Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This is the first and the longest specimen in the Hebrew hymn-book of a species of composition peculiar to it, and indeed peculiar to the literature of the Jews, as combining narrative with instruction. It has been rightly called “epi-didactic.” It does not tell the story of the past with any view of celebrating heroic ancestors, or exalting conspicuous national virtues. On the contrary, it is a long confession of national failings. The Biblical conception of history is always religious, and, therefore, practical, and here the utmost prominence is given to those lapses from loyalty to Jehovah, against which the poet is covertly warning his own generation.
But while it thus expresses the pious feelings of the writer and his age, it is entirely characteristic in giving equal emphasis to their exclusiveness, and that not the exclusiveness of a nation only, or a religion, but of one tribe of a nation, and one doctrine of the religion. It is impossible to resist the conclusion that the author is quite as much concerned to establish the Divine purpose in rejecting Ephraim in favour of Judah as in choosing Israel as a nation in distinction from the heathen. At the very outset, as soon as the faithlessness and perversity of the nation have been mentioned, Ephraim is singled out as the chief and typical example of disloyalty (Psalm 78:9). The conclusion of the psalm from Psalm 78:67 dwells with genuine satisfaction on the rejection of the northern tribes, and on the exclusive choice as the seat of the theocracy of the southern tribe, Judah. This prominence given to the disruption has led some critics to date the poem at the time of that event. But other considerations enter into the question. The “high places” are mentioned (Psalm 78:58) as one of the causes of the Divine wrath, a sentiment that only entered into the religious feeling of even the better minds about the time of Hezekiah. (See Kuenen’s Religion of Israel, i. 79, 80, Eng. trans.) The poetical form is very irregular.
Title.—See Psalm 32:1.
Maschil of Asaph. Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth.(1) For the formal opening see Psalm 49:1, Note.
My people.—An expression pointing to a position of weight and authority.
My law.—Here, rather instruction, or doctrine.
I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old:(2, 3) I will open.—A difficulty is started by the fact that the psalm deals with history, and is neither a proverb (māshal) nor riddle (chîdah). But the Divine rejection of the northern tribes may be the covert meaning which the poet sees to have been wrapped up in all the ancient history. The word māshal is also sometimes used in a wide, vague sense, embracing prophetic as well as proverbial poetry. (See Numbers 21:27.)
For the use of this passage in Matthew 13:35, see Note, New Testament Commentary.
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:(5) For he . . .—Better, taking the relative of time (comp. Deuteronomy 11:6; Psalm 139:15), For he established (it as) a testimony in Jacob and (as) a law appointed (it) in Israel when he commanded our forefathers to make them (the “wonderful works” of last verse) known to their children. For the custom see reference in margin.
And might not be as their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation; a generation that set not their heart aright, and whose spirit was not stedfast with God.(8) Stubborn.—Refractory.
That set not their heart aright.—Literally, did not establish their heart, which preserves the parallelism better.
The children of Ephraim, being armed, and carrying bows, turned back in the day of battle.(9) Armed, and carrying bows.—Following Jeremiah 4:29, and from analogy with Jeremiah 44:9 (“handle and bend the bow”) we get as literal rendering of the Hebrew here, drawing and shooting with the bow. LXX. and Vulgate, “bending and shooting with the bow.” But a close comparison of this verse with Psalm 78:57 of this psalm, and with Hosea 7:16, has suggested to a recent commentator a much more satisfactory explanation, The sons of Ephraim (are like men) drawing slack bowstrings which turn back in the day of battle. “Both the disappointment on the day of battle and the cause of the disappointment, which are mentioned in the text, will be appreciated by the English reader who remembers that the result of the battle of Creçy was determined at the outset by a shower of rain which relaxed the strings of our enemy’s bows” (Burgess, Notes on the Hebrew Psalms.)
 This translation assumes that the primitive meaning of the verb rāmah is was slack. Certainly the root idea of the word (comp. the cognate rāphah and the meaning of the derivation inProverbs 10:4; Proverbs 12:24) seems to have been relaxation. That turned back, both here and in Psalm 78:57, refers to the recoil of a bow, seems indubitable.
By taking this sense of a comparison of the general character of Ephraim to a bow with a relaxed string that fails at the moment it is wanted (a figure made more expressive by the fact that archery was a practice in which Ephraim excelled), we are freed from the necessity of conjecturing a particular incident to account for this verse, which seems to break the sequence of thought. The whole historical retrospect is intended to lead up to the rejection of the northern kingdom (represented by Ephraim), but the poet is unable to keep back his climax, and thrusts it in here almost parenthetically.
