Psalm 78
Matthew Poole's Commentary
Maschil of Asaph. Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth.

The scope of this Psalm is plainly expressed Psalm 78:6-8, and is this, that the Israelites might learn to hope and trust in God, and steadfastly to keep his laws and covenant; which great lesson he presseth upon them, from the sad effects of the contrary practices in their forefathers, of which he gives a brief yet full account in a recapitulation of he most remarkable passages in the history of their church and nation.

An exhortation to attend to and instruct others in the word and works of the Lord, Psalm 78:1-8. A rehearsal of God’s love and long-suffering to the unbelieving and obstinate Israelites, Psalm 78:9-11, in their journey out of Egypt to the land of Canaan, Psalm 78:12-65. Rejecting the rest of the tribes, he chooseth Zion for a place of worship, and David to the kingdom, Psalm 78:67-72.

My people: if Asaph was the composer of this Psalm, he might well call the Israelites his people, not only as he was their prophet and teacher, but also because they were of the same country and parentage with him; upon which account this very phrase of my people is used of them, not only by queen Esther, Esther 7:3,4, but also by the Shunammitish woman, 2 Kings 4:13.

My law, i.e. the doctrine which I am about to deliver to you, concerning your duty, and the danger of neglecting it.

I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old:
Open my mouth, speak to you with all freedom and plainness, in a parable; uttering divers and weighty sentences (for such are oft called

parables in Scripture) or passages of great moment for your instruction and advantage.

Dark sayings; so he calls the following passages, not because the words and sentences are in themselves hard to be understood, for they are generally historical and easy, but because the things contained in them, concerning God’s transcendent goodness to an unworthy people, and their unparalleled ingratitude for and abuse of such eminent favours, and their stupid ignorance and insensibleness under such excellent and constant teachings of God’s word and works, are indeed prodigious and hard to be believed.

Of old; of things done in ancient times, and in a great measure worn out of men’s minds.

Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us.
No text from Poole on this verse.

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.
The praises, i.e. his glorious and praiseworthy actions, as the following words explain it.

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:
He established: this is justly put in the first place, as the chief of all the following mercies, and the foundation both of their temporal and of their eternal felicity.

A testimony, i.e. his law, as it is called in the next clause; which is very oft called a testimony, because it is a witness between God and men, declaring both the duties which God expects from man, and the promises and blessings which man in the performance of his duty may expect from God.

In Jacob, peculiarly; for no other nation enjoyed this privilege, as is more fully expressed, Psalm 147:19,20. Which testimony or law God revealed to them, not for their own private use, but for the benefit of all their posterity, whom their parents were obliged to teach, Deu 6:7, and all their children to hear, and read, and study; by which we may see how contrary to the mind of God that foolish and wicked assertion is, that ignorance is the mother of devotion.

That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children:
No text from Poole on this verse.

That they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments:
That they might set their hope in God; that by the consideration of God’s gracious promises, and wonderful works wrought by God for his. people, they might be encouraged to trust in him.

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.
That set not their heart aright; who though they outwardly and seemingly complied with the forms of worship which God had prescribed, yet

did not direct or prepare their hearts to the obedience and service of God.

Whose spirit was not stedfast with God; who quickly discovered their hypocrisy by their apostacy from God, and from the religion which they had professed.

The children of Ephraim, being armed, and carrying bows, turned back in the day of battle.
The children of Ephraim: this passage concerns, either,

1. The tribe of Ephraim, and some exploit of theirs, wherein they met with this disaster; whether it were that mentioned 1 Chronicles 7:21, or some other not particularly related in any other place of Scripture. For we must not think that all the actions and events of the several tribes are recorded in Scripture, but only some of the most memorable ones. Or,

2. The ten tribes, who are very frequently called Ephraim, because that tribe was the chief of them, and the seat of the kingdom. And so this is referred by some to the captivity of the ten tribes, 2 Kings 17, although the historical references of this Psalm seem not to go beyond David’s time. Or rather,

