15 million Ukrainian are displaced by Russia's war.
Millions miss a meal or two each day.
Help us change that! Click to donate today!

Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Psalms 81

Verse 1



The title we have chosen is that of McCaw. Addis was sure that this psalm is a composite,[1] with no connection whatever between Psalms 81:1-5 and the rest of the chapter. Other scholars also have raised the possibility that what we have here is two fragments of independent productions. However, its seems to us that Yates' opinion on this is correct.

"The abrupt change at the end of verse 5 has suggested to many commentators that fragments of two psalms are joined together here. However, this view is not imperative, because a solemn festival would be a logical time for such a recital of God's relation to Israel as that which concludes the psalm."[2]

Also, the fact of Israel's record of disobedience would have made such an exhortation as that which concludes the chapter most appropriate. McCaw's title, "Hymn and Homily"[3] supports Yates' view that the latter part of the psalm is actually an appropriate "sermon" that Israel needed to hear, especially at that time.

The psalm is of a general character; and efforts to tie it either to the feast of Tabernacles or the Feast of the Passover are rather futile. It would have been suitable at any of the great public festivals of Israel. However, the blowing of trumpets "at the full moon" (Psalms 81:3) brings to mind both the Passover and the feast of Tabernacles.

The date of the psalm was discussed by Maclaren.

"The evident existence of the full temple ceremonial shows that the psalm was not written in exile ... The warning against idolatry (v. 9) would have been unnecessary after the exile. Beyond these general indications we cannot go. Definiteness as to the date is unattainable."[4]

Psalms 81:1-5

"Sing aloud unto God our strength:

Make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob.

Raise a song, and bring hither the timbrel,

The pleasant harp with the psaltery.

Blow the trumpet at the new moon,

At the full moon, on our feast day.

For it is a statute for Israel,

An ordinance of the God of Jacob.

He appointed it in Joseph for a testimony,

When he went out over the land of Egypt."

For a discussion of the use of mechanical instruments of music in the ancient Jewish temple, see a full discussion of this at the end of Psalms 150. For the present, it needs to be remembered that the temple itself was contrary to the will of God, just like the monarchy; and, although God accommodated to both, he twice ordered the destruction of the temple and also repudiated and terminated the monarchy.

"Make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob" (Psalms 81:1). "These words refer to the `blare of trumpets' in Leviticus 23:24; Numbers 29:1 ."[5]

"Blow the trumpet at the new moon ... at the full moon" (Psalms 81:3). Leupold tells us that the trumpets were blown both at the feast of Tabernacles and that of the Passover also, adding that the expression, "`Our feast day' could mean `any and every feast day.'"[6] This would mean that the Jews blew the trumpets every time they had any kind of an important celebration.

"It is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob" (Psalms 81:4). "The feast, not the musical accompaniments, is appointed by God."[7] We especially appreciate this comment by Alexander Maclaren.

"Israel ... Jacob ... Joseph" (Psalms 81:4-5). "These words are synonymous,"[8] standing in each usage for all of the Chosen People. If the Passover was the feast in view here, Joseph as a term for all Israel might have been due to the prominent part Joseph had in the Jews' Egyptian sojourn. Otherwise, "Its use might express the psalmist's longing for the restoration of the shattered unity of the nation."[9]

"When he went out over the land of Egypt" (Psalms 81:5a). The marginal reference here for `over' is `against,' but neither rendition seems to make a clear statement. Perhaps Briggs was right who declared that, "This should read, `He went out from the land of Egypt.'"[10]

"Where I heard a language that I knew not" (Psalms 81:5b). This is the most difficult line in the whole psalm, and opinions differ sharply on what it means. Dahood stated that God is the speaker here and that when God said he heard a language unknown to him, it referred, "To the collective Israel in Egypt, before it was chosen by God as his people."[11] In our view this is impossible to accept, because God chose Israel long before their sojourn in Egypt. He chose Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and specifically sent his "Chosen People" into Egypt for four hundred years, prophesying their ultimate departure with great wealth, all of which occurred exactly as God promised.

Barnes held a rather complicated view of the passage, supposing that the speaker here is the psalmist, who identifies himself with the people of Israel, and then projects himself backward in time to the days of Israel's sojourn in Egypt, thus making the strange language that of the Egyptians which Israel heard.[12]

There are other views which we shall not mention. To this writer, we cannot accept the words as the words of God, "Because it is impossible that God could hear anything unknown to him"! The expression therefore must be understood as the words of the psalmist. He could be saying that the current sins, rebellions, and pagan worship at that time being indulged by God's Israel were indeed "a language unknown to him," the same being as hard for him to understand as a foreign language with which he was not familiar. It was such bizarre, straying conduct on Israel's part that inspired the sermon that followed, in which God is indeed the Speaker.

