Many psalms are inspirational, reflecting David’s relationship with God and his unwavering faith in the Almighty. Psalm 78, however, begins by declaring itself to be a “maskil”. While the word maskil is hard to translate, it is derived from the word sechel (intellect), giving it the simple meaning of ‘something that is intellectually enlightening.
This Psalm describes a large chunk of Jewish history in broad terms. As such, it begins by emphasizing the importance of learning history:
I will expound a theme, hold forth on the lessons of the past,things we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not withhold them from their children, telling the coming generation the praises of Hashem and His might, and the wonders He performed. Psalms 78:2-4
Indeed, this chapter of Psalms is a history lesson that has a powerful message.
But I would like to focus on what we can learn from a specific chapter in the Exodus that is often overlooked alluded to in this psalm:
Like the Ephraimite bowmen who played false in the day of battle, they did not keep Hashem‘s covenant, they refused to follow His instruction; Psalm 78:9-10
Who were these Ephraimites and when did they refuse to follow God’s instruction?
“Ephraim mourned and his relatives comforted him.”
But what happened to the tribe of Ephraim?
While the nation of Israel knew that the Egyptian exile would last 400 years based on the promise to Abraham at the Covenant of the Parts (Genesis 15), the tribe of Ephraim miscalculated, believing the exile was supposed to end thirty years before it really did. Under this misconception, they left Egypt to carry out a raid in the promised land. They entered the land via the coastal plain, relying on their strength and their weaponry to lead them to victory. Though they had great confidence, they lacked divine guidance since they had left Egypt prematurely. Thus, they were completely annihilated by the Philistines.
The men of Gath placed the bones of the dead Ephraimites (the remains of some 300,000 individuals) by the roadside as a warning to others. The sages teach that God led the Children of Israel out of Egypt by the longer route (Exodus 13:17-18) so that they would not see the bones of the Ephraimites that had been left along the road by the men of Gath. The massacre of their brethren had taken place just a few decades earlier, and God did not want the other tribes to be reminded of this or get disheartened.
The medieval biblical commentator known as Rashi actually identifies the dry bones in the vision of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 37) as those of the Ephraimites.
The reason that they died at the hands of the Philistines was that they trusted in their human calculations and refused to wait in Egypt for Moses’ instruction. The unmistakable message in this incident is that redemption is in God’s hands and requires faith and obedience. And, of course, patience.
The story of the Ephraimite bowmen is a cautionary tale about the dangers of impatience and presumption. When we trust in our own understanding and timing, we risk making serious mistakes. But when we wait on God and obey His instructions, we can be assured of His protection and guidance.
The message of Psalm 78 is still relevant today. In a world where we are constantly bombarded with information and distractions, it can be easy to forget the lessons of the past. But if we take the time to learn from our history, we can avoid repeating the same mistakes. As we learn Psalm 78, we are prompted to reflect on our own lives and the ways we navigate our spiritual journeys. Are we, like the Ephraimites, prone to rush ahead, driven by our own calculations, or are we ready to embrace the wisdom of patience, and the virtue of faith and obedience in our quest for redemption? The answers may be as enlightening as the Psalm itself.