3. All the tribes and people of Israel, who are sometimes designed by the name of Ephraim, as Jeremiah 31:9,18,20 Zec 10:7; as well they might be, because of the eminency of this tribe, out of which came Joshua their first governor in Canaan, and in which the ark of God continued for a long time, and whose people were both most numerous and most valiant; and therefore they are fitly named for all, to show that this slaughter was not made amongst them for any defect of power or courage in them, but merely from God’s just judgment upon them for their sins here following. And that Ephraim is here put for all Israel seems to be evident from the following verses, wherein the sins upon which this overthrow is charged are manifestly the sins of all the children of Israel, and they who are here called Ephraim, are called Jacob and Israel, Psalm 78:21. And so this passage is by divers learned interpreters referred unto that dreadful overthrow related 1 Samuel 4; wherein they did not stand to fight, but turned their backs and fled, as is there expressed, which though it reached all Israel, yet Ephraim is particularly named, because as the ark, so the fight, was in that tribe; and therefore it may be presumed that the Ephraimites were a very considerable part of that Israelitish army. And the psalmist having related this amazing providence and judgment of God upon his own people, he falls into a large discourse of the causes of it, to wit, the great, and manifold, and continual sins of that and the former generations; which having prosecuted from hence to Psalm 78:60, he there returns to this history, and relates the sad consequences of that disaster, to wit, the captivity of the ark, and God’s forsaking of Shiloh and Ephraim, and removing thence to the tribe of Judah and Mount Zion, the reason of which change of place he designed to give in the relation of this passage.

Bows; which includes arrows; and these being then the chiefest and most common weapons, are put for all other arms.

They kept not the covenant of God, and refused to walk in his law;
Their disobedience was accompanied with obstinacy and contempt of God’s laws.

And forgat his works, and his wonders that he had shewed them.
Forgat; not historically, but practically. They did not so remember them, as to love, and serve, and trust that God of whose infinite power and goodness they had such ample experience. Words of knowledge, such as knowing, remembering, &c., in Scripture use frequently comprehend affection and practice, as hath been oft observed.

Marvellous things did he in the sight of their fathers, in the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan.
In the field, i.e. in the territory or jurisdiction, not excluding the city itself. In the like sense we read of the field of Edom, and of Moab, Genesis 32:3 36:35 Numbers 21:20.

Zoan; an ancient, and eminent, and the royal city of Egypt. See Numbers 13:22 Isaiah 19:11 30:4.

He divided the sea, and caused them to pass through; and he made the waters to stand as an heap.
No text from Poole on this verse.

In the daytime also he led them with a cloud, and all the night with a light of fire.
A cloud; which was very comfortable, both for a shadow from the scorching heat of the climate and season, and for a companion and director in their journey.

He clave the rocks in the wilderness, and gave them drink as out of the great depths.
Rocks; he useth the plural number, because it was twice done; once in Rephidim, Exodus 17:6, and again in Kadesh, Numbers 20:1,11.

The great depths; in great abundance.

He brought streams also out of the rock, and caused waters to run down like rivers.
Which did miraculously follow them in all their travails even to the borders of Canaan. See Deu 9:21 Psalm 105:41 1 Corinthians 10:4.

And they sinned yet more against him by provoking the most High in the wilderness.
Where they had such strong and singular obligations to obedience, both from the great things which God had then and there done for them, and from their dependence upon God’s favour and help for their safety and subsistence. This was a great aggravation of their sin and folly.

And they tempted God in their heart by asking meat for their lust.
Tempted; desired a trial and proof of God’s power, as the next verse plainly showeth. See Numbers 11:4.

For their lust; not for their necessary subsistence, for which they had manna, but out of an inordinate and luxurious appetite.

Yea, they spake against God; they said, Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?
No text from Poole on this verse.

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?
The waters gushed out; which, all things consider seems not so wonderful, since fountains of water something break forth unexpectedly from or through rocks. But it is far more difficult to give us bread and flesh, which we know not whether he can do. Or at least we have just cause to doubt of his good will to us, who hath made a a penurious provision for us, and denies us these common blessings of bread and flesh, which he gives to the was of men.

