A Riddle of Grace (Psalm 78:1–72)

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Psalm 78 is one of the longer psalms in this divine collection. But working through it is worth the labour.

It is not a hard psalm to figure out for, in fact, the theme is pretty apparent to all who will have eyes to see. Its theme is God’s faithfulness in the face of man’s failures; specifically, it is about God’s faithfulness in response to His people’s—old covenant Israel—failures.

And yet, for all of its perspicuity, there is a riddle in this psalm. In fact, it is so described in v. 2: “I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old.” The writer is saying, among other things, that what he is about to write is an enigma. The enigma, the “dark” or “hidden” saying, is the head-scratching that takes place when we honestly consider, first, God’s goodness in the light of our badness, and, second, our badness in the light of God’s goodness.

This psalm helps us to see something of the marvellous grace of God as a means to stir us to goodness as a response to Him. We might put it this way: God’s faithfulness should convict us and motivate us to faithfulness.

We will broadly examine this psalm under three main headings as we seek to unravel the riddle.

The Riddle Introduced

The riddle is introduced in vv. 1–8:

Incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, telling to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and His strength and His wonderful works that He has done. 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; that the generation to come might know them, the children who would be born, that they may arise and declare them to their children, that they may set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments; and may not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation that did not set its heart aright, and whose spirit was not faithful to God.

(Psalm 78:1–8)

Asaph was a contemporary of David (1 Chronicles 25:1; 2 Chronicles 29:30). Perhaps he wrote this upon the coronation of David, or perhaps even towards the end of David’s reign. Verses 68–72 clearly refer to David and it is clear that Asaph is appealing to the people, particularly to a new generation of children, to pay heed to this wise and faithful king. The reasons to do so are delineated throughout vv. 9–64.

Israel had a history of both ingratitude and unbelief. (Indeed, these are two sides of the same coin, as we see in Romans 1:21–25.) The point of this psalm is to exhort the next generation not to allow history to repeat itself. Kidner notes, “This could be subtitled … From Zoan to Zion, for it reviews the turbulent adolescence of Israel from its time of slavery in Egypt to the reign of David…. It is meant to search the conscience: it is history that must not repeat itself.”1 The history of Israel was, for the most part, ugly, marked by unfaithfulness. Their response to God’s miracles, judgements, provision and mercy was, in most cases, further rebellion. The next generation are exhorted to be different. And one way to ensure this was for them to submit to their king, the ruler who was a man after God’s own heart (vv. 70–72).

The key to this opening stanza is in vv. 7–8: “that they may set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments.” He contrasts this appeal with Israel’s forefathers “whose spirit was not faithful to God.” Asaph was deeply concerned that parents instruct their children to supersede the previous generation’s in faithfulness. Negatively, he was burdened that they not be marked by unfaithfulness. And so he writes this psalm to remind them of their national legacy of past failures to motivate them to a future of faithfulness. “The basic lessons involved are to be taught diligently to their children by the fathers lest coming generations continue to make the same mistakes in a wearying and endless round.”2

Their history up to this point could not be unwritten, but their future history could be remarkable.

Parents should learn from this to deliberately and intentionally instruct their children in the law of the Lord (Deuteronomy 6:6–9) and they should do so with the goal of their being more faithful than the current generation. We talk a lot at BBC about being a multigenerational church. I don’t doubt that that will be the case. But my concern is, what kind of multigenerational church? Will it be a more faithful and more fruitful church from generation to generation? That won’t happen by accident. As Derek Kidner comments, “Scripture has no room for parental neutrality.”3 Be deliberate in the training of your children. And, by the way, one way to help them is to be honest about the past failures of the church as well as your personal failures. But then point them in a better direction. Exhort them from the gospel to remember God and to more faithfully and fruitfully serve Him.