Marvellous things did he in the sight of their fathers, in the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan.(12) Field of Zoan.—See Numbers 13:22. It is the classical “Tanis,” merely a corruption of Tsoan, i.e., low country (LXX. and Vulgate). Tanis is situated on the east bank of what was formerly called the Tanitic branch of the Nile. Between it and Pelusium, about thirty miles to the east, stretched a rich plain known as “the marshes,” or “the pastures,” or “the field” of Zoan.
The psalm now turns to the adventures in the wilderness, postponing the marvels in Egypt till Psalm 78:43.
He divided the sea, and caused them to pass through; and he made the waters to stand as an heap.(13) As an heap.—See Note, Psalm 33:7.
He clave the rocks in the wilderness, and gave them drink as out of the great depths.(15) And gave . . .—Literally, and gave them to drink as it were a great deep, or as we might say, “oceans of drink”—a poetical exaggeration; or are we rather to think of the gift of water as produced by striking or boring through the rock to the great ocean on which the earth was supposed to rest?
He brought streams also out of the rock, and caused waters to run down like rivers.(16) Rock.—Rather, cliff—sela, the word always used of the event that took place at Kadesh (Numbers 20:8-11), as tsûr is of the rock in Horeb. The plural of this latter word in Psalm 78:15 is poetical and general.
And they sinned yet more against him by provoking the most High in the wilderness.(17) They sinned yet more and more.—This implies the discontent which had already shown itself before the miraculous supply of water.
Yea, they spake against God; they said, Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?(19, 20) A comparison of these verses with the references in the margin shows how the ancient narratives fared under poetical treatment.
Furnish a table.—Comp. Psalm 23:5, Note
Gushed out.—Comp. Psalm 105:41.
Therefore the LORD heard this, and was wroth: so a fire was kindled against Jacob, and anger also came up against Israel;(21) See references in margin.
Man did eat angels' food: he sent them meat to the full.(25) Angels’ food.—See margin, and comp. Wisdom Of Solomon 16:20. LXX. and Vulgate, “angels’ bread.” Some explain, after Job 24:22; Job 34:30, lordly food, such as nobles eat—here, quails. But in connection with “food from heaven,” the popular idea of angels’ food which poetry reluctantly gives up may be retained.
He caused an east wind to blow in the heaven: and by his power he brought in the south wind.(26) East wind . . . south wind.—Probably the very winds that brought the flights of quails, and not merely poetical details. (See Smith’s Biblical Dictionary, art. “Quails.”)
He rained flesh also upon them as dust, and feathered fowls like as the sand of the sea:(27) No doubt there is poetical hyperbole here, but for the enormous numbers of quails that are now caught, see the article quoted above.
So they did eat, and were well filled: for he gave them their own desire;(29) Desire.—See Numbers 11:34, margin.
They were not estranged from their lust. But while their meat was yet in their mouths,(30, 31) Evidently from Numbers 11:33, They did not yet loath in consequence of their lusts, the meat was yet in their mouths when, &c. For the expression, comp. the Latin alienari ab aliqua re, to be disinclined to a thing, and our own “stranger to fear,” &c
The wrath of God came upon them, and slew the fattest of them, and smote down the chosen men of Israel.(31) Slew the fattest.—This may mean either the strongest or the noblest.
For all this they sinned still, and believed not for his wondrous works.(32-33) For the allusion see Numbers 14:11-12; Numbers 14:28-35.
And they remembered that God was their rock, and the high God their redeemer.(35) Rock.—A reminiscence of Deuteronomy 32:15-18.
But he, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not: yea, many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath.(38) The verbs in the first clause should be in the present, But he, the compassionate, forgives iniquity, and doth not destroy, and many a time he turned away, &c.
For he remembered that they were but flesh; a wind that passeth away, and cometh not again.(39) “And what’s a life? A blast sustained with clothing:
Maintained with food, retained with vile self-loathing;
Then, weary of itself, away to nothing.”—
How oft did they provoke him in the wilderness, and grieve him in the desert!(40) How oft.—Ten instances of murmuring are actually recorded in Exodus and Numbers.
Yea, they turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel.(41) Limited.—A verb used in Ezekiel 9:4 for putting a mark on the forehead, which has been very variously explained. Some render branded or cast a stigma on—i.e., brought discredit on the Divine name. The LXX. and Vulg. have “exasperated,” and so some moderns “crossed,” “thwarted.” Grätz emends to “asked signs from,” but perhaps the ideas of marking something that has been tried, and that of trying or tempting are sufficiently near to allow us to render tempted.
