Psalm 78:1-6

1. Hearken, O my people! to my law:1 incline your ears to the words of my mouth. 2. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old time: 3. What we have heard and known, and our fathers have related to us. 4. We will not conceal from their children in the generation to come, recounting the praises of Jehovah, and his power, and the wonderful works which he has done. 5. He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel: for he commanded our fathers to make them known to their children: 6. That the generation to come might know them, and that the children to be born should arise and declare them to their children.


1. Give ear, O my people! to my law. From the close of the psalm, it may with probability be conjectured, that it was written long after the death of David; for there we have celebrated the kingdom erected by God in the family of David. There also the tribe of Ephraim, which is said to have been rejected, is contrasted with, and set in opposition to, the house of David. From this it is evident, that the ten tribes were at that time in a state of separation from the rest of the chosen people; for there must be some good reason why the kingdom of Ephraim is branded with a mark of dishonor as being illegitimate and bastard.2

Whoever was the inspired writer of this psalm, he does not introduce God speaking as is thought by some, but he himself addresses the Jews in the character of a teacher. It is no objection to this that he calls the people his people, and the law his law; it being no uncommon thing for the prophets to borrow the name of Him by whom they were sent, that their doctrine might have the greater authority. And, indeed, the truth which has been committed to their trust may, with propriety, be called theirs. Thus Paul, in Romans 2:16, glories in the gospel as his gospel, an expression not to be understood as implying that it was a system which owed its origin to him, but that he was a preacher and a witness of it. I am somewhat doubtful whether interpreters are strictly correct in translating the word hrwt, torah, by law.3 The meaning of it seems to be somewhat more general, as appears from the following clause, where the Psalmist uses the phrase, the words of my mouth, in the same sense. If we consider with what inattention even those who make great professions of being the disciples of God listen to his voice, we will admit that the prophet had good reason for introducing his lessons of instruction by a solemn call of attention. He does not, it is true, address the unteachable and obstinate, who frowardly refuse to submit themselves to the word of God; but as even true believers themselves are generally too backward to receive instruction, this exhortation, so far from being superfluous, was highly necessary to stir up the sluggish and inactive among them.

To secure for himself the greater attention, he declares it to be his purpose to discuss subjects of a great, high, and difficult character. The word lsm, mashal, which I have translated a parable, denotes grave and striking sentences, such as adages, or proverbs, and apophthegms.4 As then the matter itself of which we treat, if it is weighty and important, awakens the minds of men, the inspired penman affirms that it is his purpose to utter only striking sentences and notable sayings. The word twdyx, chidoth, which, following others, I have rendered enigmas, is here used, not so much for dark sentences, as for sayings which are pointed and worthy of special notice.5 He does not mean to wrap up his song in ambiguous language, but clearly and distinctly to dwell both upon the benefits of God and the ingratitude of the people. Only, as I have said, his design is to stimulate his readers to weigh and consider more attentively the subject propounded. This passage is quoted by Matthew, (Matthew 13:35,) and applied to the person of Christ, when he held the minds of the people in suspense by parables which they could not understand. Christ's object in doing so, was to prove that he was a distinguished prophet of God, and that thus he might be received with the greater reverence. Since he then resembled a prophet because he preached sublime mysteries in a style of language above the common kind, that which the sacred writer here affirms concerning himself, is with propriety transferred to him. If in this psalm there shines forth such a majesty as may justly stir up and inflame the readers with a desire to learn, we gather from it with what earnest attention it becomes us to receive the gospel, in which Christ opens and displays to us the treasures of his celestial wisdom.

