English Basic Explanation - Chapter 78
Psalm 78 differs from most other chapters of Tehillim in that it presents a historical overview, rather than an expression of the Psalmists thoughts and feelings. Assaf, author of this chapter, recounts the major events in the history of Am Yisrael from the Egyptian bondage through the crowning of David as king. The focus is quite clearly on the nation's repeated betrayal of God despite the great miracles and kindnesses He performed for them. As Assaf explicitly declares in verse 8, his intention in this historical review is to help ensure that we – the readers – will not repeat the mistakes of our ancestors, that we will show gratitude to the Almighty for His kindness through loyalty and obedience, rather than ungratefully disobeying His word and rejecting His authority.
The historical account begins with the story of members from the tribe of Efrayim who tried leaving Egypt before the promised time of redemption, and were ultimately killed by Pelishtim as they made their way towards the Land of Israel (verse 9). The main focus, however, is undoubtedly on the period of Bene Yisrael's travel through the wilderness. Despite witnessing the miracles of Yesi'at Misrayim (the Exodus from Egypt), the splitting of the sea and the production of water from stone, the nation continued to doubt God's ability to "set a table in the wilderness" (verse 19), to sustain them during travel. Assaf tells of the punishments God visited upon the people for their lack of faith, as well as His eventual willingness to forgive them and bring them to Eretz Yisrael despite their continued disobedience.
Towards the end of this Psalm (verses 54-54-72), Assaf turns his attention to the period following Bene Yisrael's entry into and successful conquest of their land. Once again, he laments, they responded to God's miraculous assistance with betrayal. Although He vanquished the native peoples and allowed them to settle and build their country, they fell prey to the idolatrous influences of the surrounding nations and constructed forbidden altars and statues (verse 58). This rebellion resulted in the destruction of the Mishkan in Shilo and the capture of the Aron (Ark) at the hands of Pelishtim, as told in the Book of Shemuel I (chapter 4) and recounted here by Assaf (verses 60-64). Assaf points to this tragedy as reflecting God's rejection of the tribe of Yosef, in whose region the Mishkan had been situated, and His designation of the tribe of Yehuda, where the final Temple was constructed (verses 67-69) and from which King David's dynasty was established (verses 70-72).
Assaf teaches that reflecting on the history of Am Yisrael should bring a person to greater appreciation of God's power, patience and benevolence towards His people. The kindness He has shown us since our nation's inception should motivate and inspire us to increase our commitment and devotion to His Torah, rather than continue the unfortunate pattern of ingratitude and betrayal that Assaf bemoans.