It is hard to find perfect scholarly agreement on anything relating to the interpretation of the Bible, including the historical setting for Psalm 79. But the psalm describes the destruction of Jerusalem, the defiling of the temple and the slaughter of the people, and the most obvious historical setting for this is the period following the destruction of the city by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C.

But there is good news, too, and this is where the final stanza and the psalm itself end (vv. 65-72). We have seen that the anger of God builds against entrenched human sin. But his mercy does not end. We saw this at the end of stanza four (vv. 38, 39). Here the last stanza is given to it.

Think back on what God has done. In stanza one, we were reminded that he had done miracles, but the people had forgotten them. In stanza two, we were reminded that God provided for the people's needs abundantly, but they had remained unsatisfied. In stanza three, we were reminded of God's just judgments, but these only produced a false repentance. In fact, not even his mercy was effective. For in spite of his mercy, the people "often ... rebelled against him in the desert and grieved him in the wasteland" (v. 40)! Miracles! Provision! Judgment! Mercy! Four great actions. Yet in spite of them, the outcome was rebellion and unbelief.

The judgment mentioned at the end of the third stanza of Psalm 78 leads to the subject matter of the fourth stanza (vv. 32-39), namely, repentance. When the people were judged they repented. Unfortunately, their repentance was seldom true repentance. Therefore, in words that echo Hosea's later description of this sickening hypocrisy (in Hosea 6:1-3), Asaph says, “Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer. But then they would flatter him with their mouths, lying to him with their tongues; their hearts were not loyal to him, they were not faithful to his covenant” (vv. 34-37).

The second stanza of this psalm begins its rehearsal of the historical dealings of God with Ephraim, one of the twelve Jewish tribes (vv. 9-16). This seems a strange place to begin, first, because Ephraim does not seem to us to be a very prominent tribe, and second, because the incident referred to is not known. It was a time when "Ephraim, though armed with bows, turned back on the day of battle” (vv. 9). Nothing exactly like this is found anywhere in the Old Testament.