Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible
WARNINGS BASED ON THE HISTORY OF ISRAEL'S REBELLIONS
"The history of Israel is here recapitulated from the leading forth out of Egypt through the time of the Judges down to David, with the practical application for that age (and all ages) that they should cleave faithfully to Jahve, more faithfully than the rebellious generation of their fathers."
In my commentaries on the Pentateuch and Joshua, I discussed in full many of the historical events mentioned in this chapter, and I shall pass over those events briefly in this study.
Many scholars have commented upon the repeated apostasies of Israel throughout its history, a summary of many of these apostasies appearing in this very psalm. Typical of the comments is this one by Maclaren:
"The history of Israel has been one long succession of miracles of mercy, met by equally continuous ingratitude, which has ever been punished by national calamities."
The purpose of this psalm was stated thus by Miller: (1) "Israel is warned not to follow the past pattern of sins as seen in their ancestors (Psalms 78:1-4); and (2) the current generation was warned to provide adequate instruction and guidance to the next generation (Psalms 78:5-8)."
In the commentaries that I have examined, there are two gross errors which should be avoided:
(1) The first of these is the late-dating of this psalm, which, as may be judged by the abrupt ending of it in the reign of David, which was the climax of the rejection of Ephraimitic leadership and the location of the tabernacle at Shiloh (in Ephraim's territory), positively locates the date of it during the reign of David, not afterward.
Psalms 78:9 has been misunderstood, and has been used by some to date the psalm in the days of the divided kingdom. This was the view of Barnes: "The psalm was evidently written after the revolt of the ten tribes, as indicated in Psalms 78:9 where Ephraim is distinguished from Judah." However, Delitzsch warned that the glimpse of the divided kingdom which some find here, "Is capriciously imagined to be in the verse ... The alienation and jealousy between Ephraim and Judah is older than the rupture of the kingdom." Besides that, this psalm was written by Asaph, a contemporary of David.
(2) The other error was stated thus by McCullough: "This psalm uses some of the old traditions ... to teach a religious lesson." This is incorrect, because the palmist's source was not "old traditions," but the written record of the Pentateuch, Joshua, etc. As Delitzsch stated it: "The psalmist here keeps very close to the Torah in his reference to the history of the Exodus, in fact, so close that he must have had it before him in the entirety of its several parts." The foolish canard of the radical critics who deny the mid-fifteenth century B.C. date of the Book of Moses (all five books) is the sole basis for such a comment as that of McCullough.
McCullough's weak efforts to deny the Pentateuchal source of this psalm pointed out that only "six of the ten plagues of Egypt were mentioned." What kind of "proof" is that!
McCaw called this psalm, "One of the four great national Hymns of Israel," along with Psalms 105; Psalms 106; and Psalms 136.
We shall follow the paragraphing suggested by Leupold.
THE PURPOSE OF THE PSALM
"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 Jehovah,
And his strength, and his wondrous works that he hath done.
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 generations that come might know them,
even the children that should be born;
Who should arise and tell them to their children,
That they might set their hope in God,
And not forget the works of God,
But keep his commandments,
And might not be as their fathers,
A stubborn and rebellious generation,
A generation that set not their heart aright,
And whose spirit was not steadfast with God."
"Give ear unto my law" (Psalms 78:1). This is a reference to the Torah, the five books of Moses, continually referred to throughout the entire Old Testament as God's "law."
"I will open my mouth in a parable" (Psalms 78:2). Matthew 13:34 quotes the first two verses here as follows: I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter the things hidden from the foundation of the world.
That reference makes these verses a prophecy of the Lord Jesus Christ's using parables as a principal device in his teachings.
We have already noted that the two principal purposes of the psalm are: (1) to give a warning to Israel against their continuing in the unbelieving and rebellious patterns of conduct established by their forefathers; and (2) to provide adequate instruction for the children of each generation. These are evident enough in these verses.
