Messiah’s Instruction To Be Faithful
To Our Covenant God

a brief study of Psalm 78, adapted from PCC Prayer Meeting Exhortation on 6 March 2009

In Matthew 13, the Lord Jesus spoke a number of parables including the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of Wheat and Tares, the Parable of the Mustard Seed and of the Leaven. When the apostle Matthew has recorded all these, he remarks, Matthew 13:34-35—

34 All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them: 35 That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.”

Who is the prophet? Where is the prophecy recorded? Well, the prophet is the writer of Psalm 78. Matthew is quoting from Psalm 78:2—

2 I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old…

Andrew Bonar, observing Matthew’s use of Psalm 78, remarks:

“We are led to conclude that Asaph here was directed to foreshadow Messiah, the Prophet, disclosing the mind and ways of God, where these were hidden from the gaze of the common eye.”

But how did Matthew in the first place come to conclude that Psalm 78 is referring to the Lord’s ministry of parables? I believe it is because Matthew, together with the other apostles, saw the Psalms as the Word of Christ, and so they saw many of the first person singular pronouns in the Psalms as having an ultimate reference to Christ.

In Psalm 78, the first two verses makes much more sense when understood as the word of Christ than as the word of Asaph, for Asaph has no right to be a law-giver. What about the first person plural pronoun, ‘we’, in verse 3? Again, it makes much more sense to think of it as Christ in union with His church, doesn’t it? When we think of it in this way, we may sing this psalm as a member of the body whose history we are recounting.

Psalm 78 is a historical-instructional psalm. It is attributed to Asaph, who is most probably one of the sons of Asaph who lived after the kingdom was divided. We suspect this is the case because of the reference to the apostasy of Ephraim and the contrast to Judah in this psalm (see. vv. 9, 10, 67). However, the occasion of this psalm is far from certain.

I think in ancient days, this long psalm was probably chanted rather than sung the way that we do today. Now, if you read it or chant it through, you will not fail to notice the recounting of the history of God’s people from Egypt to Jerusalem, from Moses to David.

But you will, no doubt, also get the idea that this psalm is not merely to recount history, but to teach something more profound. Indeed, as Henstengberg puts it, there is in every part of this historical psalm, “a concealed back ground of instruction.” The historical narrative, in other words, is to convey deeper lessons, just as the parables are intended to teach deeper spiritual truths.

What are these lessons? Well, this psalm has four parts:

(1) Verses 1-8 is a call to respond gratefully to God’s faithfulness. We are to respond by loving obedience to our Lord’s instructions and to teach it to our children, and our children’s children.

(2) Verses 9-11 gives us the occasion for the writing of this Psalm. It appears that the occasion is the rebellion of Ephraim and the Northern Ten Tribes.

(3) Verses 12-64 recounts the history of God’s people in their cycle of divine blessing, rebellion, repentance, mercy, etc. In this account, a great contrast is drawn between the ingratitude and stiffneckness of God’s people, and God’s faithfulness and compassion.

(4) Verses 65-72 concludes by stating how God has chosen Judah instead of the tribes of Joseph to experience his special love.

We may entitle this psalm: “Messiah’s Instruction to be Faithful to our Covenant God.”

What specific lesson may we learn from this psalm?

We may learn 4 lessons, one from each of the four sections of this psalm.

First, we are reminded to…

1. Respond Gratefully to
God’s Faithfulness.

This is the purpose of this psalm. So our Lord through Asaph says:

1  Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth.…

The Lord’s law in this context includes, no doubt, His teachings recorded for us throughout the Scriptures, such as in the Pentateuch, the historical books, the poetic books, the prophecies, the Gospel and the letters.

What is the purpose of Christ’s instruction? It is not only for the sanctification of the redeemed. It is so that God’s people down the generations may know the Lord, and praise Him and obey Him gratefully.

For this reason, our response to God’s faithfulness must not only include words of praise. It must also include faithful instruction of our children (v. 5) with a humble prayer that they will not forget God, but be grateful and obedient unto Him unlike their parent’s generation, which is “a stubborn and rebellious generation” (v. 6-8).

But secondly, we are reminded to…

2. Refuse to Rebel like Ephraim

As we mentioned, this is the occasion of this psalm, which is recorded in verses 9-11. Most likely, the occasion is the rebellion of the Northern ten tribes after the kingdom split when Solomon passed away.

But whatever the case may be, one thing is sure: the Northern Tribe, represented by Ephraim, “kept not the covenant of God, and refused to walk in his law” (v. 10), by which they demonstrated the forgetfulness and ingratitude (v. 11).

As God’s covenant people we must resist the same temptation. The Northern Kingdom under the leadership of Jeroboam broke away from Judah and began to worship Jehovah using Golden Calves in Dan and Bethel. What was the reason for their departure? It was mainly convenience and political expediency.

