From Learning to Love the Psalms
Psalm 78 is one of the psalms in Book Three that does not directly develop the theme of the book. It does not express a sense of crisis in the present life of an individual or of the nation as a whole. Rather, this psalm is a long reflection on past crises as the people of God faced several different kinds of temptation. The psalm actually ends with a confident assertion that the coming of David was the solution to the crises of earlier times. This expression of hope in David has the effect of heightening the problem of Book Three: If the house of David fails, what will become of us and of the promises of God?
Psalm 78 begins with the language of wisdom literature. It indicates that history is a riddle and the wisdom of a proverb is needed to clarify it (the word translated, “parable,” in verse 2 is usually translated, “proverb,” in the book of Proverbs). The wise, proverbial insight into the course of history is important to the covenant community through the generations. Each generation must be instructed in the meaning of the past so that it may avoid sin and seek to walk faithfully before the Lord.
The wise summary of Israel’s history is expressed in verses 7 and 8: “So that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.” Three sins of the fathers in the past offer a clear warning to Israel in the present: do not be rebellious, disloyal, or unfaithful. Rather, God’s people should live lives that are not rebellious, but obedient; not disloyal, but remembering God’s deeds; not unfaithful, but trusting. Trust, remember, obey – these three virtues are the foundation of the lives of those who belong to God. Psalm 78 is different from most psalms in that its central message is not found in the center of the psalm but rather in its introduction, (vv. 1-9). These three sins and three virtues are interconnected and intertwined throughout the rest of the psalm.
Most of the rest of the psalm expands on these opening verses in three sections. These three sections correspond to the three sins of the fathers, illustrating what faithful Israel should avoid. Each section sees the sin of the people as a way in which they tested God and each shows God reacting both in anger and in goodness.
The first section focuses on the unfaithfulness of the people in the wilderness, (vv. 9-33). They complained about a lack of food: “They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved,” (v. 18). They did not trust God: “Despite his wonders, they did not believe,” (v. 32b). In their complaints, they doubted the presence and concern of God. This doubt seems to be at the heart of testing God. Testing is founded on doubt, unbelief, and a failure to trust God’s promises. This first section focuses on their lack of faith: “They did not believe in God and did not trust his saving power,” (v. 22). In response, God sends them meat in abundance, (v. 27), but his anger also burns against them, (v. 31).
The second section, (vv. 34-55), begins by showing that the anger of God led the people to repentance: “When he killed them, they sought him; they repented and sought God earnestly,” (v. 34). This section goes on, however, to illustrate the people’s disloyalty, as they failed to remember all that God had done for them: “They tested God again and again and provoked the Holy One of Israel. They did not remember his power or the day when he redeemed them from the foe,” (vv. 41-42). How could Israel have forgotten the power of God, which they had witnessed in such abundance in their own lifetimes? In their forgetfulness, they became disloyal: “Their heart was not steadfast toward him; they were not faithful to his covenant,” (v. 37). What an irony when we consider how powerless they were: “They were but flesh, a wind that passes and comes not again,” (v. 39). God was angry, but he was also merciful: “Yet them; he restrained his anger often and did not stir up all his wrath,” (v. 38). He was still their gracious God who delivered them from the house of bondage in Egypt.
The third section (vv. 56-64) focuses on disobedience: “Yet they tested and rebelled against the Most High God and did not keep his testimonies,” (v. 56). The particular expression of their disobedience in this section is false worship: “For they provoked him to anger with their high places; they moved him to jealousy with their idols,” (v. 58). The psalm recounts that the Lord was so angry that he rejected his people for a time: “When God heard, he was full of wrath, and he utterly rejected Israel,” (v. 59). For God, the purity of his worship is a critical concern.
The psalm concludes with a final section (vv. 65-72) that shows that God did not utterly abandon his people but acted to save. He gave them a king to lead them and a temple in their midst. The king gave them the faithful leadership that they needed. The temple was the pledge of his presence: “He built his sanctuary like the high heavens, like the Earth, which he has founded forever,” (v. 69).
This final section, however, brings us back to the central problem of Book Three: If the solution to Israel’s faithlessness is to be found in king and temple, what happens when the kingship fails and the temple is destroyed? The answer, of course, is to be found in Jesus. He is the restoration of the Davidic monarchy and he is the true temple. Far from failing, the promises of God are fulfilled in a more wonderful and complete way than anyone could have imagined. Psalm 78 shows a pattern often repeated in the Old Testament: the blessing of God, the sin of Israel, the anger of God, the repentance of Israel, and the forgiveness of God. This pattern will be finally broken only in the second coming of Christ.
This psalm, however, points to Jesus in more than just this general way. Jesus was the One who faced all the temptations of his people and successfully resisted them as the true Son of God. Indeed, the three temptations that Jesus faced in the wilderness parallel in a remarkable way the temptations of the people of God in Psalm 78. In Matthew’s gospel, even the order of the temptations is the same, (Matthew 4:1-11).
The people first faced a temptation related to food or to the most basic issues of human survival. Jesus faced the same when in his hunger and weakness the devil tempted him to turn stones into bread. But Jesus resisted the temptation by trusting God and his Word. Second, the people faced a temptation related to power or success. They forgot the great power of their God who had punished the Egyptians, opened the Red Sea, and led them into the Promised Land. Jesus faced the same temptation when the devil asked him to show God’s power to rescue him by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple. Jesus identified this as a temptation to test God, but Jesus, who always remembered the power of his Father, rejected testing his God. Third, the people faced a temptation about worship, namely, whether they would serve God alone. Jesus faced the same temptation when the devil offered him the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshiping him. Where Israel disobeyed and worshiped false gods, Jesus obeyed and worshiped the true God alone.
As Psalm 78 summarized all the disobedience of Israel in terms of three temptations, so the gospels summarize the obedience of Jesus when he faithfully rejected the three temptations of the devil. Whether the issue was survival, success, or service, Jesus was steadfast in his commitment to his Father. Once again, we see that Jesus is the true King and the true temple. He is also the true Israelite. He perfectly fulfilled all the obedience to which his people were called. Psalm 78 teaches us that only God could provide a shepherd to save his people by his integrity (“upright heart”; v. 72), and the New Testament teaches us that Jesus is the perfect fulfillment of all that David symbolized.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- In what ways does Psalm 78 incorporate language of wisdom literature? What three sins and three virtues are closely interconnected and intertwined throughout the psalm?
- How did the anger of God lead people to repentance in this psalm? Does God still act in the same way today? Why or why not?
- If the solution to Israel’s faithlessness is to be found in the king and temple – according to the final section of this psalm – what happens when the kingship fails and the temple is destroyed? How does this psalm point to Jesus in more than just a general way?