"But keep his commandments" (Psalms 78:7). This is proof enough that the "law" of God mentioned in verse 1 is indeed the Torah, containing the commandments of God.
"They should make them known to their children" (Psalms 78:5-6). This admonition is based upon the classic passage in Deuteronomy 6:6-9. God absolutely requires of believing parents that they should, indeed must, teach their children the way of truth and use every possible influence to persuade them to walk in it.
The silliest and most satanic attitude we have ever encountered in Christian parents is this, "Oh well, we are going to let Johnny make up his own mind!" Indeed, indeed, that is exactly what the Devil would have Christian parents do. If only Satan would be so neutral! The Evil One will exert every pressure possible to persuade children to forsake the faith and wallow in licentiousness.
If Christian parents will only stay out of the situation regarding their child's obedience of the gospel, Satan will almost certainly accomplish his purpose. As Kidner stated it, "The Scriptures have no room for parental neutrality."
EPHRAIM; A TYPICAL EXAMPLE OF INFIDELITY
"The children of Ephraim, being armed and carrying bows,
Turned back in the day of battle.
They kept not the covenant of God,
And refused to walk in his law;
And they forgat his doings, and his wondrous works
that he had showed them."
"Ephraim ... turned back in the day of battle" (Psalms 78:9). Dahood interpreted this to mean that, "Despite the Ephraimites having been selected as Yahweh's elite bowmen, the Ephraimites were later rejected for cowardice." Some able scholars, however, reject that view. "There is no Biblical record of any cowardice on their part; and the words here are probably a powerful metaphor meaning exactly what is more literally stated in the next two verses." Maclaren also understood the passage as metaphorical.
The prominence of the Ephraimites as the largest tribe had been aided by Moses' appointment of Joshua, an Ephraimite, as his successor to lead the people into Canaan.
It was natural that Joshua, an Ephraimite, should have located the tabernacle in Ephraim's territory, effectively making that tribe, in a sense, `the capital' of all Israel. However, the great failure of Ephraim was not the rapture of the kingdom after the reign of Solomon, but their wickedness during the period of the Judges, a wickedness that eventually led to the removal of the tabernacle in Ephraim's territory (at Shiloh), and to the transfer of the leadership of the kingdom to the Davidic dynasty, as well as the relocation of the tabernacle in Jerusalem. What is in view here is not a single event, such as the rebellion against the son of Solomon, but a reference to, "The success of Israel under the leadership of Ephraim during the whole period of the Judges."
THE CATALOG OF GOD'S GRACIOUS DEALINGS WITH ISRAEL; FROM THE TIMES OF THE EXODUS
"Marvelous things did he in the sight of their fathers,
In the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan.
He clave the sea, and caused them to pass through;
And he made the waters to stand as a heap.
In the day-time also he led them with a cloud,
And all the night with a light of fire.
He clave 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.
Yet went they on still to sin against him,
To rebel against the Most High in the desert.
And they tempted God in their heart
By asking food according to their desire.
Yea, they spake against God;
They said, Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?
Behold, he smote the rock, so that waters gushed out,
And streams overflowed;
Can he give bread also?
Will he provide flesh for his people?
Therefore Jehovah heard, and was wroth;
And a fire was kindled against Jacob,
And anger also went up against Israel;
Because they believed not in God,
And trusted not in his salvation.
Yet he commanded the skies above,
And opened the doors of heaven;
And he rained down manna upon them to eat,
And gave them food from heaven.
Man did eat the bread of the mighty:
He sent them food to the full.
He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens;
And by his power he guided the south wind.
He rained flesh also upon them as the dust,
And winged birds as sand of the seas:
And he let it fall in the midst of their camp,
Round about their habitations.
So they did eat, and were well filled;
And he gave them their own desire.
They were not estranged from that which they desired,
Their food was yet in their mouths,
When the anger of God went up against them,
And slew of the fattest of them,
And smote down the young men of Israel."
