The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father Boylan’s Introduction to Psalm 78

Posted by Dim Bulb on July 29, 2012

I’ve appended to the end of this post some suggested commentaries on the Psalms.


It is difficult to say whether this poetical resume of the history of Israel is intended merely for purposes of general edification, or whether it is not, primarily, an explanation of the transference of the religious and political hegemony of Israel from the North (Ephraim) to the South (Juda: Jerusalem). The concluding section of the poem is in favour of the second interpretation. Whatever may have been the immediate purpose of the psalmist, it is evident that this poem is intended to be an instruction, and that in composing it, the psalmist believed himself to be acting in the spirit of Deut 4:9. The failures and sins of earlier generations should be put before the people, that so they may be warned and saved from the punishments which sins on their own part would entail. The very striking dispensation of God which had led to the abandonment of the ancient shrine of Shilo, and the subsequent selection of Jerusalem as the dwelhng-place of the Lord, is particularly considered—since it can be shown to be the result of Ephraimite disloyalty to God. If the psalm were composed after 722 B.C., when the northern kingdom ceased to exist, its reflections on the failure of the North would be more pointed (but the absence of all reference to the separation of the North from the South would be then difficult to explain) . The teaching of the psalm is like that of Psalm 105 and Psalm 106, and it resembles, in many important points, that of Deut 32, of the speech of St. Stephen (Acts 7), and of the discourse of St. Paul at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16-25). The Hebrew prophets frequently used history in a like manner to enforce their teachings: cf. Amos 2:9-12; Hosea 11:1-4; Jer 2:1-8. In verse 2:
the psalm is called a Mashal, and the whole psalm is, more or less, in the style of the Sapiential books. The Hebrew Mashal ( משׂכיל), is often translated as parable. See the footnote to verse 2 of this Psalm in the NAB.

The psalmist regards passages like Deut 4:9; Deut 6:7; Exodus 10:2; Exodus 13:14, as a Torah or ‘Law’ given to the fathers, that their children might be saved from their fate. The reference to the ‘fathers’ gives the poet occasion to review the history of their sins (vv. 8-1 1). The allusion to Ephraim in verse 9, if it is in its proper place, is to be explained by the fact that the rejection of Ephraim forms later the chief theme of the psalm.

In verse 12 and following the theme proper begins. The goodness of God to the Israelites at Zoan (Tanis), and then in the Wilderness is described, the description being based freely on Exodus 13 and following, and Num 20. The Israelites answered God’s goodness with ingratitude and insults (11-20). Water is not enough for them; bread and meat they must have too—not so much, apparently, because they need them, as because they wish to see if God can really satisfy their demands. They are heard and their wish is granted, but it is granted in anger, and their punishment follows immediately. The story of the manna and quails adheres in general closely enough to Exodus 16 and Num 11, but there is a certain amount of poetic freedom. Verse 32 recalls further sins of
disobedience, and verse 33 refers, perhaps, to the incidents in Num 14:20-36. Verses 34-39 strongly remind one of Judges 2:11-19, but there is this difference that Israel’s turning to God is, in the psalm described as hypocrisy—as a deception of God.

In 40-55 the poet is still thinking of the sins of the people in the desert. His further reflection on these sins leads him to recount the wonders in Egypt which had preceded the Exodus. Here again, as before, he treats the text of the Pentateuch with a certain amount of liberty. The plagues of hail and fire he attributes to the work of destroying angels.

In vv. 56-64 he reviews the apostasies of Israel in Canaan. These were punished by the loss of their ‘Might’ and ‘Glory’—the Ark, by the slaughter of their young men, the childlessness of their women, and the death without seemly burial of their priests.

65-72. With the appearance of David God’s anger is stilled, and, like a warrior awakening from deep sleep, God falls on the Philistines, and delivers them over to eternal shame (cf. 1 Sam 5, and the narrative of David’s victories over the Philistines). Through the sins of the Judges’ period Ephraim lost the honour of possessing God’s dwelling at Shilo; and David made Jerusalem the political, and, practically, the religious centre of the nation. Unlike the mere Tent of Shilo the shrine erected at Jerusalem by Solomon is as firm and enduring as heaven and earth. It is interesting to note that the sins of ‘Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin,’ by setting up religious centres in the North in opposition to Jerusalem, are not mentioned in this psalm (see 1 Kings 12-13). The reason, obviously, is that the poet takes his theme altogether from the history of Israel up to the founding of the Temple. There was no need, for his purpose, to refer to any event of Hebrew history after that time.

The structure of the poem is somewhat clumsy; there is much unevenness and some overlapping. Some modern critics regard vv. 40-55 as originally having no connection with the rest of the psalm, but as having formed a portion of a hymn composed after the manner of Exodus 15.

Surveys of Hebrew history similar to that contained in this psalm may be
read in Ps 105Ps 106; Ps 135; Ps 136; Ezekiel 20; Sirach 44-49; Wisdom 10-19 (with some digressions, see the NAB headings); 1 Macc 2:51-60; Hebrews 11.


The Psalms and the Song of Solomon: Navarre Bible Commentary. Designed for study, prayer and meditation.

Volume 1~The Psalms: Old Testament Message. See note on next link.

Volume 2~The Psalms: Old Testament Message. Informative, but the format may not be to everyone’s liking.

Volume 1~Psalms 1-72: Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries. See note on nest link.

Volume 2~Psalms 73-150: Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries. An ecumenical series. The author of these two volumes (see previous link) is Father Richard j. Clifford, a leading authority on the Psalms.

Psalms 1-50~Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. See note on next link.

Psalms 51-150~Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Commentaries garnered from the Early Church Fathers and Medieval writers. An ecumenical endeavor with Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox contributors.

The Psalms Explained. An older work. Presupposes a working knowledge of Latin.

Volume 1: Commentary on the Psalms from Primitive and Medieval Writers. See note on volume 4 below.

Volume 2: Commentary on the Psalms from Primitive and Medieval Writers. See note on volume 4 below.

Volume 3: Commentary on the Psalms from Primitive and Medieval WritersSee note on volume 4 below.

Volume 4: Commentary on the Psalms from Primitive and Medieval Writers. By John Mason Neale, an Anglican scholar of the 19th century.

Singing in the Reign. A thematic and canonical study of the Psalms. The book attempts to “show how the historical hope for the restoration of  the Davidic Kingdom was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus.“

Psalms 1-50~Word Biblical Commentary. See note on next link.

Psalms 51-100~Word Biblical Commentary. See next note.

Psalms 101-150~Word Biblical Commentary. Protestant. Geared towards seminary students and pastors.

Psalms 1-50~Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries. See next note.

Psalms 51-100~Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries. See next note.

Psalms 101-150~Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries. Father Dahood’s famous three volume work is best left to the the scholars.

Psalms: Berit Olam Series. Concerned with the structure of each Psalm and how the content relates to it.

An Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms by St John Fisher. “Translated” into modern English for your convenience. I’ve read some of these expository sermons in the “original” English and it’s not an easy task.

One Response to “Father Boylan’s Introduction to Psalm 78”

  1. […] Father Boylan’s Introduction to Today’s Responsorial (Ps 78). […]

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