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Psalms 78 Commentary

Psalm 78 - Learning from God's Faithfulness to His Rebellious People

This Psalm is titled, A Maskil (Contemplation) of Asaph. The author Asaph was the great singer and musician of David and Solomon's era (1 Chronicles 15:17-19, 16:5-7, 16:17, 2 Chronicles 25:6 and 29:13). 1 Chronicles 25:1 and 2 Chronicles 29:30 add that Asaph was a prophet in his musical compositions. "Psalm 78 is the longest of the historical psalms. Its lesson is that history must not repeat itself. The people must never again be unbelieving." (James Montgomery Boice)

Snapshot of Psalm 78:

1. After the first 8 verses, above, verses 9-72 are in 6 parts. Each part tells a piece of the Israelite's history.
2. Verses 9-16: God's people forgot being delivered from bondage in Egypt the great deeds of the Exodus.
3. Verses 17-31: Are a poetic retelling of God's provision of manna and quail during the Wilderness Wanderings. Yet they sinned still more in the wilderness.
4. Verses 40-55: How often they rebelled. Forgetting the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan (Book of Judges).
5. Verses 56-64: They tested and rebelled against God in the Promised Land.
6. Verses 65-72: God finally answered by choosing the line of David.

Ps. 78:1-4 - Gaining the attention of the people of God.

1 Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
2 I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old,
3 things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us.
4 We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.

a. Give ear, O my people, to my law: Psalm 78 is a wisdom Psalm, written to instruct God's people. The theme is the goodness and kindness of God to His stubborn and rebellious people. Asaph began by asking for the attention of God's people for the wisdom he would speak.

i. Psalm 78 begins with a principle sometimes neglected among those who would speak wisdom to others: you must first gain the attention of your listeners if you would teach them and reach them.

ii. Incline your ears: "Inclining the ears does not denote any ordinary sort of hearing, but such as a disciple renders to the words of his master, with submission and reverence of mind, silent and earnest, that whatever is enunciated for the purpose of instruction may be heard and properly understood, and nothing be allowed to escape. He is a hearer of a different stamp, who hears carelessly, not for the purpose of learning or imitation, but to criticise, to make merry, to indulge animosity, or to kill time." (Musculus, cited in Spurgeon)

b. I will open my mouth in a parable: Psalm 49 is another wisdom Psalm with reference to the parable and the dark sayings. The phrase dark sayings does not have in mind hidden or mystical knowledge, but in things that can simply be difficult to understand; riddles that are good topics for instruction.

i. In a parable: "The word for parable (masal) gives the book of Proverbs its title. Basically this means a comparison, i.e., a saying which uses one realm of life to illuminate another." (Kidner)

ii. Matthew 13:35 quotes Psalm 78:2 as a prophecy of the way Jesus would teach.

c. Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us: Asaph will not bring up new things for discussion, but things already within the mind of Israel.

d. Telling to the generation to come the praises of the Lord: Asaph knew what followed in Psalm 78 came from events and themes received from their fathers. He also knew that what they had received they had to pass on to the next generation; they had a responsibility to not hide them from their children.

i. "For the classic passage on teaching this faith to one's children see Deuteronomy 6:6-9, for Scripture has no room for parental neutrality." (Kidner)

ii. "The more of parental teaching the better; ministers and Sabbath-school teachers were never meant to be substitutes for mothers' tears and fathers' prayers." (Spurgeon)

e. The praises of the Lord, and His strength and His wonderful works that He has done: Asaph was concerned to pass on at least three things to the next generation.

· The praises of the Lord, teaching them that God was worthy of our adoration and gratitude

· God's strength, His power and greatness above and beyond all

· His wonderful works - that is, God's power and greatness in active assistance to His people

i. It is still good and necessary for us to pass these things on. We should speak often about them and tell the continually unfolding story of how God has done wonderful works in and through His people.

ii. This speaks to the importance of seeing and understanding the hand of God as He moves in and through history. "History should ever be the record of the works of God. That is to emphasize the important factor. History thus written, and thus taught, will so affect hope and memory in youth, as to constrain it to obedience to the God revealed; and this is the way of life for man and nation." (Morgan)

iii. This Psalm emphasizes the strength and the wonderful works of God, and not the strength or wonderful works of His people. Psalm 78 is remarkably honest about the failings of God's people. "The supreme quality of this psalm is that throughout all its measures, over against the repeated failure of His people God's persistent patience is set forth in bold relief." (Morgan)

iv. "Those who forget God's works are sure to fail in their own." (Spurgeon)

Ps. 78:5-8 - Teaching one generation to avoid the errors of previous generations.

