Psalm 78 is a rather striking retelling of Israel’s turbulent and sinful history with The Lord. It is written in several sections:
1) 78:1-4 — A mandate to listen to Asaph’s parable, his “dark sayings from of old” which have been passed down from generation to generation, and to continue to tell the coming generation
2) 78:5-8 — A reason to listen: God established a testimony and a law which He commanded the fathers to teach to the coming generation, and the generations after that, and so on (vv. 5,6), so that they would “hope in God” (v. 7) and not become “stubborn and rebellious” (v. 8) like this fathers before them.
3) 78:9-16 — A reminder of Israel’s unfaithfulness, and God’s faithfulness: “They did not keep God’s covenant” (v. 10), but “He divided the sea and let them pass through it… led them… gave them drink abundantly” (vv.13-15).
4) 78:17-20 — A rebuke for their hardness of heart: Even after all The Lord had done for them, “they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High” (v. 17). Even in their acknowledgment of God’s provision of water, they sarcastically imply that He can’t provide food for them (v. 20, “He struck the rock so that water gushed out…can he also give bread or provide meat…?”)!
5) 78:21-29 — A reminder of His faithfulness, despite their lack of belief: God’s wrath is kindled against his people, and yet…He continues to give provision. This is amazing! God, in His anger, responds to their unrighteous demands!! Who IS this God that we serve, that they grumbled against Him and doubted His ability and desire to give them all that they needed, and He still “rained down on them manna to eat and gave them grain from heaven” (v. 24).
5b) 78:30-31 — A consequence for their faithlessness: While God is unbelievably merciful, He is also just, and there had to be a consequence for Israel’s sin. This is such a wonderful reminder that God, who redeemed Israel in the old covenant, is the same God who redeems His Church in the new covenant: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4).
6) 78:32-66 — A false and rebellious repentance, and yet…atonement: Asaph breaks the reader’s heart when he tells them that even after God’s provision (mercy) and his retribution (justice), that the Israelites still sinned (v. 32). Then he says they repented (v. 34), but it was a deceitful effort on their part to try to fool God. Verse 36 says, “They flattered him…they lied to him…” And again, surprise of all surprises; Asaph says, “Yet he, being compassionate, atoned for their iniquity….He remembered that they were but flesh…” (vv.38,39). And this pattern is repeated over and over again throughout the history of, not only God’s people in the old covenant but throughout the ages.
7) 78:67-72 — A promise of a Shepherd and a King: Here it is announced that The Lord chose the tribe of Judah (v. 68), he chose David (v. 70), and that “with upright heart he shepherded them” (v. 72).
What joy we have now on this side of redemptive history that we can look back and see that David was merely a foreshadow of Christ, the new and better Shepherd and King.
Oh! The depths of sin in men’s hearts, to be brought out of slavery, and then sin “still more against [God]…” (Psalm 78:17)! I must not think that I do a better job at this than the Israelites did. But I thank God for His gifts of repentance and grace and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit who convicts me of sin and continues to sanctify me. May I never “forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (Psalm 78:7) and “teach [my] children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope I’m God…” (Psalm 78:5-7).