In these verses,
I. The psalmist observes the late rebukes of Providence that the people of Israel had been under, which they had brought upon themselves by their dealing treacherously with God, Ps. 78:9-11. The children of Ephraim, in which tribe Shiloh was, though they were well armed and shot with bows, yet turned back in the day of battle. This seems to refer to that shameful defeat which the Philistines gave them in Eli’s time, when they took the ark prisoner, 1 Sam. 4:10, 11. Of this the psalmist here begins to speak, and, after a long digression, returns to it again, Ps. 78:61. Well might that event be thus fresh in mind in David’s time, above forty years after, for the ark, which in that memorable battle was seized by the Philistines, though it was quickly brought out of captivity, was never brought out of obscurity till David fetched it from Kirjath-jearim to his own city. Observe, 1. The shameful cowardice of the children of Ephraim, that warlike tribe, so famed for valiant men, Joshua’s tribe; the children of that tribe, though as well armed as ever, turned back when they came to face the enemy. Note, Weapons of war stand men in little stead without a martial spirit, and that is gone if God be gone. Sin dispirits men and takes away the heart. 2. The causes of their cowardice, which were no less shameful; and these were, (1.) A shameful violation of God’s law and their covenant with him (Ps. 78:10); they were basely treacherous and perfidious, for they kept not the covenant of God, and basely stubborn and rebellious (as they were described, Ps. 78:8), for they peremptorily refused to walk in his law, and, in effect, told him to his face they would not be ruled by him. (2.) A shameful ingratitude to God for the favours he had bestowed upon them: They forgot his works and his wonders, his works of wonder which they ought to have admired, Ps. 78:11. Note, Our forgetfulness of God’s works is at the bottom of our disobedience to his laws.
II. He takes occasion hence to consult precedents and to compare this with the case of their fathers, who were in like manner unmindful of God’s mercies to them and ungrateful to their founder and great benefactor, and were therefore often brought under his displeasure. The narrative in these verses is very remarkable, for it relates a kind of struggle between God’s goodness and man’s badness, and mercy, at length, rejoices against judgment.
1. God did great things for his people Israel when he first incorporated them and formed them into a people: Marvellous things did he in the sight of their fathers, and not only in their sight, but in their cause, and for their benefit, so strange, so kind, that one would think they should never be forgotten. What he did for them in the land of Egypt is only just mentioned here (Ps. 78:12), but afterwards resumed, Ps. 78:43. He proceeds here to show, (1.) How he made a lane for them through the Red Sea, and caused them, gave them courage, to pass through, though the waters stood over their heads as a heap, Ps. 78:13. See Isa. 63:12, 13, where God is said to lead them by the hand, as it were, through the deep that they should not stumble. (2.) How he provided a guide for them through the untrodden paths of the wilderness (Ps. 78:14); he led them step by step, in the day time by a cloud, which also sheltered them from the heat, and all the night with a light of fire, which perhaps warmed the air; at least it made the darkness of night less frightful, and perhaps kept off wild beasts, Zech. 2:5. (3.) How he furnished their camp with fresh water in a dry and thirsty land where no water was, not by opening the bottles of heaven (that would have been a common way), but by broaching a rock (Ps. 78:15, 16): He clave the rocks in the wilderness, which yielded water, though they were not capable of receiving it either from the clouds above or the springs beneath. Out of the dry and hard rock he gave them drink, not distilled as out of an alembic, drop by drop, but in streams running down like rivers, and as out of the great depths. God gives abundantly, and is rich in mercy; he gives seasonably, and sometimes makes us to feel the want of mercies that we may the better know the worth of them. This water which God gave Israel out of the rock was the more valuable because it was spiritual drink. And that rock was Christ.
2. When God began thus to bless them they began to affront him (Ps. 78:17): They sinned yet more against him, more than they had done in Egypt, though there they were bad enough, Ezek. 20:8. They bore the miseries of their servitude better than the difficulties of their deliverance, and never murmured at their taskmasters so much as they did at Moses and Aaron; as if they were delivered to do all these abominations, Jer. 7:10. As sin sometimes takes occasion by the commandment, so at other times it takes occasion by the deliverance, to become more exceedingly sinful. They provoked the Most High. Though he is most high, and they knew themselves an unequal match for him, yet they provoked him and even bade defiance to his justice; and this in the wilderness, where he had them at his mercy and therefore they were bound in interest to please him, and where he showed them so much mercy and therefore they were bound in gratitude to please him; yet there they said and did that which they knew would provoke him: They tempted God in their heart, Ps. 78:18. Their sin began in their heart, and thence it took its malignity. They do always err in their heart, Heb. 3:10. Thus they tempted God, tried his patience to the utmost, whether he would bear with them or no, and, in effect, bade him do his worst. Two ways they provoked him:—(1.) By desiring, or rather demanding, that which he had not thought fit to give them: They asked meat for their lust. God had given them meat for their hunger, in the manna, wholesome pleasant food and in abundance; he had given them meat for their faith out of the heads of leviathan which he broke in pieces, Ps. 74:14. But all this would not serve; they must have meat for their lust, dainties and varieties to gratify a luxurious appetite. Nothing is more provoking to God than our quarrelling with our allotment and indulging the desires of the flesh. (2.) By distrusting his power to give them what they desired. This was tempting God indeed. They challenged him to give them flesh; and, if he did not, they would say it was because he could not, not because he did not see it fit for them (Ps. 78:19): They spoke against God. Those that set bounds to God’s power speak against him. It was as injurious a reflection as could be cat upon God to say, Can God furnish a table in the wilderness? They had manna, but the did not think they had a table furnished unless they had boiled and roast, a first, a second, and a third course, as they had in Egypt, where they had both flesh and fish, and sauce too (Exod. 16:3; Num. 11:5), dishes of meat and salvers of fruit. What an unreasonable insatiable thin is luxury! Such a mighty thing did these epicures think a table well furnished to be that they thought it was more than God himself could give them in that wilderness; whereas the beasts of the forest, and all the fowls of the mountains, are his, Ps. 50:10, 11. Their disbelief of God’s power was so much the worse in that they did at the same time own that he had done as much as that came to (Ps. 78:20): Behold, he smote the rock, that the waters gushed out, which they and their cattle drank of. And which is easier, to furnish a table in the wilderness, which a rich man can do, or to fetch water out of a rock, which the greatest potentate on the earth cannot do? Never did unbelief, though always unreasonable, ask so absurd a question: “Can he that melted down a rock into streams of water give bread also? Or can he that has given bread provide flesh also?” Isa. any thing too hard for Omnipotence? When once the ordinary powers of nature are exceeded God has made bare his arm, and we must conclude that nothing is impossible with him. Be it ever so great a thing that we ask, it becomes us to own, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst.
3. God justly resented the provocation and was much displeased with them (Ps. 78:21): The Lord heard this, and was wroth. Note, God is a witness to all our murmurings and distrusts; he hears them and is much displeased with them. A fire was kindled for this against Jacob; the fire of the Lord burnt among them, Num. 11:1. Or it may be understood of the fire of God’s anger which came up against Israel. To unbelievers our God is himself a consuming fire. Those that will not believe the power of God’s mercy shall feel the power of his indignation, and be made to confess that it is a fearful thing to fall into his hands. Now here we are told, (1.) Why God thus resent 8000 ed the provocation (Ps. 78:22): Because by this it appeared that they believed not in God; they did not give credit to the revelation he had made of himself to them, for they durst not commit themselves to him, nor venture themselves with him: They trusted not in the salvation he had begun to work for them; for then they would not thus have questioned its progress. Those cannot be said to trust in God’s salvation as their felicity at last who cannot find in their hearts to trust in his providence for food convenient in the way to it. That which aggravated their unbelief was the experience they had had of the power and goodness of God, Ps. 78:23-25. He had given them undeniable proofs of his power, not only on earth beneath, but in heaven above; for he commanded the clouds from above, as one that had created