Psalm 81 begins as a psalm of praise and becomes a psalm of admonition where the voice of the Lord Himself is heard. This warning message invites Israel to worship only the Lord and to enjoy the fullness of His blessings. The occasion for this psalm was a stated feast but we are not told exactly which one. There are verses (5-7) that suggest a Passover, but others point to the feast of trumpets and tabernacles (3). The trumpets mentioned here would not be the silver trumpets they used later but instead the shofar or ram’s horn. Passover celebrated the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt while the feast of tabernacles celebrated the Lord’s care of His people as they wandered in the wilderness. There are three different aspects of worship spoken of in this psalm. This psalm is written by Asaph and is to be played on a stringed instrument.
The psalm begins with a call to praise the name of the Lord. There is a sense of a high level of energy in this worship given that instruments are being played and the people are singing. When we look at the Old Testament, we find that there are several stated times for worship in Israel such as designated feasts, and there are random and spontaneous times of worship like after a military win. Both of these kinds of worship make a balance in the lives of God’s people, then and now. Regardless of the kind of worship it should always be focused on the goodness of the Lord. Think of it this way. If all worship were personal and spontaneous there would be diversity but no unity. But if worship was only scripted, scheduled, and precise then there would likely be unity but no diversity. And we need both. Worship does not need to be the same every single time God’s people gather. Before the warning at the end of this psalm, the psalmist invites the people to gather in worship to contemplate their God in both song and dance. One of the instruments used is a sweet lyre or pleasant harp. They may be two different stringed instruments, or this may be the same instrument with two different names. The ram’s horn here was used for many different things. They mustered armies, called people to gather, warned of dangers and announced special holy days. New moon festivals marked the first day of the lunar month.
Verse six marks a shift in the psalm. The psalmist tells us that he heard an unknown voice. Or it could be translated we heard a voice we had not known, meaning that God’s people did not recognize His voice anymore. That would explain the warnings and the troubles they found themselves in. However, you want to look at the translation, at some point in the celebration the priest received God’s message and relayed it to the people. Note that the emphasis of this psalm is hearing the Word of God. Every seventh year at the feast of the tabernacles the priests read the book of Deuteronomy to the people. This psalm could have been written for one of those years. Deuteronomy would have been a reminder that the Lord heard Israel’s cry in Egypt and rescued them from slavery. The language here about the hand and the shoulder and basket is a poetic way of describing how God delivered His people from their Egyptian task masters. This psalm was a warning to the Israelites then and us today that it is awesome and amazing to sing praises to God and to pray but if we want Him to listen to us, we need to listen to Him too. It seems that the Lord’s deliverance from Egypt comes up, quite often. It was a seminal event for God’s people and marked their start as His chosen people. It came as a reminder that the Lord is powerful, sovereign, and in control. It was God’s power that accomplished this deliverance and His love that motivated it.
God also reminded His people again of the covenant promise they made at Mount Sinai. That too defined them as God’s chosen people. He did not make a covenant with any other peoples. The covenant had not been made by these people but the promises their ancestors made bound them as well. The word from the Lord that the priest shared also included a reminder that God’s people, these folks’ ancestors, had not been faithful and had not kept up their end of the covenant. There were many times God’s people fell short when they were in the wilderness. They complained about the lack of water and meat. They got frustrated when things did not go as they had planned, and they wanted to go back to Egypt. They pushed God and challenged Him. But even though God disciplined them, He never stopped loving them. Nor did He stop providing for them. It was the Lord’s hope that by continuing to care for them, they would turn to Him and follow.
By the time we reach verse 8, the Lord is pleading with His people to remember the covenant and the Ten Commandments. And, He repeated the first commandment that there should be no worshiping of gods other than Yahweh, the one true God. It was Yahweh and Him alone who rescued Israel from Egypt, not anyone else or any other man made god. God made it clear that He would not tolerate His people worshiping any other god or idol. Because after all, what other god could do what the Lord could. By telling His people to open wide their mouths, the Lord is inviting them to take in God’s Word. It is also an assurance of His continued provision for His people.
The psalmist ends with a charge to the people to obey God’s will for them. God reminded the people that their failures were not a result of His weakness but in fact, their disobedience. Because worship and service go hand in hand, we are called to obey what the Lord commands. But the nation of Israel did not obey God’s Word and as a result, an entire generation of God’s people died off in the wilderness with the hope that the next generation would be more obedient. Some refer to this as spiritual deafness, and the willful disobedience of God’s people continued even after they finished their wilderness wandering and moved into the promised land. Sometimes the greatest judgement God can send on His people is to let them have their own way. God wants to give His children His goodness, but only if they listen. God identified the root of the people’s problem as their own stubborn hearts. They wanted to follow their known ways and they refused to listen to the Lord.
Had God’s people listened and obeyed, God would have kept the promises in His covenant and blessed them with protection and provision. We see an amazing picture of the goodness God wants to give His children. The Lord gave them water out of a rock, but He would have given them honey out of a rock. And He gave them bread from heaven in the form of manna, but He would have given them the finest of wheat. God still provided for His people, but He was prepared to do much more if they had just been obedient. It makes me wonder what we might have missed out on if we were always obedient. That word ‘if’ is really small but in this case it carried big consequences.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W