Psalm 81 – Gathering God’s People to Listen and Obey
The title of this psalm is To the Chief Musician. On an instrument of Gath. A Psalm of Asaph. It indicates the audience of the psalm (the Chief Musician), the author of the psalm (of Asaph) and the sound of the psalm (on the instrument of Gath). This psalm is best connected with the Feast of Trumpets or the Feast of Tabernacles celebrated by the people of Israel.
“This powerful psalm leaves no doubt of its festal character, and little doubt of the particular feast it was designed to serve: in a probability the Feast of Tabernacles. This commemorated the wilderness journey, and included a public reading of the law.” (Derek Kidner)
A. A trumpet call to Israel.
1. (1-2) A call to praise God in song.
Sing aloud to God our strength;
Make a joyful shout to the God of Jacob.
Raise a song and strike the timbrel,
The pleasant harp with the lute.
a. Sing aloud to God our strength: Asaph knew it was good for God’s people to hear the exhortation to sing aloud. We should honor God with singing, and our songs are sung aloud.
i. “It is to be regretted that the niceties of modern singing frighten our congregations from joining lustily in the hymns. For our part we delight in full bursts of praise, and had rather discover the ruggedness of a want of musical training than miss the heartiness of universal congregational song. The gentility which lisps the tune in wellbred whispers, or leaves the singing altogether to the choir, is very like a mockery of worship.” (Spurgeon)
b. Make a joyful shout: There is a place for songs rich with awe, reverence, or contrition, but never to the exclusion of songs that make a joyful shout to the God of Jacob.
c. Raise a song and strike the timbrel: As the song unto God is raised, so should skillful music from instruments. Asaph listed three: the timbrel, the pleasant harp, and the lute.
i. “The mention of the tambourine [timbrel] suggests that the people danced while singing praise.” (VanGemeren)
ii. “Franz Delitzsch, one of the great German commentators, points out that the summons in verse 1 is to the whole congregation; the summons in verse 2 is to the Levites, who were the appointed temple singers and musicians; and the summons in verse 3 is to the priests who had the specific task of blowing the trumpets.” (Boice)
2. (3-5) The call to gather the people of God.
Blow the trumpet at the time of the New Moon,
At the full moon, on our solemn feast day.
For this is a statute for Israel,
A law of the God of Jacob.
This He established in Joseph as a testimony,
When He went throughout the land of Egypt,
Where I heard a language I did not understand.
a. Blow the trumpet: The previous verse mentioned musical instruments, but the trumpet was not mentioned as an instrument to accompany praise. The purpose of this trumpet was to call God’s people together for their solemn feast day at the New Moon.
i. “The word for trumpet is shophar (sopar), the ram’s horn such as sounded the attack at Jericho and in Gideon’s battle, and which announced certain festal days.” (Kidner)
ii. “Here the reference to the new moon, or ‘the new month’ (New English Bible), points to the seventh month, which was the climax of the festal year and was ushered in with the sound of this horn.” (Kidner)
iii. “On the September new moon, the first day of the seventh month, was kept a great festival, called the ‘feast of trumpets;’ Leviticus 23:24, Numbers 29:1; which probably is here intended…. The tenth of the same month was the great day of atonement; and on the fifteenth was celebrated the feast of tabernacles.” (Horne)
b. This is a statute for Israel: This stresses the importance of gathering God’s people together. It was a statute, a law, and established as a testimony among God’s people.
i. One such statute is found in Numbers 10:10: Also in the day of your gladness, in your appointed feasts, and at the beginning of your months, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings; and they shall be a memorial for you before your God: I am the LORD your God.
ii. “No time is amiss for praising God…. But some are times appointed, not for God to meet us (He is always ready) but for us to meet one another, that we may join together in praising God.” (Henry, cited in Kidner)
c. When He went throughout the land of Egypt: Asaph thought of the great assembly of God’s people as they came together to leave their slavery in Egypt. They gathered together for that initial deliverance, and it became the basis for their future assemblies and feasts.
i. I heard a language I did not understand: “the Egyptian language, which at first was very ungrateful and unknown to the Israelites, Genesis 42:23, and probably continued so for some considerable time, because they were much separated both in place and conversation from the Egyptians, through Joseph’s pious and prudent design.” (Poole)
B. God speaks to His assembled people.
1. (6-7) God describes how He delivered and tested Israel.
