Psalm 78

A Contemplation 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 dark sayings of old,

3 Which we have heard and known,
And our fathers have told us.

4 We will not hide them from their children,
Telling to the generation to come the praises of the Lord,
And His strength and His wonderful works that He has done.

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 who would be born,
That they may arise and declare them to their children,

7 That they may set their hope in God,
And not forget the works of God,
But keep His commandments;

8 And may not be like their fathers,
A stubborn and rebellious generation,
A generation that did not set its heart aright,
And whose spirit was not faithful to God.

The children of Ephraim, being armed and carrying bows,
Turned back in the day of battle.

10 They did not keep the covenant of God;
They refused to walk in His law,

11 And forgot His works
And His wonders that He had shown them.

12 Marvelous things He did in the sight of their fathers,
In the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan.

13 He divided the sea and caused them to pass through;
And He made the waters stand up like a heap.

14 In the daytime also He led them with the cloud,
And all the night with a light of fire.

15 He split the rocks in the wilderness,
And gave them drink in abundance like the depths.

16 He also brought streams out of the rock,
And caused waters to run down like rivers.

17 But they sinned even more against Him
By rebelling against the Most High in the wilderness.

18 And they tested God in their heart
By asking for the food of their fancy.

19 Yes, they spoke against God:
They said, “Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?

20 Behold, He struck the rock,
So that the waters gushed out,
And the streams overflowed.
Can He give bread also?
Can He provide meat for His people?”

21 Therefore the Lord heard this and was furious;
So a fire was kindled against Jacob,
And anger also came up against Israel,

22 Because they did not believe in God,
And did not trust in His salvation.

23 Yet He had commanded the clouds above,
And opened the doors of heaven,

24 Had rained down manna on them to eat,
And given them of the bread of heaven.

25 Men ate angels’ food;
He sent them food to the full.

26 He caused an east wind to blow in the heavens;
And by His power He brought in the south wind.

27 He also rained meat on them like the dust,
Feathered fowl like the sand of the seas;

28 And He let them fall in the midst of their camp,
All around their dwellings.

29 So they ate and were well filled,
For He gave them their own desire.

30 They were not deprived of their craving;
But while their food was still in their mouths,

31 The wrath of God came against them,
And slew the stoutest of them,
And struck down the choice men of Israel.

32 In spite of this they still sinned,
And did not believe in His wondrous works.

33 Therefore their days He consumed in futility,
And their years in fear.

34 When He slew them, then they sought Him;
And they returned and sought earnestly for God.

35 Then they remembered that God was their rock,
And the Most High God their Redeemer.

36 Nevertheless they flattered Him with their mouth,
And they lied to Him with their tongue;

37 For their heart was not steadfast with Him,
Nor were they faithful in His covenant.

38 But He, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity,
And did not destroy them.
Yes, many a time He turned His anger away,
And did not stir up all His wrath;

39 For He remembered that they were but flesh,
A breath that passes away and does not come again.

40 How often they provoked Him in the wilderness,
And grieved Him in the desert!

41 Yes, again and again they tempted God,
And limited the Holy One of Israel.

42 They did not remember His power:
The day when He redeemed them from the enemy,

43 When He worked His signs in Egypt,
And His wonders in the field of Zoan;

44 Turned their rivers into blood,
And their streams, that they could not drink.

45 He sent swarms of flies among them, which devoured them,
And frogs, which destroyed them.

46 He also gave their crops to the caterpillar,
And their labor to the locust.

47 He destroyed their vines with hail,
And their sycamore trees with frost.

48 He also gave up their cattle to the hail,
And their flocks to fiery lightning.

49 He cast on them the fierceness of His anger,
Wrath, indignation, and trouble,
By sending angels of destruction among them.

50 He made a path for His anger;
He did not spare their soul from death,
But gave their life over to the plague,

51 And destroyed all the firstborn in Egypt,
The first of their strength in the tents of Ham.

52 But He made His own people go forth like sheep,
And guided them in the wilderness like a flock;

53 And He led them on safely, so that they did not fear;
But the sea overwhelmed their enemies.

54 And He brought them to His holy border,
This mountain which His right hand had acquired.

55 He also drove out the nations before them,
Allotted them an inheritance by survey,
And made the tribes of Israel dwell in their tents.

