Psalm 78

Passing Along the Faith

How do we know we are blessed?

Blessings come in large and small measures. We are blessed if we live a comfortable life and have a fulfilling intellectual and social life. We are blessed if we live in peace with our neighbors and are free of crime. We are blessed if we can move about without harassment. Modern Christians describe blessing in terms of prosperity, liberty, and self-fulfillment.

Yet, tradition does not immediately come to mind when we think of blessing, but it should. The relationship we have with God depends on the faith that was passed to us or the values we pass to our children. This is an intangible treasure that far outstrips wealth or the ability to choose of happiness. If we are faithful to God, we are compelled to imbue that fidelity in the next generation. If we do not at least try, then our commitment is questionable.

As the second longest psalm in the Bible, Psalm 78 addressed fidelity as a witness to the next generation. It is a wisdom psalm that relayed the history of Israel in a theological fashion. Hence, themes of God's activity and the infidelity of the people overshadowed a sequential narrative.

The psalm can be divided into six sections: introduction of generational witness (78:1-11), God's wonders and the people's complaints from the rescue at the Red Sea onward (78:12-29), judgment of God on the Exodus and repentance (78:30-39), memories of the plaques in Egypt (78:40-51), a historical summary of Judges/Kingdom to the fall of the Northern Kingdom (78:52-67), the glory of Judah and Jerusalem (78:68-72).

A contemplation by Asaph.

1 Hear my teaching, my people.
Turn 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 YHWH,
his strength, and his wondrous works that he has done.
5 For he established a testimony in Jacob,
and appointed a teaching in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers,
that they should make them known to their children;
6 that the generation to come might know, even the children who should be born;
who should arise and tell their children,
7 that they might set their hope in God,
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments,
8 and might not be as their fathers,
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation that didn't make their hearts loyal,
whose spirit was not steadfast with God.
9 The children of Ephraim, being armed and carrying bows,
turned back in the day of battle.
10 They didn't keep God's covenant,
and refused to walk in his law.
11 They forgot his doings,
his wondrous works that he had shown them.

World English Bible

The introduction set the stage for the historical/theological narrative. The psalmist extolled the faithful to pass on the sacred history of God's activity among the people. Passing of the tradition was an integral part of the faithfulness the author upheld (78:1-4a). Notice the activity of God resulted in the establishment of the Law (78:4b-5a). Indeed, the Law was the narrative of sacred history for Jews. The stories and the edicts were interwoven. Those who rebelled against the Law would not pass on the Exodus stories to the next generation, just as the original generation God in the desert rebelled (78:8-11). (The Exodus lasted forty years, so the original generation died out; the next generation would enter the Promised Land.)

12 He did marvelous things in the sight of their fathers,
in the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan.
13 He split the sea, and caused them to pass through.
He made the waters stand as a heap.
14 In the daytime he also led them with a cloud,
and all night with a light of fire.
15 He split rocks in the wilderness,
and gave them drink abundantly as out of the depths.
16 He brought streams also out of the rock,
and caused waters to run down like rivers.
17 Yet they still went on to sin against him,
to rebel against the Most High in the desert.
18 They tempted God in their heart
by asking food according to their desire.
19 Yes, they spoke against God.
They said, 'Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?
20 Behold, he struck the rock, so that waters gushed out,
and streams overflowed.
Can he give bread also?
Will he provide flesh for his people?"
21 Therefore YHWH heard, and was angry.
A fire was kindled against Jacob,
anger also went up against Israel,
22 because they didn't believe in God,
and didn't trust in his salvation.
23 Yet he commanded the skies above,
and opened the doors of heaven.
24 He rained down manna on them to eat,
and gave them food from the sky.
25 Man ate the bread of angels.
He sent them food to the full.
26 He caused the east wind to blow in the sky.
By his power he guided the south wind.
27 He rained also flesh on them as the dust;
winged birds as the sand of the seas.
28 He let them fall in the midst of their camp,
around their habitations.
29 So they ate, and were well filled.
He gave them their own desire.

The next sections described the sin of the original Exodus generation and the trial/blessing of the seceding generation. 78:12-29 listed the wonders of God in cosmic proportions: the splitting of the Red Sea and the gift of water in the desert (desert wanderers like the Hebrews saw the control of water as THE proof of divinity). Despite the grumbling of the people in hunger, God fed them with power of the heavens and the wind; manna came from the sky like a rain torrent and meat came from the south wind (again, notice the divine will exercised in power that the Israelites could not understand).

