Augustine. Exposition on the Book of Psalms. Schaff, Philip (editor). New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co, 1886. Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers: Series 1: Volume VIII. Re-published 2014, Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle electronic edition, ISBN-13: 978-1-78379-372-3.
Augustine views the historical narrative in Psalm 78 as a way to caution the current generation against disregarding God’s blessings in the past (Augustine Psalms, loc. 331817). In this way he considers it a parable, from which people can draw comparisons to their own state (Augustine Psalms, loc. 331823). Therefore, verse one calls the people to pay attention to God’s law. Attending to God’s word, says Augustine, should create understanding to all sorts of people (Augustine Psalms, loc. 331838). Augustine goes on to observe that the command is plural. The Psalm is addressed to multiple people, perhaps as many as would hear it (Augustine Psalms, loc. 331848). So, in verse two, when the Psalmist says he will speak of things “from the beginning,” the intent is to describe God’s work with Israel from the departure from Egypt. This is when Augustine sees the Psalmist conceiving of the people as a congregation (Augustine Psalms, loc. 331884).
The speaker shifts in verse three. Augustine notes that previously God was the speaker, but now it is a man (Augustine Psalms, loc. 331889). Although the Psalm is set in time, the message, according to verse four, is for multiple generations. God’s works can be applied to the coming generations (Augustine Psalms, loc. 331904). Augustine is clear that the testimony of God and His acts brings healing and strength to those who heed it, but brings condemnation to those who would reject God (Augustine Psalms, loc. 331925). The testimony of God’s work is intended for the encouragement of the faithful, generation after generation.
Verse nine speaks of “the sons of Ephrem bending and shooting bows.” Augustine sees their being turned back in war as a sign of their inability (Augustine Psalms, loc. 331955). He bases this on the fact that the text does not say they were shooting with bows or that they were shooting arrows. Rather, he sees this as an unfavored tribe in a generation which did not trust God (Augustine Psalms, loc. 331960). From this concept, he goes on to speak of God’s favor being placed on unlikely candidates. Augustine recognizes this as an intergenerational pattern, and one from which the people of Israel should have learned (Augustine Psalms, loc. 331981). Yet they forgot God’s benefits, according to verse 10.
At issue in the Psalm is the Israelites’ questioning whether God was able to provide their needs (vv. 18-20). Augustine points out that James urges Christians to ask of God, trusting his abundant generosity (Augustine Psalms, loc. 332027). The issue of Israel’s wandering in the desert remains difficult to understand. Augustine concludes that the people feared that Godcould not sustain them in the desert. Therefore, God kept his people right there and sustained them the rest of their lives (Augustine Psalms, loc. 332032). Several verses of the Psalm describe this in detail. Again and again in history people seek God when they are afraid of his anger, when they see his judgment. Augustine sees this as different from genuinely trusting in God for eternal life (Augustine Psalms, loc. 332067). They were seeking temporal things rather than seeking God on his own terms. The Psalm describes it as loving God with the mouth, but lying to God (v. 36) (Augustine Psalms, loc. 332077).
Augustine does pursue a biblical explanation for God’s apparent forbearance. Does it come about in a random way or is there some logic behind it? In the Psalm, after the failure of the people of Israel, God takes them to a mountain and delivers holiness to them (Augustine Psalms, loc. 332105). God’s regular activity is to call sinners to repentance and bring them to His grace. The pattern is easy to see. In fact, verse 40 remarks on how often Israel has provoked God (Augustine Psalms, loc. 332116).
Augustine goes on to describe the various situations noted in the Psalm. Not all are from Exodus, for instance, “hoar-frost” (Augustine Psalms, loc. 332146). He frequently finds allegorical applications, such as the noise of frogs, the secrecy of a growth of mildew, etc. In all these things, Augustine is clear that God is working in His sovereignty to accomplish His will (Augustine Psalms, loc. 332186).
Verses 60 and following illustrate God’s willingness to come directly into His peoples’ need (Augustine Psalms, loc. 332251). At the same time, though, God allows his disobedient people to receive the reward of their sins. He is free to turn his people over to those who would bringthem trouble (Augustine Psalms, loc. 332261).
The grace of God is based on God’s choice. His people, whom he chose, disobeyed him constantly. Yet he has shown mercy on them, rescuing them again and again (Augustine Psalms, loc. 332291). This is the mercy of God, a mercy Augustine always sees pointing us toward Christ.