"Marvelous things ... in the field of Zoan" (Psalms 78:12). "Zoan was the capital of Egypt in the times of the exodus." "It is the same as the ancient `Tanis,' in the northeast of the Nile Delta; and it was either identical with Rameses II's capital or not many miles from it."
"He clave the sea ... caused them to pass through" (Psalms 78:13). This is discussed fully in our commentary on exodus, which gives the full details of Israel's crossing the Red Sea.
"The day-time cloud ... light of fire at night" (Psalms 78:14). Again reference is made to Exodus where all of these events are thoroughly investigated.
"He clave rocks in the wilderness" (Psalms 78:15). "Here the psalmist condenses into one the two instances of God's giving water from the rock, one in the first year of the Exodus, and another in the fortieth year." A full discussion of these events is in our Pentateuchal Series, under Exodus 17, and Numbers 22.
"Tempted God ... asking food" (Psalms 78:18). The Anchor Bible translates this verse: "They tempted God in their heart by asking food for their gullet."
For a detailed study of all the marvelous events mentioned in this long paragraph through Psalms 78:31, see our Commentaries on Exodus and Numbers under these references: Numbers 11:1-3; Exodus 16:1-36; and Numbers 11:1-35. Every Bible student has wondered at the marvel of Israel's stubborn unbelief during the very period when they were daily viewing such wonders as those recorded in the Bible.
"Slew of the fattest of them" (Psalms 78:31). "By this, we are to understand that God slew the strongest and the healthiest."
GOD'S JUDGMENTS AND ISRAEL'S SHALLOW REPENTANCE
"For all this they sinned still,
And believed not in his wondrous works.
Therefore their days did he consume in vanity, And their years in terror.
And when he slew them, then they inquired after him;
And they returned and sought God earnestly.
And they remembered that God was their rock,
And the Most High God their redeemer.
But they flattered him with their mouth,
And lied unto him with their tongue.
For their heart was not right with him,
Neither were they faithful in his covenant.
But he, being merciful, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not:
Yea, many a time he turned his anger away,
And did not stir up all his wrath.
And he remembered that they were flesh,
A wind that passeth away, and cometh not again."
The highlight of this paragraph is the superficial `repentance' of Israel. After each severe punishment, as when God sent the fiery serpents among them, the people cried mightily unto God. In outward appearances, it seems that they really sought God in all earnestness; but Psalms 78:36-37 revealed that they were merely trying to escape punishment, having no regard whatever for God. Alexander Maclaren described that "repentance" thus.
"Such seeking after God is not properly seeking him at all, but only seeking to escape from evil. Such repentance neither went very deep or stayed very long. It was only lip reverence, proved to be false by their lives, and quickly terminated. `Their heart was not steadfast.' The pressure being removed they at once returned to their habitual position, as all such penitents do."
The fact mentioned here of God's turning away his anger and mercifully extending forgiveness to his rebellions children over and over again stresses the fact of Israel's utter unworthiness. Anyone familiar with the full record of Israel's wickedness could never be surprised by their rejection of their Messiah.
"For their heart was not right with him, neither were they faithful in his covenant" (Psalms 78:37). "In each of these extensive paragraphs, the author probes till he comes to the root of Israel's weakness, which is always the same, a lack of true faith." This Psalms 78:37 is a concise statement of exactly what was wrong with Israel. Psalms 78:22 above, serves exactly the same purpose.
ISRAEL'S REBELLION IN THE WILDERNESS SO QUICKLY AFTER GOD'S MIGHTY DEEDS IN EGYPT "How oft did they rebel against him in the wilderness,
And grieve him in the desert!
And they turned again and tempted God,
And provoked the Holy One of Israel.
They remembered not his hand,
Nor the day when he redeemed them from the adversary;
How he set his signs in Egypt,
And his wonders in the field of Zoan,
And turned their rivers into blood,
And their streams, so that they could not drink.
He sent among them swarms of flies, which devoured them;
And frogs which destroyed them.
