Psalm 78: The old, old stories

‘With upright heart God tended them, guided them.’ (72)

This long psalm of Asaph in 72 verses covers many of the high points in the Torah, including the plagues and the exodus, subsequent trials and the calling of King David, great tales also to be found in Psalm 114 and elsewhere that are worth thinking about. Psalm 78 is a plea, a promise and a pledge to tell the old, old stories — for those who went before us, for ourselves, and for those who will follow.

God … appointed a law in Israel and commanded our ancestors to teach to their children; that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children (5, 6)

Then (12-16) come reminders of the wonderful 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. (18)

Moses strikes the rock, by Arthur Boyd

The image of water gushing from rock in a desert land certainly captures the attention of dwellers in the great dry south land. The outcome was superb, sings the psalmist: 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’. (Exodus 17)

It looked very much as though the wheels were falling off and there was no Plan B; just follow some sort of woolly pile of cloud and do what that old unelected leader with a stick said. Like being surrounded by alligators in the swamp, it’s difficult when you are parched in the desert to focus on 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 and ‘working out your own salvation’. (Galatians 2 and Philippians 2) A little planning is not a bad thing but the psalm reminds us to draw guidance from absorbed biblical values.

Dark sayings

I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known; we will not hide them. (2-4)

Peoples have always valued oral history, ancestral myths, tales from grandfather, and songs learned at mother’s knee. Such tales may recall wise lessons, so they are not always pretty. Stories of folly and failure deserve to be told just as much as the heroic or the parable. The psalms pull no punches, while their poetical commentary helps us lift our vision and hopes.

‘Berliner Mauaer 1961-1989’ on pavements in Berlin. See also Psalm 5

‘Dark’ in some translations is a less malevolent ‘mysterious’. Some stories, like that of the Berlin Wall, an arrogant symbol of human selfishness and intolerance, are both. Soon after the election of John F Kennedy as President of the United States, his first summit meeting with former Allies the Soviets in neutral Vienna went badly. During tense bilateral summit discussions in Vienna, Khrushchev threatened to close access to West Berlin. In response to growing numbers of defections from East to West, The Berlin Wall started going up in the East; the border including the landmark Brandenburg Gate was closed by late 1961.

The wall meandered in and out around the streets and canals. On many streets and pavements its former location is now marked by a double row of cobblestones that appears from nowhere, sometimes close to apartments or open squares, only to disappear again across avenue or canal.

It remained in place, a symbol of the Cold War political, economic and philosophical divide, for 28 years, leading to deaths of many attempting escape and heartache amongst split and bereft families. A protest song West of the Wall (where hearts are free) by Toni Fisher reached No 1 in 1962. Much later (1983) 99 Luftballons followed to become a top hit. These days there is little evidence of the schism, though wartime history is well recorded and honestly displayed. Berlin is a vibrant capital again.

Few sections of the wall are still extant, most reinstated years after being pulled down. Templehof airfield, the hub of the siege-breaking Berlin airlift in 1948, is now a huge, well-used people’s park. Meanwhile, walls are still seen as solutions to inequity in places like Palestine and Mexico.


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). This is enjoyable sung by all the people antiphonally.
  • God has spoken (TiS 636 traditional Hasidic or PFAS 78c)
  • Forget not the works (NCH)
  • Linnea Good suggests this response: “Stay awake, stay awake with me, listen carefully.”
  • A composition by the author , with verses sung to a similar tune but ending on the dominant seventh, has also been used:

Just as historical narrative is a central theme in the psalms, so this psalm is pretty much in the middle of the Psalter, which is surely just one big river of stories, tales, and reflections on the flow of history of people seeking divine blessing.