Psalm 78: It’s Harsh

Thursday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time

August 13, 2020

Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 78, one of the twelve “Psalms of Asaph”. These psalms have a common theme of God’s judgement relative to Israel’s faithlessness to the Law.

Psalm 78 is the second longest psalm, the whole of which reads a lot like a history lesson. It recounts God’s enduring faithfulness even in the face of Israel’s fickleness.

They tempted and rebelled against God the Most High,
and kept not his decrees.
They turned back and were faithless like their fathers;
they recoiled like a treacherous bow.


The psalm fits well with today’s readings. Poor Ezekiel is commanded by God to act out the impending Assyrian devastation of the kingdom. He has to pack up, dig through a wall, hide his face, and escape into the night — just as Israel will have to do when the conquerors besiege them. All this, because God is passing judgement on Israel’s infidelities and God wants them to recognize it.

They angered him with their high places
and with their idols roused his jealousy.
God heard and was enraged
and utterly rejected Israel.


Psalm 78 remembers this history and retells it for the instruction of the generations. It is a reminiscence not unlike one that we all practice, I think.

Sometimes, especially in prayer or retreat, don’t we look back over our lives to rediscover how God was with us even in difficulty and darkness? Even in our poorest choices and most stupid sins? Aren’t we gratefully surprised that God’s Mercy was the ultimate fruit of such trials? When we face new challenges, don’t we remind ourselves of these things for the sake of our future courage and hope?

That’s what Psalm 78 is doing. Israel messed up, suffered judgement, and was made new in Mercy. The psalmist wants future generations never to forget.


Each of us, both as individuals and within our communities, experience such cycles of sin and redemption. Each turn should make us stronger, grateful, more faithful. Our witness to God’s abiding mercy should be shared for the sake of the generations… our personal Psalm 78 – written not in words, but in the fidelity of our lives.

Psalm 78 is not pretty or easy. Life isn’t always that way either. In our Gospel, Jesus assures us that God is a generous Creator who wants to redeem us in Mercy. But we have to do our part too, or we could wind up like the unfaithful servant – defeated by our own selfish choices.


Poetry: Mercy by David Baker

Small flames afloat in blue duskfall, beneath trees
anonymous and hooded, the solemn trees—by ones
and twos and threes we go down to the water's level edge
with our candles cupped and melted into little pie-tins
to set our newest loss free. Everyone is here.

Everyone is wholly quiet in the river's hush and appropriate dark.
The tenuous fires slip from our palms and seem to settle
in the stilling water, but then float, ever so slowly,
in a loose string like a necklace's pearls spilled,
down the river barely as wide as a dusty road.

No one is singing, and no one leaves—we stand back
beneath the grieving trees on both banks, bowed but watching,
as our tiny boats pass like a long history of moons
reflected, or like notes in an elder's hymn, or like us,
death after death, around the far, awakening bend.

Music:  Mercy – Amanda Cook

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