The Riddle Illustrated

The bulk of the psalm (vv. 9–64) is taken with illustrating the riddle. This long passage repeats the same theme: God’s goodness and Israel’s badness; God’s faithfulness and Israel’s unfaithfulness; God’s mercy and Israel’s misery; Israel’s guilt and God’s grace.

The passage highlights the history of Israel with reference to the exodus, their wilderness wanderings and their occupation of the Promised Land. The material, at least with particular reference to the exodus, seems to cycle; there is an apparent repetition of the material. Yet Boice makes the convincing argument that this is not a matter of mere repetition but rather it is purposeful in that “its lesson is that history must not repeat itself. The people must never again be unbelieving. But they were, of course, especially when they rejected Jesus Christ.”4

Let’s briefly note some highlights (actually when you consider the theme these are lowlights) of the passage.

The Refusal

The first stanza relates a refusal to obey God:

The children of Ephraim, being armed and carrying bows, turned back in the day of battle. They did not keep the covenant of God; they refused to walk in His law, and forgot His works and His wonders that He had shown them. Marvellous things He did in the sight of their fathers, in the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan. He divided the sea and caused them to pass through; and He made the waters stand up like a heap. In the daytime also He led them with the cloud, and all the night with a light of fire. He split the rocks in the wilderness, and gave them drink in abundance like the depths. He also brought streams out of the rock, and caused waters to run down like rivers.

(Psalm 72:9–16)

Twice this psalm mentions the children of Ephraim, and they are noted in a very negative light. Verse 9 says, “The children of Ephraim, being armed carrying bows, turned back in the day of battle.” The writer does not have a particular axe to grind respecting Ephraim but he does have some particular reasons for mentioning them..

First, this was the largest tribe of the ten northern tribes. Therefore, Ephraim became representative of the whole. Second, the writer will make the point from v. 67 forward that God chose to establish His kingdom in Judah in the south. Therefore, just as Judah was representative of the southern kingdom, so Ephraim was of the northern kingdom. Finally, it was precisely here in Ephraim where Shiloh was at one time located and from which, due to the people’s apostasy, the glory of God departed (1 Samuel 4:21). God would relocate from Shiloh to Jerusalem.

The idea presented symbolically is that Ephraim was given a great privilege and a great responsibility (“armed and carrying bows”), yet rebelled and refused to be covenantally faithful. As both Moses and the author of Hebrews noted, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, for He is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29).

The writer highlights that the Israelites were unfaithful even though the Lord had done marvellous things in delivering them from Egypt. They forgot God’s great redemption and apostasy ran amuck. As Kidner commented, “Here is the crux of the matter, for if redemption itself is forgotten, faith and love will not last long.”5

The writer informs us, in order for us to instruct our children, that the people were guilty of refusing to “walk in His Law” and to remember “His works.” Make no mistake, this forgetfulness was wilful; they were culpable.

We too are often guilty of this. We fail to remember because we refuse to spend time in God’s Law. If we will not spend time in God’s Word then we will forget God’s works. We need to read to listen, for faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.

The Rebellion

Verses 17–31 relate a story of open rebellion:

But they sinned even more against Him by rebelling against the Most High in the wilderness. And they tested God in their heart by asking for the food of their fancy. Yes, they spoke against God: They said, “Can God prepare a table in the wilderness? Behold, He struck the rock, so that the waters gushed out, and the streams overflowed. Can He give bread also? Can He provide meat for His people?” Therefore the LORD heard this and was furious; so a fire was kindled against Jacob, and anger also came up against Israel, because they did not believe in God, and did not trust in His salvation. Yet He had commanded the clouds above, and opened the doors of heaven, had rained down manna on them to eat, and given them of the bread of heaven. Men ate angels’ food; He sent them food to the full. He caused an east wind to blow in the heavens; and by His power He brought in the south wind. He also rained meat on them like the dust, feathered fowl like the sand of the seas; and He let them fall in the midst of their camp, all around their dwellings. So they ate and were well filled, for He gave them their own desire. They were not deprived of their craving; but while their food was still in their mouths, the wrath of God came against them, and slew the stoutest of them, and struck down the choice men of Israel.

