Psalm 78

 
Psalm 78
Israel’s Failure and God’s Grace: Hope Through the House of David
 
Psalm 78. This is another Psalm of Asaph, and it gives us an overview of Israel’s history from Egypt to David’s kingdom. Psalm 78 was probably written shortly after the ark was recovered and returned to Jerusalem by David. The Psalm outlines the failure of Israel under the law, leading to ruin. At the end, God intervenes in grace, choosing the family of David to lead His people. The great moral lesson is that man under responsibility, no matter how gifted and equipped, cannot be the basis for lasting blessing. The sovereign grace of God alone is the foundation for blessing! Prophetically, this Psalm will be used in teaching the restored nation of Israel the ways of their God. It will be important for them to understand that the foundation of their blessing is God’s grace alone.
 
PSALM 78
An instruction. Of Asaph.
1 Give ear, O my people, to my law; incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
2 “I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter riddles from of old,” [quoted Matt. 13:35]
3 Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us:
4 We will not hide them from their sons, shewing forth to the generation to come the praises of Jehovah, and his strength, and his marvellous works which he hath done.
 
vv.1-4 Introduction. As usual in the Psalms, the introduction to the Psalm gives us the key to its meaning. Historically, this Psalm would have been used to remind Israel of God’s ways with them in chastening, patience, and grace. Prophetically, this Psalm will be used in teaching the restored nation of Israel the ways of their God; “Give ear, O my people, to my law; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. … We will not hide them from their sons, shewing forth to the generation to come the praises of Jehovah, and his strength, and his marvellous works which he hath done.” He speaks of the forthcoming history as “a parable… riddles from of old” because it is more than mere facts; there is a moral lesson to be learned from it.
 
5 For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children;
6 That the generation to come might know them, the children that should be born; that they might rise up and tell them to their children,
7 And that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of GOD, but observe his commandments;
8 And might not be as their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation that prepared not their heart, and whose spirit was not stedfast with GOD.
 
vv.5-8 The Giving of the Law. The psalmist reviews first of all the giving of the law at Sinai. The law was given so that Israel would; “set their hope in God, and not forget the works of GOD, but observe his commandments”. But in the New Testament we find a fuller explanation for the giving of the law (Gal. 3:19; Rom. 5:20), i.e. to show man his true condition, and therefore to lead him fully cast upon God for preservation. The law was given to help Israel, but it also tested them on ground of their responsibility. Had they obeyed, they would have been blessed. But in the end they proved to be no different than their fathers; “a stubborn and rebellious generation”. In vv.9-64 we have the history of Israel under law; i.e. one failure after another.
 
9 The sons of Ephraim, armed bowmen, turned back in the day of battle.
10 They kept not the covenant of God, and refused to walk in his law;
11 And forgot his doings, and his marvellous works which he had shewn them.
 
vv.9-11 Ephraim’s Failure Characteristic of Israel. As sometimes happens, the Spirit of God goes back into history to an extremely important event, and employs it as a representative snapshot of the entire character of Israel. Here, Ephraim, a dominant tribe in the north of the land, is used to represent the entire nation. Although we cannot say for sure, it appears that the historical event is that of the shameful defeat which Israel suffered from the Philistines in 1 Sam. 4:10-11, when they took the ark prisoner. The ark resided in Ephraim, a strong, well-armed tribe, associated with the great conqueror Joshua (Joshua 17:14; Judges 8:1-3). However, in spite of being skilled and well armed, they “turned back in the day of battle”. This shameful defeat is revisited in vv.56-64. In spite of all natural advantages, the sons of Ephraim – and all Israel by extension – “kept not the covenant of God, and refused to walk in his law; and forgot his doings”.
 
12 In the sight of their fathers had he done wonders, in the land of Egypt, the field of Zoan.
13 He clave the sea, and caused them to pass through; and made the waters to stand as a heap;
14 And he led them with a cloud in the daytime, and all the night with the light of fire.
15 He clave rocks in the wilderness, and gave them drink as out of the depths, abundantly;
16 And he brought streams out of the rock, and caused waters to run down like rivers.
 
vv.12-16 The Deliverance of Israel from Egypt. The psalmist goes back even further, to the judgments of Egypt, which were “wonders” for Israel, that displayed God’s tremendous power. The crossing of the Red Sea is revisited in v.13, and the pillar of cloud and fire in v.14, and the smitten rock in vv.15-16. What more could God have done for Israel to demonstrate His power for Israel’s blessing?
 
17 Yet they still went on sinning against him, provoking the Most High in the desert;
18 And they tempted GOD in their heart, by asking meat for their lust;
19 And they spoke against God: they said, Is GOD able to prepare a table in the wilderness?
20 Behold, he smote the rock, and waters gushed out, and streams overflowed; is he able to give bread also, or provide flesh for his people?
 
vv.17-20 Tempting God in the Wilderness. In spite of all that God had done for them, Israel “still went on sinning against him, provoking the Most High in the desert; and they tempted GOD in their heart”. Exodus and Numbers record ten different temptations of Israel in the wilderness. Read more… Characteristically, the children of Israel murmured against God; i.e. complaining without faith. These murmurings largely centered around food and water. God proved to them that He was more than able to satisfy their every need.
 
