Psalm 78: God of History

“Those who don’t learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” George Santayana

Psalm 78 is a loose accounting of the history of the Hebrew nation up to the time of David. It is a story we continue to repeat; a history of our sin and God’s love.

A teaching psalm, Psalm 78 is meant to teach history to a people without a written history. Thus the psalmist uses verse and song to help imprint his story into the minds of the people.

The writer starts by telling us what he is about to do and calling upon the people to listen, “Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth! I will open my mouth in a parable, I will utter dark sayings from of old.” (1-2) He is going to tell them what God has done, “We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders which he has wrought.” (4)

Starting with the Ephraimites refusal to keep God’s covenant in the promised land, “They did not keep God’s covenant, but refused to walk according to his law,” (10) he then jumps back in time to the parting of the Red Sea and the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, “He divided the sea and let them pass through it, and made the waters stand like a heap.” (13) He recounts how God led them in the desert, “In the daytime he led them with a cloud, and the night with a fiery light,” (14) and how he fed them manna (24) and quail (27) and provided water to drink (20).

He goes on to recite a cycle of the people sinning, God getting angry, the people repenting and God forgiving. At times they only pretended allegiance, “But they flattered him with their mouths; they lied to him with their tongues. Their heart was not steadfast toward him; they were not true to his covenant.” (36-37) However God was steadfast in his forgiveness, remembering human nature, “Yet he, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; he restrained his anger often, and did not stir up all his wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and comes not again.” (38-39)

The psalmist returns to Egypt, recounting the plagues (44-51), the Exodus story and how God brought them to the promised land, “And he brought them to his holy land, to the mountain which his right hand had won.” (54). Then the people sinned again, worshiping false gods, “For they provoked him to anger with their high places; they moved him to jealousy with their graven images.” (58)

The psalm ends with the reign of David, “He chose David his servant, and took him from the sheepfolds.” (70)

The writer shows his bias, picking and choosing which aspects of history to retell in order to support his basic premise: people’s sinfulness and God’s great love in the face of that sinfulness. He goes back and forth in time, not following a chronological order, but returning to the great Exodus event to remind people of God’s powerful deeds in the past.

As told repeatedly in the prophets and the history books of the Bible, the history of Israel is one of sinning, punishment and repentance. The people’s sin angers God, but God’s anger gives way to his compassion. The writer also shows his bias towards David. The culmination of his history of rebellion is the establishment of David as king, however we know it doesn’t end there as history goes on, yet doesn’t change in that we continue to sin and God continues to forgive.

Two thousand years since God’s great gift to us in his son, Jesus, we are still replaying the same story. We sin, stray after false gods, whatever shape those false gods may take, and only return to God when things go wrong. Yet God is unfailing in his steadfast love.

The history of the Hebrew nation is also our history. Will we ever learn?

As Lent progresses, are there false idols in your life that need to be rooted out in order to follow the one, true God?

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