George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 3

Psalm 81

1. Title

As with the other Asaph psalms (50, 73-83), this too belongs to Hezekiah’s time. In these psalms there are always some details which fit Hezekiah’s reign perfectly, but which are not to be explained on any other reasonable hypothesis.

Gittith belongs to Psalm 80 as a subscription.

2. Structure

A special holy feast celebrates God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt and another more recent deliverance
God Himself recalls His own care for Israel during the Exodus
God yearns for a disobedient Israel

3. Exodus allusions

Sing aloud unto God our strength: make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob. Take a psalm, and bring hither the timbrel, the pleasant harp with the psaltery. A reference to the song which Miriam taught to Israel (Exod. 15:20,21).
This he (the Lord) ordained in Joseph for a testimony, when he went out through (against: mg.) the land of Egypt. The slaying of the firstborn (note the similarity of language in Exod. 11:4), which was attributed in Exod. 12 to “the destroyer”, is here said to be the work of “the God of Jacob”.

Where I (Israel) heard a language that I understood not — i.e., the tongue of the Egyptians (Psa. 114:1).
I removed his shoulder from the burden: s.w. Exod. 1:11:

“Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens.

His hands were delivered from the pots (RV: baskets). Baskets for carrying clay or bricks. Compare the “brick-kilns” of Psa. 68:13 (not s.w., but same idea assuredly). This detail is an addition to the historical narrative of Exod. 1.
Thou calledst in trouble:

“Now therefore, behold, the cry of the children of Israel is come unto me: and I have also seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them” (Exod. 3:9).

And... I answered thee in (or, from) the secret place of thunder. That is, from mount Sinai, with its cloud and fire and lightning and thunder and earthquake (Exod. 19:18,19). Elsewhere (Psa. 27:5; 31:20) the secret place (sether) is a place of hiding and protection, connected with God’s dwelling place.

I proved thee at the waters of Meribah, where the smitten Rock yielded water (Exod. 17:6,7). There the people were “proving” (testing) God — “Is the Lord among us or not?” — while at the same time God was proving them!
Hear, O my people, and I will testify unto thee: O Israel, if thou wilt hearken unto me. “Hear, O Israel”! This is the Shema (Deut. 6:4,5).
There shall no strange god be in thee. This is very much like the Song of Moses: Deut. 32:12 (comparison), 16 (contrast); see also the Decalogue (Exod. 20:3).
I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt = Exod. 20:2 exactly. Compare Psa. 80:8 also.
But my people would not hearken to my voice. The meaning here is not — as one might expect — ‘They would not obey’, but rather a literal refusal: ‘They would not even listen to My voice’: “Let not God speak with us, lest we die” (Exod. 20:19).
So I gave them up to their own hearts’ lust. This may refer to their sin of the golden calf (Exod. 32:1-25). Or, since LXX = sent them away, this could be an allusion to their enforced 40 years of wan-dering, while the whole generation perished (Num. 14:33,34).

4. Historical setting

Like all the other Asaph psalms, this also belongs to Hezekiah’s time. The main point of the sustained allusions to the Exodus is to imply that, as God came to the rescue of His people then, so also will He in the current Assyrian crisis — that is, if only His people will show a spirit of faithfulness and not of stubborn unbelief. This is the very argument which Isaiah presented over and over again, e.g. 10:24. Verses 13-16 strongly emphasize this.

The emphasis in vv. 3-5 is on the Israelite’s commemoration (“sign”, as in Isa. 37:30,31) of the destruction of the Assyrians through their thankful observance of the Year of Jubilee, just as the slaying of the firstborn was to be thankfully remembered in the keeping of the Passover.

“Blow the trumpet — on our solemn feast day” alludes to the Day of Atonement at the beginning of the Jubilee Year (see Par. 6, v. 1). After the defeat of Sennacherib’s host, the many thousands of enslaved Israelites were set free, to return to their homeland (Isa. 27:6,12,13; 35:10; 42:6,7; 49:9-26; etc.) — a true Jubilee!