21 Therefore Jehovah heard, and was wroth; and fire was kindled against Jacob, and anger also went up against Israel:
22 Because they believed not in God, and confided not in his salvation;
23 Though he had commanded the clouds from above, and had opened the doors of the heavens,
24 And had rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given them the corn of the heavens.
25 Man did eat the bread of the mighty; he sent them provision to the full.
 
vv.21-25 The Provision of Manna. Jehovah was angry with Israel because of their unbelief, but He did not smite them in Exodus 16. Before Sinai Israel stood with God on the ground of grace. He gave manna to Israel, as well as quail, although vv.26-31 refers to the event in numbers when God did smite them. It was a tremendous display of power and love, that God would command the doors of heaven to open, and rained down manna upon His people.
 
26 He caused the east wind to rise in the heavens, and by his strength he brought the south wind;
27 And he rained flesh upon them as dust, and feathered fowl as the sand of the seas,
28 And he let it fall in the midst of their camp, round about their habitations:
29 And they did eat, and were well filled; for that they lusted after, he brought to them.
30 They were not alienated from their lust, their meat was yet in their mouths,
31 When the anger of God went up against them; and he slew the fattest of them, and smote down the chosen men of Israel.
 
vv.26-31 The Provision of Quail. The people turned from the manna and desired flesh. So God sent quail into the camp of Israel. In Exodus 16, God gave them quail as well as manna without any reproof. But in Numbers 11, “while it was yet in their mouths, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote them with a very great plague.” This shows the difference between Jehovah’s treatment of Israel under grace before Sinai, and under law (after Sinai). The key here is lust; the desire for something that God has not given. Paul could say, “But I had not known sin, unless by law: for I had not had conscience also of lust unless the law had said, Thou shalt not lust” (Rom. 7:7). Notice that the tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet”, is used by Paul because it is an inward desire, not an outward action. It is the most basic commandment, and everyone has broken it. The young man who came to the Lord in Matt. 19:16-26 had kept all the commandments pertaining to treatment of others. But when the Lord touched on covetousness, it says “he was grieved, for he had large possessions”. The other nine out of ten commandments can be kept by many in a legal way, but lust is one thing that convicts everyone, and it was the characteristic root of their sin.
 
32 For all this, they sinned still, and believed not in his marvellous works;
33 And he consumed their days in vanity, and their years in terror.
34 When he slew them, then they sought him, and returned and sought early after GOD;
35 And they remembered that God was their rock, and GOD, the Most High, their redeemer.
36 But they flattered him with their mouth, and lied unto him with their tongue;
37 For their heart was not firm toward him, neither were they stedfast in his covenant.
38 But he was merciful: he forgave the iniquity, and destroyed them not; but many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his fury:
39 And he remembered that they were flesh, a breath that passeth away and cometh not again.
 
vv.32-39 God’s Patience with Israel in the Wilderness. In spite of all God has done for Israel, they continued in a path of sin and self-will. So God caused them to wander for 40 years, consuming their days and years (v.33). Then followed cyclical pattern at Israel forsaking God, Him chastening them, them turning back to Him, etc. (vv.34-35). Ultimately however, their repentance was shallow and it did not last long, because their heart was not turned toward Him. Nevertheless God was merciful, remembering that man is frail, and so did not destroy them completely as He could’ve done.
 
40 How oft did they provoke him in the wilderness, and grieve him in the desert!
41 And they turned again and tempted GOD, and grieved the Holy One of Israel.
42 They remembered not his hand, the day when he delivered them from the oppressor,
43 How he set his signs in Egypt, and his miracles in the field of Zoan;
44 And turned their rivers into blood, and their streams, that they could not drink;
45 He sent dog-flies among them, which devoured them, and frogs, which destroyed them;
46 And he gave their increase unto the caterpillar, and their labour unto the locust;
47 He killed their vines with hail, and their sycamore trees with hail-stones;
48 And he delivered up their cattle to the hail, and their flocks to thunderbolts.
49 He cast upon them the fierceness of his anger, wrath, and indignation, and distress, — a mission of angels of woes.
50 He made a way for his anger; he spared not their soul from death, but gave their life over to the pestilence;
51 And he smote all the firstborn in Egypt, the first-fruits of their vigour in the tents of Ham.
52 And he made his own people to go forth like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock;
53 And he led them safely, so that they were without fear; and the sea covered their enemies.
54 And he brought them to his holy border, this mountain, which his right hand purchased;
55 And he drove out the nations before them, and allotted them for an inheritance by line, and made the tribes of Israel to dwell in their tents.
 
vv.40-55 Rebellious Israel Chastened, but Led Safely Into Their Inheritance. Israel continued on in their path, tempting God with their sin. But God was patient in His mercy, and chastened them over and over again, but led and protected them, and brought them safely to the land of Canaan, where He drove out the nations before them, and gave them an inheritance according to each of the tribes.
 
