Psalm 78

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This composition is called a “maskil,” the significance of this transliterated Hebrew expression being unknown. In the Septuagint, the corresponding term is synéseos, meaning “of understanding” or “of intelligence.”

Psalm 78 is ascribed to Asaph. The contents are not of a nature that would rule out identifying him as the prominent Levite musician during David’s reign, especially since the psalm concludes with a reference to his rule. (1 Chronicles 6:31, 39; 25:1, 6) In the case of other psalms attributed to Asaph, however, the contents clearly point to a time much later than David. Therefore, a descendant of the family of Asaph may have been the composer. (See the Notes section regarding verse 10.)


The psalmist called upon his people to “give ear” or to pay attention to his “law” and to incline their ear to the word of his mouth. In this case, “law” refers to his authoritative teaching presented in Psalm 78. This teaching had the force of law and should have prompted all who paid attention to act in harmony therewith.

A “proverbial saying” or “parable” is a likeness or a comparison. “Riddles” are obscure sayings, requiring diligent effort from those desiring to know their meaning. The riddles the psalmist purposed to utter originated from ancient times. They involved matters about which the psalmist’s contemporaries had heard and of which they had knowledge, for their “fathers” had told them concerning these things. His objective appears to have been that his contemporaries reflect on past history and choose to walk in harmony with God’s ways. The history served as a likeness or parable that provided insight respecting the then-existing circumstances, and the historical events were like riddles, for they required careful thought in order to grasp the lessons of the past and to profit from them.

The psalmist and his contemporaries determined not to hide or keep secret from their children (from the “sons of their fathers” or the offspring of their ancestors) what their “fathers” had shared with them. To the new generation, they would tell about the “praises of YHWH” (his deeds that occasioned praise), his might or the impressive manifestations of his power, and his wondrous dealings, which would include his saving acts.

Jacob, as the forefather of the nation, represents Israel as a whole. The testimony that YHWH established “in Jacob” is the law he gave to the people through Moses. In the provisions of the law, the Most High revealed himself to be a loving, compassionate and just God and set forth what he required from the Israelites. When the law was given, the fathers were commanded to teach it to their children, and this was to be done from generation to generation. (Deuteronomy 4:9; 6:7; 11:19) In this way, the next generation would come to know God’s law and could then transmit it to their offspring.

On the basis of the teaching received, the generations to come were to place their hope or confidence in God, not forget his marvelous deeds for his people, and obey his commands. They should take to heart the lessons from past history, not acting like their faithless “fathers” or ancestors who proved to be “stubborn and rebellious [crooked and causing bitterness, LXX],” not submitting humbly to God’s guidance and, instead, rebelliously resisting to conduct themselves according to his upright ways. Those of that wayward and defiant generation had not firmly fixed their “heart” in loyal obedience to and love for YHWH. In their inmost self, they were not devoted to him. Their “spirit,” disposition, or inclination proved to be untrustworthy or unfaithful to God, not motivating them to do his will.


Ephraim was the dominant northern tribe, and the expression “sons of Ephraim” refers to the members of the tribe. The Ephraimites were well-equipped to share in warfare, able to shoot with their bows. Their “turning” or “turning back” in the “day of battle” is commonly understood to mean that they retreated. The time of such a retreat and the reasons for it, however, cannot be determined from the context.

There is a possibility that the Hebrew word for “turn,” “turn around,” or “change” (haphák) could denote a turning away from participating in the battle, as when the Ephraimites did not drive out the Canaanites living in Gezer. (Joshua 16:10; Judges 1:29) Many decades later, Jephthah asked for their assistance in fighting against the Ammonites, but they refused to do so. Afterward, the Ephraimites threatened him for not having summoned them when he crossed the Jordan to engage in military action, and they assembled their forces to fight against him. On that occasion, they suffered humiliating defeat. (Judges 12:1-4)

As members of the dominant northern tribe, the Ephraimites did not keep, or live in harmony with, YHWH’s covenant that was concluded with Israel at Mount Sinai. They refused to “walk” or conduct themselves according to his law.

Ephraim “forgot” or ignored God’s dealings with his people and the wondrous works he had shown them. He delivered them from enslavement in Egypt, sustained them in the wilderness, and enabled them to take possession of the land of Canaan.

Their “fathers” or ancestors witnessed God’s activity in Egypt. The ten devastating plagues that led to their liberation proved to be the impressive “marvels” he did before them.

Zoan (Tanes or Tanis, LXX), located in the northeastern part of the Nile Delta, was one of the oldest Egyptian cities. (Numbers 13:22) In verse 12 of this psalm, “field of Zoan” parallels Egypt and so appears to designate the entire country.


God parted the sea (the Red Sea), making it possible for the Israelites to cross to the other side. On both sides of the passage he had opened up, he made the waters stand “like a heap,” a congealed mass, wall, or dam. (Regarding the Septuagint rendering, see the Notes section for verse 13.)

During the day, YHWH led his people with a column of cloud and “all the night with a light of fire” (a luminous or fiery column). While they wandered in the wilderness, he, on two occasions, “split rocks,” providing abundant water for the people and their flocks and herds. (Exodus 17:6; Numbers 20:11) Each time, the water gushed from the opened crag and flowed down like rivers.

Despite the Most High’s supplying what they needed, the Israelites added to their sin against him and rebelled (“embittered him,” LXX) in the barren desert, repeatedly murmuring and complaining. In their hearts or their inmost selves, they tested God, implying that he could not care for them and that he would let them die. (Compare Exodus 16:2, 3.)

Faithlessly, they tested him when demanding food for their “soul” or to satisfy their appetite. Their demand was coupled with doubt, as they spoke against God, raising the question as to whether he could spread a table before them in the wilderness.

The psalmist depicted the Israelites as concluding that, although the Most High had provided an abundant supply of water for them from a crag when it was struck, he could not just as easily give food to them. He heard their faithless grumbling, and it angered him. Fire blazed against “Jacob” or the people of Israel, and divine anger mounted up against them. Lightning may have started the fire to which the psalmist referred. According to Numbers 11:1, subsequent to the complaining of the Israelites, fire consumed some of the outer portions of their camp.

The people were punished for their lack of faith in God and failure to trust in his power to save them. They did not believe that he could and would fully care for all their needs.

YHWH is portrayed as giving the command for the heavens to open the doors and then for the manna, “the grain of heaven,” to descend like rain as food for the Israelites. The reference to the manna as “bread of mighty ones” or “bread of angels” (LXX) may be understood to mean that it was provided through angels or came from a heavenly source, being the “grain of heaven.” What God provided was no meager supply of food but an abundant amount, sufficient to sustain the Israelites.

By means of a strong east wind and also a south wind, he caused birds as plentiful as the “sand of the seas” to descend upon the camp of the Israelites. In this manner, meat rained upon them like dust. The birds (quail) fell in the midst of the camp and all around their tents. The Israelites then ate meat until they were filled, for God had given them what they craved. According to the account in Numbers 11:4-6, the Israelites had earlier joined in complaining with the foreigners in their midst, expressing dissatisfaction about the manna and wanting meat.

Upon receiving the abundant supply of meat, the people gave way to insatiable greed. Before the supply ran out (while still “in their mouths”), they became the objects of God’s anger. He struck down Israel’s stout men and laid low their young men. (Compare Numbers 11:31-34)

Despite all that they had experienced, the Israelites continued to sin, persisting in their faithless grumbling. Even though they had seen his wondrous deeds, they refused to believe in his loving care and concern for them.

The faithless generation did not get to enter the Promised Land. They perished in the wilderness, their life vanishing like an exhaled breath or in emptiness. As persons who merited divine disfavor, they had the years of their life end in terror or, according to the Septuagint, “with haste” or quickly.

Upon experiencing punishment for their sins and witnessing the divine judgment of death befalling many in their midst, the Israelites would “inquire” after or search for God, turn back to him, and look for him, seeking his favor. They would remember that he was their “Rock” (“helper,” LXX), the one who was like a place of safety in mountainous terrain, and that the Most High was their redeemer who could deliver them from all perils.

This change on their part, however, was but temporary and no real transformation of their deep inner selves. Their turning to God was a mere expression of the lips. With their mouths, they tried to persuade him about their changed course. They did not truly love him and desire to do his will. “With their tongue, they lied to him.”

Their “heart” or inmost self was not loyally attached to God. They were not steadfast or firmly fixed in their devotion to him, and so could not be relied upon. The Septuagint refers to their heart as not being “upright” with him. The Israelites failed to live in harmony with the covenant that had been concluded with them at Mount Sinai and so revealed themselves to be untrue to it.

Despite their waywardness, YHWH showed compassion for the Israelites, forgiving their iniquity (“sins,” LXX) and not destroying them. Often he would restrain his anger, not rousing against them his anger to the full as they would have merited. He remembered or took into consideration that they were but flesh, mere mortals.

The Hebrew word rúach can mean either “spirit” or “wind.” If the reference is to “wind,” the thought would be that the life of the Israelites was brief, comparable to a wind that blows by but then does not return. In case the meaning is “spirit” or life force, the focus would be on mortality. Once the spirit or life force goes out and a person ceases to breathe, it does not return.

“How often” the Israelites rebelled against (“embittered,” LXX) God and “pained [angered, LXX] him in the desert!” They defied the divinely granted authority of Moses and Aaron, refused to heed God’s commands, and repeatedly gave in to faithless grumbling. Their rebellious course grieved the Most High, as it revealed a total lack of appreciation for all that he had done for them.

Time and again they tested God, questioning his ability to furnish them with the essentials for life. This improper testing or challenging of the “Holy One of Israel” to act “distressed” (tawáh) him, as it ignored his having always made provision for their needs. (See the Notes section for additional comments on verse 41.)


They failed to call to mind his power (literally, “hand”), which he revealed the “day” or at the time they were redeemed from the foe or set free from Egyptian enslavement, and the astonishing events associated with this deliverance. The “signs” he set in Egypt were the ten devastating plagues. As earlier in this psalm, “field of Zoan” parallels Egypt.

God turned the rivers of Egypt, which included the Nile, into blood. The water came to have the appearance of blood, and the Egyptians were unable to drink from their streams. This calamity proved to be the first plague to come upon the entire land of Egypt. (Exodus 7:15-24)

There is uncertainty about which pest the Most High sent among the Egyptians to “consume” them. In the Septuagint, the Hebrew word ‘aróv is rendered kynómuia, meaning “dog fly.” The fourth plague that befell the Egyptians is commonly understood to have been swarms of flies and, more specifically, horseflies. With horseflies everywhere, the Egyptians would not have been able to escape having female horseflies repeatedly bite them and suck their blood. If swarms of horseflies did indeed plague them with their painful bites, it could truly be said that the Egyptians were “consumed” or “devoured.” (Exodus 8:21-24)

The second plague involved huge numbers of frogs. These creatures got into the houses, the ovens, and the kneading troughs, making them an ever-present nuisance when the Egyptians conducted their daily affairs. Coupled with their incessant, loud croaking, the frogs would have proved to be ruinous to the Egyptians. (Exodus 8:2-6)

Verse 46 refers to the plague of locusts, the eighth plague, which resulted in destruction to all the crops that had not been ruined by the preceding plague of hail. (Exodus 10:4-6; 13-15) The psalmist spoke of God as giving the crops of the Egyptians to the chasíl, a word not found in the Exodus account and the meaning of which is uncertain. Lexicographers have suggested that chasíl denotes a particular stage in the life cycle of the locust or that the term designates the “cockroach.” In the Septuagint, the Hebrew term is rendered erysíbe, which has been defined as “rust,” “blight,” or “mildew.” The parallel expression in verse 46 does mention the “locust,” providing a basis for considering the Hebrew word chasíl to be associated with that insect. It was to the locust that God gave the “toil” of the Egyptians or the fruit of their labor.

With hail, God destroyed the vines, which would have ruined the grape harvest. According to Exodus 9:25, the hail shattered trees. The psalmist made specific mention of the sycamore (shiqmáh). This likely is Ficus sycomorus, the sycamore fig or fig-mulberry tree. It bears figs of smaller size than the common fig tree. Fig-mulberry trees were extensively cultivated in ancient Egypt. The Hebrew term designating the agent that destroyed the sycamore trees is chanamál. In the Septuagint, this word is rendered “frost” (páchne), which is also the term found in numerous modern translations. Another suggested meaning for the Hebrew word chanamál is “devastating flood.”

To the hail, God gave the livestock of the Egyptians. Accompanied by lightning and thunder, the severe hailstorm killed animals and humans that were not sheltered. The Hebrew word for “flame” (résheph) and the rendering “fire” (pyr) in the Septuagint likely refer to lightning. A number of translations make this significance explicit. “He [God] killed their cattle with hail and their flocks with lightning.” (GNT, Second Edition) “Then he killed their cattle with hail and their other animals with lightning.” (CEV) “He abandoned their cattle to the hail, their livestock to bolts of lightning.” (NLT)

By means of the destructive plagues, the Almighty directed anger, wrath, indignation, and distress against the Egyptians. The expression “bands of angels of evil” could denote that angels were involved in bringing the evils or calamities. There is a possibility, however, that “angels” is to be understood as meaning messengers, and that either the plagues or “wrath,” “indignation,” and “distress” are represented as the messengers of evil.

The various possibilities are reflected in the renderings of modern translations. “God was so angry and furious that he went into a rage and caused them great trouble by sending swarms of destroying angels.” (CEV) “He loosed on them his fierce anger — all his fury, rage, and hostility. He dispatched against them a band of destroying angels.” (NLT) “He sent them His burning anger and trouble. He sent a group of angels to bring trouble and sorrow to them.” (NLB) “He loosed against them the full heat of his anger, fury, rage and destruction, a detachment of destroying angels.” (NJB) “He inflicted His burning anger upon them, wrath, indignation, trouble, a band of deadly messengers.” (Tanakh) “He sent His burning anger against them: fury, indignation, and calamity — a band of deadly messengers.” (HCSB) “He caused them great distress by pouring out his anger and fierce rage, which came as messengers of death.” (GNT, Second Edition)

Unobstructed, God’s anger blazed against the Egyptians. The psalmist describes the circumstance as being comparable to God’s clearing a path for his anger to travel without any impediment. “Their soul” could refer both to the life of the Egyptians and their animals. Hail killed humans and animals during the course of the seventh plague, and livestock died from pestilence (the fifth plague). Finally, the tenth plague brought death to Egypt’s firstborn. The Septuagint limits the concluding part of verse 50 to the fate of the cattle.

Some modern translations have also been more explicit in their renderings. “He cleared a path for his anger; he did not spare them from death; he delivered their beasts to the plague.” (NAB) “He turned his anger against them; he did not spare the Egyptians’ lives but handed them over to the plague.” (NLT) “He gave free course to his anger. He did not exempt their own selves from death, delivering up their lives to the plague.” (NJB) Translations that restrict the meaning to the Egyptians associate the “plague” with the death of the firstborn in the next verse.

The psalmist referred to Egypt’s firstborn whom YHWH struck down as the “beginning [firstfruits, LXX] of vigor [labor, LXX] in the tents of Ham.” According to Genesis 10:6, the Egyptians were descendants of Ham, and the firstborn son was regarded as the beginning or firstfruits of a man’s reproductive power. (Compare Genesis 49:3.)


As a shepherd, God led the Israelites like a flock out of Egypt. He guided and cared for them on the way in the wilderness.

Under his protective care, the Israelites were safe and had no reason to be afraid. He led them “in safety” or “in hope” (LXX). The Septuagint reading “in hope” suggests a positive outcome. After their departure from Egypt, their enemies—Pharaoh and his host—were destroyed when the Red Sea overwhelmed them.

After the Israelites had wandered in the wilderness for about forty years, God brought them to the Promised Land. He was the rightful owner of this land. Therefore, it was “holy” (the “border” or “territory of holiness”). Probably because the land included mountainous regions, the psalmist referred to it as the “mountain.” With his “right hand” or his great might, God acquired this “mountain” for the Israelites, enabling them to take possession of the land.

The psalmist gave God the credit for driving out the nations from the land, casting the measuring lines to determine the size of the hereditary possessions, and settling the tribes in their respective territories.

The Israelites, though, did not continue to appreciate all that the Almighty had done for them. By acting as if he had no concern for them and as if they had no accountability to him, they tested him. They “rebelled” against or “embittered” (LXX) God the Most High, defiantly disregarding his commands. The Israelites did not observe his “testimonies” or the commands set forth in his law.

Like their forefathers, they turned away from him and conducted themselves in a treacherous or faithless manner. The psalmist referred to them as being twisted like a “deceitful” or “treacherous bow.” Regardless of an archer’s skill, an arrow shot from such a bow could not be depended upon to hit the target.

With their “high places” or elevated sites where they carried on idolatry, the Israelites angered YHWH. He alone was deserving of worship, but they incited him to jealousy with their images or representations of nonexistent deities, prostrating themselves before them.

God “heard” their idolatrous expressions, and what he heard aroused his wrath. Therefore, he completely rejected Israel, withdrawing his favor and protection.

At Shiloh, in the territory of Ephraim, the ark of the covenant was located in the Most Holy of the sacred tent. Because the ark was the symbol of God’s presence, the psalmist spoke of the tent at Shiloh as the place where the Most High “dwelt among men.” When Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of high priest Eli, took the ark into the Israelite camp during a military conflict with the Philistines, the Israelites suffered defeat, and the Philistines captured the ark. (1 Samuel 4:2-11) At that time, God is represented as having forsaken his dwelling at Shiloh. Even after the Philistines returned the ark, it was never again brought back to the Ephraimite city.

God delivered his strength, the symbol of his might or royal presence—the ark—into captivity, letting it fall into the hand of the enemy Philistines. Because it represented his glorious presence, the ark was also his “beauty” or “glory.”

The Most High handed the Israelites over to the “sword” of their enemies, with many of them perishing in battle. He was infuriated with his “heritage” or his chosen people on account of their waywardness.

“Fire devoured the young men” among the Israelites, indicating that they perished in the fire of warfare. With the resultant reduction in the marriageable population, the virgins were not praised in wedding songs. According to the Septuagint, the virgins were not bewailed.

During the military campaign, the priests were slain with the sword. At the time Hophni and Phinehas were guarding the ark, the Philistines killed them. (1 Samuel 4:11) Their widows did not weep. The wife of Phinehas, upon hearing the news about the capture of the ark and the deaths of her husband and her father-in-law Eli, gave birth prematurely and died. (1 Samuel 4:19-22) For any other priestly widows, the shock must have been so great that they could not give way to mourning.

Then, when the prophet Samuel began to administer affairs in Israel, the Almighty came to the aid of his people. As if he had been asleep, he roused himself to take action against their enemies. The psalmist also compared the awakening to a warrior’s ceasing to be under the influence of wine, no longer shouting as when in an intoxicated state.

God struck down “his adversaries” or the enemies of his people when they turned backward to flee, granting the victory to the Israelites. By means of the humiliating defeat, he put the foe into a state of lasting shame.

For his representative place of dwelling, he rejected the “tent of Joseph” and did not choose “tribe of Ephraim” or its territory. Instead, he chose the tribe of Judah, constituting Mount Zion as the location that he loved. It was to Mount Zion that the ark was transferred during the reign of King David.

The psalmist portrayed the sanctuary on Mount Zion as highly exalted and permanent, referring to God’s building this sanctuary like the “high heavens” and like the earth that he founded to exist for limitless time. The Septuagint rendering for “heights” or “high heavens” is “unicorns” and seemingly arose from a misreading of the Hebrew text.

The Almighty chose his servant David to be king, selecting him while he was caring for sheep, including nursing ewes. From serving as a shepherd of sheep, David was appointed to shepherd the Israelites, God’s “people Jacob.” As their royal shepherd, David had the responsibility of looking after the interests of God’s “heritage,” or the people whom the Almighty claimed as his own, and defending them.

With an upright heart or with his inmost self being focused on doing what is right, David discharged his duty toward the people as a caring shepherd. He used his “hands” or power and authority skillfully in providing exemplary leadership for them.


In the years after the reigns of David and Solomon, “Ephraim” did not make a commendable record. After the ten tribes revolted against the royal house of David and established an independent monarchy, the first king, Jeroboam of the tribe of Ephraim, established two centers for the veneration of golden calves. (1 Kings 12:20-33) This form of idolatry continued to exist throughout the history of the ten-tribe kingdom. With the exception of a remnant in Israel, the people failed to heed God’s law. If Psalm 78:10 is to be understood as including these later developments, this would mean that Asaph, the contemporary of David, could not have been the composer of this psalm.

In verse 13, the Septuagint refers to the waters as standing like a “wineskin” or a “bag” (askós.) The translator appears to have understood the Hebrew to be no’d (“skin,” “skin bottle,” or “bag”) and not ned (“heap” or “dam”).

There is a measure of uncertainty about the meaning of the Hebrew word tawáh (in verse 41). Definitions found in lexicons include “to vex,” “to pain,” “to wound,” “to distress,” and “to hurt.” There is a possibility that the Hebrew word could have the sense of “limit” or “restrict,” the meaning would then be that the Israelites, by their faithless words and actions, set a limit on YHWH’s power. A few translations do render the Hebrew word as “limit.” “Yes, again and again they tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel.” (NKJV) “Yes, they turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel.” (Webster) The Septuagint rendering is paroxyno, meaning “to provoke” or “to irritate.”

In verses 44 through 51, the poetic description of the plagues does not follow the sequential order found in Exodus. Although a few additional aspects are introduced, not all ten plagues are enumerated. This is understandable, as poetry differs considerably from narrative style.

Regarding the divine name (YHWH), see Psalm 1.