The matter and scope of this paragraph are the same with the former, showing what great mercies God had bestowed upon Israel, how provoking they had been, what judgments he had brought upon them for their sins, and yet how, in judgment, he remembered mercy at last. Let not those that receive mercy from God be thereby emboldened to sin, for the mercies they receive will aggravate their sin and hasten the punishment of it; yet let not those that are under divine rebukes for sin be discouraged from repentance, for their punishments are means of repentance, and shall not prevent the mercy God has yet in store for them. Observe,
I. The sins of Israel in the wilderness again reflected on, because written for our admonition (Ps. 78:40, 41): How often did they provoke him in the wilderness! Note once, nor twice, but many a time; and the repetition of the provocation was a great aggravation of it, as well as the place, Ps. 78:17. God kept an account how often they provoked him, though they did not. Num. 14:22; They have tempted me these ten times. By provoking him they did not so much anger him as grieve him, for he looked upon them as his children (Israel is my son, my first-born), and the undutiful disrespectful behaviour of children does more grieve than anger the tender parents; they lay it to heart, and take it unkindly, Isa. 1:2. They grieved him because they put him under a necessity of afflicting them, which he did not willingly. After they had humbled themselves before him they turned back and tempted God, as before, and limited the Holy One of Israel, prescribing to him what proofs he should give of his power and presence with them and what methods he should take in leading them and providing for them. They limited him to their way and their time, as if he did not observe that they quarrelled with him. It is presumption for us to limit the Holy One of Israel; for, being the Holy One, he will do what is most for his own glory; and, being the Holy One of Israel, he will do what is most for their good; and we both impeach his wisdom and betray our own pride and folly if we go about to prescribe to him. That which occasioned their limiting God for the future was their forgetting his former favours (Ps. 78:42): They remembered not his hand, how strong it is and how it had been stretched out for them, nor the day when he delivered them from the enemy, Pharaoh, that great enemy who sought their ruin. There are some days made remarkable by signal deliverances, which ought never to be forgotten; for the remembrance of them would encourage us in our greatest straits.
II. The mercies of God to Israel, which they were unmindful of when they tempted God and limited him; and this catalogue of the works of wonder which God wrought for them begins higher, and is carried down further, than that before, Ps. 78:12
1. This begins with their deliverance out of Egypt, and the plagues with which God compelled the Egyptians to let them go: these were the signs God wrought in Egypt (Ps. 78:43), the wonders he wrought in the field of Zoan, that is, in the country of Zoan, as we say, in Agro N., meaning in such a country.
(1.) Several of the plagues of Egypt are here specified, which speak aloud the power of God and his favour to Israel, as well as terror to his and their enemies. As, [1.] The turning of the waters into blood; they had made themselves drunk with the bloods of God’s people, even the infants, and now God gave them blood to drink, for they were worthy, Ps. 78:44. [2.] The flies and frogs which infested them, mixtures of insects in swarms, in shoals, which devoured them, which destroyed them, Ps. 78:45. For God can make the weakest and most despicable animals instruments of his wrath when he pleases; what they want in strength may be made up in number. [3.] The plague of locusts, which devoured their increase, and that which they had laboured for, Ps. 78:46. They are called God’s great army, Joel 2:25. [4.] The hail, which destroyed their trees, especially their vines, the weakest of trees (Ps. 78:47), and their cattle, especially their flocks of sheep, the weakest of their cattle, which were killed with hot thunder-bolts (Ps. 78:48), and the frost, or congealed rain (as the word signifies), was so violent that it destroyed even the sycamore-trees. [5.] The death of the first-born was the last and sorest of the plagues of Egypt, and that which perfected the deliverance of Israel; it was first in intention (Exod. 4:23), but last in execution; for, if gentler methods would have done the work, this would have been prevented: but it is here largely described, Ps. 78:49-51. First, The anger of God was the cause of it. Wrath had now come upon the Egyptians to the uttermost; Pharaoh’s heart having been often hardened after less judgments had softened it, God now stirred up all his wrath; for he cast upon them the fierceness of his anger, anger in the highest degree, wrath and indignation the cause, and trouble (tribulation and anguish, Rom. 2:8, 9) the effect. This from on high he cast upon them and did not spare, and they could not flee out of his hands, Job 27:22. He made a way, or (as the word is) he weighed a path, to his anger. He did not cast it upon them uncertainly, but by weight. His anger was weighed with the greatest exactness in the balances of justice; for, in his greatest displeasure, he never did, nor ever will do, any wrong to any of his creatures: the path of his anger is always weighed. Secondly, The angels of God were the instruments employed in this execution: He sent evil angels among them, not evil in their own nature, but in respect to the errand upon which they were sent; they were destroying angels, or angels of punishment, which passed through all the land of Egypt, with orders, according to the weighed paths of God’s anger, not to kill all, but the first-born only. Good angels become evil angels to sinners. Those that make the holy God their enemy must never expect the holy angels to be their friends. Thirdly, The execution itself was very severe: He spared not their soul from death, but suffered death to ride in triumph among them and gave their life over to the pestilence, which cut the thread of life off immediately; for he smote all the first-born in Egypt (Ps. 78:51), the chief of their strength, the hopes of their respective families; children are the parents’ strength, and the first-born the chief of their strength. Thus, because Israel was precious in God’s sight, he gave men for them and people for their life, Isa. 43:4.