56 But they tempted and provoked God, the Most High, and kept not his testimonies,
57 And they drew back and dealt treacherously like their fathers: they turned like a deceitful bow.
58 And they provoked him to anger with their high places, and moved him to jealousy with their graven images.
59 God heard, and was wroth, and greatly abhorred Israel:
60 And he forsook the tabernacle at Shiloh, the tent where he had dwelt among men,
61 And gave his strength into captivity, and his glory into the hand of the oppressor;
62 And delivered up his people unto the sword, and was very wroth with his inheritance:
63 The fire consumed their young men, and their maidens were not praised in nuptial song;
64 Their priests fell by the sword, and their widows made no lamentation.
 
vv.56-64 Israel’s History through the Judges and Eli’s Priesthood. Now we come to the history of Israel in the land of Canaan. Now that God brought them to the land of Canaan would they obey His word? No. They continued to tempt Him with their sin. Like the previous generation, Israel in the land of Canaan proved no better. In fact, they went out after idols, and worshiped and served false gods rather than the true God who had delivered them from Egypt. Israel thought that because they still had the tabernacle, that in some way they had God’s blessing on them. But religion without faith is abhorrent to God. And so “he forsook the tabernacle at Shiloh, the tent where he had dwelt among men”, and He allowed the very ark of the covenant to fall into the hands of the enemy. This was a wake up call to Israel, and a judgment on them because of their hypocritical spirit and their continued disobedience. Jehovah “gave his strength into captivity, and his glory into the hand of the oppressor”, allowing the ark to fall into the hands of the Philistines, and Israel to be put to the sword. We read of this in first Samuel 4, including the sons of Eli being slain (v.64). This is the result of things committed to man’s responsibility. Under the administration of Ephraim, the symbol of the presence of Jehovah was lost. God would not allow them to continue with the outward sign of His presence while their hearts were far from Him. Their thought was “it may save us” (1 Sam. 4:3). How could there be any recovery from that state?
 
65 Then the Lord awoke as one out of sleep, like a mighty man that shouteth aloud by reason of wine;
66 And he smote his adversaries in the hinder part, and put them to everlasting reproach.
67 And he rejected the tent of Joseph, and chose not the tribe of Ephraim,
68 But chose the tribe of Judah, the mount Zion which he loved;
69 And he built his sanctuary like the heights, like the earth which he hath founded for ever.
70 And he chose David his servant, and took him from the sheepfolds:
71 From following the suckling-ewes, he brought him to feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance.
72 And he fed them according to the integrity of his heart, and led them by the skilfulness of his hands.
 
vv.65-72 God’s Gracious Intervention, the Chosen Family of David. The answer to Israel’s low condition did not come from man, but from God. In fact, the entire kingdom of Saul is passed over without comment. The people’s choice did nothing to improve their condition, or return the ark to Israel. So Jehovah acted in His sovereign grace, and “awoke as one out of sleep, like a mighty man that shouteth aloud by reason of wine”. Recall the cutting down of Dagon in the house of Dagon during the night. Without one Israelite hand to help Him, the Lord smote the Philistines “in the hinder part” (1 Sam. 5). But God did not bring the ark back to Ephraim; “he rejected the tent of Joseph, and chose not the tribe of Ephraim, but chose the tribe of Judah, the mount Zion which he loved”. This represents how God rejected entirely the strength of human nature, and fell back entirely on His grace. The ark went from Bethshemesh to Kirjathjearim (both cities of Judah), and was finally brought home by David himself to mount Zion (1 Chron. 13:13). In v.69 there is a leap forward to the temple, which would be build later as a permanent sanctuary, in contrast to a temporary dwelling. The solution to the terrible condition of Israel was that God “chose David his servant”. So it is with the saints at all time; God’s sovereign choice is the reason for all blessing, whether in the Old or New Testament. David’s occupation as a shepherd is particularly noted, showing first his humble beginnings, and also his tender and caring heart. David’s reign is described in terms of his shepherding the the children of Israel; “And he fed them according to the integrity of his heart, and led them by the skilfulness of his hands”. Surely we can see that these verses go beyond the historical application to David. They speak of Christ, the Son of David, He who will restore Israel, then lead them and feed them for 1000 years!
 
The Prophetic Interpretation. We can see in this Psalm a pattern of things to come. As Israel was brought from Egypt to Canaan, so God will bring His scattered people home to Canaan again. Nevertheless, Israel will continue in unbelief, boasting in their rebuilt temple, while their hearts are far from God. He will allow that temple to be destroyed by the invading armies of the king of the north, and thus the natural glory of Israel will be lost, much like the ark was taken by the Philistines. Antichrist will be slain, like the wicked sons of Eli. When all things are at their lowest point, Jehovah will “awake” Himself, and bring the nation – the faithful remnant being preserved – into blessing. The ten tribes will be brought to own that God chose the family of David, and not Ephraim, which they will do, healing the old division. Christ Himself, typified by David, will then lead His people as a shepherd into and through the millennium. The glory that departed from Israel when the ark of God was taken (1 Sam. 4:22) and later from the temple in Ezekiel, will not only be returned, but replaced with a far greater glory; “the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:32).