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Psalm 78

Those who don’t learn from the past…

How do we maintain our hope despite our long list of failures and sins? Interestingly, this psalm recites Israel’s many sins—so very like the Church’s today—to bolster, not erode, the hope of God’s people.[1]

An Asaph psalm.

My people, listen to my teaching
and pay attention to what I say.
2 I’m going to tell you stories[2]
that will unspool a riddle from the past—
3 about things we’ve long heard and known
stories our ancestors passed down to us.
4 We won’t hide them from their descendants.
We’ll sing Yahveh’s praises to the next generation
telling of his miracles and power.
5 Because he established laws for Jacob
and entrusted his teachings to Israel
giving our ancestors strict orders
to teach them to their children.
6 So the next generation would learn them
and pass them on to their children—
children yet unborn—
7 that they too would trust in God
keep his commandments
and remember his powerful deeds—
8 unlike their ancestors
a willful and rebellious generation
whose hearts weren’t true to God
nor were their spirits faithful.

9 Though armed with bow and arrow
Ephraim’s warriors turned tail
on the day of battle.
10 They didn’t keep God’s covenant
and refused to follow his teachings.
11 They forgot what he’d done—
all the miracles he’d shown them.
12 Down in Egypt, on the plains of Zoan
God did miracles in full view of their ancestors.
13 He split the sea in two
and led them through it
piling the water up like a dike on either side.
14 He led them with a cloud by day
a blazing light by night.
15 He split rocks open in the wilderness
and let them drink deeply
as from an underground sea.
16 He made streams gush out of stone
and pour down in torrents.
17 But in response
they only sinned against him more
defying the Most High in the desert.
18 They deliberately tested God in their hearts
by demanding their favorite food.
19 They railed against him, saying:
“Can God spread a feast for us in the desert?
20 Yes, water poured out in torrents
when he struck the rock.
But can he also give us bread
and serve his people meat?”
21 When Yahveh heard this
he was furious and fire blazed against Jacob.
God’s anger flared against Israel
22 because they weren’t willing to trust him—
to believe he’d take care of them.
23 Even so, God ordered the sky above
to open heaven’s portals wide
24 and rain down manna to feed them.
He gave them the bread of heaven—
25 mortals ate food from heaven’s court
and ate all they could too.
26 Then he drove the east wind across the sky
and moved the south wind powerfully too.
27 He rained meat down on them like dust
a flock of birds like sand on the seashore.
28 He brought the birds down
right in the middle of his camp
all around his residence.
29 They ate their fill
of the very food they craved.
30 But while they were stuffing their faces
and their mouths were still full of food
31 God’s anger flared up
and killed Israel’s finest young men
wiping out the nation’s best and brightest.
32 But despite all this
the people went on sinning.
Despite God’s miracles
they still didn’t trust him.
33 So he made their lives vanish like a breath
and ended their years in terror.
34 When he’d killed them
the rest turned to him for help—
turned and sought him eagerly.
35 They remembered God was their rock
God Most High their redeemer.
36 But in fact, they only paid him lip service
lying to him through their teeth.
37 Their hearts were unfaithful to him
untrue to his covenant.
38 Yet being compassionate
he atoned for their rebellion.
Instead of destroying them
he repeatedly reined in his anger
and held back his wrath.
39 He was mindful of the fact
that they were just made of flesh and blood
a breath of wind that passes by
never to return.

