Psalm 78:17-22

17. Yet they continued still to sin against him, to provoke the Most High in the wilderness. 18. And they tempted God in their heart, by asking food for their soul.1 19. And they spake against God: they said, Can God prepare a table in the wilderness? 20. Behold! he smote the rock, and the waters gushed out; and streams overflowed. Can he give bread also? Can he prepare flesh for his people? 21. Therefore Jehovah heard, and was wroth: and a fire was kindled in Jacob: and wrath also ascended against Israel?2 22. Because they believed not in God, nor trusted in his salvation.


17. Yet they continued still to sin against him. The prophet, having briefly declared how God, by a continual succession of benefits, had clearly manifested the greatness of his love towards the children of Abraham, now adds, that after having been laid under such deep and solemn obligations to him, they, as was natural to them, and according to their customary way, wickedly rebelled against him. In the first place, he accuses them of having provoked him grievously, by pertinaciously adding iniquity to iniquity; and then he points out the particular kind of the provocation with which they were chargeable. By the word provoke, he intimates, that it was no light offense which they had committed, but wickedness so heinous and aggravated as not to be endured. From the place in which it was committed, he aggravates the enormity of the sin. It was in the very wilderness, whilst the remembrance of their deliverance was yet fresh in their memory, and where they had every day full in their view tokens of the presence of God, and where even necessity itself should have constrained them to yield a true and holy obedience -- it was in that place, and under these circumstances, that they repressed not their insolence and unbridled appetite.3 It was then, certainly, a proof of monstrous infatuation for them to act in such a wanton and disgraceful manner as they did, at the very time when their want of all things should have proved the best remedy for keeping them under restraint, and to do this even in the presence of God, who presented before them such manifestations of his glory as filled them with terror, and who allured them so kindly and tenderly to himself.

18. And they tempted God in their heart. This is the provocation of which mention is made in the preceding verse. Not that it was unlawful for them simply to ask food, when constrained to do so by the cravings of hunger. Who can impute blame to persons, when being hungry, they implore God to supply their necessities? The sin with which the Israelites were chargeable consisted in this, that not content with the food which He had appointed them, they gave loose reins to their lusts. He, at that time, had begun to feed them with manna, as we shall again see by and by. It was their loathing of that sustenance which impelled them eagerly to desire new food, as if they disdained the allowance assigned them by their heavenly Father. This is what is meant when it is said that they asked food for their soul.4 They were not reduced to the necessity of asking it by hunger; but their lust was not satisfied with living on the provision which God had appointed for them. On this account, it is declared, that they tempted God, overpassing, as they did, the bounds within which he had limited them. Whoever, undervaluing and despising the permission or license which He grants, gives full scope to his own intemperate lust, and desires more than is lawful, is said to tempt God. He acts as if he would subject Him to his own caprice, or questioned whether He could do more than he is pleased really to do. God has power to accomplish whatever he wills; and assuredly, the person who would separate the power of God from his will, or represent him as unable to do what he wills, does all he can to rend him in pieces. Those are chargeable with doing this, who are set upon trying whether he will grant more than he has given them permission to ask. That, therefore, the lust of the flesh may not stir us up to tempt him, let us learn to impose a restraint upon our desires, and humbly to rest contented within the limits which are prescribed to us. If the flesh is allowed to indulge itself without control, we will not be satisfied with ordinary bread, but will often, and in many ways, murmur against God.

19. And they spake against God. The prophet had said that they tempted God in their heart;5 and now he adds, that they were not ashamed openly to utter with their impure and blasphemous tongues, the impiety which they had inwardly conceived. From this, it is the more abundantly manifest that malignity and wickedness had taken entire possession of their hearts. Thus we see how lust conceives sin, when it is admitted into the soul with unhallowed consent. Afterwards the sin develops itself farther, even as we see the Israelites proceeding to such a length of profane wantonness, as to call in question the power of God, as if they made no account of it, any farther than as it ministered to their lust. By the table prepared which is spoken of, is to be understood the dainty food, which was their ordinary fare in Egypt. A single dish did not satisfy their appetite. They were not contented unless they could gratify themselves with great abundance and variety. When it is said in the following verse, Behold! God smote the rock, and the waters gushed out, etc., this, I have no doubt, is the language of bitter irony, with which the prophet taunts their unblushing insolence. It is not very likely that they spake in this manner; but he relates, as it were, with their mouth, or in their person, the things which took place before their eyes.

21. Therefore Jehovah heard, and was wroth. This hearing of God implies full and perfect knowledge; and it is a figure taken from earthly judges, who cannot punish criminals until they have become thoroughly acquainted with the cause. He is said to hear his own people, when he shows his favor and mercy towards them by granting their requests; and, on the other hand, he is said to hear those blasphemies which he does not allow to pass unpunished. To remove all ground for thinking that the divine wrath was unduly severe, the enormity of the guilt of the Israelites is again described as manifested in this, that they believed not God, nor trusted in his salvation. It is here taken as an indisputable point, that promises were made to them to which they ought to have yielded an assent, which, however, they were prevented from yielding by the extreme infatuation with which they were carried away. To trust in the salvation of God, is to lean upon his fatherly providence, and to regard him as sufficient for the supply of all our wants. From this we learn not only how hateful unbelief is in the sight of God, but also, what is the true nature of faith, and what are the fruits which it produces. Whence is it that men quietly submit themselves to Him, but because they are persuaded that their salvation is singularly precious in his sight, and are fully assured that he will give them whatever is needful for them? It is thus that they are led to surrender themselves to him, to be governed according to his good pleasure. Faith, then, is the root of true piety. It teaches us to hope for, and to desire every blessing from God, and it frames us to yield obedience to him; while those who distrust him must necessarily be always murmuring and rebelling against him. The scope of the prophet is this, that the pretences to faith which are made by those who do not hope for salvation from God, rest upon false grounds; for when God is believed in, the hope of salvation is speedily produced in the mind, and this hope renders to him the praise of every blessing.

1 "Ou, a leur cupidite." -- Fr. marg. "Or, for their lust."

2 "The term ascended is figurative, derived from the ascending of the breath, in vehement gusts of agitation and anger." -- Walford.

3 "Qu'ils n'ont point reprime leur insolence et appetit desordonne." -- Fr.

4 The word spn, nephesh, for soul, has great latitude of signification. It sometimes signifies the sensitive or animal appetites, as in this passage. The people had their wants abundantly supplied, and yet they remained unsatisfied and querulous. It is therefore said, that they demanded meat Mspnl, for their souls; i.e., not for their real wants, which they might rationally and lawfully desire to have supplied, but to gratify their sensitive and carnal appetites. Our English Bible, and Calvin on the margin of the French version, give a very happy translation, They tempted God, by asking meat for their lust.

5 "'They tempted God with their heart,' that is, heartily, or with all their soul." -- Walford.


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