

ii Israel’s history had been a strange record of forgetfulness and disloyalty to the God Who had brought them out of Egypt and provided for their wants in the wilderness with loving care (Psa 78:9-16).

iii. In spite of His care they rebelled against Him and tempted Him by doubting His power and goodness, so that even while He provided for their wants He was forced to punish them for their sin (Psa 78:17-31).

iv. The chastisements of the wilderness produced only temporary and superficial amendment, and it was due to God’s forbearance that they were not utterly destroyed (Psa 78:32-39).

v. It was no momentary aberration, but repeated and defiant rebellion, in utter forgetfulness of all that they owed to Jehovah for redeeming them from the bondage of Egypt. The Psalmist relates the wonders which accompanied their deliverance, in order to set Israel’s ingratitude in the strongest light. Jehovah destroyed their enemies, and brought them safely into the land which He had prepared for them (Psa 78:40-55).

vi. But there again they tempted God and rebelled against Him, till He forsook His dwelling-place in Shiloh, and abandoned them to their enemies (Psa 78:56-64).

vii. Yet once more He had mercy on them, and when He delivered them from their enemies, He chose Judah instead of Ephraim, Zion in place of Shiloh, and appointed David to be the shepherd of His people (Psa 78:65-72).

Comp. generally, besides Psalms 105, 106, Deuteronomy 32.

On the title, Maschil of Asaph, see Introd. p. xix.

Consult other comments:

Psalms 78:0 - Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible

Psalms 78:0 - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

Psalms 78:0 - Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers (Old and New Testaments)

Psalms 78:0 - John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible

Psalms 78:0 - Matthew Henry's Whole Bible Commentary

Psalms 78:0 - Jamieson, Fausset and Brown's Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible

Psalms 78:0 - Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament

Psalms 78:0 - English Annotations on the Holy Bible by Matthew Poole

Psalms 78:0 - Whedon's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges