Psalms Week 6

Reciting, Singing, and Ritualizing God’s Story: Psalms 78 and 136

By Frank Spina, Ph.D.

Seattle Pacific University Professor of Old Testament

Read this week’s Scripture: Psalm 78; Psalm 136


The Christian Bible in general and the Old Testament in particular are dominated by narrative. [Author’s Note 1] In fact, the narrative part of Scripture is foundational in that it contains the story describing the self-disclosure of God through the elect community Israel and in Israel’s messiah/Christ: Jesus of Nazareth, the Risen and Exalted Lord.

This story — sometimes considered Christianity’s meta-story — is summarized in Christian creeds, central to Christian preaching and teaching, reflected in religious art and music, the basis for the Church’s liturgical calendar, and the organizing theme of all Christian thought and theology. In this light, it is only natural to expect to find Psalms that employ their exquisite poetry in the service of Israel’s story. The poetic form of a Psalm is conducive for reciting, singing, choreographing, and ritualizing God’s story as it pertains to Israel. Psalms 78 and 136 are exemplary.

Psalm 78

Agnolo Bronzino, detail, Moses Strikes Water from the Rock
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At the outset of Psalm 78 — a psalm by/to/for/about Asaph (who is otherwise unknown) — its precise purpose is not obvious. The introduction is straightforward. People are encouraged to be attentive to a recounting given by the people’s ancestors and, therefore, familiar (78:1–3). Such a recounting — the subject of which is the Lord’s glorious deeds and performance of wonders — will benefit not only the present but future generations (78:1–4).

So far, so good. But the psalm’s specific purpose emerges in the use of two terms in 78:2. The first word is mashal, which may mean a parable, proverb, or poem. Almost always it connotes some sort of poetic material. This is a word we would expect to introduce a psalm that rehearses how God has acted in and for Israel’s behalf. The parallel word is not quite so innocuous: chidah. To be sure, this term also refers to poetic or proverbial writing, but it has a slightly different nuance. It suggests something enigmatic or perplexing. The word sometimes connotes riddle. In that sense, it has a slightly pejorative nuance. As we shall see, given the progression of Psalm 78, this was the right word to use.

The psalmist gets even more specific when reciting the fact that the Lord established a testimony/law in Israel, complete with instructions for teaching the next generation and all subsequent generations. This recitation is a catechism of sorts, designed to encourage hope in God and religious obedience (78:5–7). But this should not be construed as legalism. Testimony and law as they are used in 78:5 cannot be reduced to rules and regulations. On one level, they refer to the responses God has outlined as a proper response to God’s gracious acts. On another level, they refer to the story that defines God’s people, the liturgy that speaks to their identity, and the devout lifestyle embraced in light of their election and mission. In this light, testimony and law/Torah are comprehensive in outlook.

At this juncture we discover why a word like riddles — RSV’s dark sayings — was used in 78:2. This generation and all future generations need to learn about God’s testimony and law/Torah, so that the present and future will be characterized by heartfelt obedience rather than past stubbornness and rebellion (78:8). In a word, according to this psalm, Israel’s past cannot avoid the charge of gross moral failure in spite of all God has done. This psalm is designed to prevent a recurrence of those sad and unfortunate times. Pointedly, individual Israelites are not in view. This is an accusation about whole generations that were unfaithful.

There is a possibility that, as an individual psalm in its original historical setting, Psalm 78 pitted a disobedient Northern Kingdom (Israel; Ephraim; Jacob) against a chosen and obedient Southern Kingdom (Judah; David) (78:9–10; 60–64; 67–72). But this psalm no longer stands alone. Not only is it now part of the Psalter, but it is situated in a canonical context consisting of the whole Bible. This alters how it is to be read, because the canonical context informs us that both Israel and Judah were eventually exiled by enemies — Assyrians and Babylonians, respectively — as a function of divine judgment (2 Kings 17–25). In addition, the very fact that there were both an Israel and a Judah — instead of one unified elect people Israel — was due to divine judgment (1 Kings 11–12). In the present Psalm 78, therefore, Ephraim represents not only a historical Northern Kingdom but, figuratively, a disobedient Israel — the elect community as a whole. Similarly, Judah stands not just for a historical Southern Kingdom but for an ideal, obedient elect people. The historical context has morphed into a broader canonical context. Psalm 78 has gone from being southern propaganda, as it were, to holy Scripture that informs all of God’s people.

The psalm criticizes the north (i.e., the Ephraimites) for behavior that is too vague to ascertain (Psalm 78:9). However, more important than ascertaining the specific failure, there is no question that ultimately it involved violating God’s covenant/Torah (78:10). Again, this should not be construed as going against some feature of state or international law. As God’s elect people there is nothing worse than falling short of that high calling. The psalmist is calling God’s people to task for nothing less than not living up to precisely that designation.

Master of James IV of Scotland, detail, The Israelites Collecting Manna from Heaven
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What explains this egregious action? According to the psalm, the people suffered from religious amnesia. They forgot what God had done in their behalf (78:11). Israel’s past was not something in which an Israelite might or might not be interested as a matter of intellectual taste or cultural perspective. Its past celebrated nothing less than God’s election, protection, and shaping of the community. These purposeful events had in mind not only Israel but ultimately all others, not to mention the whole created order.

For this reason, the psalmist rehearses what some have called magnalia dei: the mighty acts of God. There are general references to God’s miraculous actions in Egypt (78:12). Particularly, these include Israel’s famous crossing of the sea as the Egyptian army pursued (78:13), leading the people in the wilderness by cloud and light (78:14), and providing water in the wilderness (78:15–16).

But none of these marvelous divine actions seemed to make a difference. Even in the midst of such a stunning display of God’s power, the people sinned (78:17). It was as though God were nowhere to be found. Regardless of what God supplied, the people demanded something else. It was nothing short of outright rebellion and testing God. Instead of becoming confident once God made it possible for them to drink, they immediately groused about being without food (78:18). Israel asked cynically, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness (78:19)?” Even though God had come through with water, the community wanted to know, “Can He also give bread or provide meat … (78:19–20)?” Clearly, the expected answer was a resounding “No!”

Such an impertinent and ungrateful posture on the part of the people would naturally and justly elicit divine disfavor. Lack of trust and unfaithfulness on this scale deserves God’s wrath, which the psalmist avers was forthcoming (78:21–22). It is incomprehensible that God’s people would be religiously bankrupt in the midst of astounding expressions of divine power.

Equally incomprehensible, anger was not God’s final response. The people’s faithlessness notwithstanding, God saw to it that the people had more than enough to eat. The wilderness symbolizes a place of scarcity, danger, and risk.

But God is not intimidated by such an obstacle. [Author’s Note 2] Despite Israel’s deplorable response to God’s mighty and gracious actions in its behalf, God still sees to it that the people have food from a heavenly source (78:23–25). God even provided meat when the people again complained, though in this instance the provision was simultaneously an act of divine generosity and pique (78:27–31). It has become clear in the psalm that this recitation of ancient divine actions puts God in a good light but the people in the shadows. It is a sad lesson when one relates God’s glorious past deeds to prompt a more appropriate response in the present.

The psalmist is unrelenting. Regardless of God’s gracious actions in the people’s behalf, they still sin (78:31). This cycle could not be more vicious. Perversely, it is as though grace induced faithlessness. Naturally, judgment follows, involving even death (78:33). Just as predictably, the people repent as they experience judgment. At least at first, the repentance is sincere (78:34–35). Genuine or not, however, the repentance left much to be desired. The people talked repentance, but did not back it up with actions (78:36–37). Yet God still forgave and withheld ultimate judgment, in part because of a divine perception of the people’s weakness (78:38–39).

Virtually in resignation, the psalmist continues this litany. Israelite sinfulness matched every great deed God accomplished. This was nothing short of rebellion, which tried the patience of the very God without whom the people would not exist (78:40–41). In effect, at this point the psalmist doubles back and lists what God did prior to the miracle at the sea and attending to the people’s needs in the wilderness.

Using the same formula that introduced the prior rehearsal (78:43; see 78:12), the psalmist introduces the sequence of plagues God visited on Egypt. As we remember from the Exodus story, these include turning the rivers into blood (78:44); sending swarms of flies and frogs (78:45); exposing crops to insects, hail, and frost (78:46–47); and devastating livestock with severe weather (78:48). Topping off these horrific displays of destructive power against mighty Egypt, God sent destroying angels against Egypt’s firstborn (78:44–51). God’s sovereign power was more than sufficient against Egypt’s sovereign power. Israel had witnessed all of this.

Again, subsequent to this, God led the people in the wilderness, protected them against enemies, brought them to the sacred mountain (to make a covenant with them), and finally placed them in the land of promise (78:52–55). None of this was done in secret. Israel experienced every iota of God’s largess. All God’s promises were kept.

But it made no difference. God’s mighty works in Egypt, in the wilderness, and in the Promised Land were followed by ingratitude and disobedience (78:56–58). Once more God’s people triggered divine judgment, this time with overtones of exile (78:59–64). The people’s egregious behavior notwithstanding, God remains gracious by turning the tables and defeating the very foes through whom divine judgment had been effected (78:65–66).