He gave also their increase unto the caterpillar,
And their increase unto the locust.
He destroyed their vines with hail,
And their sycamore trees with frost.
He gave over their cattle also to the hail,
And their flocks to hot thunderbolts.
He cast upon them the fierceness of his anger,
Wrath, and indignation, and trouble,
A band of angels of evil.
He made a path for his anger;
He spared not their soul from death,
But gave their life over to the pestilence,
And smote all their first-born in Egypt,
The chief of their strength in the tents of Ham.
But he led forth his own people like a sheep,
And guided them in the wilderness like a flock.
And he led them safely, so that they feared not;
But the sea overwhelmed their enemies.
And he brought them to the border of his sanctuary,
To this mountain, which his right hand had gotten.
He drove out the nations also before them,
And allotted them for an inheritance by line."
"The day when he redeemed them from the adversary" (Psalms 78:42). The "adversary" here was Egypt, and this paragraph recalls six or seven of the plagues by which God overthrew the "false deities" of pagan Egypt. The whole point of this paragraph is that, against such a background of miraculous wonders performed during their deliverance from Egypt; nevertheless, Israel stubbornly ignored God and provoked him by their constant rebellions. Kidner pointed out that two of the principal manuscripts mention the murrain of cattle (as in Exodus 9:3); and if this should be followed, there are seven of the ten plagues mentioned here, only lice, boils, and darkness being left unmentioned.
A large portion of our Commentary on Exodus is devoted to the discussion of practically all of the things mentioned in this paragraph; and the reader is referred to that study.
"The caterpillar ... the locust" (Psalms 78:46) ... "the thunderbolts" (Psalms 78:47). These phenomena accompanied the plagues and were essentially a part of them. For example, one cannot imagine the kind of hailstorm mentioned among the plagues as not being accompanied by a fierce electrical storm. Locusts and caterpillars were also continual hindrances of agriculture in Egypt.
"He cast upon them ... a band of angels of evil" (Psalms 78:49). The marginal reading here informs us that the Hebrew text of the Old Testament reads, "A sending of angels of evil." Evidently, what is meant is simply that all of the visitations upon Egypt which God accomplished during the exodus were executed by the instrumentality of angels, as in the case of the judgment against Herod Agrippa I in Acts 12. The angels who thus did God's will were not "evil." They are called "angels of evil," because they brought evil upon Egypt.
"In the tents of Ham" (Psalms 78:51). "This is a reference to Egypt (See Genesis 10:6)."
"He brought them to the border of his sanctuary ... to this mountain" (Psalms 78:54). This is a reference to Sinai, where the Law was given to Israel, and where all of the instructions for the building of God's sanctuary were given. Dummelow, however, stated that this means, "The border of the land of Canaan." Of course, "the wilderness" was indeed the border of Canaan.
CONTINUED WICKEDNESS OF ISRAEL IN CANAAN
"Yet they tempted and rebelled against the Most High God,
And kept not his testimonies;
But turned back, and dealt treacherously 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 graven images.
When God heard this, he was wroth,
And greatly abhorred Israel;
So that he forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh,
The tent which he placed among men;
And delivered his strength into captivity,
And his glory into the adversary's hand.
He gave his people over also unto the sword,
And was wroth with his inheritance.
Fire devoured their young men;
And their virgins had no marriage song.
Their priests fell by the sword;
And their widows made no lamentation."
"Like a deceitful bow" (Psalms 78:57). This is a defective bow that could not properly shoot an arrow. It is a metaphor of Israel here.
"Provoked him to anger ... high places ... graven images" (Psalms 78:58). The old Canaanite fertility gods were `worshipped' with licentious ceremonial in numerous `high places' throughout ancient Canaan. These centers featured religious prostitutes who were the chief attractions of those old pagan shrines. Israel had been specifically commanded to destroy them; but this they refused to do, instead, patronizing them and `adopting them' as their own all over Israel.
