‘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. 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, 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. However, stories of folly and failure deserve to be told just as much as the heroic or the parable.
I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known; we will not hide them (2-4)
The associated Exodus 17 reading gives the full unedifying detail of Moses and the rock, including the complaints and Moses’ entreaty for guidance when the people were ‘almost ready to stone me’. 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 walking stick said. Like being surrounded by alligators in the swamp, when you are parched in the desert it’s hard 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. A little planning is not a bad thing but the psalm reminds us to draw faith and guidance from absorbed biblical values.
As to these ‘dark sayings’ (‘hard sentences’ in the BCP), previous posts (September 2014 and November 2014) have commented on tales like the the folly of the Berlin Wall. Few sections of this wall are still extant, most having been reinstated years after being unceremoniously pulled down. Meanwhile, however, walls are still seen by some as solutions to inequity in places like Palestine and Mexico.
This song arises twice in the Lectionary within weeks, but that only every three years. Here are some suggested refrains, mainly drawing from verses 1 to 4 of Psalm 78:
Give your ears to the lessons of the past (Everett)
We shall listen (TiS 41). [At SWUC, assured of an interesting and encouraging time together under Roger’s capable leadership, the full gathering will sing this song antiphonally.]
God has spoken (TiS 636 traditional Hasidic or PFAS 78c)
Forget not the works (NCH)
Linnea Good proposes this response: “Stay awake with me, listen carefully.”
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.