Commentary on Psalm 78:23-29
Psalm 78’s superscription reads, “A Maskil of Asaph.”
While some commentators and readers ignore the superscriptions of the psalms, these little introductions often provide significant clues for understanding the psalms’ meanings and purposes. In the Hebrew Bible, unlike Christian Bibles, a psalm’s superscription is not placed as a preface to it. Rather, it is included as the psalm’s first verse. What insight into Psalm 78 can its superscription provide?
First, the psalm is described as a maskil. The Hebrew root of this word is sakal, which means “to have insight, to teach.” Thus, we may understand a maskil as a teaching song.
Second, Psalm 78 is ascribed to Asaph. Asaph, along with the Korahites (Psalm 42, 44, 45, etc.), Heman the Ezrahite (Psalm 88), and Ethan the Ezrahite (Psalm 89), were singers and musicians at the Jerusalem Temple during the reigns of David and Solomon (cf. 1 Chronicles 6:31-37; 9:19). So, we are introduced to Psalm 78 as a teaching psalm from the time of David and Solomon.
In verses 1-3, the psalm begins with words of admonition to its listeners. The psalm singer then recounts in great detail the activity of God in the lives of our ancestors during the Exodus from Egypt, the Wilderness Wanderings, the settlement of the land, and the establishment of the ancient Israelite nation with David as king.
Verses 23-29 are a poetic retelling of God’s provision of manna and quail during the Wilderness Wanderings. According to Exodus 13-16, God led the Israelites out of Egypt with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22). They arrived and camped at the Reed Sea, and soon Pharaoh and his army were in hot pursuit.
The people then turned to Moses in fear and anger, saying, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? … Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians, for it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:11-12). Thus began the grumbling — a constant theme of the journey through the wilderness.
Later, the people continued to grumble about the lack of fresh water to drink and food to eat (Exodus 15:24; 16:3). God answered the people out of the pillar of cloud, and promised manna and quail to them (Exodus 16:10-12). The word “manna” is taken from the question that the Israelites ask when they see the manna for the first time. They asked, “What is it?” — in Hebrew “man hoo“? (Exodus 16:15).
While Psalm 78 recounts the story of God’s good provisions for the Israelites during the formative years of their being, it also reminds the reader/hearer of another aspect of God.
God is not only the God of the faithful (God’s followers), but God is the God of all creation. God rained the manna down upon the people in the wilderness by “commanding the skies above” and “opening the doors of heaven” (Psalm 78:23). God directed the quail to them by “causing the east wind to blow in the heavens” and “leading out the south wind” (Psalm 78:26).
Thus, God is the God of creation and of good provision for God’s people. But, the verses following our focus text in Psalm 78 remind us of still another aspect of God.
Psalm 78:29-31 echoes the story of God’s giving of the manna and the quail in the book of Numbers, a story with a very different outcome from the one in Exodus 16. In Numbers 11, the Israelites cried out against Moses, saying, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (Numbers 11:4-6).
God’s good provision of the manna was not enough, so quail arrived at the camp on “a wind from the LORD” (Numbers 11:31). But Numbers 11:33 says, “…the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people,” and the LORD “struck the people with a very great plague.”
The “teaching” of Psalm 78, the teaching to which the faithful should “give ear” (Psalm 78:1), is a teaching of hope in the goodness of God and a warning of the consequences of continual disobedience.
God called our ancestors in the faith out of Egypt into a new life of abundance in the land of promise. The people were called to undertake a difficult journey of faith. When they were afraid, when they despaired, and when they grumbled, God provided. But the story from Numbers tells us God does become angry. What does this mean? Do we worship an angry God?
This author maintains that God gives each of us a path to travel and that God continually provides for our journey. Our choice is to trust God to provide for the journey or to grumble at every turn in the road.
Are we allowed to question, to call God to account and confront God with the hard questions of life? Absolutely. The most frequently-occurring type of psalms in the book of Psalms are the lament psalms, in which singers cry out to God about the injustices, pains, and oppressions of life.
We are allowed to question God and call God to account. But, at some point in the journey we must learn to trust God. God’s ways are not ours; God’s wisdom is not ours.
Ponder the teaching of Asaph, a singer in the courts of David and Solomon. Did David and Solomon learn about trusting God from the stories that were passed down to them, the “parables and dark sayings of old,” those things that “our ancestors have told us” (Psalm 78:2-3)?
I suspect they did, and I suspect we all might learn something about the journey of faith by embracing those stories.