“I removed his shoulder from the burden;
His hands were freed from the baskets.
You called in trouble, and I delivered you;
I answered you in the secret place of thunder;
I tested you at the waters of Meribah. Selah
a. I removed his shoulder from the burden: In the first part of the psalm, a call went to God’s people to gather, suggested by their first gathering as a people as slaves in Egypt. Now God speaks to His gathered people and begins with reminding them of the great deliverance He gave them in setting them free from their slavery.
i. “This psalm was a most appropriate ‘invitation’ to covenant renewal during the feast, when God’s people reflected on all his acts in the past.” (VanGemeren)
ii. “Let us remember, that we have been eased of far heavier burdens, delivered from severer task-masters, and freed from a baser drudgery; the intolerable load of sin, the cruel tyranny of Satan.” (Horne)
b. You called in trouble, and I delivered you: God will hear those who cry out to Him. God heard the groaning of Israel under their burden of slavery in Egypt (Exodus 2:23-24). He brought deliverance to them through wonders and leaders like Moses.
i. “The secret place of thunder was Sinai, shrouded in smoke and terrible with the voice of God (Exodus 19:16ff.; 20:18ff.). It was education by encounter.” (Kidner)
c. I tested you at the waters of Meribah: God not only delivered Israel, but He also trained them, and the testing at Meribah was an example of this. At Meribah, God miraculously provided water for a complaining and unbelieving Israel (Exodus 17:1-7).
i. “The story of Israel is only our own history in another shape. God has heard us, delivered us, liberated us, and too often our unbelief makes the wretched return of mistrust, murmuring, and rebellion.” (Spurgeon)
2. (8-12) God’s rejected call to Israel.
“Hear, O My people, and I will admonish you!
O Israel, if you will listen to Me!
There shall be no foreign god among you;
Nor shall you worship any foreign god.
I am the LORD your God,
Who brought you out of the land of Egypt;
Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.
“But My people would not heed My voice,
And Israel would have none of Me.
So I gave them over to their own stubborn heart,
To walk in their own counsels.
a. Hear, O My people: Before God instructed His assembled people, He first called for their attention, telling them to listen.
i. “What a strange anomaly: a happy, joyfully worshipping congregation and a neglected and offended God.” (Boice)
ii. “God looks for listeners as well as singers, on whom the sober lessons of the wilderness will not be lost.” (Kidner)
b. There shall be no foreign god among you: Some 400 years of slavery in Egypt exposed Israel to the many pagan gods of Egypt. The command God gave to Israel when the Israelites came out of Egypt is again stated to them in the days of Asaph. Coming from Egypt, Israel was commanded not to worship any foreign god, and the same command was for Israel in the land under their kings.
i. “The problem is not that the world does not know God. How can we expect it to? The problem is that the people of God do not know God, or at least they do not act like they do. Instead of worshipping the Lord and him only, Christians seem to be worshipping the gods of the secular culture – gods of wealth, pleasure, fame, status, and self-absorption.” (Boice)
c. I am the LORD your God: God’s command to put away every foreign god was entirely reasonable. He was Yahweh (the LORD), the covenant God of Israel. He was the one who brought them out of the land of Egypt. No foreign god had done such things for Israel.
i. “No other god had done anything for the Jews, and therefore they had no reason for paying homage to any other. To us the same argument will apply. We owe all to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: the world, the flesh, the devil, none of these have been of any service to us; they are aliens, foreigners, enemies, and it is not for us to bow down before them.” (Spurgeon)
d. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it: God made a promise to His faithful people. If they would in faith anticipate God’s provision, God would provide. The reverse is also implied: God would not fill the closed mouth, the one with no anticipation of faith.
i. “When the mother-bird brings food she never has to ask the little ones to open their mouths wide; her only difficulty is to fill the great width which they are quite sure to present to her: appetite and eagerness are never lacking, they are utterly insatiable…picture a nest of little birds reaching up their mouths, and all opening them as wide as they can.” (Spurgeon)
ii. This shows us that whatever we do open to God, He will fill. We can’t open our mouths bigger than He can fill.
