Psalm 78


This psalm is a psalm of Asaph and he begins by telling us about the history of Israel being delivered from the Egyptians up to the point in history where the first kings were appointed over the nation.

This psalm is the second longest psalm we find within the book, Psalm 119, is longer, but this psalm is the longest of the historical psalms.


‘A maskil of Asaph’.

Although the headings aren’t inspired by God, they are important because they give us some understanding about the Psalm and they help us to see why it was written. The headings usually tell us four things.

1. Who wrote them, probably wrote them or possibly wrote them.

2. Information about the historical background to the Psalm. Why it was written.

3. They tell us of the tune the Psalm was written to.

4. How it was used.

No one really knows what the word ‘maskil’ means, some believe it’s a musical term or a literary term. The word is used thirteen times throughout the Psalms, Psalm 32 / Psalm 42 / Psalm 44 / Psalm 45 / Psalm 52 / Psalm 53 / Psalm 54 / Psalm 55 / Psalm 74 / Psalm 78 / Psalm 88 / Psalm 89 / Psalm 142. The word is also used in Amos 5:13.

Asaph was the singer and musician during the reign of David and Solomon, 1 Chronicles 15:17-19 / 1 Chronicles 16:5-7 / 1 Chronicles 25:6. 1 Chronicles 25:1 and 2 Chronicles 29:30 tells us that Asaph was a prophet in his musical compositions.

‘My people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old—things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done. He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands. They would not be like their ancestors—a stubborn and rebellious generation, whose hearts were not loyal to God, whose spirits were not faithful to him.’ Psalm 78:1-8

In order to prevent apostasy in the future, Asaph calls upon the fathers of Israel to listen to his teaching and word, Psalm 5:1. He is going to speak to them in the form of a parable, and the parable will give them an example of the fathers who didn’t teach their children.

The ‘hidden things’ or ‘dark sayings’ as the KJV renders it, Psalm 49:4, implies that the teaching was going to be direct, Matthew 13:34-35. Asaph is speaking about the wondrous works and commandments of God.

In the Old Testament, God ‘established a law,’ which says that the testimonies should be preserved and taught to their children and their children’s children, Exodus 25:16 / Exodus 25:21 / Deuteronomy 4:9 / Deuteronomy 6:7 / Deuteronomy 11:19-19 / Psalm 71:18.

Israel’s ancestors were ‘stubborn and rebellious’, especially in the wilderness, as they passed through it to the Promised Land, Exodus 32:7-9 / Exodus 33:3 / Exodus 34:9 / Acts 7:51-53.

One difference between Israel and the nations that surrounded then was the fact that Israel’s law originated with God, while the laws of the surrounding nations originated in their own minds.

The problem was Israel started to move away from God’s laws and begun to embrace the laws of those surrounding nations. The result of this was apostasy, they left God and forsook His commands and they became so much like the surrounding nations, people couldn’t tell the difference between God’s people and anyone else.

‘The men of Ephraim, though armed with bows, turned back on the day of battle; they did not keep God’s covenant and refused to live by his law. They forgot what he had done, the wonders he had shown them. He did miracles in the sight of their ancestors in the land of Egypt, in the region of Zoan. He divided the sea and led them through; he made the water stand up like a wall. He guided them with the cloud by day and with light from the fire all night. He split the rocks in the wilderness and gave them water as abundant as the seas; he brought streams out of a rocky crag and made water flow down like rivers.’ Psalm 78:9-16

Asaph now speaks about Ephraim who was the younger of the two sons of Joseph, Genesis 48:8-20. He, as his brother Manasseh were chosen to be the father of two tribes of Israel, Isaiah 7:2 / Isaiah 7:5 / Isaiah 7:8-9 / Isaiah 7:17 / Isaiah 11:13 / Isaiah 28:1.

It was Ephraim who eventually led of the northern kingdom into apostasy, which eventually led to the northern tribes being taken into exile by the Assyrians.

Asaph tells us that they went into exile because they cowardly turned their backs in battle and they didn’t keep the covenant of God, Deuteronomy 4:13 / Deuteronomy 4:23 / Deuteronomy 17:2. They also refused to be obedient to the law of God, and they forgot the wonders of God’s work throughout their history.

Asaph also tells us they forgot all about the miraculous plagues of God that He brought on Egypt, Exodus 5:1-12:31. They forgot all about how God dividing the Red Sea in order to free Israel from Egyptian captivity, Exodus 14:15-22.

They forgot all about how God led them with a cloud and fire, while they were in the wilderness, Exodus 13:21-22. They forgot all about how God have them water to drink from a rock, Exodus 17:1-6 / Numbers 20:7-11 / 1 Corinthians 10:4.

