Many of you know I am in the process of doing the research and writing for the second volume of my commentary on the Book of Psalms, to be titled The Messiah in the Psalms: Discovering Christ in Unexpected Places, Volume 2: 73-150. I am now working on Psalm 81, but I have already completed some work beyond this.
I have finished my work through Psalm 80, but today I did some reading in Ben Witherington III’s Psalms Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017). Witherington III is Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and is on the doctoral faculty at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He has taught at Ashland Theological Seminary, Vanderbilt University, Duke Divinity School, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He has written more than sixty books, including commentaries on every book in the New Testament and he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Durham, England in 1981.
The reason I am writing about this is that I was intrigued by some of the comments by Witherington and others included in what I read on pages 167-182. These comments relate to the importance of memory to help us avoid rebellion against God and the responsibility of parents to relate their history to their children.
Witherington points out that after Psalm 119, Psalm 78 is the longest psalm in the Psalter. The Masoretic scribes discovered that Psalm 78:36 is the precise center of the 2,524 verses in the entire Psalter. It is interesting that this central verse, with its references to recalling the past as an aid to avoid future failure, reads: “Nevertheless they flattered Him with their mouth, and they lied to Him with their tongue” (NKJV).
Here are some of the comments I read:
The reciting of God’s incredible works in vv. 12-16 and vv. 43-55 leads to particular examples of Israel’s past failures with the implicit message “go thou and do otherwise,” very much like Paul’s review of the same subjects in 1 Corinthians 10:1-11 [Witherington, 168, from A. F. Campbell, “Psalm 78: A Contribution to the Theology of Tenth Century Israel,” CBQ 41 (1979): 54].
There is irony here; those who passed on the tradition also failed it [Witherington, 168].
There are some twenty quotations, allusions, or echoes from Psalm 78 found in the NT. … Not surprisingly, these songs are meant to be mainly instructional, but the lesson typically takes us from Genesis 1 through the exodus and up to King David, proclaiming the mighty acts of God and his faithfulness, and at the same time, the not-infrequent infidelities of Israel. The obvious assumption is that a people who forget their past will neither know who they are, nor know who their God is either, nor will they behave better in the future if they forget their story [Witherington, 174].
Verses 5-6 makes clear that every generation of Israelites had a responsibility to tell and own the story [Witherington, 174].
Some twelve times we are told in this psalm that the people have responded unfaithfully to God’s wonders and gracious actions on their behalf [Witherington, 175].
Parents, not surprisingly, were tasked with passing on the “instruction” to their children from generation to generation. When one stops singing the songs, when one stops telling the old, old story and passing along the old wisdom in one form or another, amnesia and moral and theological infidelity set in [Witherington, 175-176].
What is also notable from the outset is the use of the first-person plural (see e.g., vv. 2-4). This is not a mere finger-pointing to the past, saying “they did things wrong.” It is an embracing of the history as a continuum saying, “we did things wrong” [Witherington, 176, from Terrien, Psalms, 366].
Instead of trusting God, they kept testing God [Witherington, 176].
It appears that two main sins of God’s people are being criticized: their greed — not ever satisfied with what they had — and their idolatry [Witherington, 176-177].
But having escaped the idolatries of Egypt, the Israelites ran right into the idolatries of Canaan: its high places and its graven images (v. 56) [Witherington, 177].