Therefore the LORD heard this, and was wroth: so a fire was kindled against Jacob, and anger also came up against Israel;
A fire was kindled; either properly, as it was Numbers 11:1; or figuratively, the fire of God’s anger, as it follows.

Because they believed not in God, and trusted not in his salvation:
That he both could and would save them from the famine and destruction which they feared.

Though he had commanded the clouds from above, and opened the doors of heaven,
Which he compares to a granary or store-house, where God keeps the key, and either shuts or opens the doors it, either gives or withholds provisions, as he sees fit.

And had rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given them of the corn of heaven.
Which was made in heaven, or the air, and sent down thence to the earth.

Man did eat angels' food: he sent them meat to the full.
Angels’ food; manna, so called, either,

1. Because was made by the ministry of angels. Or rather,

2. Because of its excellency, such food as might befit the angels they could cat food, and such as hath some resemblance with the blessed angels in regard of its heavenly origin; its pure and spirituous substance, its rigour and efficacy preserving and nourishing those who used it according God’s appointment. Or this place may be translated as is in the margin, every one did eat the bread of the mighty i.e. even the common Israelites fed upon as delicious as the greatest nobles and princes used to do.

Sent them meat to the full; which may belong, either,

1. To the flesh mentioned in the following verses, which God gave them even to satiety or glutting, which he threatened to do, Numbers 11:18-20. Or rather,

2. To the manna, of which he is here speaking, which he gave them in such plenty, that their desire of other food could not proceed from their necessity, but merely from wantonness and lust.

He caused an east wind to blow in the heaven: and by his power he brought in the south wind.
Either he brought in first an eastern, and afterwards a southern wind, or the wind was south-east; from which quarter these quails might come as well as from the west, where their more common abode is; this work being confessedly miraculous.

He rained flesh also upon them as dust, and feathered fowls like as the sand of the sea:
Feathered fowls, Heb. winged fowl; which is noted to show that it was a supernatural work, whereby God took away from them the use of their wings, and made them to fall into the hands of the Israelites.

And he let it fall in the midst of their camp, round about their habitations.
Of their camp, Heb. of his camp; either Israel’s camp, or God’s camp; for seeing Israel was God’s people, and he dwelt among them, their camp was his camp.

So they did eat, and were well filled: for he gave them their own desire;
What they desired both for quality and quantity.

They were not estranged from their lust. But while their meat was yet in their mouths,
The sense is either,

1. Whilst their greedy appetite yet continued, and was not fully satisfied, before, they began to loathe it, as they did afterwards, Numbers 11:20. Or,

2. Before they were deprived or destitute of their desired food, whim they enjoyed it, and were still feeding upon it, as the next clause explains this. God’s patience did not wait upon them till that food was spent, but fell upon them instantly.

The wrath of God came upon them, and slew the fattest of them, and smote down the chosen men of Israel.
The fattest of them; the most healthy and strong, who probably were most desirous of this food, and fed most eagerly upon it, and grew fatter by it, and least suspected their own danger.

For all this they sinned still, and believed not for his wondrous works.
No text from Poole on this verse.

Therefore their days did he consume in vanity, and their years in trouble.
In vanity; in tedious and fruitless marches hither and thither, sometimes forward, and sometimes backward, which they knew would never bring them in their own persons to their promised and much-desired land.

In trouble; in manifold diseases, dangers, perplexities, and horrors of their own minds and consciences.

When he slew them, then they sought him: and they returned and inquired early after God.
They sought him; they prayed to him to deliver them from their deadly dangers; which even Pharaoh frequently did.

They returned, to wit, from their idols, unto the outward worship of God; or being moved with fear, they ceased for the present from their grossly wicked courses, which they might easily do without a dram of true repentance or hearty conversion to God.

Inquired early after God; speedily and earnestly sought to God for ease, and safety, and comfort, as wicked men in such cases frequently do.

And they remembered that God was their rock, and the high God their redeemer.
They considered that God, and God alone, had preserved them in all their former exigences, and that he only could now help them, and not those idols or creatures which they had preferred before him; and therefore being driven by absolute necessity, they fled to him for relief.