"When God heard this" (Psalms 78:59). This is an anthropomorphic metaphor. God did not have to wait till he heard about Israel's reversion to paganism; he already knew all about it. God acted promptly to remove and destroy the Shiloh tabernacle, allowing at the same time the capture of the ark of the covenant and serious military defeat for Israel.
"God forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh" (Psalms 78:60). 1 Samuel 4 carries the narrative of this disaster for Israel. Why did God allow this? Psalms 78:58, above, is the only explanation needed. Israel at this point was following exactly the pattern of behavior that resulted in God's replacing the seven nations of ancient Canaan with Israel.
Briefly stated, there was a skirmish in which four thousand Israelites were slain by the Philistines. Israel, thinking to use the ark of the covenant as a "charm" carried it into battle shortly thereafter; Israel was defeated with a loss of thirty-thousand men, including Hophni and Phinehas the sons of Eli, the High Priest; and the ark of God was taken by the Philistines. Phinehas' wife, hearing of the disaster, gave birth to a son whom, as she died, she named Ichabod, "The Glory has Departed." Indeed the glory had departed from Israel.
Psalms 78:61-64 here describe the tragic situation in Israel. The death of so many young men made perpetual virgins out of many young women (Psalms 78:63); and only the summary action of God himself could have preserved Israel through the crisis that descended upon them at that time.
The wickedness of Ephraimite leadership of Israel would have ultimately mined the entire "chosen people"; but God would first establish the Davidic dynasty to role Israel, and then restore the ark of the covenant, bringing it not to Shiloh, but to Jerusalem. The Book of Judges explains fully the disastrous conduct of Israel that led to this crisis.
GOD'S ANSWER TO THE SITUATION
"Then the Lord awaked as one out of sleep,
Like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine.
And he smote his adversaries backward:
He put them to a perpetual reproach.
Moreover he refused the tent of Joseph,
And chose not the tribe of Ephraim,
But chose the tribe of Judah,
The mount Zion which he loved.
And he built his sanctuary like the heights,
Like the earth which he hath established forever.
He chose David also his servant,
And took him from the sheepfolds:
From following the ewes that have their young, he brought him,
To be the shepherd of Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance.
So he was their shepherd according to the integrity of his heart.
And guided them by the skillfulness of his hands."
"The Lord awaked" (Psalms 78:65). This is another anthropomorphic metaphor. Of course, God had not been asleep.
These verses state the purpose of God to make David king and to establishing His kingdom "forever," referring not alone to the fleshly line of David's successors, but to the ultimate resurrection of Christ to sit upon that Greater Throne in Heaven, of which the Davidic throne was indeed a very dim and inadequate shadow.
There is a clue here to the time of this psalm.
"The shepherd of Jacob ... and of Israel." David ruled over all of Israel, not merely Judah; so the days of the divided kingdom had not yet come as this psalm was written. The division of the kingdom that resulted from the Ephraimitic rebellion against Rehoboam was to come some eighty years afterward. Not even the kingship of David appears to have been established at the time of this psalm, but only the statement of God's intention to accomplish it.
"His sanctuary ... like the earth which he established forever" (Psalms 78:69). This was not a vain vision. God's sanctuary, typified by the tabernacle on mount Zion, is indeed eternal. "Those who have truly become the subjects of the Christ, the King of Israel and of the world, and who dwell with God in his house (the church of the living God), by dwelling in Jesus, will not rebel against him anymore, nor ever forget his wonders, but will faithfully tell them to generations to come."
"He chose David" (Psalms 78:70). "This election of David gives its impress to the history of salvation even on into eternity. It is genuinely Asaphic (that is, Asaph himself wrote it, not some of his descendants) in that it so designedly portrayed how the shepherd of the flock of Jesse became the shepherd of the flock of Jahve."
This great psalm reminds us of the speech of Stephen the Martyr in Acts 7, in that it recounts the terrible record established in the rebellious history of Israel.
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