Psalm 78 — Psalms of Asaph
As far as the psalms of Asaph go, this is the big one, literally. At 72 verses long it is over twice the length of any of Asaph’s psalms. This is a song of love about God’s care for his people, but it is also a warning, and a prophesy.
Talking of the Jews looking back in their history, tonight, Wednesday 27th January, people are being asked to light a candle in their window as part of Holocaust Memorial Day when we remember millions of Jews being murdered at the hands of the German Nazi regime.
Asaph had a long career. Appointed by David as one of the chief musicians in the Temple, and still serving under Solomon. Asaph’s role was prophetic, his job was to listen to the prayers concerns and laments of the people, and to give God’s relpy. The Psalms of Asaph, Psalms 50 and 73–83 are both communal laments and words of prophesy
A maskil of Asaph.
1 My people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.
2 I will open my mouth with a parable;
I will utter hidden things, things from of old –
3 things we have heard and known,
things our ancestors have told us.
4 We will not hide them from their descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord,
his power, and the wonders he has done.
5 He decreed statutes for Jacob
and established the law in Israel,
which he commanded our ancestors
to teach their children,
6 so that the next generation would know them,
even the children yet to be born,
and they in turn would tell their children.
7 Then they would put their trust in God
and would not forget his deeds
but would keep his commands.
8 They would not be like their ancestors –
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
whose hearts were not loyal to God,
whose spirits were not faithful to him.
9 The men of Ephraim, though armed with bows,
turned back on the day of battle;
10 they did not keep God’s covenant
and refused to live by his law.
11 They forgot what he had done,
the wonders he had shown them.
12 He did miracles in the sight of their ancestors
in the land of Egypt, in the region of Zoan.
13 He divided the sea and led them through;
he made the water stand up like a wall.
14 He guided them with the cloud by day
and with light from the fire all night.
15 He split the rocks in the wilderness
and gave them water as abundant as the seas;
16 he brought streams out of a rocky crag
and made water flow down like rivers.
17 But they continued to sin against him,
rebelling in the wilderness against the Most High.
18 They wilfully put God to the test
by demanding the food they craved.
19 They spoke against God;
they said, ‘Can God really
spread a table in the wilderness?
20 True, he struck the rock,
and water gushed out,
streams flowed abundantly,
but can he also give us bread?
Can he supply meat for his people?’
21 When the Lord heard them, he was furious;
his fire broke out against Jacob,
and his wrath rose against Israel,
22 for they did not believe in God
or trust in his deliverance.
23 Yet he gave a command to the skies above
and opened the doors of the heavens;
24 he rained down manna for the people to eat,
he gave them the grain of heaven.
25 Human beings ate the bread of angels;
he sent them all the food they could eat.
26 He let loose the east wind from the heavens
and by his power made the south wind blow.
27 He rained meat down on them like dust,
birds like sand on the seashore.
28 He made them come down inside their camp,
all around their tents.
29 They ate till they were gorged –
he had given them what they craved.
30 But before they turned from what they craved,
even while the food was still in their mouths,
31 God’s anger rose against them;
he put to death the sturdiest among them,
cutting down the young men of Israel.
32 In spite of all this, they kept on sinning;
in spite of his wonders, they did not believe.
33 So he ended their days in futility
and their years in terror.
34 Whenever God slew them, they would seek him;
they eagerly turned to him again.
35 They remembered that God was their Rock,
that God Most High was their Redeemer.
36 But then they would flatter him with their mouths,
lying to him with their tongues;
37 their hearts were not loyal to him,
they were not faithful to his covenant.
38 Yet he was merciful;
he forgave their iniquities
and did not destroy them.
Time after time he restrained his anger
and did not stir up his full wrath.
39 He remembered that they were but flesh,
a passing breeze that does not return.
40 How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness
and grieved him in the wasteland!
41 Again and again they put God to the test;
they vexed the Holy One of Israel.
42 They did not remember his power –
the day he redeemed them from the oppressor,
43 the day he displayed his signs in Egypt,
his wonders in the region of Zoan.
44 He turned their river into blood;
they could not drink from their streams.
45 He sent swarms of flies that devoured them,
and frogs that devastated them.