3. What we have heard and known. There seems to be some discrepancy between what the Psalmist had stated in the commencement, when he said that he would speak of great and hidden matters, and what he now adds, that his subject is a common one, and such as is transmitted from one age to another by the father to the son. If it was incumbent upon the fathers to recount to their children the things here spoken of, these things ought, of course, to have been familiarly known to all the people, yea, even to those who were most illiterate, and had the weakest capacity. Where, then, it may be said, are the enigmas or dark sentences of which he has just now made mention? I answer, that these things can easily be reconciled; for although the psalm contains many things which are generally known, yet he illustrates them with all the splendor and ornaments of diction, that he may the more powerfully affect the hearts of men, and acquire for himself the greater authority. At the same time, it is to be observed, that however high may be the majesty of the Word of God, this does not prevent the benefits or advantages of it from reaching even to the unlearned and to babes. The Holy Spirit does not in vain invite and encourage such to learn from it: -- a truth which we ought carefully to mark. If God, accommodating himself to the limited capacity of men, speaks in an humble and lowly style, this manner of teaching is despised as too simple; but if he rise to a higher style, with the view of giving greater authority to his Word, men, to excuse their ignorance, will pretend that it is too obscure. As these two vices are very prevalent in the world, the Holy Spirit so tempers his style as that the sublimity of the truths which he teaches is not hidden even from those of the weakest capacity, provided they are of a submissive and teachable disposition, and bring with them an earnest desire to be instructed. It is the design of the prophet to remove from the mind all doubt respecting his sayings, and for this purpose, he determines to bring forward nothing new, but such subjects as had been long well known, and received without dispute in the Church. He accordingly not only says we have heard, but also we have known. Many things are rashly spread abroad which have no foundation in truth; yea, nothing is more common than for the ears of men to be filled with fables. It is, therefore, not without cause that the prophet, after having spoken of the things which he had heard, at the same time, refers in confirmation of their truth to undoubted testimony. He adds, that the knowledge of these subjects had been communicated to the Jews by their fathers. This does not imply, that what is taught under the domestic roof is always faultless; but it is obvious, that there is afforded a more favorable opportunity of palming upon men forgeries for truth, when things are brought from a distant country. What is to be principally observed is, that all fathers are not here spoken of indiscriminately, but only those who were chosen to be God's peculiar people, and to whom the care of divine truth was intrusted.

4. We will not conceal them from their children in the generation to come. Some take the verb dxkn, nechached, in the nephil conjugation, and translate it, they are not concealed or hidden. But it ought, according to the rules of grammar, to be resolved thus: -- We will not conceal them from our posterity, implying, that what we have been taught by our ancestors we should endeavor to transmit to their children. By this means, all pretense of ignorance is removed; for it was the will of God that these things should be published from age to age without interruption; so that being transmitted from father to child in each family, they might reach even the last family of man. The end for which this was to be done is shown -- that they might celebrate the praises of Jehovah, in the wonderful works which he hath done.

5. He established a testimony in Jacob.6 As the reception or approbation of any doctrine by men would not be a sufficient reason for yielding a firm assent to its truth, the prophet proceeds farther, and represents God as the author of what he brings forward. He declares, that the father's were not led to instruct their children in these truths under the mere impulse of their own minds, but by the commandment of God. Some understand the words, He hath established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, as implying that God had established a decree in Jacob, to be observed as an inviolable rule, which was, that the deliverance divinely wrought for the people should be at all times in the mouth of every Israelite; but this seems to give too restricted a sense. I therefore consider statute, or testimony, and law,7 as referring to the written law, which, however, was partly given for this end, that by the remembrance of their deliverance, the people, after having been once gathered into one body, might be kept in their allegiance to God. The meaning then is, that God not only acquired a right to the Jews as his people by his mighty power, but that he also sealed up his grace, that the knowledge of it might never be obliterated. And, undoubtedly, it was then registered as it were in public records, when the covenant was ratified by the written law, in order to assure the posterity of Abraham that they had been separated from all other nations. It would have been a matter of very small importance to have been acquainted with, or to have remembered the bare history of what had been done, had their eyes not been, at the same time, directed to the free adoption and the fruit of it. The decree then is this, That the fathers being instructed in the doctrine of the law themselves, should recount, as it were, from the mouth of God, to their children, that they had been not only once delivered, but also gathered into one body as his Church, that throughout all ages they might yield a holy and pure obedience to him as their deliverer. The reading of the beginning of the second clause of the verse properly is, Which he commanded, etc. But the relative rsa, asher, which, I have no doubt, is here put by way of exposition for namely, or that is, he commanded, etc. I have translated it for, which amounts to the same thing.

