Psalms For Life
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Yahveh Elohim hear our prayers

Psalm 78

Those who don’t learn from the past…

How do we maintain hope despite our many failures? This psalm recites Israel’s many sins—so like the Church’s today—but it does so to build up, not destroy, the believers’ hope.

An Asaph psalm.

My people, listen to my teaching
and pay attention to what I say.
2 I’m going to tell you stories
that unspool a riddle from the past
3 about things we’ve long heard and known
from accounts our ancestors passed down to us.
4 We won’t keep them from their descendants.
We’ll sing YHWH’s praises to the next generation
telling of his miraculous power.
5 Because he established laws for Jacob
and entrusted his teachings to Israel
giving our ancestors strict orders
to teach them to their children.
6 So the next generation would learn them
and pass them on to their kids—
children yet unborn—
7 that they too might trust in God
remember his powerful deeds
and keep his commandments
8 unlike their ancestors
a willful and rebellious generation
whose hearts weren’t true to God
and whose spirits were unfaithful.

9 Though armed with bow and arrow
Ephraim’s warriors turned tail
on the day of battle.
10 They didn’t keep God’s covenant
and refused to follow his teachings.
11 They forgot what he’d done
all the miracles he’d shown them.
12 Down in Egypt
on the plains of Zoan
God did miracles in full view of their ancestors.
13 He split the sea in two
and led them through it
piling the water up like a dike
on either side of them.
14 He led them with a cloud by day
a blazing flame by night.
15 He split rocks open in the wilderness
and let them drink deeply
as from an underground sea.
16 He made streams gush out of stone
and pour down in torrents.
17 But in response
they only sinned against him more
defying the Most High in the desert.
18 They deliberately tested God in their hearts
by demanding their favorite food.
19 They railed against him, saying:
“Can God spread a feast for us in the desert?
20 Sure, water poured out in torrents
when he struck the rock.
But can he also give us bread
and serve his people meat?”
21 When YHWH heard this
he was furious and fire blazed against Jacob.
God’s anger flared against Israel
22 because they weren’t willing to trust him—
to believe he’d take care of them.
23 Even so, God ordered the sky above
to open heaven’s portals wide
24 and rain down manna to feed them.
He gave them the bread of heaven:
25 mortals ate food from heaven’s courts
and all they could eat of it too.
26 Then he drove the east wind across the sky
and moved the south wind powerfully too.
27 He rained meat down on them like dust
a flock of birds like sand on the seashore.
28 He brought the birds down
right in the middle of his camp
all around his personal residence.
29 They ate their fill
of the very food they craved.
30 But while they were stuffing their faces—
their mouths still full of food—
31 God’s anger burst out
killing Israel’s finest young men
wiping out the nation’s best and brightest.
32 But despite all this
his people went on sinning.
Despite God’s miracles
they still didn’t trust him.
33 So he made their lives vanish like a breath
and ended their years in terror.
34 Only when he’d killed them
did the rest turn to him for help—
turn and seek him eagerly.
35 They remembered God was their Rock
God Most High their redeemer.
36 But even then
they paid him only lip service
lying to him through their teeth.
37 Their hearts were unfaithful to him
untrue to his covenant.
38 Yet being compassionate
he atoned for their rebellion.
Instead of destroying them
he repeatedly reined in his anger
and held back his wrath.
39 He was mindful of the fact
that they were just mortal
a breath of wind that passes
never to return.

