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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Psalms 78





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 (Psalms 78:9). The conclusion of the psalm from Psalms 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 (Psalms 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 Psalms 32:1.

Verse 1

(1) For the formal opening see Psalms 49:1, Note.

My people.—An expression pointing to a position of weight and authority.

My law.—Here, rather instruction, or doctrine.

Verse 2-3

(2, 3) I will open.—A difficulty is started by the fact that the psalm deals with history, and is neither a proverb (mâshal) 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 mâshal is also sometimes used in a wide, vague sense, embracing prophetic as well as proverbial poetry. (See Numbers 21:27.)

For “dark sayings,” literally, knotty points, see Numbers 12:8. In Habakkuk 2:6 the word seems to mean a sarcasm.

For the use of this passage in Matthew 13:35, see Note, New Testament Commentary.

Verse 5

(5) For he . . .—Better, taking the relative of time (comp. Deuteronomy 11:6; Psalms 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.

Verse 8

(8) Stubborn.—Refractory.

That set not their heart aright.—Literally, did not establish their heart, which preserves the parallelism better.

Verse 9

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.

Verse 12

(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 Psalms 78:43.

Verse 13

(13) As an heap.—See Note, Psalms 33:7.

Verse 15

(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?

Verse 16

(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 Psalms 78:15 is poetical and general.

Verse 17

(17) They sinned yet more and more.—This implies the discontent which had already shown itself before the miraculous supply of water.

Verse 19-20

(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. Psalms 23:5, Note

Gushed out.—Comp. Psalms 105:41.

Verse 21

(21) See references in margin.

Verse 25

(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.

Verse 26

(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.”)

Verse 27

(27) No doubt there is poetical hyperbole here, but for the enormous numbers of quails that are now caught, see the article quoted above.

Verse 29

(29) Desire.—See Numbers 11:34, margin.

Verse 30-31

(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

Verse 31

(31) Slew the fattest.—This may mean either the strongest or the noblest.

Verse 32-33

(32-33) For the allusion see Numbers 14:11-12; Numbers 14:28-35.

Verse 35

(35) Rock.—A reminiscence of Deuteronomy 32:15-18.

Verse 38

(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.

Verse 39

(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.”—

QUARLES: Emblcms.

Verse 40

(40) How oft.—Ten instances of murmuring are actually recorded in Exodus and Numbers.

Verse 41

(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.

Verse 42

(42) The reminiscence of the plagues that follows is not a complete enumeration, and does not proceed in the order of the historic narrative.

Verse 45

(45) Divers sorts of flies.—Better, simply flies. See Note Exodus 8:21.

Frogs.—See Exodus 8:2, and Bib. Ed., iv. 145.

Verse 46

(46) Caterpillar.—Heb., chasîl. (See 1 Kings 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 2 Chronicles 6:28 “cockchafer,” as Aquila and Jerome here.

Verse 47

(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 Psalms 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 1 Kings 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.

Verse 48

(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 Psalms 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.

Verse 49

(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.

Verse 50

(50) Made a way.—Literally, levelled a path. So Symmachus.

Verse 54

(54) This mountain—i.e., Zion, though from its apposition to border some prefer to take it of all the mountain country of Judæa.

Purchased.—Rather, acquired.

Verse 57

(57) Turned aside . . .—Better, turned like a relaxed bow. (See Note to Psalms 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.

Verse 60

(60) Forsook.—The reference is of course to the disastrous defeat by the Philistines (1 Samuel 4). See especially Psalms 78:21 in connection with glory or ornament as applied here to the Ark. For strength in the same connection see Psalms 132:8.

Verse 63

(63) Were not given.—See margin. The desolation and misery were marked by the absence of the glad nuptial song.

Verse 64

(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.”

Verse 65

(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.)

Verse 66

(66) He smote.—Possibly an allusion to 1 Samuel 5:9, or else to the repeated defeats of the Philistines under Saul and David.

Verse 69

(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.

Verse 71

(71) Ewes great with young—So also in Isaiah 40:11; but properly, ewes with lambs. Literally, giving suck.


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Psalms 78:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

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