Psalm 78 – Give Ear to My Teaching

Do you see the goodness of God in your life? Psalm 78 juxtaposes the goodness of God with the rebellion of His people. In spite of our constant sinfulness, God remains faithful and gracious.


Psalm 78 is a wisdom psalm that contrasts the wickedness of God's people with His never ending compasion. Throughout this psalm there are repeated cycles of rebellion leading to God's anger leading to God's mercy.

The psalm can be divided into three sections, each with its own meaningful center. Sections two and three also divide into two parts, giving us 5 parts all together.

Section One functions as an introduction reminding us of the goodness of God and His desire that we would set our hope on Him. The meaningful center of Section One reminds us that God demonstrated His kindness to Israel in giving them His law.

He established a testimony in Jacob
and appointed a law in Israel (Psalm 78:5)

Section Two tells the story, found in Exodus 16, of when the Israelites doubted God's ability to provide them meat in the wilderness. Throughout this story we see the rebellion of His people contrasted with the goodness of God. The meaningful center of this section reminds us that even as they tested Him, God provided abundantly.

and he rained down on them manna to eat
and gave them the grain of heaven. (Psalm 78:24)

Section Three reminds us of God's redemption of Israel from Egypt and their continued rebellion. It ends with God, in spite of their rebellion, compassionately selecting a new shepherd to lead them. The meaningful center of this section reminds us of His people's constant rebellion.

Yet they tested and rebelled against the Most High God
and did not keep his testimonies (Psalm 78:56)

The meaningful center of the complete psalm can be found at verse 35. It tells us the purpose of this psalm as whole: that we would remember the goodness of God.

They remembered that God was their rock,
the Most High God their redeemer. (Psalm 78:35)

The Law Established

Psalm 78:1-8

The psalm begins by calling us to listen to his teaching. The psalmist then sets up a beautiful picture of how the truth of God is to be communicated from generation to generation.

Verses 3-4 lay out a simple plan: the parents teach the children so that every generation knows the truth about God. Like so many of God's plans, it is so simple but rarely followed. Too many of us are willing to let other people teach our children about God instead of making sure that we make this our priority. It is not the church's job to teach children about God. It is the parent's job.

What are we to teach? "The glorious deeds of the Lord" (Psalm 78:4). And the meaningful center, Psalm 78:5, of this section tells us the primary deed of the Lord for His people in the Old Testament: the giving of the Law.

Verses 5-6 repeat this simple pattern but take it one step further. The parents teach their children who in turn teach their children. And so, the truth continues into the generations not yet born.

What is the goal of this teaching? Verses 7-8 list four goals:

  1. That they would set their hope in God.
  2. That they would not forget God's works.
  3. That they would obey His commandments.
  4. That they would not be stubborn and rebellion like their fathers.

The Rebellion

Psalm 78:9-22

In the second section the psalmist introduces us to the repeating cycle that happens when people do not learn the above lessons. This section begins with the people of God retreating from the enemy because they refuse to follow God's commandments and no longer trust in Him for protection.

Why do they refuse to obey? Because they have forgotton God's wonders.

What wonders have they forgotten? The dividing of the Red Sea and the water from the rock. God has displayed His power and goodness.

But how do they respond? "Yet they sinned still more" (Psalm 78:17). In spite of God's goodness the people of God continue to rebell.

How does God respond? "Therefore ... He was full of wrath" (Psalm 78:21). And so we see the first example of the cycle.

God is good. His people rebell. God is angry.

I hat to admit it, but I'm afraid I see this cycle sometime in my own life. I see how good God is to me and yet I fail to follow His commands.

Thank God it doesn't end there!


God's Compassion

Psalm 78:23-39

The cycle starts all over again. How good is our God! In spite of our rebellion He continues to display His goodness to us.

In Psalm 78:23 God once again shows His goodness by providing food for His people.

But this time His goodness is mixed with punishment. God cannot let rebellion go unpunished, otherwise He would not be just and we would not learn to turn from sin.

We must always remember that God's goodness may include punishment and discipline. We are His children and we need His loving discipline to learn to obey.

But, "in spite of all this" (Psalm 78:32) they continue to rebell. How often are we like the Israelites? In spite of God's goodness and discipline we go right back to our sinful patterns.

And so, we come to the third cycle and the center of the psalm.

But this cycle starts with what appears to be a change in the cycle: Repentance and remembrance!

"They repented and they sought God earnestly.
They remembered that God was their Rock" (Psalm 78:34-35).

At the very center of the psalm we find the solution to our cycle of sin: to remember God's goodness and repent!

If only the psalm ended here. But in Psalm 78:36 we learn that their repentance was not genuine. Their hearts were still in rebellion.

But once again, even though their repentance was half-hearted, God responds to their rebellion with forgiveness. The central section begins and ends with God's goodness. What an amazing God! His mercy never ends!


Psalm 78:40-55

Why did the Israelites rebel over and over again? Verse 42 tells us "they did not remember His power or the day when He redeemed them". Our rebellion comes from not remembering what God has done for us. The solution to rebellion is keeping our eyes on Christ and His redemptive power!

Verses 43-51 give us a poetic rehearsal of the goodness and power of God in rescuing them from Egypt. In verses 52-55 the story continues with God's miraculous work in leading them to the Promised Land. This section ends with God, pictured as the Great Shepherd, leading His flock to freedom and safety.

A New Shepherd

Psalm 78:56-72

But the psalm is not done yet. We have one final cycle of rebellion. Even after settling in the Promised Land, they rebel again by serving idols.

Their rebellion leads to God's anger and judgement. He punishes them by allowing them to be defeated by their enemies.

But God's mercy never ends! God gives them a new shepherd to lead them: King David.

It is interesting, though, that this section ends, like the last, with a shepherd. But now, instead of God, it is a man. They rejected the Great Shepherd and so they now will be lead by a human shepherd.

Our rebellion always comes with a price. God's mercy does not completely eliminate the consequences of sin. Since Israel had rejected God as their shepherd they would now be lead by flawed human shepherds.


Isn't is good to know that God doesn't give up on us? His compassion is greater than our sin!

Yes, God gave them a human shepherd, but His plan for salvation was not yet complete. David and the kings of Israel were only a short term solution.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd has now come! And in Him we can find complete redemption!

Jerry Wyrick

This post is part of a series on the Psalms.

by Jerry Wyrick, President of Worship Arts Conservatory

Posted in General Worship, Personal Worship, Psalms and tagged , .