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Psalm 78

posted Aug 1, 2015, 11:26 AM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated Aug 1, 2015, 11:27 AM ]
A maskil of Asaph.

I. Attend, my people, to my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable, unfold the puzzling events of the past.
What we have heard and know; things our ancestors have recounted to us.
We do not keep them from our children; we recount them to the next generation, the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD and his strength, the wonders that he performed.
God made a decree in Jacob, established a law in Israel: Which he commanded our ancestors, they were to teach their children; that the next generation might come to know, children yet to be born.
In turn they were to recount them to their children, that they too might put their confidence in God, and not forget God’s deeds, but keep his commandments.
They were not to be like their ancestors, a rebellious and defiant generation, a generation whose heart was not constant, and whose spirit was not faithful to God.
The ranks of Ephraimite archers, retreated on the day of battle.
They did not keep God’s covenant; they refused to walk according to his law.
They forgot his deeds, the wonders that he had shown them.

II. A      In the sight of their ancestors God did wonders, in the land of Egypt, the plain of Zoan.
He split the sea and led them across, making the waters stand like walls.
He led them with a cloud by day, all night with the light of fire.
He split rocks in the desert, gave water to drink, abundant as the deeps of the sea.
He made streams flow from crags, caused rivers of water to flow down.

B    But they went on sinning against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
They tested God in their hearts, demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God, and said, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
True, when he struck the rock, water gushed forth, the wadies flooded.
But can he also give bread, or provide meat to his people?”

C    The LORD heard and grew angry; fire blazed up against Jacob; anger flared up against Israel.
For they did not believe in God, did not trust in his saving power.
So he commanded the clouds above; and opened the doors of heaven.
God rained manna upon them for food; grain from heaven he gave them.
Man ate the bread of the angels; food he sent in abundance.
He stirred up the east wind in the skies; by his might God brought on the south wind.
He rained meat upon them like dust, winged fowl like the sands of the sea, they fell down in the midst of their camp, all round their dwellings.
They ate and were well filled; he gave them what they had craved.
But while they still wanted more, and the food was still in their mouths, God’s anger flared up against them, and he made a slaughter of their strongest, laying low the youth of Israel.
In spite of all this they went on sinning, they did not believe in his wonders.

D    God ended their days abruptly, their years in sudden death.
When he slew them, they began to seek him; they again looked for God.
They remembered that God was their rock, God Most High, their redeemer.
But they deceived him with their mouths, lied to him with their tongues.
Their hearts were not constant toward him; they were not faithful to his covenant.
But God being compassionate forgave their sin; he did not utterly destroy them. Time and again he turned back his anger, unwilling to unleash all his rage.
He remembered that they were flesh, a breath that passes on and does not return.

III. A    How often they rebelled against God in the wilderness, grieved him in the wasteland.
Again and again they tested God, provoked the Holy One of Israel.
They did not remember his power, the day he redeemed them from the foe, when he performed his signs in Egypt, his wonders in the plain of Zoan.
God turned their rivers to blood; their streams they could not drink.
He sent swarms of insects that devoured them, frogs that destroyed them.
He gave their harvest to the caterpillar, the fruits of their labor to the locust.
He killed their vines with hail, their sycamores with frost.
He exposed their cattle to plague, their flocks to pestilence.
He let loose against them the heat of his anger, wrath, fury, and distress, a band of deadly messengers.
He cleared a path for his anger; he did not spare them from death, but delivered their animals to the plague.
He struck all the firstborn of Egypt, the first fruits of their vigor in the tents of Ham.
Then God led forth his people like sheep, guided them like a flock through the wilderness.
He led them on secure and unafraid, while the sea enveloped their enemies.
And he brought them to his holy mountain, the hill his right hand had won.
He drove out the nations before them, allotted them as their inherited portion, and settled in their tents the tribes of Israel.

B    But they tested and rebelled against God Most High, his decrees they did not observe.
They turned disloyal, faithless like their ancestors; they proved false like a slack bow.
They enraged him with their high places, and with their idols provoked him to jealous anger.

C    God heard and grew angry; he rejected Israel completely.
He forsook the shrine at Shiloh, the tent he set up among human beings.
He gave up his might into captivity, his glorious ark into the hands of the foe.
God delivered his people to the sword; he was enraged against his heritage.
Fire consumed their young men; their young women heard no wedding songs.
Their priests fell by the sword; their widows made no lamentation.

D    Then the Lord awoke as from sleep, like a warrior shouting from the effects of wine.
He put his foes to flight; everlasting shame he dealt them.
He rejected the tent of Joseph, chose not the tribe of Ephraim.
God chose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion which he loved.
He built his shrine like the heavens, like the earth which he founded forever.
He chose David his servant, took him from the sheepfolds.
From tending ewes God brought him, to shepherd Jacob, his people, Israel, his heritage.
He shepherded them with a pure heart; with skilled hands he guided them.
This psalm is a recital of the history of God’s people until the time of King David, showing that past generations did not respond to God’s gracious deeds and were punished for that. But more than just a historical recapitulation, it’s a maskil; an instructive psalm, inviting believers in all times to learn the lessons hidden in the past.

The second longest psalm, second only to Psalm 119 in length, it’s made up of two distinct narratives of approximately equal duration: first the wilderness events in verses 12-39 and then the movement from Egypt to Canaan in verses 40-72. The structure of both stories is parallel: beginning with A) God’s gracious act, then B) rebellion, followed by C) divine punishment, and culminating in D) God’s readiness to forgive and begin anew.

It’s one of the twelve Psalms of Asaph, a Levite in the court of King David from the family whose job was to teach through songs. Though scholars today still aren’t sure if Asaph composed it, transcribed it, or was just famous for performing it.

17th century composers Giovanni Gabrieli and Heinrich Schütz both composed choral settings based on the first three verses. Verses 1-2, 34-38 and the refrain “Do not forget the works of the Lord” is the responsorial psalm for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Verse 29 provides the first half of the refrain of Gift of Finest Wheat. Shepherd of Souls references many verses. And for a contemporary setting, Hope Creative performs Psalm 78 on their album The Psalms Project.