The famous opening words, quoted later by Jesus:
“I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark saying of old, Which we have heard and known, And our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, Telling to the generation to come the praises of Yahweh, And His strength and His wonderful works that He has done.”
I want to suggest here that Psalm 78 isn’t just obeying this directive, i.e. God commands us to tell our children the stories of Yahweh’s redemption. It is also, even primarily, telling a story about what happened to Israel when they failed to obey this directive. Psalm 78 isn’t just a story of Yahweh’s redemption, but it’s the story of what happens when we forget to sing of Yahweh’s redemption. Psalm 78 is a cautionary tale for us.
For instance, v. 32 says “In spite of this [i.e. the water, manna, and meat in the wilderness], they still sinned, And did not believe in his wondrous works,” which is clearly poking fun at the people of Israel for having the attention span of a fruit fly. In v. 41 it says “again and again they tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel,” but in v. 42 it describes how they tempted God: “They did not remember His power: The day when He redeemed them from the enemy, When he worked His signs in Egypt, And His wonders in the field of Zoan.” So sinning against God, tempting God, limiting the Holy One—these are all Israel forgetting his acts of redemption. For the people of God, “turning back and acting unfaithfully like their fathers” means “not keeping His testimonies,” which testimonies are not simply his laws but the testimony of his works of redemption.
So the opening lines, “Give ear, O my people, to my law; Incline your ears to the words of my mouth,” are a caution. These “dark sayings of old which we have heard and known” we must not hide them from our children, lest we fall into the same mistakes that the wilderness generation did.
Psalm 78 is, in this sense, a meta-psalm. Psalms, from this perspective, are expressions of the specifically dramatic nature of God’s redemption. As we have all heard much of lately, God’s redemption is not a statement or a proposition but a story and a narrative, and as such it must be made into poetry and song—hence Yahweh’s redemption is a kind of redemption that always produces psalm singing (Exodus 15). Psalm 78 is a meta-psalm because it tells that story of God’s redemption but in so doing it tells the story of why such stories are so important, why these stories must continue to be sung. Psalm 78 is the ultimate justification for the entire book of Psalms and its continuing usage in the Church today. It is also, for that matter, the justification for the continued composition of new poems and songs that praise current and recent and particular acts of God’s redemption.