It would be easy to look at Psalm 78 as merely one where Asaph seeks to re-tell the stories of old, of God’s wonderful and amazing works, to remind us of the powerful and sovereign Lord in whom we place our trust.
Yet, that is not the sole, let alone primary, purpose of the Psalm.
Consider the story of Rahab in Joshua 2: she knew that the Lord has given the Israelites the land of Canaan, that the fear of the Israelites had fallen upon them, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before them. They heard of his wonderful works; of how He parted the Red Sea; of how the two kings of the Amorites were destroyed.
That is the purpose of the Psalm – to tell of the world around, and the coming generations of the Israelites, that His works and love will be everlasting. V 4 – we are told not to hide them from our children, but tell it to the coming generation, the glorious deeds of the LORD.
Is this not our duty, that the Lord’s word, work, and miracles in our lives are shared not only with our peers but with the next generation? What will help them endure? The “law”? The Scriptures? No — those alone will not be enough. What will help them endure is the glorious deeds of God.
The irony is that the present generation of Christians look to the stories of old – and only that. By that, I mean only the stories of Scripture – of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Familiarity with those stories, however, should not corner oneself into only looking to those stories as the source of our strength and hope. That is because we are called to share the Lord’s works in our lives now as well. Note that the law is a result of His works, the law in itself is not the Lord’s glory. Vv. 5-6 say as much: the next generation might know the law, so that they will not forget the works of God.
How can one remember the Lord simply by following the law? Instead, the law highlights our sins — if not for the law, we would not even be aware of our sins! (see Romans 7) Rather, the law points us towards His works, not our works. By keeping these commandments, we are constantly reminded that we are sinful creatures in need of His grace, that we are entirely incapable of redeeming ourselves (see Hebrews 10:1-18). By failing to keep the law (v.8) as the previous generations did, Asaph is highlighting that these people consider themselves above it i.e. they consider they could walk their lives without remembering or pinning their hopes on the Lord’s works and grace.
Then come the various sections of this Psalm which recount: (i) the Ephraimites who refused to walk according to His law, forgot His works and wonders, despite having witnessed the miracles during the times of Moses (vv 9-66). There, the sequence is as follows: the Lord would perform a wondrous deed, and the Ephraimites would sin still more against Him, would keep testing Him in their heart, demanding more and more, despite the Lord continually feeding their desires. This cycle continues throughout the chapter until the climax at v 67. He rejected the tent of Joseph.
What does this mean?
Spurgeon says this about vv 67-68:
God had honoured Ephraim, for to that tribe belonged Joshua the great conqueror, and Gideon the great judge, and within its borders was Shiloh the place of the ark and the sanctuary; but now the Lord would change all this and set up other rulers. He would no longer leave matters to the leadership of Ephraim, since that tribe had been tried and found wanting. And chose not the tribe of Ephraim. Sin had been found in them, folly and instability, and therefore they were set aside as unfit to lead.
To give the nation another trial this tribe was elected to supremacy. This was according to Jacob’s dying prophecy. Our Lord sprang out of Judah, and he it is whom his brethren shall praise. The Mount Zion which he loved. The tabernacle and ark were removed to Zion during the reign of David; no honour was left to the wayward Ephraimites. Hard by this mountain the Father of the Faithful had offered up his only son, and there in future days the great gatherings of his chosen seed would be, and therefore Zion is said to be lovely unto God.
There are serious implications here. Genesis 48:20 recounts how Jacob had deliberately blessed Ephraim (the younger) over Manasseh (the firstborn). This had displeased Joseph, and Jacob deliberately pressed ahead with this form of blessing (Genesis 48:17-19). The reason that Jacob gave, was that Ephraim “shall be greater than he [i.e. Manasseh] and his offspring shall become a multitude [also translated as “fullness”] of nations.” Given this significant blessing over Ephraim, this begs the question, why then did the scepter/ruler’s staff never depart from Judah, as prophesied later on in Genesis 49:10?
It would seem to be the case that Ephraim was destined to be a significant physical representation of Israel. Ezekiel 37:16 and Hosea 5:3 typically refers to Ephraim as the ten tribes comprising Israel’s Northern Kingdom, and not merely the single tribe named after Joseph’s son. However, the Northern Kingdom (also known as “Israel”) was taken into captivity by the Assyrians (Jeremiah 7). Whereas, the Southern Kingdom (Judah) was conquered by the Babylonians later.
Eventually, Ephraim was prophesied to be laid waste on the day of reckoning: see Hosea 5:9, 11. Ephraim was, along with Dan, not even mentioned as part of the redeemed tribes of Israel in Revelation 7:4-8 (instead, Joseph is mentioned, as well as Manasseh).
Therefore, on the one hand, the LORD had always intended for Ephraim to thrive and become a major part of Israel as a nation. However, the Promised Seed of Genesis 3:!5 is to come through the tribe of Judah (v.68), from which David, and Jesus the Son of David would descend. It is by the hand of David’s upright heart that he was able to shepherd Jacob, the Lord’s people.
Yet, to look only to David would lose sight of the purpose of this Psalm. If this Psalm points to the LORD’s everlasting plans, then this “David” is but a symbol of the everlasting king who can shepherd the spiritual Jacob, the global spiritual Israelites containing both Jews and Gentiles alike — those who worship the true David, Jesus Christ. In the same way, whilst “Judah” is preferred over “Ephraim”, that is merely from a soteriological perspective. For the Gentiles are, like the Ephraimites, in need of a Saviour. They are all the Lord’s sheep who need to be guided into new creation.