‘But they continued to sin against him, rebelling in the wilderness against the Most High. They wilfully put God to the test by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God; they said, “Can God really spread a table in the wilderness? True, he struck the rock, and water gushed out, streams flowed abundantly, but can he also give us bread? Can he supply meat for his people?” When the LORD heard them, he was furious; his fire broke out against Jacob, and his wrath rose against Israel, for they did not believe in God or trust in his deliverance. Yet he gave a command to the skies above and opened the doors of the heavens; he rained down manna for the people to eat, he gave them the grain of heaven. Human beings ate the bread of angels; he sent them all the food they could eat. He let loose the east wind from the heavens and by his power made the south wind blow. He rained meat down on them like dust, birds like sand on the seashore. He made them come down inside their camp, all around their tents. They ate till they were gorged—he had given them what they craved. But before they turned from what they craved, even while the food was still in their mouths, God’s anger rose against them; he put to death the sturdiest among them, cutting down the young men of Israel. In spite of all this, they kept on sinning; in spite of his wonders, they did not believe. So he ended their days in futility and their years in terror. Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer. But then they would flatter him with their mouths, lying to him with their tongues; their hearts were not loyal to him, they were not faithful to his covenant. Yet he was merciful; he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return.’ Psalm 78:17-39

Asaph not reminds the father of how God was very patient with Israel from the time they left Egypt until they got to the Promised Land. It was during this time that they really tested God’s patience, Exodus 16:2. It was during this time they moaned and spoke against God about their food, Numbers 11:4.

God heard them moaning and became furious with them, and was ready to unleash His wrath upon them, Numbers 11:1 / Numbers 11:10. However, God in His patience, heard them moaning but still supplied manna and quail, Exodus 16:4-5 / Exodus 16:14 / Exodus 16:31 / Numbers 11:7-9 / Numbers 11:31-32 / John 6:31.

Notice Asaph calls the bread, ‘the bread of angels’, remember, angels are spiritual beings so they don’t eat bread as we do. He’s saying that the bread miraculously came from heaven.

The word ‘angels’ can also mean ‘strong or mighty’ and it can be applied in general to people, Judges 5:22 / Lamentations 1:15 / Job 24:22 / Jeremiah 46:15.

Just as God miraculously supplied the quail, He miraculously drove them away by causing an east wind to blow them into the sea, Numbers 11:31. There was so much meat, it was like the sand on the seashore, that is, there was an abundance of food for Israel to eat, Genesis 22:17 / Genesis 32:12 / Genesis 41:49 / Joshua 11:4 / 1 Samuel 13:5 / Revelation 20:8.

Israel was still not satisfied and so God’s anger rose against them, Numbers 11:33. Despite a number of Israelites being killed by God, despite all the wonderous deeds God had done among them, they continued to sin and they refused to believe, Psalm 78:22-23 / John 12:37.

Israel had so many trials as a result of their unbelief throughout the 40 years of wilderness wanderings that the people referred to the time in the wilderness as ‘years of terror’.

It appears that every time God struck out against them, they would turn back to God but after a while they would turn away from Him again.

However, Israel remembered that God is their Rock, Deuteronomy 32:4 / Deuteronomy 32:15 / Deuteronomy 32:31 / Psalm 18:2. When they did remember that God was their Rock, it appears to help them think about their security and how they can only really trust God and not themselves.

They also remembered that God Most High was their Redeemer, Psalm 25:22 / Job 5:20 / Isaiah 41:14 / Isaiah 43:14 / Isaiah 44:6 / Isaiah 44:24 / Isaiah 47:4 / Isaiah 59:20. They remembered that it was God who delivered them form Egyptian bondage and gave them their freedom.

Despite remembering who God was and what He had done for them, they still tried to flatter God and they lied to God. Asaph tells us that Israel’s heart wasn’t loyal to God, they weren’t faithful to His covenant. This tells us that Israel was caught up in a cycle of sin, as God has to discipline them over and over again.

Every time God showed them mercy and forgave their sins, they would obey for a little while and then turn their back on Him again. This tells us when Israel confessed their sins and repentant of their sins, they weren’t sincere, they were expressing worldly sorrow, 2 Corinthians 7:10.

God knew that Israel was composed of men whose lives were but a breath of existence on earth and so, because of this, He had compassion on them nationally because individual generations came and went. He didn’t hold the nation of Israel responsible for the rebellion of any one generation that went into apostasy.

Though the children reaped the consequences of their sinful fathers, each generation of the children was responsible for itself, Ezekiel 18:20.