40 How often did they defy God in the wilderness
and grieve him in the wasteland
41 repeatedly testing his patience
provoking the Holy One of Israel.
42 They were oblivious of the power
revealed when he redeemed them from their foes
43 the signs he performed in Egypt
his miracles in the land of Zoan.
44 He turned their river channels into blood
making the water undrinkable.
45 He sent swarms of flies
that ate the Egyptians alive
and frogs that drove them mad.
46 He fed their crops to grasshoppers
their produce to locusts.
47 He blighted their vines with hail
their fig orchards with frost.
48 He surrendered their cattle to hailstorms
their flocks to lightning strikes.
49 He unleashed his burning anger against them—
fury, indignation and distress.
He sent a band of destroying angels among them.
50 He freely vented his anger
not sparing their lives
but letting the plague ravage them.
51 He killed all of Egypt’s firstborn sons
emasculating every man in all the tents of Ham.
52 He led his people out like sheep
herding them like a flock through the wilderness.
53 He led the Israelites to safety
with nothing to fear
while the sea swallowed up their enemies.
54 He brought them to his holy land
the mountain he himself won.
55 He expelled nations before them
and marked out an inheritance
for each of Israel’s tribes to pitch their tents in.
56 But even then
they went on challenging God Most High
refusing to do what he told them.
57 Instead they turned away
and acted treacherously like their ancestors
who were as unreliable as a warped bow.
58 They provoked God with their hilltop shrines
and made him jealous with their idols.
59 Hearing what they were doing
God became furious and
totally rejecting Israel
60 he abandoned his residence at Shiloh
the tabernacle where he lived among humankind.
61 He allowed the seat of his power to be captured
the ark of his glory to fall into enemy hands.
62 He turned his people over to the sword
venting his anger on his inheritance.
63 Fire devoured their young men
so their brides heard no sweet songs.
64 When their priests were felled by the sword
their widows sang no dirges.

65 Then YHWH woke up as if from sleep
and burst out like a wine-inflamed fighter.
66 He beat back his foes
putting them to everlasting disgrace.
67 But he rejected Joseph’s descendants
and overlooked the tribe of Ephraim.
68 He chose the tribe of Judah instead
and Mount Zion, the place he loves.
69 He built his sanctuary there on the heights
established it to stand like the earth, forever.
70 He chose his servant David also
taking him from the sheep pens
71 from tending nursing ewes
to shepherd Jacob his people
Israel his inheritance.
72 David cared for them with selfless devotion
and guided them with knowing hands.

The psalmist takes us around the roller coaster ride of God’s amazing grace and Israel’s entrenched resistance to that grace. God mercifully rescues his people from Egypt, even killing Egypt’s firstborn sons, which Egyptian men take as proof of their manhood. But after God has rescued his people, they become entitled. Despite God’s legendary patience, they’re eventually consumed by the fire of his holiness. When the survivors then merely pretend to seek him and think they can control him, taking the ark of the covenant to battle against his will, God lets their pagan enemies cart it away. This rightly leaves the Israelites devastated, unable even to sing a dirge.

The tragedy ends only when God—jumping up like a startled sleeper or inebriated fighter—defeats Israel’s foes and makes three epic choices that signal a new beginning for God’s people. First, he chooses Judah, not Ephraim, whose warriors had fled from the battle. (Asaph likely writes this after Jeroboam had made Ephraim the northern kingdom’s leading tribe, while Judah dominated the southern kingdom.) Second, God chooses Zion, permanently establishing his house there. Third, he chooses David to shepherd his people.

God’s pain and frustration relate to us today as much as to ancient Israel. Though he still hasn’t given up on us, Jesus weeps over his Church as he once did over Jerusalem because we’re no less blind. The psalm implicitly tells us three things we can do to flourish in his care: reject the idols clamoring for our attention and worship God alone, submit to David’s reigning son, Jesus, and trust and obey him faithfully. The psalm also gives us hope since, apart from his people’s response of faith and submission, God does everything needed to redeem them.

Like the Israelites, I easily slide into presumption and pretense, God. Yet you don’t let go, and the cross proves you’ll withhold nothing that’s for my good. Help me submit to your Son, worship and obey you alone, and hold onto hope both for myself and for your people. Amen.

In your free moments today, meditate on these words, which relate to David’s “greater son” also:

David cared for them with selfless devotion
and guided them with knowing hands.


Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH or YHVH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and sometimes transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Likewise, all modern translations either translate or transliterate it. Some other options for translating it are “the Eternal,” “the Almighty,” or “the Sovereign Lord.”

While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it seems to me more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. This roots it more firmly in the biblical story as the name God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Meaning “the self-existent One who answers to no one,” the name YHWH set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. I’ve chosen to transliterate only YHWH’s consonants since the earliest Hebrew manuscripts contain only consonants, the vowels being added much later. My aim in doing so is to honor God’s name and set it apart, as unique.

One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it out of reverence. (They read Adonai instead whenever they come to YHWH in the text.) I take the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard, who advocated pronouncing it as Yahveh (Yah·vay). He favored that over the standard Yahweh since the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish. It also makes it sound more robust, period.

Finding strength in the ancient psalms

May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.