(2.) By these plagues on the Egyptians God made a way for his own people to go forth like sheep, distinguishing between them and the Egyptians, as the shepherd divides between the sheep and the goats, having set his own mark on these sheep by the blood of the lamb sprinkled on their door-posts. He made them go forth like sheep, not knowing whither they went, and guided them in the wilderness, as a shepherd guides his flock, with all possible care and tenderness, Ps. 78:52. He led them on safely, though in dangerous paths, so that they feared not, that is, they needed not to fear; they were indeed frightened at the Red Sea (Exod. 14:10), but that was said to them, and done for them, which effectually silenced their fears. But the sea overwhelmed their enemies that ventured to pursue them into it, Ps. 78:63. It was a lane to them, but a grave to their persecutors.
2. It is carried down as far as their settlement in Canaan (Ps. 78:54): He brought them to the border of his sanctuary, to that land in the midst of which he set up his sanctuary, which was, as it were, the centre and metropolis, the crown and glory, of it. That is a happy land which is the border of God’s sanctuary. It was the happiness of that land that there God was known, and there were his sanctuary and dwelling-place, Ps. 76:1, 2. The whole land in general, and Zion in particular, was the mountain which his right hand had purchased, which by his own power he had set apart for himself. See Ps. 44:3. He made them to ride on the high places of the earth, Isa. 58:14; Deut. 32:13. They found the Canaanites in the full and quiet possession of that land, but God cast out the heathen before them, not only took away their title to it, as the Lord of the whole earth, but himself executed the judgment given against them, and, as Lord of hosts, turned them out of it, and made his people Israel tread upon their high places, dividing each tribe an inheritance by line, and making them to dwell in the houses of those whom they had destroyed. God could have turned the uninhabited uncultivated wilderness (which perhaps was nearly of the same extent as Canaan) into fruitful soil, and have planted them there; but the land he designed for them was to be a type of heaven, and therefore must be the glory of all lands; it must likewise be fought for, for the kingdom of heaven suffers violence.
III. The sins of Israel after they were settled in Canaan, Ps. 78:56-58. The children were like their fathers, and brought their old corruptions into their new habitations. Though God had done so much for them, yet they tempted and provoked the most high God still. He gave them his testimonies, but they did not keep them; they began very promisingly, but they turned back, gave God good words, but dealt unfaithfully, and were like a deceitful bow, which seemed likely to send the arrow to the mark, but, when it is drawn, breaks, and drops the arrow at the archer’s foot, or perhaps makes it recoil in his face. There was no hold of them, nor any confidence to be put in their promises or professions. They seemed sometimes devoted to God, but they presently turned aside, and provoked him to anger with their high places and their graven images. Idolatry was the sin that did most easily beset them, and which, though they often professed their repentance for, they as often relapsed into. It was spiritual adultery either to worship idols or to worship God by images, as if he had been an idol, and therefore by it they are said to move him to jealousy, Deut. 32:16, 21.
