Psalm 78 - The Dangers of Ingratitude and Forgetfulness

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We must never forget God's faithfulness or we will be destroyed



It was the American philosopher George Santayana who stated: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The message we can draw from this is clear: If we forget who we were, who God is, and what He done, we are likely to forget His faithfulness. We will fail to acknowledge His goodness, appreciate His grace and love, and follow His holy way. We have the scripture in part so this won’t happen (Rom. 15:4). This is why this psalm was written, to warn the current and future generations(s). Failure to heed these words will result in catastrophe, as it was for those described in this psalm.


Psalm 78 is a historical wisdom psalm. It recalls Israel’s history in Egypt, the wilderness, and in the promised land. It’s purpose seems to be reflection. The writer is drawing attention to Yahweh’s continued faithfulness and Israel corresponding faithlessness. The hope would be for Israel to reflect on what has happened in the past with the goal of learning from previous generations mistakes. We can’t precisely date this psalm. Ranges stretch from the choice of David to rule Israel to the post-exilic period. Scholars more knowledge than I are unable to agree. From my reading and study I think it is earlier describing the time up til the chose of David and Judah/Jerusalem or after the fall of the northern kingdom. In any case, the lesson we can draw don’t change. Persistent faithlessness to our faithful God will inevitably lead to disaster. With that said we can break this psalm up in x parts:
The need to and importance of teaching the next generation (vs. 1 - 8)
Israel’s faithlessness amid God’s deliverance from Egypt (vs. 9 - 16)
Israel’s faithlessness despite God’s faithful provision (vs. 17 - 31)
God’s faithfulness despite Israel’s rebellion (vs. 32 - 39)
Recounting God’s salvation of Israel from Egypt (vs. 40 - 55)
Israel’s rebellion in the promised land brings God’s judgment (vs. 56 - 64)
The rise of David and the choice of Judah / Jerusalem (vs. 65 - 72)


