Summary: Our present passage provides insight as to why the Israelites stumbled in fulfilling their obligations, and consequently should give us some insight into our own stumbling.
Psalm 78:9-11 I Forgot
12/30/08 D. Marion Clark
This psalm is excellent for studying at the end of the year – for it is a psalm of looking back so as to look forward. The first eight verses focus on the obligation God’s people have to pass on to the next generation what God has done. Our present passage provides insight as to why the Israelites stumbled in fulfilling their obligations, and consequently should give us some insight into our own stumbling.
Verse 9 tells us: The Ephraimites, armed with the bow, turned back on the day of battle.
Who were the Ephraimites and what is this turning back they were guilty of? One of the twelve tribes of Israel, they had a promising beginning which led to prosperity and honor. Ephraim was one of the two sons of Joseph (Manasseh being the other), whom Joseph’s father Jacob adopted as his own, thus making them heads of half-tribes in place of Joseph.
Let’s go back to that promising beginning for Ephraim. When Joseph brought his two sons to Jacob to be blessed by him, Jacob switched the blessings by placing his right hand on the younger son Ephraim. When Joseph protested, Jacob responded that Ephraim shall be greater than Manasseh, and indeed become a “multitude of nations.” Ephraim’s tribe did rise to prominence. Joshua, who led the Israelites into the Promised Land, was an Ephraimite. When they entered into the land, it was in the territory allotted to Ephraim that the tabernacle of God was located at Shiloh. It was in Ephraim’s territory at Shechem where the first national assemblies were held. Thus, Ephraim became both the religious and political center for the nation. In practical terms, Ephraim became the first among equals among the tribes.
But the tribe eventually fell out of its position, which Psalm 78 presents. Verse 60 notes that God “forsook his dwelling at Shiloh.” Though the tabernacle containing the ark of the covenant dwelt in Shiloh, the ark ended up in Judah, eventually settling in Jerusalem where the temple was built. God removed his favor upon Ephraim and shifted it to Judah. Where did Ephraim go wrong?
If you page back through your Bible, you will not find an episode of Ephraim warriors backing off from a battle. Actually, they were a bit quick about wanting to fight, even fighting against other tribes for not letting them join in their battles. But if you were to read in Judges, chapter 1, you would find Ephraim listed as one of the six tribes who failed to drive out the Canaanites from its territory. Ephraim failed to finish the battle. Its warriors did enough to take ground in the Promised Land; the tribe did well enough to be prominent. But it did not complete the race. Why?
To answer that question, let me take you back to another scene of blessing. This was the day when Jacob gathered his sons about him and gave each a blessing. Here is an excerpt of what he said of Joseph, which would also be the blessing for Ephraim:
23 The archers bitterly attacked him,
shot at him, and harassed him severely,
24 yet his bow remained unmoved;
his arms were made agile
by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob…(Genesis 49:23-24).
Note the image of Ephraim with a bow as in verse 9 of our passage. As this blessing indicates, Ephraim did not become cowardly in battle. It was not the attack of enemy archers that overcame its warriors. Something else led them to drop their bows of their own accord. The next two verses of our psalm explain the real problem:
10 They did not keep God’s covenant,
but refused to walk according to his law.
11 They forgot his works
and the wonders that he had shown them.
The Ephraimites’ downfall (and it was the problem of all the tribes as the psalm will show) was two-fold: they disobeyed God, and they forgot what he had done. Psalm 78 presents this connection of disobedience with forgetfulness. The psalm begins with the very act of remembering and telling the deeds of the Lord to the next generation so that they will not forget his works, but keep his commandments (v. 7). The shame of the old generation was that they did not remember God’s power by which he redeemed them from Egypt, and thus rebelled against God (v. 40-42).
Consider their disobedience in verse 10: They did not keep God’s covenant, but refused to walk according to his law. The grief of the Israelites’ disobedience encompasses more than mere breaking laws. Let me illustrate. When a patrol officer pulls you over for exceeding the speed limit, he typically treats you with indifference or even with pleasantness. You have broken the law, but he does not regard it personally. But when that same officer walks to the window and finds his daughter behind the wheel, it becomes another matter. And if that daughter had appeared to be a model driver with her father in the car; if she had promised him that he could count on her to set an example of good driving so as to make him proud…then her lawbreaking becomes all the more painful. She did not merely break the law; she disobeyed her father. She broke his trust and even shamed him because of their relationship.