IV. The judgments God brought upon them for these sins. Their place in Canaan would no more secure them in a sinful way t 3c9d han their descent from Israel. You only have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore I will punish you, Amos 3:2. Idolatry is winked at among the Gentiles, but not in Israel, 1. God was displeased with them (Ps. 78:59): When God heard this, when he heard the cry of their iniquity, which came up before him, he was wroth, he took it very heinously, as well he might, and he greatly abhorred Israel, whom he had greatly loved and delighted in. Those that had been the people of his choice became the generation of his wrath. Presumptuous sins, idolatries especially, render even Israelites odious to God’s holiness and obnoxious to his justice. 2. He deserted his tabernacle among them, and removed the defence which was upon that glory, Ps. 78:60. God never leaves us till we leave him, never withdraws till we have driven him from us. His name is Jealous, and he is a jealous God; and therefore no marvel if a people whom he had betrothed to himself be loathed and rejected, and he refuse to cohabit with them any longer, when they have embraced the bosom of a stranger. The tabernacle at Shiloh was the tent God had placed among men, in which God would in very deed dwell with men upon the earth; but, when his people treacherously forsook it, he justly forsook it, and then all its glory departed. Israel has small joy of the tabernacle without the presence of God in it. 3. He gave up all into the hands of the enemy. Those whom God forsakes become an easy prey to the destroyer. The Philistines are sworn enemies to the Israel of God, and no less so to the God of Israel, and yet God will make use of them to be a scourge to his people. (1.) God permits them to take the ark prisoner, and carry it off as a trophy of their victory, to show that he had not only forsaken the tabernacle, but even the ark itself, which shall now be no longer a token of his presence (Ps. 78:61): He delivered his strength into captivity, as if it had been weakened and overcome, and his glory fell under the disgrace of being abandoned into the enemy’s hand. We have the story 1 Sam. 4:11. When the ark has become as a stranger among Israelites, no marvel if it soon be made a prisoner among Philistines. (2.) He suffers the armies of Israel to be routed by the Philistines (Ps. 78:62, 63): He gave his people over unto the sword, to the sword of his own justice and of the enemy’s rage, for he was wroth with his inheritance; and that wrath of his was the fire which consumed their young men, in the prime of their time, by the sword or sickness, and made such a devastation of them that their maidens were not praised, that is, were not given in marriage (which is honourable in all), because there were no young men for them to be given to, and because the distresses and calamities of Israel were so many and great that the joys of marriage-solemnities were judged unseasonable, and it was said, Blessed is the womb that beareth not. General destructions produce a scarcity of men. Isa. 13:12; I will make a man more precious than fine gold, so that seven women shall take hold of one man, Isa. 4:1; Isa. 3:25. Yet this was not the worst: (3.) Even their priests, who attended the ark, fell by the sword, Hophni and Phinehas. Justly they fell, for they made themselves vile, and were sinners before the Lord exceedingly; and their priesthood was so far from being their protection that it aggravated their sin and hastened their fall. Justly did they fall by the sword, because they exposed themselves in the field of battle, without call or warrant. We throw ourselves out of God’s protection when we go out of our place and out of the way of our duty. When the priests fell their widows made no lamentation, Ps. 78:64. All the ceremonies of mourning were lost and buried in substantial grief; the widow of Phinehas, instead of lamenting her husband’s death, died herself, when she had called her son Ichabod, 1 Sam. 4:19
V. God’s return, in mercy, to them, and his gracious appearances for them after this. We read not of their repentance and return to God, but God was grieved for the miseries of Israel (Jdg. 10:16) and concerned for his own honour, fearing the wrath of the enemy, lest they should behave themselves strangely, Deut. 32:27. And therefore then the Lord awaked as one out of sleep (Ps. 78:65), and like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine, not only like one that is raised out of sleep and recovers himself from the slumber which by drinking he was overcome with, who then regards that which before he seemed wholly to neglect, but like one that is refreshed with sleep, and whose heart is made glad by the sober and moderate use of wine, and is therefore the more lively and vigorous, and fit for business. When God had delivered the ark of his strength into captivity, as one jealous of his honour, he soon put forth the arm of his strength to rescue it, stirred up his strength to do great things for his people.
1. He plagued the Philistines who held the ark in captivity, Ps. 78:66. He smote them with emerods in the hinder parts, wounded them behind, as if they were fleeing from him, even when they thought themselves more than conquerors. He put them to reproach, and they themselves helped to make it a perpetual reproach by the golden images of their emerods, which they returned with the ark for a trespass-offering (1 Sam. 6:5), to remain in perpetuam rei memoriam—as a perpetual memorial. Note, Sooner or later God will glorify himself by putting disgrace upon his enemies, even when they are most elevated with their successes.
