A warning to the worshipers in Zion not to sin against God as their ancestors did but to remember all of God's mercies.
st. 1 = vv. 1-4
st. 2 = vv. 5-8
st. 3 = vv. 12-14, 17-20
st. 4 = vv. 23-31
st. 5 = vv. 21-22, 31-33
st. 6 = vv. 34-41
st. 7 = vv. 42-51
st. 8 = vv. 15-16, 52-55
st. 9 = vv.56-61
st. 10 = vv. 62-66
st. 11 = vv. 66-72, 9-11
st. 12 = Concluding exhortation from New Testament perspective
Like Psalms 105-106 and 135-136, Psalm 78 tells a story–it recounts part of the covenant history of God's Old Testament people. Since their freedom from captivity in Egypt, God's people Israel had repeatedly refused "to live by his law" (v. 10)–in spite of God's unfailing mercies and occasional chastisement.
Psalm 78 teaches that people must remember God's mighty deeds through the generations to remain faithful (st. 1-2); they should learn from their history and not "put God to the test" (v. 41). God delivered Israel from Egypt, and Israel complained in the wilderness about the lack of food (st. 3); God provided food (manna and quail), and Israel was ungrateful (st. 4). "In spite of blessings they rebelled"; God became angry with Israel and punished an entire generation (st. 5). Yet God again showed mercy, and Israel showed fickleness of faith (st. 6). "How could they forget the plagues" God had used to free them from Egypt (st. 7)? How could they forget God's gift of water from the rock and God's gift of the promised land (st. 8)? Once established in Canaan, Israel rebelled against God again, and God withdrew from them completely (st. 9). But when they became desperate and desolate at the hands of their enemies, God awoke to their situation (st. 10). "The LORD beat back his enemies," reestablishing Israel in the promised land. Then the LORD, in a final great display of mercy, chose David of the tribe of Judah to shepherd the people with integrity and skill (st. 11). Mention of God's choice of Zion and Judah over Ephraim and Shiloh (vv. 9-11, 60, 67-68) was intended as a warning to worshipers at Jerusalem (Zion) not to fall away from God as their ancestors had done (Jer. 7:12-19; 26:5-6).
Calvin Seerveld (PHH 22) versified this psalm in 1985 for the Psalter Hymnal. His intent was "to condense this psalm of covenantal history so that it could be sung responsively in church and tell the 'history of salvation' for young and old to hear again." A setting of the first segment of Psalm 78 is at 585.
As instruction on obedient living with God; as an exhortation to faithfulness in light of God's enthronement of Christ as the Shepherd-King of God's people.
--Psalter Hymnal Handbook