5 He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children,
6 that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children,
7 so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments;
8 and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.

a. He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel: Using poetic repetition for style and emphasis, Asaph described first one of the greatest of God's wonderful works (Psalm 78:4) - the giving of God's word to Israel.

i. Centuries later the Apostle Paul would explain that one of the great advantages God gave to Israel was that He committed to them His word, the oracles of God (Romans 3:2).

b. That they should make them know to their children: Then and now, God gives His word that it would be transmitted to following generations. In theory, the revelation of God's word can perish or become utterly irrelevant if not passed on to the next generation.

i. "Through Moses he had commanded all Israelites, regardless of tribal descent, to instruct their children at home (Deuteronomy 6:6-9, 20-22; cf. Exodus 10:2; 12:26-27; 13:8)." (Van Gemeren)

c. That they may arise and declare them to their children: Not only should our children be taught, they should be taught to teach their children so that the word and the work of God continue throughout the generations.

i. "Five generations appear to be mentioned above: 1. Fathers; 2. Their children; 3. The generation to come; 4. And their children; 5. And their children. They were never to lose sight of their history throughout all their generations." (Clarke)

d. That they may set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God: The goal of communicating to the next generation is so that they would learn to trust God for themselves, never forgetting His wonderful works.

e. But keep His commandments; and may not be like their fathers: To the Psalmist, losing trust in God and forgetting His works leads to disobedience. If the younger generation is well instructed they might be more obedience, avoiding many of the errors of their fathers.

f. A stubborn and rebellious generation: Asaph described the sins of previous generations in Israel. They were stubborn and rebellious; they did not set their hearts aright, and their spirit was not faithful to God. These have some direct reference to action, but are more focused on heart and attitude.

Ps. 78:32-39 - A merciful response to great sin.

32 In spite of all this, they kept on sinning; in spite of his wonders, they did not believe.
33 So he ended their days in futility and their years in terror.
34 Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again.
35 They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer.
36 But then they would flatter him with their mouths, lying to him with their tongues;
37 their hearts were not loyal to him, they were not faithful to his covenant.
38 Yet he was merciful; he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath.
39 He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return.

a. In spite of this they still sinned: In some ways this is the most tragic line of Psalm 78. Despite all the blessings and the strongest of corrections, they still sinned. Israel wouldn't learn either from God's goodness or from His wrath.

b. Therefore their days He consumed in futility and their years in fear: God said that the generation of unbelief could not enter the Promised Land, and that generation would be consumed in the wilderness (Numbers 14:22-24). The futility was expressed in the idea that they came out of Egypt, but never into Canaan. The fear was expressed in their unwillingness to take the land by faith (Numbers 14:1-4).

c. When He slew them, then they sought Him: It took the most extreme correction from God, but eventually a generation of faith grew and sought earnestly for God.

i. "But such seeking after God, which is properly not seeking Him at all, but only seeking to escape from evil, neither goes deep nor lasts long." (Maclaren)

ii. "As iron is very soft and malleable while in the fire, but soon after returneth to its former hardness; so many, while afflicted, seem very well affected, but afterwards soon show what they are." (Trapp)
iii. "Who would not be pious when the plague is abroad? Doors, which were never so sanctified before, put on the white cross then. Even reprobates send for the minister when they lie a dying. Thus sinners pay involuntary homage to the power of right and the supremacy of God, but their hypocritical homage is of small value in the sight of the Great Judge." (Spurgeon)

d. Nevertheless they flattered Him with their mouth: Their seeking of God was sincere but short lived. Soon they came to God only with flattering, insincere words. Strange to think a man could think he could lie to God, yet they (and often we) lied to Him with their tongue.

i. "False on their knees, liars in their prayers. Mouth-worship must be very destestable to God when dissociated from the heart: other kings love flattery, but the King of kings abhors it." (Spurgeon)

e. But He, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity: God's response to their stubborn rebellion, to their insincere seeking, to their failure to be faithful in His covenant was surprising. God showed His compassion, He forgave, and many a time He turned His anger away.

i. "It is indeed a great song of God's patience, and there is no story more fruitful than if men will but learn it." (Morgan)

ii. "Though not mentioned in the text, we know from the history that a mediator interposed, the man Moses stood in the gap; even so at this hour the Lord Jesus pleads for sinners, and averts the divine wrath." (Spurgeon)

f. He remembered that they were but flesh, a breath that passes: In part, God's understanding of the weakness of humanity prompted His compassion and forgiveness. One reason He was merciful to them was because of their frail nature.

i. "His compassion found expression in his forgiveness (cf. Psalm 65:3) of their sins, his forbearance with their stubborn spirits, and his empathy with the human condition, so that the full brunt of his anger did not destroy them." (Van Gemeren)

ii. "Now, what is man (saith Nazianzen) but soul and soil, breath and body, a puff of wind the one, a pile of dust the other, no solidity in either?" (Trapp)

iii. "How gracious on the Lord's part to make man's insignificance an argument for staying his wrath." (Spurgeon)