them and commanded them into being; he made what use he pleased of them. Usually by their showers they contribute to the earth’s producing corn; but now, when God so commanded them, they showered down corn themselves, which is therefore called here the corn of heaven; for heaven can do the work without the earth, but not the earth without heaven. God, who has the key of the clouds, opened the doors of heaven, and that is more than opening the windows, which yet is spoken of as a great blessing, Mal. 3:10. To all that by faith and prayer ask, seek, and knock, these doors shall at any time be opened; for the God of heaven is rich in mercy to all that call upon him. He not only keeps a good house, but keeps open house. Justly might God take it ill that they should distrust him when he had been so very kind to them that he had rained down manna upon them to eat, substantial food, daily, duly, enough for all, enough for each. Man did eat angels’ food, such as angels, if they had occasion for food, would eat and be thankful for; or rather such as was given by the ministry of angels, and (as the Chaldee reads it) such as descended from the dwelling of angels. Every one, even the least child in Israel, did eat the bread of the mighty (so the margin reads it); the weakest stomach could digest it, and yet it was so nourishing that it was strong meat for strong men. And, though the provision was so good, yet they were not stinted, nor ever reduced to short allowance; for he sent them meat to the full. If they gathered little, it was their own fault; and yet even then they had no lack, Exod. 16:18. The daily provision God makes for us, and has made ever since we came into the world, though it has not so much of miracle as this, has no less of mercy, and is therefore a great aggravation of our distrust of God. (2.) How he expressed his resentment of the provocation, not in denying them what they so inordinately lusted after, but in granting it to them. [1.] Did they question his power? He soon gave them a sensible conviction that he could furnish a table in the wilderness. Though the winds seem to blow where they list, yet, when he pleased, he could make them his caterers to fetch in provisions, Ps. 78:26. He caused an east wind to blow and a south wind, either a south-east wind, or an east wind first to bring in the quails from that quarter and then a south wind to bring in more from that quarter; so that he rained flesh upon them, and that of the most delicate sort, not butchers’ meat, but wild-fowl, and abundance of it, as dust, as the sand of the sea (Ps. 78:27), so that the meanest Israelite might have sufficient; and it cost them nothing, no, not the pains of fetching it from the mountains, for he let it fall in the midst of their camp, round about their habitation, Ps. 78:28. We have the account Num. 11:31, 32. See how good God is even to the evil and unthankful, and wonder that his goodness does not overcome their badness. See what little reason we have to judge of God’s love by such gifts of his bounty as these; dainty bits are no tokens of his peculiar favour. Christ gave dry bread to the disciples that he loved, but a sop dipped in the sauce to Judas that betrayed him. [2.] Did they defy his justice and boast that they had gained their point? He made them pay dearly for their quails; for, though he gave them their own desire, they were not estranged from their lust (Ps. 78:29, 30); their appetite was insatiable; they were well filled and yet they were not satisfied; for they knew not what they would have. Such is the nature of lust; it is content with nothing, and the more it is humoured the more humoursome it grows. Those that indulge their lust will never be estranged from it. Or it intimates that God’s liberality did not make them ashamed of their ungrateful lustings, as it would have done if they had had any sense of honour. But what came of it? While the meat was yet in their mouth, rolled under the tongue as a sweet morsel, the wrath of God came upon them and slew the fattest of them (Ps. 78:31), those that were most luxurious and most daring. See Num. 11:33, 34. They were fed as sheep for the slaughter: the butcher takes the fattest first. We may suppose there were some pious and contented Israelites, that did eat moderately of the quails and were never the worse; for it was not the meat that poisoned them, but their own lust. Let epicures and sensualists here read their doom. The end of those who make a god of their belly is destruction, Phil. 3:19. The prosperity of fools shall destroy them, and their ruin will be the greater.
4. The judgments of God upon them did not reform them, nor attain the end, any more than his mercies (Ps. 78:32): For all this, they sinned still; they murmured and quarrelled with God and Moses as much as ever. Though God was wroth and smote them, yet they went on frowardly in the way of their heart (Isa. 57:17); they believed not for his wondrous works. Though his works of justice were as wondrous and as great proofs of his power as his works of mercy, yet they were not wrought upon by them to fear God, nor convinced how much it was their interest to make him their friend. Those hearts are hard indeed that will neither be melted by the mercies of God nor broken by his judgments.