5. New Testament allusions

It is possible that v. 3 is alluded to in 1 Corinthians 14:8:

“For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”

In the Law of Moses “warring the warfare” is the idiom which is used repeatedly for priestly service in the sanctuary (e.g. margin of Num. 4:3,23,30; 8:24; cp. Exod. 38:8; 1 Tim. 1:18).
Matthew 11:28-30 is the New Testament equivalent of v. 6: As God removed the burdens from His children in Egypt, so Christ offers the weary and burdened true rest under his yoke.
Romans 1:24,26,28 quotes the fearful phrase from Psa. 81:12: I gave them up. The final portion, to their own hearts’ lust, is replaced in Paul’s letter by even more lurid descriptions: “unclean-ness... to dishonour their own bodies between themselves... vile affections... a reprobate mind”. But if Romans 1 is about Gentile ignorance and degeneracy, why does Paul quote from a passage which can only refer to unfaithful Israel? This is only one of several indications in the text of Romans 1 that point to Israel, not to the Gentiles: consider “when they knew God... changed the glory... changed the truth... did not like to retain God”; etc. — this is a people who knew and then forgot, not a people who never knew (see H.A. Whittaker, Bible Studies, pp. 305-308).
Verses 13-15 are echoed by the Lord Jesus in his soliloquy over Jerusalem:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord” (Matt. 23:37-39).

But by then, the option to repent had vanished; there remained only the impending storm of judgment.

6. Other details

The God of Jacob. Though Jacob is dead, God is still his God (Exod. 3:15; Luke 20:37) — thereby proving his resurrection.
See the introduction on musical instruments, Psalms Studies, Book One.
Blow the trumpet in the new moon. But the next phrase (Hebrew keseh) could mean “full moon” (RSV, NEB); and v. 5 makes a link with the Passover. This connection is probably because Sennacherib’s army was slain at Passover (like the Egyptian firstborn), and a marvelous celebration of Jubilee (to begin six months later?) was then commanded as commemoration (“sign” in Isa. 37:30,31).

Also, the conjunction of new moon (the first day of the month) and full moon (the fifteenth day) suggests reference to the seventh month (Tishri). This month began with the Feast of Trumpets (Num. 29:1-6), followed on the tenth day by the Day of Atonement (vv. 7-11), and on the fifteenth day by the week-long Feast of Tabernacles (vv. 12-40). At the same time there would be the inauguration of the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:9,10).

“New moon” pilgrimages to Zion were common — and will be again in the Kingdom Age (Isa. 66:23).
Joseph. The Hebrew text gives the name J’hoseph, thus making Joseph the first Old Testament name to include the Covenant Name of God.

For a testimony. Compare Psa. 78:5,9, where the context again is about Joseph.

Testimony is eduth (the subscription to Psalm 79). Thus this verse gives a further link between eduth and Passover.
Note the repetitions of “I... me... my... ” This is God’s own psalm!
Thou calledst in trouble. The LXX has s.w. in 1 Pet. 1:17; and also in Acts 7:59 — when Stephen was “in trouble”. This verse emphasizes that God heard their voice, and they heard His (see Exod. 2:23,24).

I proved thee at the waters of Meribah. Kidner calls this “education by silence and apparent neglect”.

Selah. The association of Selah with God the Rock is quite clear here (Exod. 17:6,7; see Vol. 1, p. 15).
O my people. Also in vv. 11,13, and five times in Psalm 78, and in 95:7,8.

If is really if only: ‘If only thou wilt hearken to me!’ It is the yearning of God, as in Deut. 5:29; 32:29.
No strange god means: not a god newly brought in (s.w. Heb. 10:20, a sharp contrast!).
Open thy mouth wide, especially in the sense of Ezek. 2:8.

And I will fill it: Psa. 78:23-29.
They walked in their own counsels. Contrast Psa. 1:1.
Oh that my people had hearkened unto me, and Israel had walked in my ways! I should soon have subdued their enemies, and turned my hand against their adversaries. Here is a promise for the future especially: When Israel repents, then God will deliver them from their enemies (Lev. 26:40-42; Deut. 30:1-3; 1 Kings 8:44-53; Jer. 4:1,2,14-18; Acts 3:19,20).
The haters of the Lord are probably not the Gentiles here, but rather the Jews who should have hearkened to Him (vv. 11,13), but did not.

But their time should have endured for ever. And so, in time, it will come about. But Israel’s waywardness brought in instead the times of the Gentiles.
With honey out of the rock should I have satisfied thee (cp. v. 10b). Moses’ Song again (Deut. 32:13). “The wild bee is most common in lonely ravines, where it makes its nests in the clefts of precipitous rocks, often [only] with great difficulty accessible to man” (Post, Hastings Dictionary of the Bible).

Here, honey is strongly figurative of wisdom (1 Sam. 14:27,28; Psa. 19:10; 119:103; Prov. 24:13; Ezek. 3:3; Rev. 10:9,10). Such wisdom is obtainable only from God their “Rock” (tsur: s.w. Psa. 18:31,46; 28:1; 61:2; 78:35; etc.). In Moses’ Song (Deut. 32), God is called the Rock (tsur) in vv. 4,13,15,18,30, and 31!
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