‘How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the wasteland! Again and again they put God to the test; they vexed the Holy One of Israel. They did not remember his power—the day he redeemed them from the oppressor, the day he displayed his signs in Egypt, his wonders in the region of Zoan. He turned their river into blood; they could not drink from their streams. He sent swarms of flies that devoured them, and frogs that devastated them. He gave their crops to the grasshopper, their produce to the locust. He destroyed their vines with hail and their sycamore-figs with sleet. He gave over their cattle to the hail, their livestock to bolts of lightning. He unleashed against them his hot anger, his wrath, indignation and hostility—a band of destroying angels. He prepared a path for his anger; he did not spare them from death but gave them over to the plague. He struck down all the firstborn of Egypt, the firstfruits of manhood in the tents of Ham. But he brought his people out like a flock; he led them like sheep through the wilderness. He guided them safely, so they were unafraid; but the sea engulfed their enemies.’ Psalm 78:40-53

Israel, over and over again rebelled against God, they grieved Him, they tested Him, they vexed Him when they were in the wilderness. They totally forgot about how God displayed His miraculous power in bringing them out of Egypt.

They should have learned that God is all-powerful, they should have learned that God was the One who protected them. They should have learned that God is Who He claimed to be through the wonders He did in Zoan, Psalm 78:12.

In Egypt, God turned the water into blood, Exodus 7:20. God sent swarms of flies, Exodus 8:24, and sent frogs, Exodus 8:6. God sent grasshoppers to destroy the crops, Exodus 10:12-14, and locusts to destroy the produce, Exodus 10:1-20 / 1 Kings 8:37 / 2 Chronicles 6:28 / Isaiah 33:4 / Joel 1:4 / Joel 2:25. God sent hail to destroy the vines, Exodus 9:22-26, and cattle with lightening, Exodus 9:22-25.

Notice that God sent ‘a band of destroying angels’, or ‘evil angels’ or ‘destroying angels’ as some translations render it. Many commentators believe this is referring to the killing of the firstborn, however, there is a problem with this interpretation.

Matthew Poole, in his commentary says the following.

‘By sending evil angels, the sending, or the operation or effects of evil angels, or of the angels or messengers of evil things, either of the angels whom God employed in producing these plagues, or of Moses and Aaron, who were to the Egyptians messengers of evil, and by whom these judgments were sent to and inflicted upon them.’

I personally believe what Poole says, that this is a reference to Moses and Arron being messengers of God. It doesn’t relate to the killing of the firstborn for three reasons.

1. In the context of the psalm, Asaph is still speaking about the plagues not the killing of the firstborn.

2. Asaph himself tells us that ‘He’, that is God, ‘struck down all the firstborn of Egypt’, in the very next verse.

3. The Exodus account clearly tells us that it was God Himself who would go through and went through Egypt, killing the firstborn, not an angel or a band of angels, Exodus 11:4-5 / Exodus 12:29-30.

The ‘the tents of Ham’ is the dwelling place of Ham, which were located in Egypt, Genesis 10:6 / Psalm 105:23 / Psalm 105:27 / Psalm 106:22.

God brought His people out of Egypt like a flock, meaning God was their shepherd. God protected them, He led them and provided for them, Psalm 23:1-2. God guided them safely, and they weren’t afraid, despite the sea engulfing the Egyptians, Exodus 14:27-28 / Exodus 15:10.

Asaph is telling the fathers that Israel had no excuse for not keeping their faith in God, they knew God existed, they knew all the miraculous wonders He performed in Egypt and they knew God was working directly in their lives.

‘And so he brought them to the border of his holy land, to the hill country his right hand had taken. He drove out nations before them and allotted their lands to them as an inheritance; he settled the tribes of Israel in their homes. But they put God to the test and rebelled against the Most High; they did not keep his statutes. Like their ancestors they were disloyal and faithless, as unreliable as a faulty bow. They angered him with their high places; they aroused his jealousy with their idols. When God heard them, he was furious; he rejected Israel completely. He abandoned the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent he had set up among humans. He sent the ark of his might into captivity, his splendour into the hands of the enemy. He gave his people over to the sword; he was furious with his inheritance. Fire consumed their young men, and their young women had no wedding songs; their priests were put to the sword, and their widows could not weep.’ Psalm 78:54-64

Asaph tells the fathers, that God brought their ancestors to His holy border, that is, the border of the Promised Land. God also drove out the many Canaanite nations before them and He allotted their lands as an inheritance, Joshua 13:7 / Joshua 18 / Joshua 19. It would have been impossible for Israel to secure the land if God didn’t work through the Israelite soldiers.

After they settled in the Promised Land, Israel’s cycle of sin continued, they tested God, rebelled against Him, and didn’t keep His statutes. Judges 2:10-13. They were disloyal, faithless and as unreliable as faulty bow, Hosea 7:16.

Their idolatrous actions, made God angry and jealous, they worshipped idols in the high places, Leviticus 26:30 / 1 Kings 3:2 / 1 Kings 12:31-32 / 2 Kings 17:32 / 2 Chronicles 33:17.

As a result of their idolatry, God was furious and rejected Israel completely. They committed spiritual adultery by giving honour to other gods, which gods they had created after their own image. For this reason God rejected them and gave them up for captivity, 1 Samuel 15:23 / Hosea 4:6. He also abandoned the tabernacle of Shiloh.

