Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
Ps 78:1-72. This Psalm appears to have been occasioned by the removal of the sanctuary from Shiloh in the tribe of Ephraim to Zion in the tribe of Judah, and the coincident transfer of pre-eminence in Israel from the former to the latter tribe, as clearly evinced by David's settlement as the head of the Church and nation. Though this was the execution of God's purpose, the writer here shows that it also proceeded from the divine judgment on Ephraim, under whose leadership the people had manifested the same sinful and rebellious character which had distinguished their ancestors in Egypt.
1. my people … my law—the language of a religious teacher (Ps 78:2; La 3:14; Ro 2:16, 27; compare Ps 49:4). The history which follows was a "dark saying," or riddle, if left unexplained, and its right apprehension required wisdom and attention.
I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old:
Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us.
3-8. This history had been handed down (Ex 12:14; De 6:20) for God's honor, and that the principles of His law might be known and observed by posterity. This important sentiment is reiterated in (Ps 78:7, 8) negative form.
We will not hide them from their children, shewing to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done.
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. testimony—(Ps 19:7).
That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children:
That they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments:
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 and rebellious—(De 21:18).
set not their heart—on God's service (2Ch 12:14).
The children of Ephraim, being armed, and carrying bows, turned back in the day of battle.
9-11. The privileges of the first-born which belonged to Joseph (1Ch 5:1, 2) were assigned to Ephraim by Jacob (Ge 48:1). The supremacy of the tribe thus intimated was recognized by its position (in the marching of the nation to Canaan) next to the ark (Nu 2:18-24), by the selection of the first permanent locality for the ark within its borders at Shiloh, and by the extensive and fertile province given for its possession. Traces of this prominence remained after the schism under Rehoboam, in the use, by later writers, of Ephraim for Israel (compare Ho 5:3-14; 11:3-12). Though a strong, well-armed tribe, and, from an early period, emulous and haughty (compare Jos 17:14; Jud 8:1-3; 2Sa 19:41), it appears, in this place, that it had rather led the rest in cowardice than courage; and had incurred God's displeasure, because, diffident of His promise, though often heretofore fulfilled, it had failed as a leader to carry out the terms of the covenant, by not driving out the heathen (Ex 23:24; De 31:16; 2Ki 17:15).
They kept not the covenant of God, and refused to walk in his law;
And forgat his works, and his wonders that he had shewed them.
Marvellous things did he in the sight of their fathers, in the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan.
12-14. A record of God's dealings and the sins of the people is now made. The writer gives the history from the exode to the retreat from Kadesh; then contrasts their sins with their reasons for confidence, shown by a detail of God's dealings in Egypt, and presents a summary of the subsequent history to David's time.
Zoan—for Egypt, as its ancient capital (Nu 13:22; Isa 19:11).
He divided the sea, and caused them to pass through; and he made the waters to stand as an heap.
In the daytime also he led them with a cloud, and all the night with a light of fire.
He clave the rocks in the wilderness, and gave them drink as out of the great depths.
15, 16. There were two similar miracles (Ex 17:6; Nu 20:11).
great depths—and—rivers—denote abundance.
He brought streams also out of the rock, and caused waters to run down like rivers.
And they sinned yet more against him by provoking the most High in the wilderness.
17-20. yet more—literally, "added to sin," instead of being led to repentance (Ro 2:4).
And they tempted God in their heart by asking meat for their lust.
18. in their heart—(Mt 15:19).
for their lust—literally, "soul," or, "desire."
provoking—and—tempted—illustrated by their absurd doubts,
Yea, they spake against God; they said, Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?
19, 20. in the face of His admitted power.
Behold, he smote the rock, that the waters gushed out, and the streams overflowed; can he give bread also? can he provide flesh for his people?
Therefore the LORD heard this, and was wroth: so a fire was kindled against Jacob, and anger also came up against Israel;
21. fire—the effect of the "anger" (Nu 11:1).
Because they believed not in God, and trusted not in his salvation:
22. (Compare Heb 8:8, 9).
Though he had commanded the clouds from above, and opened the doors of heaven,
23-29. (Compare Ex 16:11-15; Nu 11:4-9).
And had rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given them of the corn of heaven.
Man did eat angels' food: he sent them meat to the full.
25. angels' food—literally, "bread of the mighty" (compare Ps 105:40); so called, as it came from heaven.
meat—literally, "victuals," as for a journey.
He caused an east wind to blow in the heaven: and by his power he brought in the south wind.
He rained flesh also upon them as dust, and feathered fowls like as the sand of the sea:
And he let it fall in the midst of their camp, round about their habitations.
So they did eat, and were well filled: for he gave them their own desire;
29. their … desire—what they longed for.
They were not estranged from their lust. But while their meat was yet in their mouths,
30, 31. not estranged … lust—or, "desire"—that is, were indulging it.
The wrath of God came upon them, and slew the fattest of them, and smote down the chosen men of Israel.
31. slew … fattest—or, "among the fattest"; some of them—
chosen—the young and strong (Isa 40:31), and so none could resist.
For all this they sinned still, and believed not for his wondrous works.
Therefore their days did he consume in vanity, and their years in trouble.
33-39. Though there were partial reformations after chastisement, and God, in pity, withdrew His hand for a time, yet their general conduct was rebellious, and He was thus provoked to waste and destroy them, by long and fruitless wandering in the desert.
When he slew them, then they sought him: and they returned and inquired early after God.
And they remembered that God was their rock, and the high God their redeemer.
Nevertheless they did flatter him with their mouth, and they lied unto him with their tongues.
36. lied … tongues—a feigned obedience (Ps 18:44).