(Psalm 78:17–31)

The writer opens this stanza with the words, “But they sinned even more against Him,” and this is the repetitive note in this psalm for it was the repetitive response in the life of the nation of Israel. In spite of God’s mercies, they continued to rebel “against the Most High.”

What should strike us is that this rebellion is in the context of their redemption from Egypt. God had powerfully delivered them and yet almost immediately they forgot this, and the next thing you know they were complaining against Him (“food of their fancy”). They were questioning His ability as they doubted His love and power (vv. 19–20).

Ingratitude and unbelief were the sins of Israel and are the same sins of which we ourselves are all too often guilty. And the cure is remembrance.

My father died recently and, speaking to my mom a few days later, she told me that she planned to write a memoir of God’s hand in his life over the last two weeks of his life. She wants to remember God’s gracious providence, and so she plans to deliberately note it in writing. That’s pretty much what Asaph is saying. We must remember the gospel. We must remember the gospel of God (Romans 1:1). We must remember what God has done to save us.

Boice helpfully writes,

If we forget what it cost God to redeem us from our sins through Jesus’ death, we will not long trust him in life’s trials or love him enough to obey him in times of temptation. The cure is to remember, which is what this psalm is about. We need to remember all that God has done.6

This means, once again, that we must spend time in God’s Word. This will afford us the daily reminder we so desperately need.

God’s Response

In vv. 21–31, we have a historical record of God’s response to such ingratitude and unbelief:

Therefore the LORD heard this and was furious; so a fire was kindled against Jacob, and anger also came up against Israel, because they did not believe in God, and did not trust in His salvation. Yet He had commanded the clouds above, and opened the doors of heaven, had rained down manna on them to eat, and given them of the bread of heaven. Men ate angels’ food; He sent them food to the full. He caused an east wind to blow in the heavens; and by His power He brought in the south wind. He also rained meat on them like the dust, feathered fowl like the sand of the seas; and He let them fall in the midst of their camp, all around their dwellings. So they ate and were well filled, for He gave them their own desire. They were not deprived of their craving; but while their food was still in their mouths, the wrath of God came against them, and slew the stoutest of them, and struck down the choice men of Israel.

(Psalm 78:21–31)

God exercised judgement. Since they would not respond to His mercies, the Lord would get their attention through His wrath (vv. 21, 31).

We would do well to keep before us that God is not to be trifled with. Yes, I understand that there is no condemnation for the believer (Romans 8:1). That is an irrefutable truth. But keep in mind that, according to the biblical record, most of those delivered from Egypt apostatised; they were merely nominal Christians. They were not new covenant people of God. God judged them as He did pagan Egyptians. There are two things we need to note here.

First, the lessons of Psalm 78 are to serve as a sobering exhortation to examine ourselves as to whether we are in the faith. And this is particularly important for children raised in believing homes.

Dangerous False Assumptions

Remember that the primary audience for this psalm is children of God’s covenanted people. Our children need to be exhorted to never assume the gospel. As parents, we should never passively assume that our children are saved, and neither should we passively assume that they will be saved. That leads to sinful and careless and damning presumption.

Though the Bible teaches that raising a godly seed is not a coin toss, on the other hand the Bible does not encourage presumptuous assumption that children of believing parents will be saved. We must guard against apostasy, not only in our lives, but in the lives of our children too. One way to do so is to be honest about the history of apostasy. Warn your children about the potential of becoming like the Israelites; warn them about the damning danger of being a Judas. Such warnings, in fact, as revealed in this psalm, are a means of grace.

Second, the lessons of Psalm 78 are relevant for true believers. Though we have been delivered once for all from the wrath of God, nevertheless, as Hebrews 12 informs us, God does chasten His own. We need to guard our hearts and avoid unnecessary chastening of correction.