In the conclusion of the psalm, the two figures of Israel are juxtaposed. Joseph/Egypt represents (in the present canonical context) an Israel that has failed to live up to its high calling as God’s people. This Israel God rejects (78:67). Judah/Mount Zion represents (in the present canonical context) an abiding Israel presided over by an ideal and upright David (see 2 Samuel 21–24), who takes care of Israel as he once took care of sheep (78:67–72). This Israel God considers an inheritance (78:71). In the messianic age — so Christians maintain — this David will become a new David in the guise of the Son of David, Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ.

Psalm 136

Though Psalm 78 ends on a high note, the psalm as a whole is sobering. In contrast, Psalm 136 sounds only high notes. It is nothing short of a hymn of praise. After every single evocation of God’s mighty works is this refrain: “for His steadfast love endures forever.” No verse lacks it.

The first three verses set the tone. In a triad in which God is slightly more exalted in each statement — the movement is from the Lord, who is good, to the God of gods, to the Lord of lords (136:1–3) — the congregation is invited to give thanks. Being thankful for all of God’s deeds is the theme of the whole psalm.

The first section of the litany of great wonders (136:4) concentrates on God’s creative activity. God made the heavens (136:5), spread out the earth on the waters (136:6), fashioned the great lights (136:7), saw to it that the sun ruled the day while the moon and stars ruled the night (136:8–9). Here we have a veritable poetic rendering of Genesis 1.

In a flash, the psalmist moves from God’s actions in creating the cosmic order to God’s involvement in the epochal events of Israel’s life. God’s rescuing Israel from Egyptian bondage is the first item in this recitation. Though the order does not follow Exodus’, the psalmist touches on the strategic divine actions: dispatching the first-born of Egypt (136:10), bringing Israel out of Egypt’s clutches with a strong hand and an outstretched arm (136:11–12), enabling Israel to go through the sea (136:14), and finally overthrowing Pharaoh himself (136:15). We heard these echoes in Psalm 78, but in this case no judgment of Israel is on the table.

The psalmist continues to celebrate God’s story by recalling leading the people through the wilderness (136:16), rehearsing the defeating of great and famous kings who deployed against God’s people (Sihon and Og are specifically named [see Numbers 21:21–35]) (136:17–20), and finally calling attention to God’s granting of land to Israel (136:21–22).

A more generic enumeration concludes the psalm. God is thanked for remembering Israel in spite of their low status, for keeping them safe from unnamed foes, and for providing sustenance for everyone (136:23–25). Naturally, the last verse is an amen of thanksgiving (136:26).

It is instructive to note that both psalms feature God’s mighty works in general and especially the mighty works in Israel’s behalf. One (Psalm 78) recites these great events as a way of emphasizing Israel’s great sinfulness and God’s even greater graciousness and forgiveness. The other (Psalm 136) takes sheer delight in concentrating solely on God’s activity in a great litany of praise and thanksgiving. Both psalms inform God’s people, and both are appropriate for liturgical expression in the context of worship.

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. Why do you think story or narrative texts are so prevalent in Scripture? What role does remembering and re-telling have in the life of faith?
  2. If you were to write a psalm about your life or the life of your church in the vein of 78 or 136, what are some of the events that you would include and why?
  3. In Psalm 78, Israel is depicted as faithless and disobedient. What is the cause of these behaviors? (Check out 78:10-11 if you’re stuck) What can we do to learn from their negative example?
  4. What is the refrain from Psalm 136, and how is its usage striking?
  5. The Israelites used the psalms and songs as a vehicle for telling their story. How can we in the contemporary church intentionally rehearse and re-tell our story of faith?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

Old Testament: Genesis through 2 Kings; 1–2 Chronicles; Ezra; Nehemiah; Ruth; Daniel; Esther; Jonah. New Testament: Four Gospels; Acts of the Apostles. Even non-narrative sections sometimes have shorter narratives embedded in them (e.g., Isaiah 36–39; parts of Jeremiah).


Author’s Note 2

The wilderness in Scripture is more than a geographical area or a place of limited rainfall. It is symbolically a place where one’s only resource is God. Unfortunately, this is sometimes missed because translators do not always translate desert or wilderness when the Hebrew or Greek words call for such a translation. For example, most of the miraculous feeding stories in the Gospels take place in a desert/wilderness (Matthew 14:13–21; Mark 6:30–44: Luke 9:10–17). Likewise, Jesus is tempted in the wilderness but also miraculously taken care of there (Matthew 4:1–11; Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13).


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Discussion and Comments

One Comment to “Reciting, Singing, and Ritualizing God’s Story: Psalms 78 and 136”

  1. Michelle Couch says:

    Is Psalm 36 used in the traditional Seder celebration/meal in Jewish homes?