Barnes, in his commentary says the following.

‘The ark of God remained at Shiloh for many years after it came into the Promised Land, Joshua 18:1 / Judges 18:31 / Judges 21:12 / Judges 21:19 / 1 Samuel 1:3 / 1 Samuel 1:24 / 1 Samuel 2:14 / 1 Samuel 4:3-4. The ark, after it was taken by the Philistines, 1 Samuel 4, was never returned to Shiloh, but was deposited successively at Nob, 1 Samuel 21:1-6, and at Gibeon, 1 Kings 3:4, until David pitched a tabernacle for it on Mount Zion, 1 Chronicles 15:1. The meaning here is, that in consequence of the sins of the people, the place of worship was finally and forever removed from the tribe of Ephraim, within whose limits Shiloh was, to the tribe of Judah, and to Mount Zion.’

It was God who sent ‘the ark of his might into captivity’, this is referring to the time when the Philistines overran the tabernacle, killed the priests, and captured the ark of the covenant, 1 Samuel 4:3-11.

When the ark was taken thirty thousand of God’s people died by the sword, 1 Samuel 4:10-22. The ark represented the presence of God among His people, and so when the ark was removed, God’s presence was removed from among them, 1 Samuel 4:20-22.

Their young women had no wedding songs, Jeremiah 7:34 / Jeremiah 16:9 / Jeremiah 25:10, that is, there were no marriage celebrations, because the men were at war, Isaiah 4:1 / Jeremiah 31:22.

The priests were put to the sword, that is, the were killed in the war, 1 Samuel 4:11. Their widows didn’t weep, that is, they couldn’t publicly mourn for their husbands who had been killed in the war because it was too dangerous to do so, Job 27:15.

‘Then the Lord awoke as from sleep, as a warrior wakes from the stupor of wine. He beat back his enemies; he put them to everlasting shame. Then he rejected the tents of Joseph, he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim; but he chose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion, which he loved. He built his sanctuary like the heights, like the earth that he established forever. He chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel his inheritance. And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skilful hands he led them.’ Psalm 78:65-72

Asaph tells us that the Lord awoke as from a sleep, this probably refers to the time of David’s victories, 1 Samuel 5 and Solomon’s peace. This was a time when God intervened in order to spare Israel and bring them to their greatest days of glory during the reign of Solomon.

It was during this time he rejected the tents of Joseph and didn’t choose the tribe of Ephraim but chose the tribe of Judah. He chose David of the tribe of Judah as ruler and king, He chose a place within the limits of Judah, that is Mount Zion, as the place where His worship was to be celebrated, which fulfilled the prophecy of Jacob concerning Judah, Genesis 49:8-10.

God chose David his servant, 1 Samuel 16:11 / 2 Samuel 7:8, the shepherd boy who would shepherd Jacob His people and Israel His inheritance. He would shepherd them with integrity and lead them skilfully, Psalm 137:5 / Psalm 144:1. David truly was a man after God’s own heart, 1 Samuel 13:14 / Acts 13:22.


Within Asaph’s talk to the fathers, he spoke about ‘a band of destroying angels’, which many people believe refers to them killing the first born of Egypt. They believe that these ‘destroying angels’ are also called ‘angels of death’.

It may come as a surprise to some that there is no such angel mentioned in the Scriptures and the Scriptures no-where describes any of God’s angels as an ‘angel of death’ or ‘the death angel.’

There are a few Bible references which people use to back up their claim that there is ‘an angel of death’, the main example given for proof of an ‘angel of death’ is found in Exodus when the final plague came upon Egypt, where the firstborn sons of the Egyptians would die, Exodus 11:4-5 / Exodus 12:29.

After a careful reading of these passages you will notice there is no mention of any angel, never mind any mention of an ‘angel of death’ and if you read them carefully you can’t miss the fact that it’s God Himself, who carries out this judgement. The text says, ‘I (God) will go out’, ‘The Lord Stuck down’.

Another example that people use to claim that the ‘angel of death’ exists is found over in 2 Kings19:35. Again, we don’t need to be a Bible scholar to read that this text clearly tells us ‘the angel of the Lord’ carried out this act, but notice, there is no mention of the phrase, ‘angel of death’.

Another example that people use to claim that the ‘angel of death’ exists is found over in 2 Samuel 24:15-16. As with the other text, we see here that it is ‘the angel of the LORD’ which causes all these deaths, but nowhere is this angel ever called ‘the angel of death’.

If we’re going to uses ‘phrases’, let’s use Biblical phrases, not phrases which are completely misleading, and unscriptural. Someone once said, ‘let’s call Bible things by Bible names’.

Go To Psalm 79


"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit."

Romans 15:13