Be careful to guard against the sin of ingratitude. Let God define for you what is best. The Israelites asked God for “the food of their fancy” (v. 18) while God considered the food He gave them “angels’ food.” That is, by God’s estimate, this was food fit for angels. Be careful of the ungrateful attitude, “Boy, this is just what I need!”

Ingratitude is the first step towards apostasy. Teach your children to have a gratitude attitude.

Reprehensible Repentance

So how did the children of Ephraim respond to this judgement from God? Not like the children of God, for,

In spite of this they still sinned, and did not believe in His wondrous works. Therefore their days He consumed in futility, and their years in fear. When He slew them, then they sought Him; and they returned and sought earnestly for God. Then they remembered that God was their rock, and the Most High God their Redeemer. Nevertheless they flattered Him with their mouth, and they lied to Him with their tongue; for their heart was not steadfast with Him, nor were they faithful in His covenant. But He, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them. Yes, many a time He turned His anger away, and did not stir up all His wrath; for He remembered that they were but flesh, a breath that passes away and does not come again.

(Psalm 78:32–39)

The writer records that God’s persistent judgement (v. 33) wrought an initial repentance, but it did not last (vv. 34–37). In the words of the apostle, they sorrowed over their sin but it was merely the sorrow of the world (2 Corinthians 7:10). Their repentance was shallow; it was only skin deep. Repentance was mouthed by their lips yet it did not come from their hearts (vv. 36–37). It was “a hypocritical repentance like this must be nauseating to God.”7

Words can be cheap. Be careful. Teach your children the difference between godly sorrow and the sorrow of the world. The one brings life and the other (eternal) death.

A Remarkable Response

The next stanza records God’s remarkable response: “But He, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them. Yes, many a time He turned His anger away, and did not stir up all His wrath; for He remembered that they were but flesh, a breath that passes away and does not come again” (vv. 38–39).

This stanza closes with the record of a great riddle. Though we might full well expect wrath from God, He rather exercised mercy. God once again showed compassion and grace. Leupold notes with gospel insight,

The total impact of the section is quite clear: God was very kind; Israel was most ungrateful. This is certainly one of the difficult riddles of history. It is not the deeds of the Almighty which are so perplexing. It is the attitude and behavior of man that are hard to explain.8

This should not be interpreted as God going soft on sin but rather as evidence of God’s sovereign grace. God was not making excuses for these people (v. 39), rather God was taking into account that man is completely hopeless apart from His grace.

Our children need to learn this lesson. This will not produce a care-free attitude toward sin but rather will humble them as it points them to their need for Christ alone.

Christian, we need this reminder. Our repentance, unless it comes from God, will be useless (see Matthew 9:13; Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25).


In the next stanza we have what appears to be a repetition of what has already been recorded:

How often they provoked Him in the wilderness, and grieved Him in the desert! Yes, again and again they tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel. They did not remember His power: The day when He redeemed them from the enemy, when He worked His signs in Egypt, and His wonders in the field of Zoan; turned their rivers into blood, and their streams, that they could not drink. He sent swarms of flies among them, which devoured them, and frogs, which destroyed them. He also gave their crops to the caterpillar, and their labour to the locust. He destroyed their vines with hail, and their sycamore trees with frost. He also gave up their cattle to the hail, and their flocks to fiery lightning. He cast on them the fierceness of His anger, wrath, indignation, and trouble, by sending angels of destruction among them. He made a path for His anger; He did not spare their soul from death, but gave their life over to the plague, and destroyed all the firstborn in Egypt, the first of their strength in the tents of Ham. But He made His own people go forth like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock; and He led them on safely, so that they did not fear; but the sea overwhelmed their enemies. And He brought them to His holy border, this mountain which His right hand had acquired. He also drove out the nations before them, allotted them an inheritance by survey, and made the tribes of Israel dwell in their tents.

