Summary: Let us commit ourselves to keep all the testimonies that point us to this testimony – the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Psalm 78:5-8 Testimony and Law
12/28/14 D. Marion Clark
The message of Psalm 78 is straightforward: Each generation is to teach the next the deeds and commandments of God so that they will be faithful to him and not stray away. Most of the psalm is a history lesson of how this lesson was not carried out. Instead of exhorting one generation to be like the previous, it is a warning not to be like the generation of their fathers. Their fathers were anything but the Greatest Generation.
What was to be the solution to turning things around? Teaching the next generation.
He established a testimony in Jacob
and appointed a law in Israel,
First, we are going to have a lesson in Hebrew poetry. This first half of verse 5 is an example of Hebrew parallelism. The first line presents a thought, and the second line repeats it in slightly different language. So, for example in Psalm 19:1:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
“Sky” is synonymous with “heavens” and “proclaims” with “declare.” And then you will notice that “glory of God” and “handiwork” are slightly different. “His handiwork” corresponds to “the glory of God.” Looking at the glorious sky we see the glory of God who made the sky.
In like manner our two lines repeat and reinforce each other. “Established” and “appointed” are synonymous, as are “Jacob” and “Israel.” As you know, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel. Then “testimony” and “law” are synonymous. Testimony is another word for law. The NIV translates the Hebrew word as “statutes” and the NRSV as “decree.” In verse 56, the Israelites are criticized for not keeping God’s testimonies, the same word as in verse 5 in the plural.
And yet, there is a slight distinction between the two terms which the translation “testimony” more clearly brings out. Let me read another passage where the same word is used and translated testimony.
And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. 22 There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel (Exodus 25:21-22).
The testimony will be placed inside the ark, which will be covered by the mercy seat. It is there, over mercy seat that God will make his presence dwell. (Remember our discussing the term of presence of the Lord, when we first studied Jonah and his effort to flee from the presence of the Lord.) What is the testimony that was placed in the ark?
With apologies to Indiana Jones, it has nothing to do with creepy supernatural beings that turn humans to ashes. Rather, it was composed of two stones in the form of tablets, what we know as the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 31:18 we read, “And [God] gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.”
So, the testimony is composed of the two tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. Why are they given the name “testimony”? It is because they served as a witness to the covenant made between God and his people. We do not have time to go through the details of ancient covenant making, but understand the basic idea that when a covenant was made between two parties, some tangible sign or testimony was given that would hold each party accountable to the covenant made. As in our present day legal system, the agreement might be written out and then a copy made so that each party had the agreement. If either failed to keep their end of the bargain, the “testimony” could be appealed to.
This is the purpose that the two tablets served. We think of the Ten Commandments filling up both tablets. More likely the complete set of commandments were written on each stone – one stone for the people and one for God. These two were then placed in the ark to be a testimony to the covenant made. We see this in the descriptors of the ark. It is referred to as the ark of the testimony and also as the ark of the covenant.
So, when the psalm speaks of God establishing a testimony in Jacob, it does mean appointing a law in Israel, but also that the law is witnessed to by a testimony literally written in stone. That testimony tells us something more. It tells us that the law was not merely a collection of laws devised to keep a society together; the law itself is what identifies the people as belonging to God and accountable to him. It is what identifies them as God’s covenant people. And so, to break the law is to break faith with God. It is to rebel against God as their king.