2. He provided a new settlement for his ark after it had been some months in captivity and some years in obscurity. He did indeed refuse the tabernacle of Joseph; he never sent it back to Shiloh, in the tribe of Ephraim, Ps. 78:67. The ruins of that place were standing monuments of divine justice. God, see what I did to Shiloh, Jer. 7:12. But he did not wholly take away the glory from Israel; the moving of the ark is not the removing of it. Shiloh has lost it, but Israel has not. God will have a church in the world, and a kingdom among men, though this or that place may have its candlestick removed; nay, the rejection of Shiloh is the election of Zion, as, long after, the fall of the Jews was the riches of the Gentiles, Rom. 11:12. When God chose not the tribe of Ephraim, of which tribe Joshua was, he chose the tribe of Judah (Ps. 78:68), because of that tribe Jesus was to be, who is greater than Joshua. Kirjath-jearim, the place to which the ark was brought after its rescue out of the hands of the Philistines, was in the tribe of Judah. There it took possession of that tribe; but thence it was removed to Zion, the Mount Zion which he loved (Ps. 78:68), which was beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth; there it was that he built his sanctuary like high palaces and like the earth, Ps. 78:69. David indeed erected only a tent for the ark, but a temple was then designed and prepared for, and finished by his son; and that was, (1.) A very stately place. It was built like the palaces of princes, and the great men of the earth, nay, it excelled them all in splendour and magnificence. Solomon built it, and yet here it is said God built its, for his father had taught him, perhaps with reference to this undertaking, that except the Lord build the house those labour in vain that build it, Ps. 127:1; which is a psalm for Solomon. (2.) A very stable place, like the earth, though not to continue as long as the earth, yet while it was to continue it was as firm as the earth, which God upholds by the word of his power, and it was not finally destroyed till the gospel temple was erected, which is to continue as long as the sun and moon endure (Ps. 89:36, 37) and against which the gates of hell shall not prevail.
3. He set a good government over them, a monarchy, and a monarch after his own heart: He chose David his servant out of all the thousands of Israel, and put the sceptre into his hand, out of whose loins Christ was to come, and who was to be a type of him, Ps. 78:70. Concerning David observe here, (1.) The meanness of his beginning. His extraction indeed was great, for he descended from the prince of the tribe of Judah, but his education was poor. He was bred not a scholar, not a soldier, but a shepherd. He was taken from the sheep-folds, as Moses was; for God delights to put honour upon the humble and diligent, to raise the poor out of the dust and to set them among princes; and sometimes he finds those most fit for public action that have spent the beginning of their time in solitude and contemplation. The Son of David was upbraided with the obscurity of his original: Isa. not this the carpenter? David was taken, he does not say from leading the rams, but from following the ewes, especially those great with young, which intimated that of all the good properties of a shepherd he was most remarkable for his tenderness and compassion to those of his flock that most needed his care. This temper of mind fitted him for government, and made him a type of Christ, who, when he feeds his flock like a shepherd, does with a particular care gently lead those that are with young, Isa. 40:11. (2.) The greatness of his advancement. God preferred him to feed Jacob his people, Ps. 78:71. It was a great honour that God put upon him, in advancing him to be a king, especially to be king over Jacob and Israel, God’s peculiar people, near and dear to him; but withal it was a great trust reposed in him when he was charged with the government of those that were God’s own inheritance. God advanced him to the throne that he might feed them, not that he might feed himself, that he might do good, not that he might make his family great. It is the charge given to all the under-shepherds, both magistrates and ministers, that they feed the flock of God. (3.) The happiness of his management. David, having so great a trust put into his hands, obtained mercy of the Lord to be found both skilful and faithful in the discharge of it (Ps. 78:72): So he fed them; he ruled them and taught them, guided and protected them, [1.] Very honestly; he did it according to the integrity of his heart, aiming at nothing but the glory of God and the good of the people committed to his charge; the principles of his religion were the maxims of his government, which he administered, not with carnal policy, but with godly sincerity, by the grace of God. In every thing he did he meant well and had no by-end in view. [2.] Very discreetly; he did it by the skilfulness of his hands. He was not only very sincere in what he designed, but very prudent in what he did, and chose out the most proper means in pursuit of his end, for his God did instruct him to discretion. Happy the people that are under such a government! With good reason does the psalmist make this the finishing crowning instance of God’s favour to Israel, for David was a type of Christ the great and good Shepherd, who was humbled first and then exalted, and of whom it was foretold that he should be filled with the spirit of wisdom and understanding and should judge and reprove with equity, Isa. 11:3, 4. On the integrity of his heart and the skilfulness of his hands all his subjects may entirely rely, and of the increase of his government and people there shall be no end.