5. They persisting in their sins, God proceeded in his judgments, but they were judgments of another nature, which wrought not suddenly, but slowly. He punished them not now with such acute diseases as that was which slew the fattest of them, but a lingering chronical distemper (Ps. 78:33): Therefore their days did he consume in vanity in the wilderness and their years in trouble. By an irreversible doom they were condemned to wear out thirty-eight tedious years in the wilderness, which indeed were consumed in vanity; for in all those years there was not a step taken nearer Canaan, but they were turned back again, and wandered to and fro as in a labyrinth, not one stroke struck towards the conquest of it: and not only in vanity, but in trouble, for their carcases were condemned to fall in the wilderness and there they all perished but Caleb and Joshua. Note, Those that sin still must expect to be in trouble still. And the reason why we spend our days in so much vanity and trouble, why we live with so little comfort and to so little purpose, is because we do not live by faith.
6. Under these rebukes they professed repentance, but they were not cordial and sincere in this profession. (1.) Their profession was plausible enough (Ps. 78:34, 35): When he slew them, or condemned them to be slain, then they sought him; they confessed their fault, and begged his pardon. When some were slain others in a fright cried to God for mercy, and promised they would reform and be very good; then they returned to God, and enquired early after him. So one would have taken them to be such as desired to find him. And they pretended to do this because, however they had forgotten it formerly, now they remembered that God was their rock and therefore now that they needed him they would fly to him and take shelter in him, and that the high God was their Redeemer, who brought them out of Egypt and to whom therefore they might come with boldness. Afflictions are sent to put us in mind of God as our rock and our redeemer; for, in prosperity, we are apt to forget him. (2.) They were not sincere in this profession (Ps. 78:36, 37): They did but flatter him with their mouth, as if they thought by fair speeches to prevail with him to revoke the sentence and remove the judgment, with a secret intention to break their word when the danger was over; they did not return to God with their whole heart, but feignedly, Jer. 3:10. All their professions, prayers, and promises, were extorted by the rack. It was plain that they did not mean as they said, for they did not adhere to it. They thawed in the sun, but froze in the shade. They did but lie to God with their tongues, for their heart was not with him, was not right with him, as appeared by the issue, for they were not stedfast in his covenant. They were not sincere in their reformation, for they were not constant; and, by thinking thus to impose upon a heart-searching God, they really put as great an affront upon him as by any of their reflections.
7. God hereupon, in pity to them, put a stop to the judgments which were threatened and in part executed (Ps. 78:38, 39): But he, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity. One would think this counterfeit repentance should have filled up the measure of their iniquity. What could be more provoking than to lie thus to the holy God, than thus to keep back part of the price, the chief part? Acts 5:3. And yet he, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity thus far, that he did not destroy them and cut them off from being a people, as he justly might have done, but spared their lives till they had reared another generation which should enter into the promised land. Destroy it not, for a blessing is in it, Isa. 65:8. Many a time he turned his anger away (for he is Lord of his anger) and did not stir up all his wrath, to deal with them as they deserved: and why did he not? Not because their ruin would have been any loss to him, but, (1.) Because he was full of compassion and, when he was going to destroy them, his repentings were kindled together, and he said, How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? How shall I deliver thee, Israel? Hos. 11:8. (2.) Because, though they did not rightly remember that he was their rock, he remembered that they were but flesh. He considered the corruption of their nature, which inclined them to evil, and was pleased to make that an excuse for his sparing them, though it was really no excuse for their sin. See Gen. 6:3. He considered the weakness and frailty of their nature, and what an easy thing it would be to crush them: They are as a wind that passeth away and cometh not again. They may soon be taken off, but, when they are gone, they are gone irrecoverably, and then what will become of the covenant with Abraham? They are flesh, they are wind; whence it were easy to argue they may justly, they may immediately, be cut off, and there would be no loss of them: but God argues, on the contrary, therefore he will not destroy them; for the true reason is, He is full of compassion.