They remembered not his hand, nor the day when he delivered them from the enemy.(42) The reminiscence of the plagues that follows is not a complete enumeration, and does not proceed in the order of the historic narrative.
He sent divers sorts of flies among them, which devoured them; and frogs, which destroyed them.(45) Divers sorts of flies.—Better, simply flies. See Note Exodus 8:21.
Frogs.—See Exodus 8:2, and Bib. Ed., iv. 145.
He gave also their increase unto the caterpiller, and their labour unto the locust.(46) Caterpillar.—Heb., chasîl. (See 1Kings 8:37.) Probably the locust in the larva or pupa state. For locust see Exodus 10:4 seq., and Bib. Ed., iv. 292. The LXX., Vulg., and Symmachus have “blight.” but in 2Chronicles 6:28 “cockchafer,” as Aquila and Jerome here.
He destroyed their vines with hail, and their sycomore trees with frost.(47) Vines.—In the history of the plagues (Exodus 9:13-25) no mention is made either of vines or sycamores or of fig-trees, as in Psalm 105:33, and some consider that the poem reflects a Palestinian rather than an Egyptian point of view. But besides Numbers 20:5 and Joseph’s dream there is abundance of evidence of the extensive cultivation of the vine in Egypt. The mural paintings contain many representations of vineyards. Wine stood prominent among the offerings to the gods, and a note on a papyrus of Rameses II. speaks of rations of wine made to workmen.
Sycamore.—See 1Kings 10:27.
Frost.—The Hebrew word is peculiar to this place. The LXX. and Vulg. have “hoar-frost,” Aquila “ice,” Symmachus “worm.” The root of the word appears to mean to cut off, so that by derivation any devastating force would suit the word.
He gave up their cattle also to the hail, and their flocks to hot thunderbolts.(48) Hail.—Some copies read “pestilence,” which from its association with resheph, as in Habakkuk 3:5, a word there denoting some contagious malady (comp. Deuteronomy 32:24; see Note Psalm 76:3), is probably to be preferred here though the authority of the LXX. is against it. If so, we must refer this verse to the murrain that came on the cattle.
He cast upon them the fierceness of his anger, wrath, and indignation, and trouble, by sending evil angels among them.(49) Evil angels.—So LXX. and Vulg., but in the Hebrew angels (or messengers) of ills (so Symmachus), with evident reference to the destruction of the firstborn.
He made a way to his anger; he spared not their soul from death, but gave their life over to the pestilence;(50) Made a way.—Literally, levelled a path. So Symmachus.
And he brought them to the border of his sanctuary, even to this mountain, which his right hand had purchased.(54) This mountain—i.e., Zion, though from its apposition to border some prefer to take it of all the mountain country of Judæa.
But turned back, and dealt unfaithfully like their fathers: they were turned aside like a deceitful bow.(57) Turned aside . . .—Better, turned like a relaxed bow. (See Note to Psalm 78:9.) The bows of the Hebrews, like those of other ancient nations, were probably, when unstrung, bent the reverse way to that assumed when strung, which makes the figure more expressive of the disposition which cannot be relied upon in the moment of need.
So that he forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent which he placed among men;(60) Forsook.—The reference is of course to the disastrous defeat by the Philistines (1 Samuel 4). See especially Psalm 78:21 in connection with glory or ornament as applied here to the Ark. For strength in the same connection see Psalm 132:8.
The fire consumed their young men; and their maidens were not given to marriage.(63) Were not given.—See margin. The desolation and misery were marked by the absence of the glad nuptial song.
Their priests fell by the sword; and their widows made no lamentation.(64) And their widows . . .—Undoubtedly referring to the fact that the wife of Phinehas died in premature labour, and so could not attend the funeral of her husband with the customary lamentations, which in Oriental countries are so loud and marked. The Prayer-Book version, therefore, gives the right feeling—“there were no widows to make lamentations.”
Then the Lord awaked as one out of sleep, and like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine.(65) That shouteth . . .—For the boldness of the image which likens God to a giant warrior exhilarated with wine we may range this with the picture in Psalms 60 (See Notes.)
And he smote his enemies in the hinder parts: he put them to a perpetual reproach.(66) He smote.—Possibly an allusion to 1Samuel 5:9, or else to the repeated defeats of the Philistines under Saul and David.
And he built his sanctuary like high palaces, like the earth which he hath established for ever.(69) He built.—The first clause is vague, but evidently the poet is drawing attention to the grandeur and solidity of the Temple. Perhaps, high as heaven—firm as earth.
From following the ewes great with young he brought him to feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance.(71) Ewes great with young—So also in Isaiah 40:11; but properly, ewes with lambs. Literally, giving suck.