40 How often they defied God in the wilderness
and grieved him in the wasteland
41 repeatedly testing God’s patience
provoking the Holy One of Israel.
42 They were oblivious of the power
revealed when he redeemed them from their foe.
43 the signs he performed in Egypt
his miracles in the land of Zoan.
44 He turned their rivers into blood
making the water undrinkable.
45 He sent swarms of flies
that ate the Egyptians alive
and frogs that drove them mad.
46 He fed their harvest to grasshoppers
their produce to locusts.
47 He blighted their vines with hail
their fig orchards with frost.
48 He handed their cattle over to hailstorms
their flocks to lightning strikes.
49 He unleashed his burning anger against them—
fury, indignation and distress.
He sent a band of destroying angels among them.
50 He freely vented his anger
not sparing the Egyptians’ lives
but letting the plague ravage them.
51 He killed all of Egypt’s firstborn sons
emasculating every man in all the tents of Ham.[3]
52 He led his people out like sheep
herding them like a flock through the wilderness.
53 He led the Israelites to safety
with nothing to fear
while the sea swallowed up their enemies.
54 He brought them to his holy land
the mountain he himself won.
55 He expelled nations before them
and marked out an inheritance
for each of Israel’s tribes to pitch their tents in.
56 But even then
they went on challenging God Most High
paying no attention to his laws.
57 Instead they turned away
and acted treacherously like their ancestors
as unreliable as a warped bow.
58 They provoked God with their hilltop shrines
and made him jealous with their idols.
59 Hearing what they were doing
God became furious and
totally rejecting Israel
60 abandoned his residence at Shiloh
the Tent where he lived among humankind.
61 He let the seat of his power be captured
the ark of his glory fall into enemy hands.
62 He turned his people over to the sword
venting his anger on his inheritance.
63 Fire devoured their young men
and their brides heard no sweet songs.
64 Their priests were killed by the sword
and their widows sang no sad songs.

65 Then Yahveh jumped up as if from sleep
and burst out like a warrior inflamed by wine.
66 He beat back his foes
and put them to everlasting disgrace.
67 But he rejected Joseph’s descendants
and overlooked the tribe of Ephraim.
68 He chose the tribe of Judah instead
and Mount Zion, the place he loves.
69 There he built his sanctuary on the heights
established it to stand—like the earth—forever.
70 He chose his servant David also
taking him from the sheep pens
71 from tending nursing ewes
to shepherd Jacob his people
Israel his inheritance.
72 David cared for them with selfless devotion
and guided them with skillful hands.

The psalmist takes us twice around the roller coaster ride of God’s amazing grace and Israel’s appalling rebellion. After God graciously rescues them, his people become entitled. Despite his legendary patience, they repeatedly play with the fire of his holiness and then, after getting burned, only pretend to seek him. Finally, God lets pagans cart the ark away, leaving his people unable even to sing a dirge.

The tragedy ends only when God, jumping up like a startled sleeper or a wine-inflamed fighter, defeats Israel’s foes and makes three epic choices signaling a new beginning. He chooses Judah—not Ephraim, whose warriors turned tail.[4] He chooses Zion, permanently establishing his house there. And he chooses David to shepherd his people, which David does selflessly and skillfully.

Thus, the psalm implicitly tells God’s people three things they can do to flourish in his care: worship God faithfully in his Temple—not idols on every hilltop—serve David’s reigning son, and trust and obey him faithfully. The psalm also gives them hope since God does everything needed to redeem them and refuses to give up on them.

God’s pain and frustration relates to us today as much as to ancient Israel. Seeing us pursue the gods of this age, Jesus weeps over his Church as he once did over Jerusalem. And still he won’t give up on us.

Like Israel, we easily slide into presumption and pretense, Lord. Yet you don’t let go and your cross proves you’ll withhold nothing from us that’s for our good. Help me to submit to David’s reigning Son, Jesus, worship and obey you alone, and hold onto hope both for myself and for your Church. Amen.

In your free moments today, meditate on these words, which relate to David’s “greater son” also:

He chose his servant David…
to shepherd Jacob his people, Israel his inheritance.


[1] McCann (2015) 520.

[2] The stories the psalmist recounts range from Exodus to 2 Samuel.

[3] In ancient Egypt, a man’s first son was the proof required to authenticate his manhood; Goldingay (2007) 505.

[4] This suggests that the psalm was written after Jeroboam founded the northern kingdom of Israel, making Ephraim its dominant tribe, while Judah dominated the southern kingdom (1 Kings 12).

Why Yahveh?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and occasionally transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Modern translations, likewise, either translate or transliterate it. While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it is more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. I’ve chosen to transliterate it to root it more firmly in the biblical story as the name—meaning the “self-existent One”—that God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. This name set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it in order better to hallow it. In transliterating it, I follow the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard. He advocated transliterating it as Yahveh—pronounced yah·vay—arguing that following the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish than Yahweh.
May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Robert Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.