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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Psalms 78

Verses 1-8

1. Introduction to the instruction 78:1-8

Asaph appealed to his audience to listen to his instruction about God’s acts, power, and wonders. He had received these teachings from former generations and was now passing them on to the next generation, as God had commanded (cf. Deuteronomy 6:6-7). The purpose of this teaching was that the young would not forget the Lord but trust in Him and obey His Word (Psalms 78:7). This would enable them to avoid the mistakes of their ancestors who were stubborn, rebellious, and unfaithful to Yahweh. Fathers need to communicate God’s truth down through the generations.

"’Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ (George Santayana)." [Note: Wiersbe, The . . . Wisdom . . ., p. 232.]

Verses 1-72

Psalms 78

This didactic psalm teaches present and future generations to learn from the past, and it stresses the grace of God. Didactic psalms offer wisdom to the reader. Some have called this a history psalm (cf. Psalms 105, 106, 114, 135, , 136). [Note: Wiersbe, The . . . Wisdom . . ., p. 230.]

"This could be sub-titled, in view of Psalms 78:12; Psalms 78:68, From Zoan to Zion, for it reviews the turbulent adolescence of Israel from its time of slavery in Egypt to the reign of David. Like the parting song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32) it is meant to search the conscience; it is history that must not repeat itself. At the same time, it is meant to warm the heart, for it tells of great miracles, of a grace that persists through all the judgments, and of the promise that displays its tokens in the chosen city and chosen king." [Note: Kidner, Psalms 73-150, p. 280.]

Verses 9-11

2. A notable defection 78:9-11

It is difficult to identify with certainty the occasion that these verses describe. Ephraim was not only the name of one tribe in Israel. It was also the name of the northern nation of Israel after the United Kingdom split in Rehoboam’s day. Assuming the writer was a contemporary of David, Ephraim the tribe appears to be in view here. In any case, the writer used this incident as a bad example that his hearers should avoid.

Verses 12-20

In his historical review, Asaph began with the plagues in Egypt (Psalms 78:12). He drew broad strokes on his verbal canvas, tracing God’s faithfulness to the generation that left Egypt in the Exodus (Psalms 78:12-16). Each verse in this section recalls stories in the books of Exodus and Numbers.

In spite of God’s provisions the Israelites rebelled against Him. They put God to the test by demanding that He provide for them on their terms, rather than simply trusting and obeying Him (Psalms 78:17-20).

Verses 12-72

3. The record of God’s goodness and Israel’s unfaithfulness 78:12-72

Verses 21-33

In response to their murmuring, God sent fire that burned on the outskirts of the camp (Numbers 11:1-3). This was a warning to the people. When they requested bread, He sent it to them abundantly (Exodus 16:14-31). Asaph called the manna angels’ food (Psalms 78:25) because it came down from heaven. When the people insisted on having meat, God sent abundant quail (Exodus 16:13; Numbers 11:31). However, He also sent a plague that should have taught them to be content with His provisions (Numbers 11:33).

"Sometimes God’s greatest judgment is to give us what we want." [Note: Ibid.]

In spite of all these lessons, the generation of Israelites that left Egypt in the Exodus continued to disbelieve and disobey Yahweh. Consequently that generation perished in the wilderness (Psalms 78:33).

Verses 34-39

When God killed some of that generation, others of them turned back to Him. However, they did not do so wholeheartedly or consistently. Still, God faithfully showed them compassion, forgave them, and did not destroy all of them at once. The contrast between Israel’s unfaithfulness and Yahweh’s loyal love stands out in this pericope.

Verses 40-55

The emphasis in this section is on how often the unfaithful generation rebelled against God despite earlier signs of His power and care. In the Pentateuch, there are 10 plagues on the Egyptians, and 10 subsequent occasions when Israel rebelled against the Lord, the last of which occurred at Kadesh Barnea (Numbers 13-14). Asaph recounted several of the plagues God brought on the Egyptians that should have taught His people to trust and obey Him. The order of the plagues in this passage, as in Psalms 105, is somewhat different from the record in Exodus, an indication of poetic license. In spite of repeated instances of murmuring and rebelling, God led that generation as a shepherd leads a flock of helpless sheep through the wilderness (Psalms 78:52-53). He even brought them safely into the land He had promised to give them, and drove the Canaanites out before them (Psalms 78:54-55).

Verses 56-64

After Joshua died, the people again tested God by failing to drive the inhabitants of the land out as He had commanded them to do. They turned from Him to worship false gods (Psalms 78:56-58). Consequently God permitted the Philistines to capture the ark at Shiloh (cf. 1 Samuel 4:4-11). Many Israelites died on that occasion, including the priests Hophni and Phinehas (Psalms 78:64).

Verses 65-72

The writer pictured God waking up, though He was always awake and aware of His people’s condition. He simply did not move to deliver them until David’s time. God rejected Joseph (i.e., the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh) and particularly Ephraim, the leader of the northern tribes, in the sense that He chose someone from Judah to lead Israel. He also chose Mt. Zion as the site of His sanctuary. David took it from the Jebusites. God’s provision of David, the shepherd king, was the writer’s climactic evidence of God’s grace to Israel.

"The one king whom the psalmists were interested in was David. For the most part the monarchy comes off very well in the Psalms because of the psalmists’ great respect for David and his line. This reverence climaxes Psalms 78, where God’s choice of David is a drastic change in history, a turn from the Rachel line, represented by Saul from the tribe of Benjamin, to the Leah line, represented by David from the tribe of Judah." [Note: Bullock, p. 115.]

Shepherding should always spring from personal integrity and wisdom (Psalms 78:72). A person of integrity is one who practices what he preaches. What a person is determines what he does. Relationship with God shapes character. Wisdom involves taking what God has revealed into consideration as we live.

"Integrity and skill need each other, for no amount of ability can compensate for a sinful heart, and no amount of devotion to God can overcome lack of ability." [Note: Wiersbe, The . . . Wisdom . . ., p. 234.]

In view of all His blessings, God’s people should learn from history and remain faithful to the Lord who has been faithful to them (cf. 2 Timothy 2:13). [Note: See Allen, Lord of . . ., pp. 57-70.]

"If Israel’s record is her shame, God’s persistent goodness emerges as her hope (and ours) for the unfinished story." [Note: Kidner, Psalms 73-150, p. 286.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Psalms 78". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/psalms-78.html. 2012.