Nevertheless they did flatter him with their mouth, and they lied unto him with their tongues.
They made glorious but false professions and protestations of their sincere resolutions of future obedience, if God would spare them.

For their heart was not right with him, neither were they stedfast in his covenant.
All their confessions and petitions were but hypocritical and forced, and did not proceed from an upright heart truly grieved for their former offences, and firmly resolved to turn unto the Lord. They discovered their hypocrisy by their apostacy from God as soon as their danger was past.

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.
Forgave their iniquity; not simply and absolutely, for so it is undeniably certain from the Holy Scriptures that God pardons none but true penitents, such as these were not; but respectively, and so far as not to destroy them at that time, which he threatened, and was about to do, as the next words limit and explain it. He remitted their punishment, for

iniquity is oft put for the punishment of it. Heb. he expiated their iniquity. He accepted of their atonement, or of their professed repentance, so far as to compensate it with a removal of this outward and present affliction; as he did also to wicked Ahab upon his hypocritical humiliation, 1 Kings 21:29. And this God doth for the encouragement of all true penitents, who may hence learn how much greater and better recompences they may expect and shall receive from God.

Did not stir up all his wrath; but set bounds to it; and though he chastened them, yet he would not utterly destroy them, as they deserved.

For he remembered that they were but flesh; a wind that passeth away, and cometh not again.
Flesh; which here notes either,

1. The corruption of their natures, which was perpetually inclining them to sin, and consequently exposing them to God’s wrath, which must needs have consumed them utterly and speedily, if God had let loose his anger upon them. See the same argument used to a like purpose Genesis 8:21. Or rather,

2. The frailty or infirmity of their natures, as the next clause interprets this; which is such, that if I should not restrain my wrath, I should quickly cut off the body of this wicked people, and their children with them, whom I have promised to carry into Canaan, Numbers 14:31.

A wind that passeth away, and cometh not again; that are quickly cut off; and when once they are dead, they never return to this life.

How oft did they provoke him in the wilderness, and grieve him in the desert!
No text from Poole on this verse.

Yea, they turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel.
They limited either,

1. God’s power, as above, Psalm 78:19,20. Or,

2. God’s will, directing and prescribing to him what to do, and when, and in what manner, and murmuring at him if he did not always grant their particular and various desires.

They remembered not his hand, nor the day when he delivered them from the enemy.
His hand; the great and glorious works of his hand on their behalf.

Nor the day; nor that remarkable and never to be forgotten day, that self-same day, as it is called, Exodus 12:41, which God had fixed four hundred years before, Genesis 15:13, in which God delivered them from their greatest enemy, the tyrant Pharaoh.

How he had wrought his signs in Egypt, and his wonders in the field of Zoan:
No text from Poole on this verse.

And had turned their rivers into blood; and their floods, that they could not drink.
The several branches and streams of the river Nilus, and those many rivulets which they brought from it.

He sent divers sorts of flies among them, which devoured them; and frogs, which destroyed them.
Devoured them; or, destroyed them; which they might do by their cruel and numerous stings, for these flies were doubtless extraordinary in their nature and quantity, and poisonous and hurtful qualities. And the like is to be thought concerning the frogs here following, which also might destroy the people by infecting the air with their stink, and corrupting their meats and drinks.

He gave also their increase unto the caterpiller, and their labour unto the locust.
The herbs and grains which were come up by their care and diligent labour.

He destroyed their vines with hail, and their sycomore trees with frost.
Sycomore trees; or, wild fig trees, which were there in great plenty. Under these and the vines all other trees are comprehended. And this hail and frost did destroy the fruits of the trees, and sometimes the trees themselves.

He gave up their cattle also to the hail, and their flocks to hot thunderbolts.
He gave up, Heb. he shut up, as in a prison, that they could not escape them.

He cast upon them the fierceness of his anger, wrath, and indignation, and trouble, by sending evil angels among them.
Indignation and trouble; other most grievous plagues, which were mixed with and were the effects of his anger and wrath; whereby their miseries were greatly aggravated, and distinguished from the afflictions which God sent upon the Israelites in Egypt, which were only fatherly chastisements, and the effects of God’s love and occasions of their deliverance.