(Psalm 78:40–55)

You will note that we are back in the wilderness (vv. 40–41) and then Asaph recounts God’s powerful actions in Egypt prior to this (vv. 42–51), followed by a reminder of God’s providing their Exodus (vv. 52–53). These are themes which have already been mentioned.

So, why the repetition? Doubtless to drive home the ugly stubbornness of unbelief in order to exhort the children to not let such a wicked history find a repeat in their lives. As Boice comments, “Miracles! Provision! Judgement! Mercy! Four great actions. Yet in spite of them, the outcome was rebellion and unbelief.”6

No doubt, the honesty of the biblical record of biblical history is for our benefit (Romans 15:1–4; 1 Corinthians 10:13). We are to learn from this. As Robert Robinson reminds us in his hymn, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” Is that not the lamentable riddle experienced by every Christian: “Prone to leave the God I love”? Oh, our depravity! Yes, we need these reminders of such a regrettable riddle that we might run to the gospel that is a blessed riddle of grace!

New Lands, New Opportunities

This stanza closes with a reference to the children of Israel being graciously brought into the Promised Land (vv. 54–55). How will they fair? Sadly, we know the answer because we know the record.

Again, Asaph is giving to parents something with which to work. He is highlighting the faithfulness of God who keeps His promises. He wants the next generation to keep theirs. He desires covenantal faithfulness. But it will take more than exhortation; it will require the Shepherd. But first things first.

The Rejection

This stanza climaxes with the utter apostasy of the children of Ephraim in the land of Canaan. And it paves the way for the final stanza (65–72) in which the gospel comes to the rescue.

Yet they tested and provoked the Most High God, and did not keep His testimonies, but turned back and acted unfaithfully like their fathers; they were turned aside like a deceitful bow. For they provoked Him to anger with their high places, and moved Him to jealousy with their carved images. When God heard this, He was furious, and greatly abhorred Israel, so that He forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent He had placed among men, and delivered His strength into captivity, and His glory into the enemy’s hand. He also gave His people over to the sword, and was furious with His inheritance. The fire consumed their young men, and their maidens were not given in marriage. Their priests fell by the sword, and their widows made no lamentation.

(Psalm 78:56–64)

From Bad to Worse

The children of Israel, in the Promised Land of Canaan, turned to idolatry. Whereas the former sins were characterised as ungratefulness and complaint now “the characteristic sin is no longer discontent but idolatry.”10 Though they had committed this sin earlier (e.g. Exodus 32), in Canaan idolatry would eventually become a way of life.

The result was that God “greatly abhorred Israel” (v. 59), so much so that He would remove Himself from their midst. In association with the death of Eli, the glory departed (1 Samuel 4). Israel’s sin has grown from bad to worse. In fact, it has become so bad that God’s patience has run out and He will once and for all reject the northern kingdom, the children of Ephraim. Boice helpfully summarises why there has been so much repetition in this psalm, culminating in this passage:

The second half of the psalm is not just a repetition of part one. It repeats the same great themes, but the themes intensify. On the one hand, ingratitude and rebellion lead to outright apostasy. On the other, the anger of God leads to the rejection of the northern kingdom. It is always that way. One sin leads to another, hearts harden, and the end is death and damnation.7

We must learn from this dismal history that sin is no light or laughing matter. We must do all we can to guard our children from becoming like the children of Ephraim. Heed the words of John: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:19).

The Riddle Illuminated

Asaph concludes his history lesson with a brief account of God’s rejection of the northern kingdom in favour of the southern kingdom. And with this the riddle now begins to make sense.

Then the Lord awoke as from sleep, like a mighty man who shouts because of wine. And He beat back His enemies; He put them to a perpetual reproach. Moreover He rejected the tent of Joseph, and did not choose the tribe of Ephraim, but chose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion which He loved. And He built His sanctuary like the heights, like the earth which He has established forever. He also chose David His servant, and took him from the sheepfolds; from following the ewes that had young He brought him, to shepherd Jacob His people, and Israel His inheritance. So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them by the skillfulness of his hands.

