This long psalm of Asaph in 72 verses covers many of the high points in the Torah, including the plagues and the exodus, later trials and the calling of King David. We just had some of that a couple of weeks ago in Psalm 114 on the 14th but they are great tales and, as I wrote at some length last week, worth thinking about in depth. In case we missed the point, here the Psalm 78 introductory verses tell us again:
… Recount to generations to come the wonderful deeds and power of God (v. 4)
The lectionary reading spares us the full 72 verses, using only the first four verses in which the psalmist declares the value of telling the stories of the ancestors.
Then we hear in verses 12 to 16 the reminders of the escape through the Red Sea, the guiding pillar of cloud and fire, and the water from the rock.
Imagery is a powerful aspect in the psalms. Scientists have offered various explanations on the Red Sea’s behaviour under Moses’ rod, such as local wind conditions altering the tides in the shallows so that sandbanks were revealed. The psalmist sniffs at that and, whether realistically or impressionistically, writes with bold hand:
God split open the sea and let them pass through; the waters stood up like walls. (v. 18)
The outcome was superb, sings the psalmist. But the Exodus reading gives the full unedifying detail, including the complaints and Moses’ entreaty for guidance when the people were ‘almost ready to stone me’ (Ex. 7).
It looked very much as though the wheels were falling off and there was no Plan B; just follow some sort of wooly pile of cloud and do what that old unelected leader with a stick said. Amazing when you are parched in the desert how quickly you can forget the good times, the miracle of the plagues and the Passover, the sea parting and the fall of the pursuing horse and rider.
This is not intended to encourage blind faith or recklessness. We are responsible for ourselves after all, bearing our own and one another’s burdens; in Sunday’s epistle we read ‘work out your own salvation’ (Phil. 2). A little planning — A, B and perhaps C — is not a bad thing. But then the psalm reminds us to draw guidance from absorbed biblical values. Oh and keep an eye out for those cloudy pillars.
Here are some of the suggested refrains, drawing from verses 1 to 4 of Psalm 78:
- Give your ears to the lessons of the past (Everett)
- We shall listen (TiS 41)
- God has spoken (TiS 636 or PFAS 78c)
- Forget not the works (NCH)