Psalm 78: 1bc-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38
The responsorial psalm for this week describes the practice of handing stories down from generation to generation, a practice that is found in every society. Its purpose is the preservation of the traditions that shape the identity and ethos of the people, giving them a sense of who they are by reminding them of the founding and formative events of their past. They, in turn, will transmit these traditions to their descendants.
This is a very serious undertaking, for it is precisely in the handing down of traditions that the identity of the group is preserved.
Hearken, my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable, I will utter mysteries from of old.
The psalm is spoken by a wise man who begins by inviting his people to listen to what he has to say. Each phrase contains language that clearly identifies the didactic character of the psalm:
- “My teaching” is the Hebrew tôrâ, which is usually translated as “law.” It implies instruction more than legislation.
- “Parable” is mashāl, the generic word for “wisdom saying.” It also refers to a particular form of proverb.
- “Mysteries from of old” is hîdâ, which means “mysterious saying.” In some translations, it is rendered here as “riddles,” because it indicates the kind of saying that draws one into an intellectual adventure.
In this context, it’s clear that the sayings are to be understood specifically as Wisdom teaching.
While he slew them they sought him and inquired after God again, remembering that God was their rock and the Most High God, their redeemer. But they flattered him with their mouths and lied to him with their tongues, though their hearts were not steadfast toward him, nor were they faithful to his covenant.
Without naming specific incidents, the psalm sketches a bit of the history of the people. they turned to God only after they had been severely punished. Several times God allowed enemy forces to overtake the Israelites, but only one time does the text say that it was God who slew the people. That occurred when many people died from the bites of the fiery serpents God had sent, the incident referred to in today’s first reading (Numbers 21:4b-9). It seems the people only clung to God when their very survival was at stake. Their commitment was not sincere; their promises of fidelity were empty.
Once again, a closer look at the vocabulary being employed helps our understanding of the psalmist’s meaning. Three words in particular should be noted: steadfast or faithful (’ēmūn), covenant (bĕriyth), and compassionate (rahûm). The psalmist is pointing out that God upheld the integrity of this intimate bond even when the people did not.
But he, being merciful, forgave their sin and destroyed them not; often he turned back his anger and let none of his wrath be roused.
The people sinned, but God forgave them, holding in check his righteous anger and wrath that were provoked by the people’s disloyalty. Instead of destroying them, he imposed punishment to purify them.
This is a Wisdom psalm; a very clear lesson is to be learned here. The past is offered as an example of what can happen in the present and in the future; namely, both judgment and salvation. Take heed! Hearken! When our ancestors sinned, they were punished; when they repented, even if it was half-hearted repentance, God was merciful.