History as Parable: Psalm 78


Today’s Sunday Psalms entry is written by Timothy Tennent.

Psalm 78 (NIV)

My people, hear my teaching;
    listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth with a parable;
    I will utter hidden things, things from of old—
things we have heard and known,
    things our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their descendants;
    we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord,
    his power, and the wonders he has done.
He decreed statutes for Jacob
    and established the law in Israel,
which he commanded our ancestors
    to teach their children,
so the next generation would know them,
    even the children yet to be born,
    and they in turn would tell their children.
Then they would put their trust in God
    and would not forget his deeds
    but would keep his commands.
They would not be like their ancestors—
    a stubborn and rebellious generation,
whose hearts were not loyal to God,
    whose spirits were not faithful to him.

65 Then the Lord awoke as from sleep,
    as a warrior wakes from the stupor of wine.
66 He beat back his enemies;
    he put them to everlasting shame.
67 Then he rejected the tents of Joseph,
    he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim;
68 but he chose the tribe of Judah,
    Mount Zion, which he loved.
69 He built his sanctuary like the heights,
    like the earth that he established forever.
70 He chose David his servant
    and took him from the sheep pens;
71 from tending the sheep he brought him
    to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
    of Israel his inheritance.
72 And David shepherded them with integrity of heart;
    with skillful hands he led them.

Sing this psalm with the Seedbed Psalter today! Visit the resource here.


Of all the teaching devices of Jesus, he is probably most known for his extensive use of parables. It is certainly one of the most important features of Jesus’ teaching, revealing in both its style and content. There is an often-overlooked verse in the Gospel of Matthew (13:35) that tells us that the reason Jesus spoke in parables was to fulfill the prophecy of Psalm 78:2: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things, things from of old.” It is interesting that, at least in form, Psalm 78 does not contain anything we would recognize as a parable. But the reason Matthew quotes this verse is not because he is comparing the form of Psalm 78 with the form of Jesus’ teaching. Rather, he is saying that both (though different in form) function like parables in the sense that they have the power to conceal as well as reveal. That’s the power of a parable. For some, it is just a story. For others, it is the very key to salvation. Only the eyes and ears of faith can understand the real truth that is being taught.

In Psalm 78, Asaph takes an extended time tracing the history of Israel. For some, it will just read like a chronicle of history, like any nation’s. However, with the eyes and ears of faith, we realize that this history of Israel is also our history. It is the history of the world. It is my history and your history. The cycle of remembering God, then forgetting his commandments, then remembering again, should be familiar to us. This psalm is the account of the ultimate parable, the history of Israel. Asaph wants us to understand that the history of Israel is a kind of lived parable from which we can discern the basic patterns of God’s dealings with humanity at any time, and in any age. Paul himself makes this point in his letter to the Corinthians. After recounting several key moments in Israel’s history (similar to Psalm 78), Paul says, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11).

This is why the Israelites enshrined their history in poetical songs of worship, such as Psalms 78, 105, and 106. Their history was just as much a tool of instruction as someone learning the laws about sacrifice. This also stands as a reminder to us to make careful study of Israel’s history, and the history of the church, so that we can better understand our place in redemptive history, how to avoid past pitfalls, and how to faithfully imitate past faithfulness.


Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.