By sending evil angels, Heb. the sending (or the operation or effects) of evil angels, or of the angels or messengers of evil things; either of the angels whom God employed in producing these plagues; or of Moses and Aaron, who were to the Egyptians messengers of evil, and by whom these judgments were sent to and inflicted upon them.

He made a way to his anger; he spared not their soul from death, but gave their life over to the pestilence;
He made a way, Heb. He weighed a path or causeway, i.e. he made a most smooth, and even, and exact path, as if he had done it by weight and measure, that so his anger might pass swiftly and freely without interruption. The phrase also seems to note the wisdom and justice of God in weighing out their plagues proportionably to their sins, and exercising great severity towards them answerably to their great and barbarous cruelty towards his people.

He spared not their soul from death, i.e. he punished them with death or killing plagues, as the next words explain it.

Their life; or, their beasts. So he speaks of the murrain among their cattle. But our translation seems better to agree with the next foregoing and following passages, which plainly speak of the death of persons.

And smote all the firstborn in Egypt; the chief of their strength in the tabernacles of Ham:
The chief of their strength; another expression noting the first-born, who are so called, Genesis 49:3.

Of Ham; of the Egyptians, the posterity of Ham, Genesis 10:6; which title he there gives them, to intimate that they were the cursed children of a cursed parent, Ham, Genesis 9:25, and therefore were proper objects for Divine wrath and vengeance.

But made his own people to go forth like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.
No text from Poole on this verse.

And he led them on safely, so that they feared not: but the sea overwhelmed their enemies.
They feared not. But it is said that they were sore afraid, Exodus 14:10.

Answ. 1. They were afraid at first, but after Moses had encouraged them they grew bold and secure; one evidence whereof was, that they confidently went into the middle of the sea, and passed between the vast heaps of water which were on both sides of them.

2. The meaning may be that they had no just cause to fear; for men are oft said to do not only what they actually do, but also what they ought to do, as Malachi 1:6 2:7, &c.

And he brought them to the border of his sanctuary, even to this mountain, which his right hand had purchased.
Of his sanctuary; or, of his holiness, or his holy place i.e. the land of Canaan, which is so called, Ezra 9:8 Zechariah 2:12, &c., as being separated by God from all other lands for his people and service, and sanctified by his presence and dwelling in it.

This mountain; either,

1. The mountain upon which the tabernacle or temple stood. Or rather,

2. The mountainous country of Canaan, which called a land of hills and valleys, Deu 11:11. And the word mountain is oft used in Scripture for a mountainous country, as Genesis 36:8 Deu 1:7 Joshua 11:21.

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.
No text from Poole on this verse.

Yet they tempted and provoked the most high God, and kept not his testimonies:
No text from Poole on this verse.

But turned back, and dealt unfaithfully like their fathers: they were turned aside like a deceitful bow.
Which either breaketh when it is drawn, or shooteth awry, and frustrateth the archer’s design and expectation So when they pretended, and both God and men expected, obedience and gratitude to their great Benefactor, they behaved themselves undutifully and unfaithfully towards him.

For they provoked him to anger with their high places, and moved him to jealousy with their graven images.
No text from Poole on this verse.

When God heard this, he was wroth, and greatly abhorred Israel:
Heard, i.e. perceived or understood, as hearing is oft used, as Genesis 11:7 41:15, &c. It is spoken of God after the manner of men.

So that he forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent which he placed among men;
The tabernacle of Shiloh; which then was placed in Shiloh, from whence, as the Israelites fetched the ark, so God withdrew himself.

Which he placed among men; whereby he insinuates both God’s wonderful condescension and favour to such worthless and wretched creatures, and their stupendous folly and wickedness in despising and sinning away so glorious a privilege.

And delivered his strength into captivity, and his glory into the enemy's hand.
His strength, to wit, the ark, called God’s strength, 1 Chronicles 16:11, and the ark of his strength, Psalm 132:8, because it was the sign and pledge of his strength or power put forth on his people’s behalf.