46 He gave their crops to the grasshopper,
their produce to the locust.
47 He destroyed their vines with hail
and their sycamore-figs with sleet.
48 He gave over their cattle to the hail,
their livestock to bolts of lightning.
49 He unleashed against them his hot anger,
his wrath, indignation and hostility –
a band of destroying angels.
50 He prepared a path for his anger;
he did not spare them from death
but gave them over to the plague.
51 He struck down all the firstborn of Egypt,
the firstfruits of manhood in the tents of Ham.
52 But he brought his people out like a flock;
he led them like sheep through the wilderness.
53 He guided them safely, so they were unafraid;
but the sea engulfed their enemies.
54 And so he brought them to the border of his holy land,
to the hill country his right hand had taken.
55 He drove out nations before them
and allotted their lands to them as an inheritance;
he settled the tribes of Israel in their homes.
56 But they put God to the test
and rebelled against the Most High;
they did not keep his statutes.
57 Like their ancestors they were disloyal and faithless,
as unreliable as a faulty bow.
58 They angered him with their high places;
they aroused his jealousy with their idols.
59 When God heard them, he was furious;
he rejected Israel completely.
60 He abandoned the tabernacle of Shiloh,
the tent he had set up among humans.
61 He sent the ark of his might into captivity,
his splendour into the hands of the enemy.
62 He gave his people over to the sword;
he was furious with his inheritance.
63 Fire consumed their young men,
and their young women had no wedding songs;
64 their priests were put to the sword,
and their widows could not weep.
65 Then the Lord awoke as from sleep,Psalm 78 NIV UK
as a warrior wakes from the stupor of wine.
66 He beat back his enemies;
he put them to everlasting shame.
67 Then he rejected the tents of Joseph,
he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim;
68 but he chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion, which he loved.
69 He built his sanctuary like the heights,
like the earth that he established for ever.
70 He chose David his servant
and took him from the sheepfolds;
71 from tending the sheep he brought him
to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel his inheritance.
72 And David shepherded them with integrity of heart;
with skilful hands he led them.
There is no clear distinction between poetry and prophesy in the Bible. The third chapter of Habakkuk and the Servant passages in late Isaiah are songs. Jeremiah has a prophetic book and a poetic one, Lamentations. This psalm by Asaph, if it were not part of a collection of Asaph’s songs, would not be out of place as a short book in the prophets. But it is also a Maskil, an unknown musical term which shares its root with that of a person well versed in Jewish literature, a wise man. This psalm also works as Wisdom literature and as it is about historical events as history. It has a lot of biblical styles covered.
It is also a love song, a love song from God about how he cares for his people, and does not give up on his people, despite their stubbornness. The psalm is long because it contains so much of the history of the Exodus and desert wanderings, with God continuing to bless them despite their recalcitrance. This is God pleading for obedience from his people. But it is far more than a history, the order of events in the psalm is not chronological in any case. This is a parable showing people’s reluctance to rely on God and it is true for all generations including ours. Whether you are from the Silent generation, a Boomer, Gen X, Millennial, Zoomer or Alpha this still applies to you, the call of God is to all generations.
This psalm stands in stark contrast to the previous psalm, which starts off with the psalmist feeling depressed because he meditated and God was silent, but remembered God’s work in the past. In this one God is not silent and the things God has done are listed, along with the stubbornness of the people and their wilful refusal to listen. These two songs belong together.
This is a psalm that looks forwards, ‘so that the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. (verse 6) If this generation is also stubborn and rebellious then it is a plea to the next. God pleads to every generation to follow him, God’s call never goes away. Are you going to heed that call? It is not about rules, God wants a relationship with you.
Just three weeks ago today, right wing protesters, encouraged by President Donald Trump, claiming to be American Patriots, stormed the Capitol building in Washington D. C. USA. One of the insurrectionists was wearing an Auschwitz t-shirt. I am disgusted that anyone could find mass murder as something to be celebrated. The best way of making sure that something like the holocaust does not happen again is to educate each new generation in the mistakes of the past. Refusing to learn from history is a sure fire way of making sure that history will repeat itself.
In Psalm 78 the Jews remember their history. On Holocaust Memorial Day they remember their more recent history. Let is all remember it along with them.