· We open our mouths wide when we have a sense of need – when we are hungry.
· We open our mouths wide when we ask for large things.
· We open our mouths wide when we understand the greatness of the God we pray to.
· We open our mouths wide when we pray on Jesus’ merits, not our own.
iii. “You may easily over-expect the creature, but you cannot over-expect God, ‘Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it;’ widen and dilate the desires and expectations of your souls, and God is able to fill every chink to the vastest capacity. This honours God, when we greaten our expectation upon him; it is a sanctifying of God in our hearts.” (Case, cited in Spurgeon)
iv. “That great saying teaches, too, that God’s bestowals are practically measured by men’s capacity and desire. The ultimate limit of them is His own limitless grace; but the working limit in each individual is the individual’s receptivity, of which his expectancy and desire are determining factors.” (Maclaren)
v. “Our cup is small, and we blame the fountain.” (Spurgeon)
e. But My people would not heed My voice: This was the great tragedy. God was ready to fill the faith-filled open mouths of His people, but they would not obey Him. God said in sorrow, “Israel would have none of Me.” Rebellious Israel rejected God who had done so much for them and would have done much more.
f. So I gave them over to their own stubborn heart: This was God’s judgment against His unbelieving people – to give them over to their own stubborn heart, to walk in their own counsels. One of the greatest judgments God can bring is to simply leave us alone to our own stubbornness and foolishness.
i. John Trapp thought it was as if God had “left them as a ship without a rudder; as a horse without reins, to go whither they would, and do what they would.” (Trapp)
ii. “It reveals a constant method of God with His disloyal and disobedient children. When they will not go His way, He lets them go their way…. He permits them to learn by the bitter results of their own folly what He would have had them know by communion with Himself.” (Morgan)
iii. “When we see men enabled, by wealth and power, to accomplish the inordinate desires of their hearts, and carry their worldly schemes into execution, without meeting any obstructions in their way, we are apt to envy their felicity; whereas such prosperity in wickedness is the surest mark of divine displeasure, the heaviest punishment of disobedience, both in individuals and communities.” (Horne)
3. (13-16) God’s sorrow over stubborn Israel.
“Oh, that My people would listen to Me,
That Israel would walk in My ways!
I would soon subdue their enemies,
And turn My hand against their adversaries.
The haters of the Lord would pretend submission to Him,
But their fate would endure forever.
He would have fed them also with the finest of wheat;
And with honey from the rock I would have satisfied you.”
a. Oh, that My people would listen to Me: The tragedy is ironic. God could say of Israel, My people. They belonged to Him and He had claimed them. Yet they would not listen to Him; they would not walk in His ways. There is a sense of longing in these words: God’s desire to bless His people and do good for them.
i. “The affectionate tone of these verses is also worth noting in the context of judgment: it is something of an Old Testament counterpart to the lament for Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37).” (Kidner)
b. I would soon subdue their enemies: This was an unclaimed blessing God wanted to give to a believing, obeying people. If God’s people would only listen and obey, God would subdue their enemies and fight for them against their adversaries.
i. “Our enemies find the sharpest weapons against us in the armoury of our transgressions. They could never overthrow us if we did not first overthrow ourselves. Sin strips a man of his armour, and leaves him naked to his enemies.” (Spurgeon)
c. I would have satisfied you: This psalm ends on a sad note, filled with the tragedy of missed opportunity and unfulfilled potential. God would have richly provided for them and satisfied them – if His people would have only listened and obeyed.
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org