Depending upon your mood and state of mind (or heart) we may have a bit of a Tuesday Terror looming at Evening Prayer: the 78th Psalm. Assuming you’re using the 30-day cycle of Psalms by Thomas Cranmer that has adorned every Prayer Book for over 450 years, this evening is when we come to Psalm 78, the second-longest Psalm in the book, and the longest that we pray straight through.
In terms of genre, it covers a few bases. It is a didactic psalm, written with the express purpose of teaching its reader, singer, or pray-er. It is a history psalm, telling stories of the people of Israel throughout their past. It is a parable, according to its opening verses, intending to teach us about divine faithfulness and human unfaithfulness through the medium of story.
Something that can help one get through this Psalm attentively and profitably is to break it into manageable sections:
- Verses 1-8 are a very general introduction to this type of Psalm.
- Verses 9-40 are the first story, summarizing the exodus, focusing on the wilderness wandering.
- Verses 41-54 form the second story, also summarizing the exodus, but focusing more on the events in Egypt.
- Verses 55-72 form a less organized section noting the conquest of Canaan, the split of Israel and Judah, a shout-out to Solomon’s Temple, and the kingship of David.
While the chronology is a bit mixed up, the order that may give clarity to the Psalm is perhaps the level of faithfulness exhibited by God’s people. Much of the Psalm reveals how sinful and disobedient we can be, but there’s a trajectory of growth towards the end. The end, reflecting on the Shepherd-King David, is a decidedly positive note to close with.
If you’re singing or chanting this Psalm, first of all congratulations – this will keep you singing for quite a while! Second of all, consider changing the chant tune at verse 41, breaking the Psalm roughly in half. I have heard choirs do this before with other long psalms, and it can help both break up the monotony and audibly mark the turn from one section to the next.