6. That the generation to come might know them. In this verse, the Psalmist confirms what he had said concerning the continued transmission of divine truth. It greatly concerns us to know, that the law was given not for one age only; but that the fathers should transmit it to their children, as if it were their rightful inheritance, in order that it might never be lost, but be preserved to the end of the world. This is the reason why Paul, in 1 Timothy 3:15, asserts that "the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth;" by which he does not mean that the truth of itself is weak, and stands in need of foreign supports, but that God extends and diffuses it by the instrumentality of his ministers, who when they faithfully execute the office of teaching with which they are invested, sustain the truth, as it were, upon their shoulders. Now, the prophet teaches us, that it is our bounden duty to use our endeavors that there may be a continual succession of persons to communicate instruction in divine truth. It is said of Abraham before the law was written, Genesis 18:19,

"I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord to do justice and judgment;"

and after his death, this was enjoined upon the patriarchs as a necessary part of their duty. No sooner was the law delivered, than God appointed priests in his Church to be public masters and teachers. He has also testified by the prophet Isaiah, that the same is to be observed under the New Testament dispensation, saying,

"My Spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed's seed, from henceforth and for ever." (Isaiah 59:21)

In the passage before us, however, a particular injunction is given to the fathers on this point -- each of them is enjoined diligently to instruct his own children, and all without distinction are taught, that their exertions in transmitting the name of God to their posterity will be most acceptable to Him, and receive his highest approbation. By the words, That the children to be born should arise, is not denoted a small number of individuals; but it is intimated, that the preachers of divine truth, by whose efforts pure religion may flourish and prevail for ever, will be as numerous as those who are born into the world.

1 "Ou, ma doctrine." -- Fr. marg. "Or, my doctrine, or instruction."

2 Calmet refers the composition of this psalm to the days of Asa, who, aided by the Syrians, obtained a signal victory over the Israelites, and brought back to the pure worship of God many out of the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Simeon. See <141501>2 Chronicles 15 and 16. Schnurrer supposes, that the special purpose for which it was composed was, to celebrate a decisive victory which had been gained over the kingdom of Ephraim or Israel by Abijah, the king of Judah during the reign of Jeroboam. Walford thinks this opinion highly probable. "There is," say's he, "an eulogy passed upon David at the conclusion of the psalm, which makes it likely that the author of it wished to conciliate the favor of the whole people towards David's successors, from whom Jeroboam had revolted: and in verse 9th, there is a reference to Ephraim which affords some degree of evidence in support of Schnurrer's hypothesis. Whatever may be thought of this hypothesis, we cannot hesitate to admit that the psalm itself is clear, pungent, and persuasive, and must have been felt to be so by the persons for whose use it was written."

3 We have seen that Calvin, on the margin of the French version, reads instruction, and this reading is adopted by Street, Fry, Morison, and Walford.

4 See volume 2, page 238, note 2.

5 Walford translates twdyx, chidoth, "all impressive record." His version of the first and second verses is,

"Hear, O my people! my instruction:
Incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth with an instructive speech,
I will utter an impressive record of ancient times."

"The words law, parable, and dark sayings," he observes, "which are found in the English translation of verses 1st and 2d, are not appropriate to the recitals which are contained in the psalm. They are here altered for others, which are in agreement with the subjects which follow, and may be supported by the usage of the original words which are employed." Similar is Street's note on this place. He translates twdyx, chidoth, "pointed truths," and objects to its being translated dark sayings. "There is nothing obscure in the psalm," says he, "it contains instructive historical truth, but no enigma. Therefore, the rendering of the English Bible, dark sayings, does not seem to be right. The Septuagint renders the word dihghma, Ezekiel 17:2, and that rendering would suit this place better than proqlhmata I have endeavored to express the relation of the word to ddx, acutum est." See volume 2 of this work, page 238, note 3. But as Dimock observes, "The several transactions of the Mosaical covenant hereafter recited, might be well called parables and dark speeches, or, as Arabic, mysteries, considered as types or figures of the Christian; and viewed in this light, afford ample matter of contemplation, serving not only as a schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, but to keep us steadfast in faith and obedience to David our king."

6 Horsley considers this verse as a parenthesis.

7 Dr Adam Clarke, by a testimony understands the various ordinances, rites, and ceremonies prescribed by the laws and by the word law, the moral law.


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