Verses 1 - 8 The psalmist begins by calling his readers to listen and put into practice the instruction he is about to provide. The teaching he is putting forth is not new. Generations past knew of the LORD’s statutes and ordinances. What he knows and understands came from those before him and it is vital for it to be passed to the next generation. They must know of the goodness of God in times past. The praises of God for His marvelous works is to be provided to the next generation so they too may love, serve, and praise Yahweh. The LORD made a covenant with Israel and gave His law to them. These statutes, commands, and ordinances were to be internalized and passed on to the next generation (Deut. 6:4 - 9) so they two would trust in the LORD and continue to past them down. They needed to know both how God had been faithful and how unfaithful their forefathers were. This must be so that they don’t walk in their forefathers errors and incur the same wrath.
Believers in all areas are called to teach in some way. Parents are to teach children (Prov. 22:6, Eph. 6:4). Older mature women are to teach the younger (Titus 2:3-5). Pastors, Elders, and teachers are called to impart wisdom and sound doctrine (Col 1:28, 2 Tim. 2:2). It is vital to pass on and live out the message of the gospel to the current and next generation so that they may come to know, love and serve the LORD.
Verses 9 - 16: The tribe of Ephraim was the strongest tribe in what would later be Northern kingdom and often represented the whole. The men of Ephraim were mighty warrior yet were defeated in battle, probably because of their sin (1 Sam. 4:1-11). It is a constant refrain in the psalms that victory comes from the LORD. If the hand of the LORD is not with His people, because of their failure to obey his law, their efforts are doomed to fail. This is particular troubling in light of what the LORD had done from His people.
Yahweh brought His people out of Egypt with power, mighty signs and wonders. He visibly manifested Himself to them and lead them. He provided them water in the wilderness (Ex. 17:1-7, Num. 20:8-12). Charles Spurgeon put it this way: “And gave them drink as out of the great depths,—as though it gushed from earth's innermost reservoirs. The streams were so fresh, so copious, so constant, that they seemed to well up from the earth's primeval fountains, and to leap at once from "the deep which coucheth beneath." Here was a divine supply for Israel's urgent need, and such an one as ought to have held them for ever in unwavering fidelity to their wonder working God.” [1] Yahweh loved and cared for His people. He was not going to let them perish or be harmed. He had a glorious plan for them. Yet gratitude was lacking in them. They didn’t want to suffer and were mad that they weren’t immediately given a life of comfort.
Grumbling has no place in the life of the believer (1 Cor. 10:8-10, Phil. 2:14). It is an affront to God’s goodness, grace, and mercy. The goodness of God is not manifested in easy living, but growing in grace, holiness, and fear of the LORD. It is shown in His ever present dwelling with us. It is demonstrated in the strength to persevere in tough times. It consists of His love and care, and comfort in every situation.
Verses 17 - 31: Asaph remains us that time after time the goodness and mercy of God was repaid with continued complaints and sin. There are two main problems here: they are ungrateful and they are unbelieving. It’s like the ten signs and the red sea crossing never happened. Over and over again they complained about a lack of food (Ex. 16:3, Num. 11:4; 20:3;21:5, Ps. 23:5) and water. Yahweh responded by giving manna from heaven, and later, quail from the ground. Every home had exactly what was needed to satisfy their stomachs. They also had the judgment of God because they simply refused to trust Him (Num 11:33-34). He gave them over their lusts and allowed destruction to come upon them.
Verses 32 - 39: None of this was good enough for Israel. They still refused to trust God despite all that they saw. They put Him to the test (Deut. 6:16). As a result, the generation that came out of Egypt would die in the wilderness (Num. 14:29;35). Additionally, several times the LORD struck and killed the people (Num. 11:31-36; 16:41-50; 21:6 - 7). From time to time there was repentance (Num. 21:7) but it was never heartfelt repentance because the people continued to rebel. Yet God was faithful. Despite there grumbling Yahweh never utterly destroyed them. He pardoned them many times, such as Num. 14:18-20. He continued to show mercy and provide for them and their children. Yahweh always stayed true to His covenant. Israel was quite a different matter.
Verses 40 - 55: Asaph seems to start things over again, retelling Yahweh’s repeated goodness and Israel’s repeated rebellion. He highlights the 4th, 2nd, 8th, 7th, 5th, and 10th plagues as examples of God’s signs and wonders on behalf of His people. The LORD completely decimated Egypt, bringing His fierce judgment for their wicked treatment of His people. He brought Israel out with plunder and personally guided them. He opened the sea for them and closed it on their enemies. He fulfilled His word to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by bringing their descendants into the land He promised their forefathers. Yahweh drove out the nations and made them unable to stand against His people. The LORD was and always is good to His people. What a great God! Yet it did not matter. This brings us to Israel’s chief sin, highlighted in verse 42: they failed to acknowledge these Yahweh’s powerful acts on their behalf. They set aside the reality of His deliverance of them from Egypt. This is a recipe for disaster. It will ultimately cost them the promised land. The late James Montgomery Boice put it well: “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.”[2]
Verses 56-64: Moses in the law clearly states Israel is not to put Yahweh to the test (Deut. 6:16) and yet they didn’t listen. They took the grace and mercy of their LORD for granted. They acted as if God wasn’t there or wouldn’t care about their adultery against Him. As a result the wrath of God came upon them. Wise are the words of Matthew Henry: “Let not those that receive mercy from God be thereby emboldened to sin, for the mercies they receive will aggravate their sin and hasten the punishment of it”[3] Yahweh response was to give them over to captivity. They would again be the servants of another nation. The land of promise would be controlled by nations other than them. The strong youth and adorned priests both saw death because of the wrath or God (Num. 11:1). When we repeatedly refuse to turn from our sin, we will inevitably receive the payment for our sin. 1 Samuel 4:3-10 tells us the ark of the covenant was lost and the tabernacle abandoned by God. Instead of Ephraim, Yahweh would work through Judah to accomplish His purpose.
Verses 65-72: In spite of Israel’s great and repeated sin, all was not lost. Yahweh would arise and defeat His enemies, He would also transfer leadership to Judah and His dwelling place to Jerusalem. He would take a shepherd, David, out from the sheepfold and into a palace. David was skillful and anointed and would lead the people according to righteousness. Solomon’s magnificent temple would also built there. Yahweh never utterly abandons His people, even with their repeated forsaking of Him.

Practical Application

Paul, in summarizing some of what we described, told the Corinthians these things are to be an example for us (1 Cor. 10:1-11). We have been speaking of the dangers of ingratitude and forgetfulness. These are truly destructive things with eternal consequences. They are also entirely avoidable. This is possible if we daily remind ourselves of God’s goodness and grace. The Father, in Christ, has granted us salvation. It is a gift. The Father and the Son sent the Spirit whom regenerates and conforms us into the image of the Son. He daily hears our prayers and gives us new mercies (Lam. 3:22-23). We have spiritual blessings in Christ Jesus, a relationship with the Father, Son, and Spirit, and the promise of an inheritance. No only this but He who spared not his son shall also freely give us all things (Rom. 8:32). What have not right or reason the be ungrateful and no excuse to forget. Let us strive to what in light of all the Lord has done and with our eyes on the ultimate reward, eternity with Him. We will find no one better and never have any reason to regret.


[1] Charles H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1898), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, Under: "Psalm 78:15"
[2] Boice, J. M. (2005). Psalms 42–106: An Expositional Commentary (p. 649). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
[3] Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (p. 857). Peabody: Hendrickson.
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