His glory; so the ark is called, as being the monument and seat of God’s glorious presence, and an instrument of his glorious works.

The enemy; namely, the Philistines; of which see 1 Samuel 4.

He gave his people over also unto the sword; and was wroth with his inheritance.
No text from Poole on this verse.

The fire consumed their young men; and their maidens were not given to marriage.
Because the young men who should have married them were slain. Heb. were not praised, to wit, with marriage songs, which was usual at marriage solemnities among the Jews, as appears from Jeremiah 7:34 16:9 25:10.

Their priests fell by the sword; and their widows made no lamentation.
Their priests, Hophni and Phinehas, and others.

No lamentation; no funeral solemnities; either because they were prevented by their own death, as the wife of Phinehas was, or disturbed by the invasion of the enemy; or so overwhelmed with the sense of the public calamity, that the resentment of their private losses was swallowed up by it. See Job 27:15 Ezekiel 24:23.

Then the Lord awaked as one out of sleep, and like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine.
Awaked as one out of sleep; for God, by giving up not only his people, but his ark, to the contempt and insolency of the Philistines, might seem to be asleep, and insensible of his own honour and interest, till by a sudden and unexpected blow he convinced his enemies of the contrary.

Shouteth by reason of wine; whose spirit and courage is revived and inflamed by a liberal draught of generous wine; which comparison is no more injurious to the Divine Majesty than that of a thief’s coming in the night, to which Christ’s second coming is compared, 1 Thessalonians 5:2.

And he smote his enemies in the hinder parts: he put them to a perpetual reproach.
Smote his enemies in the hinder part, with the disease of the emerods, which was both painful and shameful. He caused them to perpetuate their own reproach by sending back the ark of God with their golden emerods, the lasting monuments of their shame.

Moreover he refused the tabernacle of Joseph, and chose not the tribe of Ephraim:
Moreover; and as he smote his enemies for their sins, so he punished his own people for the same cause.

He refused the tabernacle of Joseph; either,

1. He rejected the kingdom of the ten tribes, whereof Ephraim was the head. But this Psalm reacheth not so far as the erection of that kingdom. Or rather,

2. He would not have his ark to abide longer in the tabernacle of Shiloh, which was in the tribe of Joseph or Ephraim: see 1 Samuel 6:12 7:1,2 Jer 7:12,14 26:6,9.

And chose not the tribe of Ephraim; the same thing repeated in other words, after the manner.

But chose the tribe of Judah, the mount Zion which he loved.
Chose the tribe of Judah; either,

1. For the seat of the kingdom. Or rather,

2. For the seat of the ark and of God’s worship.

Object. Jerusalem was in the tribe of Benjamin, Joshua 18:28.

Answ. 1. It was so in part, and part of it was in Judah, as appears from Joshua 15:63; to which tribe Zion belonged by special reason, because David the head of that tribe conquered and took it.

2. Benjamin, after the division of the two kingdoms, was incorporated with Judah, and is oft comprehended under the name of Judah.

And he built his sanctuary like high palaces, like the earth which he hath established for ever.
His sanctuary; the temple of Solomon.

High palaces; magnificent and glorious.

Established for ever; not now to be removed from place to place, as the tabernacle was, but as a fixed place for the ark’s perpetual residence, unless the people by their apostasy should cause its removal.

He chose David also his servant, and took him from the sheepfolds:
No text from Poole on this verse.

From following the ewes great with young he brought him to feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance.
Following the ewes great with young; by which employment he was inured to that care, and diligence, and self-denial which is necessary in a king or governor; and instructed to rule his people with all gentleness and tenderness.

So he fed them according to the integrity of his heart; and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands.
He commends David for the two necessary ingredients of a good prince.

1. Integrity; whereby he sincerely sought the good and welfare of his people, avoiding and abhorring those counsels and courses which were contrary thereunto.

2. Skilfulness; whereby he managed all the public affairs with singular prudence; which is here ascribed to his hands, not because it was seated in them, but because it was acted and discovered by them, and appeared in all his actions or administrations.

Matthew Poole's Commentary

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