How easy it is for us, is it not, beloved brethren, to give up walking in the old path to choose the way that is politically correct and convenient.

Oh may the Lord grant us help that we may refuse to rebel like Ephraim and begin to serve the Lord in ways not appointed by Him.

But now, thirdly, the largest part of this psalm, verses 12-66 reminds us to…

3. Remember our Tendency
to be like our Fathers

We are one with the people of God in the Old Testament. Israel was our father in the faith. And let us remember the history of our fathers that we may not repeat the same mistake.

God did marvellous works to redeem Israel out of Egypt (v. 12). He parted the Red Sea (v. 13). He let them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (v. 14). He quenched their thirst with water out of the rock (v. 15-16).

And yet they sinned against the Lord by murmuring against Him and His servant.  God gave them manna and water, but they were not satisfied. They wanted the Leeks and Cucumber and fish of Egypt. They would rather trade their freedom to satisfy the lust of their flesh. They cried for meat (v. 18).

God therefore sent them quail to eat, and at the same time chastised them severely for their murmuring and grumbling (v. 19-31).

But still they refused to remember. “For all this they sinned still, and believed not for his wondrous works” (Ps 78:32).

Each time the Lord chastised them, they turned back and remembered that He is their rock and redeemer (v. 34-35). But very quickly they forgot again (v. 36) instead of “remaining stedfast in His Covenant” (v. 37).

“But [God], being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not: yea, many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath” (v. 38).

He remembers that they are “but flesh” (v. 39). By contrast they provoked Him and grieved Him (v. 40), and tempted Him and limited Him (v. 41) and refused to remember all that He has done for them (v. 42). For example they had forgotten the Ten plagues that he wrought in Egypt for their deliverance (v. 43-51). They forgot how God led them like a flock (v. 52). They forgot how God led them step by step until they were able to conquer the Promised Land (v. 53-55).

So they “tempted and provoked the most high God, and kept not his testimonies” (v. 56).

They provoked God to anger and jealousy with their idols (v. 57-58) so much so that God caused their army to be defeated, and the ark to be captured by the Philistines (v. 59-64).

Let us remember, beloved brethren and children, that though God is patient, His patience does not last forever. For the sake of His own Name and His people He will often send them great troubles. What should our response be when God sends troubles to us? Should not our response be to humble ourselves to return to the old paths? And shall we not learn from history, how prone to wonder we are, and how bent on backsliding we are. Shall we not check ourselves, and constantly remind ourselves to remain faithful to the Lord.

But finally, let us…

4. Relish the Love of God
for Our King’s Sake

Despite the failures of the people, when God had sufficiently chastised Him, He again arose to intervene on behalf of his people (v. 65), and He smote their enemies (v. 66).

Moreover (v. 67), God in His mercy and covenant faithfulness towards His inheritance, prepared the tribe of Judah to experience His special blessing, including His temple built in it, and raising up a man from the tribe to be king over his people (v. 68-71).

This man is none other than king David, the forefather and type of the greater David. David led his people with integrity and skill (v. 72).

Today, king David has passed from the scene. How is his appointment important to us? It is important to us because it serves as a type of the Greater David, Christ.

Indeed, the only reason we can expect God to continue the good work in us despite our repeated failures against Him is that the Lord Jesus is our King.

As the Israelite of Old often look back to King David as they anticipated the Messiah, shall we not look back to what Christ our King has done and we anticipate what He will do for us.

“He which hath begun a good work in [us] will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).


History keeps repeating itself, for the church comprises of sinners saved by grace, not yet perfected. Let us therefore hide the lessons of this psalm in our hearts as we continue in our journey towards the Celestial City as a church.

1. Let us respond gratefully to God’s faithfulness. Let take heed to the Lord’s word always to cultivate gratitude in our own hearts and the hearts of our children.

2. Let us refuse to rebel like Ephraim. It is easy to give in to expediency and convenience and fall into the sin of the Northern Kingdom—to worship God according to man’s invention rather than God’s appointment.

3. Let us remember our tendency to be like our fathers. We are a forgetful and ungrateful people. Let us not crave the leeks and cucumbers of Egypt. Hitherto has the Lord led us! Shall we despise His mercy and faithfulness and refuse to serve Him cheerfully?

4.Let us relish the love of God for our King’s sake. Christ is the king of the church. Let us look to Him constantly, thanking God that we can be His Judah, His kinsmen to share in the blessings that God has given Him to bestow upon his people. Let us therefore run the race looking unto Him the author and finisher of our race, knowing that with Him as the Captain of our Salvation, the gates of hell shall not prevent our advance from glory unto glory despite all our failures. Amen.

—JJ Lim