30 They didn't turn from their cravings.
Their food was yet in their mouths,
31 when the anger of God went up against them,
killed some of their fattest,
and struck down the young men of Israel.
32 For all this they still sinned,
and didn't believe in his wondrous works.
33 Therefore he consumed their days in vanity,
and their years in terror.
34 When he killed them, then they inquired after him.
They returned and sought God earnestly.
35 They remembered that God was their rock,
the Most High God, their redeemer.
36 But they flattered him with their mouth,
and lied to him with their tongue.
37 For their heart was not right with him,
neither were they faithful in his covenant.
38 But he, being merciful, forgave iniquity, and didn't destroy them.
Yes, many times he turned his anger away,
and didn't stir up all his wrath.
39 He remembered that they were but flesh,
a wind that passes away, and doesn't come again.

Yet, the infidelity of the original generation fell onto the next. God's severe judgment had a cost in the young. A remnant would survive to receive the blessing of the Promised Land.

40 How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness,
and grieved him in the desert!
41 They turned again and tempted God,
and provoked the Holy One of Israel.
42 They didn't remember his hand,
nor the day when he redeemed them from the adversary;
43 how he set his signs in Egypt,
his wonders in the field of Zoan,
44 he turned their rivers into blood,
and their streams, so that they could not drink.
45 He sent among them swarms of flies, which devoured them;
and frogs, which destroyed them.
46 He gave also their increase to the caterpillar,
and their labor to the locust.
47 He destroyed their vines with hail,
their sycamore fig trees with frost.
48 He gave over their livestock also to the hail,
and their flocks to hot thunderbolts.
49 He threw on them the fierceness of his anger,
wrath, indignation, and trouble,
and a band of angels of evil.
50 He made a path for his anger.
He didn't spare their soul from death,
but gave their life over to the pestilence,
51 and struck all the firstborn in Egypt,
the chief of their strength in the tents of Ham.
52 But he led forth his own people like sheep,
and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.
53 He led them safely, so that they weren't afraid,
but the sea overwhelmed their enemies.
54 He brought them to the border of his sanctuary,
to this mountain, which his right hand had taken.
55 He also drove out the nations before them,
allotted them for an inheritance by line,
and made the tribes of Israel to dwell in their tents.
56 Yet they tempted and rebelled against the Most High God,
and didn't keep his testimonies;
57 but turned back, and dealt treacherously 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 engraved images.
59 When God heard this, he was angry,
and greatly abhorred Israel;
60 So that he forsook the tent of Shiloh,
the tent which he placed among men;
61 and delivered his strength into captivity,
his glory into the adversary's hand.
62 He also gave his people over to the sword,
and was angry with his inheritance.
63 Fire devoured their young men.
Their virgins had no wedding song.
64 Their priests fell by the sword,
and their widows couldn't weep.
65 Then the Lord awakened as one out of sleep,
like a mighty man who shouts by reason of wine.
66 He struck his adversaries backward.
He put them to a perpetual reproach.
67 Moreover he rejected the tent of Joseph,
and didn't choose the tribe of Ephraim,
68 But chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion which he loved.
69 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 have their young,
he brought him to be the shepherd of Jacob, his people,
and Israel, his inheritance.
72 So he was their shepherd according to the integrity of his heart,
and guided them by the skillfulness of his hands.

In 78:40-67, the psalmist repeated the thematic sequence of divine blessing and infidelity. Those who rebelled did not remember the power of God against the might of Egypt in the plaques (78:44-51) or the settling of the land by the blessed (78:52-55). The leaders 'forgot' the tradition and practiced idolatry, like their ancestors in the desert (78:56-58). As 78:59-67 would explain, the psalmist made his inference against Israel, the Northern Kingdom that fell under the influence of its neighbors and practiced a synergistic blend of Yahwehism and the worship of Baal.

So, in the mind of the psalmist, who were the faithful? His answer was Judah, the Southern Kingdom. Its king was had God's favor; its Temple was God's home. The blessings of Judah were proof of both.

Of course, the fidelity of David's descendants was questionable, until the birth of a 'carpenter's son' in Bethlehem two millennia ago. He became the faithful leader and our commitment to him became the measure of our fidelity to God. Still, we are faced with the same challenges the people of Israel faced. Are we faithful to God in our trust and our witness? Do we pass the Good News of Christ to our children and grandchildren? Remember that our faith and our witness are blessings to us. Our efforts to evangelize are really only our responses to those blessings.

How have you tried to pass along your faith? How have you succeeded? How have you failed? How has God worked through you in your efforts?