For their heart was not right with him, neither were they stedfast in his covenant.
37. heart … not right—or, "firm" (compare Ps 78:8; Ps 51:10).
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.
For he remembered that they were but flesh; a wind that passeth away, and cometh not again.
39. a wind … again—literally, "a breath," thin air (compare Ps 103:16; Jas 4:14).
How oft did they provoke him in the wilderness, and grieve him in the desert!
40, 41. There were ten temptations (Nu 14:22).
Yea, they turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel.
41. limited—as in Ps 78:19, 20. Though some prefer "grieved" or "provoked." The retreat from Kadesh (De 1:19-23) is meant, whether—
turned—be for turning back, or to denote repetition of offense.
They remembered not his hand, nor the day when he delivered them from the enemy.
How he had wrought his signs in Egypt, and his wonders in the field of Zoan:
43. wrought—set or held forth.
And had turned their rivers into blood; and their floods, that they could not drink.
He sent divers sorts of flies among them, which devoured them; and frogs, which destroyed them.
45. The dog-fly or the mosquito.
He gave also their increase unto the caterpiller, and their labour unto the locust.
46. caterpillar—the Hebrew name, from its voracity, and that of—
locust—from its multitude.
He destroyed their vines with hail, and their sycomore trees with frost.
47, 48. The additional effects of the storm here mentioned (compare Ex 9:23-34) are consistent with Moses' account.
He gave up their cattle also to the hail, and their flocks to hot thunderbolts.
48. gave … cattle—literally, "shut up" (compare Ps 31:8).
He cast upon them the fierceness of his anger, wrath, and indignation, and trouble, by sending evil angels among them.
49. evil angels—or, "angels of evil"—many were perhaps employed, and other evils inflicted.
He made a way to his anger; he spared not their soul from death, but gave their life over to the pestilence;
50, 51. made a way—removed obstacles, gave it full scope.
And smote all the firstborn in Egypt; the chief of their strength in the tabernacles of Ham:
51. chief of their strength—literally, "first-fruits," or, "first-born" (Ge 49:3; De 21:17).
Ham—one of whose sons gave name (Mizraim, Hebrew) to Egypt.
But made his own people to go forth like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.
52-54. made his … forth—or, brought them by periodical journeys (compare Ex 15:1).
And he led them on safely, so that they feared not: but the sea overwhelmed their enemies.
And he brought them to the border of his sanctuary, even to this mountain, which his right hand had purchased.
54. border of his sanctuary—or, "holy border"—i. e., region of which—
this mountain—(Zion) was, as the seat of civil and religious government, the representative, used for the whole land, as afterwards for the Church (Isa 25:6, 7).
purchased—or, "procured by His right hand" or power (Ps 60:5).
He cast out the heathen also before them, and divided them an inheritance by line, and made the tribes of Israel to dwell in their tents.
55. by line—or, the portion thus measured.
divided them—that is, the heathen, put for their possessions, so tents—that is, of the heathen (compare De 6:11).
Yet they tempted and provoked the most high God, and kept not his testimonies:
56, 57. a deceitful bow—which turns back, and so fails to project the arrow (2Sa 1:22; Ho 7:16). They relapsed.
But turned back, and dealt unfaithfully like their fathers: they were turned aside like a deceitful bow.
For they provoked him to anger with their high places, and moved him to jealousy with their graven images.
58. Idolatry resulted from sparing the heathen (compare Ps 78:9-11).
When God heard this, he was wroth, and greatly abhorred Israel:
59, 60. heard—perceived (Ge 11:7).
abhorred—but not utterly.
So that he forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent which he placed among men;
60. tent … placed—literally, "caused to dwell," set up (Jos 18:1).
And delivered his strength into captivity, and his glory into the enemy's hand.
61. his strength—the ark, as symbolical of it (Ps 96:6).
He gave his people over also unto the sword; and was wroth with his inheritance.
62. gave—or, "shut up."
his people—(Ps 78:48; 1Sa 4:10-17).
The fire consumed their young men; and their maidens were not given to marriage.
63. fire—either figure of the slaughter (1Sa 4:10), or a literal burning by the heathen.
given to marriage—literally, "praised"—that is, as brides.
Their priests fell by the sword; and their widows made no lamentation.
64. (Compare 1Sa 4:17); and there were, doubtless, others.
made no lamentation—either because stupefied by grief, or hindered by the enemy.
Then the Lord awaked as one out of sleep, and like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine.
65. (Compare Ps 22:16; Isa 42:13).
And he smote his enemies in the hinder parts: he put them to a perpetual reproach.
66. And he smote … part—or, "struck His enemies' back." The Philistines never regained their position after their defeats by David.
Moreover he refused the tabernacle of Joseph, and chose not the tribe of Ephraim:
67, 68. tabernacle of Joseph—or, "home," or, "tribe," to which—
tribe of Ephraim—is parallel (compare Re 7:8). Its pre-eminence was, like Saul's, only permitted. Judah had been the choice (Ge 49:10).
But chose the tribe of Judah, the mount Zion which he loved.
And he built his sanctuary like high palaces, like the earth which he hath established for ever.
69. Exalted as—
high palaces—or, "mountains," and abiding as—the earth.
He chose David also his servant, and took him from the sheepfolds:
70-72. God's sovereignty was illustrated in this choice. The contrast is striking—humility and exaltation—and the correspondence is beautiful.
From following the ewes great with young he brought him to feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance.
71. following … ewes, &c.—literally, "ewes giving suck" (compare Isa 40:11). On the pastoral terms, compare Ps 79:13.
So he fed them according to the integrity of his heart; and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands.