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(Sunday between September 25 and October 1)
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

The psalm has been clearly selected for its reference in vv. 12-16 to the episode in the wilderness of God bringing water from the rock to give drink to the people. Psalm 78, like Psalm 105, which we have read several times this Pentecost season, is another of the great ‘history’ psalms retelling part of the history of Israel, usually that part to do with the Exodus.

The psalmist speaks of the things they say as ‘dark sayings from of old’ (v. 2). This ‘dark saying’, is more properly a ‘riddle, perplexing saying’. It is all the more perplexing since the psalm goes on to speak about God’s new sanctuary and the Davidic dynasty (vv. 69-70). However, the destruction of the sanctuary was the theme of Psalm 74 (repeated in Psalm 79), and God rejects the Davidic dynasty a little later in Psalm 89. There is a ‘riddle’ in where we find Psalm 78 located as well as within its verses. While the focus of the psalm is historical recitation, it is also proclamation for present and future generations, and may have had a catechetical or liturgical function in its own history (cf. Psalms 105, 106 and 136; Exod 15.1-18 and Deuteronomy 32).

Psalm 78 falls into four major sections: vv. 1-8, an introduction; vv. 9-39, the rebellion and forgetfulness of the Ephraimites; vv. 40-64, the continued sin of the people in the wilderness and the promised land; and vv. 65-72, God’s rejection of Ephraim and choice of Judah, Zion and David. The selection for reading today comes from the introductory section and the second, main section.

Verses 1-4 comprise the first sub-section of the introduction. They form an invocation to ‘my people’ to listen to the teaching of the psalmist who speaks by way of ‘parable or proverb’, and ‘riddle, perplexing saying’. These terms suggest some deep and difficult lesson hidden in the past events to be learned again by later generations. The purpose is outlined further in vv. 5-8 where it is traced back to the decree established by Yahweh. It was given so that the people may have hope and not forget God’s works unlike their ancestors. The intent in vv. 1-4 thus carries on God’s intent in the torah. It is little wonder that the opening statement, ‘Give ear, O my people, to my teaching’, echoes God’s own statement in Deut 5.1 at the start of the Decalogue. The use of ‘my people’ already sets both the psalmist among this people, and as representative of God to the people, i.e. in some prophetic or royal role.

The main section of the psalm begins abruptly in v. 9 and goes on to describe the exodus event. Verses 12-16 describe the past deeds of God, namely the escape from Egypt and God’s leadership and abundant provision in the wilderness. In spite of this the people rebelled again and tested God (vv. 17-20). In the Pentateuch account of the wilderness wanderings Israel complained for lack of water and food (cf. Exod 15.22-17.7; Num 11; 20.1-13), but in Psalm 78 the sin of the people is to question God’s care even after it has been clearly demonstrated. Their unsteadfast heart and faithless spirit (cf. v. 8) are not a lack of courage and trust in the face of danger, but a questioning of God’s compassion having just experienced it.

As Psalm 78 unfolds we see each succeeding generation rebel and test God, not remembering their redemption in earlier times. The point of vv. 5-8 has not been learnt.

The psalm also speaks about the nature of the rebellion of Ephraim. This did not arise through a lack of experience of God’s compassion. They knew too well God’s compassionate and forgiving nature yet still denied that in their behaviour. The psalm speaks about a deep level of memory that shapes action. It is thus in the realm of the heart that David is finally contrasted to both the ancestors and the generations which preceded him (see vv. 72 and 8, 18, and 37). Hope rests on memory which learns from both past events and from God’s torah and covenant. What is to be passed on from one generation to another is a way of recounting the past that draws out its deep lessons about human rebellion and divine grace so that the lives of future generations are transformed. David is portrayed at the end of the psalm as the custodian of this memory, the one who embodies the divine guidance in his life.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship

The first few verses of the psalm can be adapted as a call to worship:

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
we will incline our ears to the words of your mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our ancestors have told us.
Do not hide them from your children;
we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD,
and his might, and the wonders that he has done.
These same verses could be used as introductory and concluding refrains for the reading of Scripture:
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.


Do not hide these words from your children;
we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD,
and his might, and the wonders that he has done.

Old Testament reading: Exodus 17:1-7

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