(Psalm 78:65–72)

We are told that the “Lord awoke as from sleep,” implying that the Lord was going to actively put something into place. It is not as though the Lord was twiddling His thumbs for centuries as Israel rebelled, but rather He was waiting for the appropriate time, for a fullness of time to begin the next phase of His plan of grace.

God chose Judah as the nation through which He would now fulfil His plan. And He chose David to at the head of this phase of the plan. Let me explain.

God had always planned to bring His Son, the seed of the woman, the Saviour of the world, through the nation of Israel (Genesis 12). But with the apostasy of Ephraim and her judgement by the Assyrian captivity, this might seem to an onlooker as hopeless.

But the Lord was faithful, and these verses highlight this truth once again. He works, not according to our demerit, but rather according to His sovereign grace. “He chose ‘Mount Zion,’ a stronghold still in enemy hands (2 Sa. 5:6f); and to capture it and reign there He took a ‘shepherd’ from the flock. In all this the only motivation which is mentioned is the phrase ‘Mount Zion, which he loves.’”10

In Asaph’s day, the Lord was obviously working His plan through the southern kingdom with David as His appointed king. I don’t know all that Asaph knew, but I do know, even if he did not, that this passage actually points to one who is greater—far greater than David. It points to the Son of David, the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1).

Now it is true that Asaph’s purpose was to encourage the next generation to faithfully submit to this man after God’s own heart. And if they did so then they would avoid the apostasy of previous generations. Stier captures this well, “Therefore serve this king whom God has faithfully given you (David); gather under the staff of this shepherd at the sanctuary of Zion, and do not again become unfaithful as your fathers did. This is the fundamental and final note of the whole psalm.”13 There is a lesson for us here: Teach your children to respect God’s authorities in their lives. Teach them particularly to respect and to follow God’s appointed shepherds in their lives. Make sure they have the right heroes.

What I find very instructive is what historically followed on the heels of vv. 70–72. We are told that David shepherded God’s people “according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands.” That is wonderful. And yet that is not the end of the story. For David’s history includes the ugliness of 2 Samuel 11. David trespassed all the Ten Commandments. For a time, he departed from the law of God; just like his forefathers (vv. 7–8). David ultimately failed as a Shepherd. They, and we, would need a greater one. And we have one!

As we reflect on this psalm, we are amazed at God’s patience in the light of man’s sinfulness. And that is precisely the point. This “riddle” of sin and judgement and mercy points us to the gospel of grace, which solves the conundrum. The gospel in fact is the only message that makes sense of this world and of our lives. Though it is true that we will forever scratch our heads in amazement at the gospel, at the same time the gospel gives us reason to hope in the midst of a sin-cursed world and even in the midst of our lives which seem so filled with sinful failures. Because of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of our Chief Shepherd we can persevere in faithfulness. And to the degree that the next generation is better grounded in the gospel, the people of God can indeed go from strength to strength. Kidner summarises this psalm beautifully when he writes, “If Israel’s record is her shame, God’s persistent goodness emerges as her hope (and ours) for the unfinished story.”14

Christian, we are blessed to be led by the perfect Shepherd, who will guide us according to the sinless integrity of His heart and by the infallible skilfulness of His hands. So listen, learn and live in accordance with God’s Final Word, God’s Son, our Shepherd King. There is no riddled in that.

Show 14 footnotes

  1. Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 2:281.
  2. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 564.
  3. Kidner, Psalms, 2:281.
  4. James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:645.
  5. Kidner, Psalms, 2:284.
  6. Boice, Psalms, 2:649.
  7. Boice, Psalms, 2:650.
  8. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 567.
  9. Boice, Psalms, 2:649.
  10. Kidner, Psalms, 2:285.
  11. Boice, Psalms, 2:650.
  12. Kidner, Psalms, 2:285.
  13. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 562.
  14. Kidner, Psalms, 2:286.