56 Yet they tested and provoked the Most High God,
And did not keep His testimonies,

57 But turned back and acted unfaithfully like their fathers;
They were turned aside like a deceitful bow.

58 For they provoked Him to anger with their high places,
And moved Him to jealousy with their carved images.

59 When God heard this, He was furious,
And greatly abhorred Israel,

60 So that He forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh,
The tent He had placed among men,

61 And delivered His strength into captivity,
And His glory into the enemy’s hand.

62 He also gave His people over to the sword,
And was furious with His inheritance.

63 The fire consumed their young men,
And their maidens were not given in marriage.

64 Their priests fell by the sword,
And their widows made no lamentation.

65 Then the Lord awoke as from sleep,
Like a mighty man who shouts because of wine.

66 And He beat back His enemies;
He put them to a perpetual reproach.

67 Moreover He rejected the tent of Joseph,
And did not choose the tribe of Ephraim,

68 But chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion which He loved.

69 And He built His sanctuary like the heights,
Like the earth which He has established forever.

70 He also chose David His servant,
And took him from the sheepfolds;

71 From following the ewes that had young He brought him,
To shepherd Jacob His people,
And Israel His inheritance.

72 So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart,
And guided them by the skillfulness of his hands.

The Psalm narrates how Jehovah, who is Israel’s Sanctuary in Egypt, in the Desert, and in the Land, was dishonored in all three periods of the nation’s history, and it predicts His election of Mount Zion for His future Sanctuary. — Williams, page 360.


The purpose of the psalm is to rehearse the early story of the nation that future generations might be warned against a repetition of past failures (1 Corinthians 10:1-11). Writing some time after the leadership of the nation had passed from the Ephramite house of Saul to the Judahite house of David … — Guthrie, page 500.


Verses 78:1-4 — In this opening section the psalmist describes what he will go on to say in the following two sections as a parable and ambiguous sayings (or “riddles” [“dark sayings” does not denote something sinister or negative]—not because the meaning of his words, or the overall theme to which they lead, is unclear, but because that meaning will only be clear to those who have the spiritual capacity. … It is precisely for this reason that verse 2 is cited (in paraphrase) in Matthew 13:35 to describe Christ’s consistent teaching in parables—i.e., as Christ elsewhere explains, citing Isaiah 6:9-10: that those who have been saved might receive greater understanding of God’s Word, and that the understanding of those who have not been saved might be increasingly “taken away” (Matthew 13:10-17). — Wechsler, pages 194-195.


Verses 5-64 — This large section is parallel to (and quite likely the exemplar for) Stephen’s “defense” in Acts 7:2-53, the point in both cases being to review the record of God’s undiminished paternal solicitude for the consistently rebellious people whom He had chosen as His national “son.” Like Asaph in the present psalm, Stephen also focuses his review on the early generations of Israel (esp. in the wilderness), highlighting their culminating expressions of sin and God’s responsive chastisement, and concluding with God’s gracious establishment of the Davidic monarchy and the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. — Wechsler, page 195.

Ephraim (vs. 9, 67) — The tribe of Ephraim lead the rebellion and disloyalty to God that cursed the nation and so the tribe is used to represent the entire nation. A couple of commentaries state that the turning back isn’t a reference to a battle, but refers to turning away from God. One says that Ephraim led the refusal to enter the land after the exodus.

Zoan (v.12) — An ancient capital of Egypt, here used as a poetic parallel of Egypt itself.

To test God (vs. 18-19) is not the same as simply asking for signs, but rather to challenge Him to do what one believes Him to be unable to do. — Guthrie, page 500.


The Divine title in verse 21 is Jehovah, in verse 59, Elohim. … These changes of title are designed. Jehovah expressed covenant relationship; Elohim, creation relationship. God did not forsake them in the Wilderness (Nehemiah 9:17) but He did forsake them in the land (v.60). — Williams, page 361.


A comparison of verses 40-42 with verses 8-11 shows that the hearts of the children were as the hearts of the fathers. They were self willed (verses 40 with verse 8), they turned back (verse 41 with verse 9), they forgot (verse 42 with verse 11).

The power, forgiveness and patience which God showed to the fathers He showed also to the children; and accordingly verses 43-51 correspond to and develop verse 12, and verses 13-16 correspond to and develop verses 52-54. — Williams, page 361.


Seven plagues are detailed in verses 44-48 and 50 and 51, and three intimated in verse 49. The order in Exodus is historic; here it is moral. — Williams, page 361.

Ham (v.51) — the son of Noah from whom the Egyptians descended.

The history detailed in verses 60-64 is that of 1 Samuel 4. The Ark, symbol of God’s “strength” and “glory,” was captured by the Philistines (v.61; there was a great slaughter among the people (v.62); Hophni and Phinehas fell by the sword (v.64); and their widows made no lamentation for, Phinehas’ wife when dying bewailed the loss of the Ark more than the loss of her husband. — Williams, page 361.

Shiloh (v.60) — the sanctuary where Eli served. The Bible doesn’t record its fall, but it may have been destroyed in the same battle with the Philistines in which the Ark was captured.

Verses 65-72 — This picture of God’s paternal grace, as both the motivating element and the goal (i.e., that it be fully and worshipfully recognized) of His chastisement of Israel, concludes with reference to God’s election (as the royal line) of Judah—who merited that election neither by virtue of his birth (he was the fourth-born son) nor by reason of his righteousness (Joseph, whom God rejected—v.67—[i.e., did not choose/prefer] was more deserving)—and the line of David (who was likewise far from perfect) in particular, culminating with God’s choice of Mount Zion (i.e., Jerusalem) as the site of His sanctuary—both historically and for all eternity. — Wechsler, page 196.

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