Verse 6


"I removed his shoulder from the burden:

His hands were freed from the basket.

Thou callest in trouble, and I delivered thee

I answered thee in the secret place of thunder;

I proved thee at the waters of Meribah.


Hear, O my people, and I will testify unto thee:

O Israel, if thou wouldest hearken unto me!

There shall no strange god be in thee;

Neither shall thou worship any foreign god.

I am Jehovah thy God,

Who brought thee up out of the land of Egypt:

Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it.

But my people hearkened not to my voice;

And Israel would none of me.

So I let them go after the stubbornness of their heart,

That they might walk in their own counsels.

Oh that my people would hearken unto me,

That Israel would walk in my ways!

I would soon subdue their enemies,

And turn my hand against their adversaries.

The haters of Jehovah should submit themselves unto him:

But their time should endure forever.

He would feed them also with the finest of the wheat;

And with honey out of the rock would I satisfy thee."

"I removed his shoulder from the burden ... his hands from the basket" (Psalms 81:6). This is a reference to the slavery in Egypt from which God had freed his people. `The basket' here was used by the slaves carrying clay for the making of bricks.

"I answered thee in the secret place of thunder" (Psalms 81:7). This seems to be a reference to the `cloud' which guided Israel in the day-time in the wilderness.

"I proved thee at the waters of Meribah" (Psalms 81:7). There were two instances in which God provided water for Israel at Meribah; and these are discussed fully in our Vol. II of the Pentateuch (Exodus), pp. 230-233, and in Vol. III, (Lev.-Num.), pp. 442-445.

"O Israel, if thou wouldest hearken" (Psalms 81:8). There seems to be an emotional factor in such pleading words as these; and they remind us of the words of the Christ: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem ... how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! (Matthew 23:37f)."

"There shall no strange god be in thee; neither shall thou worship any foreign god" (Psalms 81:9). From these words it may be inferred that idolatrous, pagan worship was being indulged by God's people. Otherwise, no warning would have been necessary. This identifies the times of the psalm as prior to the exile, after which Israel did not worship pagan gods.

"Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it" (Psalms 81:10). The imagery here is that of a nest of small birds opening their mouths wide at the appearance of the mother bird. There is a deep spiritual lesson in this. "God's gifts, both spiritual and temporal, are proportioned to our eager longing for them. Christ could do no miracles in one place because of the people's unbelief (Mark 6:5); and God cannot give lavishly unless we desire eagerly."[13] Tiny birds that never open their mouths are never fed.

"My people hearkened not to my voice ... Israel would none of me" (Psalms 81:11). Israel paid no attention to the Word of God; they did not obey the Lord; they did not wish to have anything at all to do with God.

"So I let them go after the stubbornness of their heart" (Psalms 81:12). "So I let them go"! No sadder words were ever spoken of a people. This expression is the equivalent of what God did to the hardened Gentile nations of the pre-Christian era. "God gave them up ... God gave them up ... God gave them up" (Romans 1:24,26,28). All of the terrible things that later happened to Israel were due to only one thing: "God let them go."

There is a lesson in this for every man. God's Spirit will not always strive with sinful men; when it becomes evident that men love evil, God will eventually withdraw his influence and allow them to wallow in it.

"That they might walk in their own counsels" (Psalms 81:12). As Alexander Maclaren stated it, "There is no worse fate for a man than to be allowed to do as he chooses. `The ditch' sooner or later receives the man who follows his own understanding, which he himself has blinded by forbidding it to receive the truth from that One who alone is The Light."[14]

"Oh that my people would hearken unto me" (Psalms 81:13). "One's entire relationship to God is always a matter of listening to Him,"[15] and that simply means studying and meditating day by day upon the Word of God as revealed to mankind in the Holy Bible. There is no other way to "hearken unto God."

These last four verses (Psalms 81:13-16) provide a statement of what God "would have done for Israel" if they had only been willing to heed his word and walk in God's ways. Barnes summarized these as follows.

(1) Their enemies would have been subdued (Psalms 81:14); (2) the haters of God would have turned to the Lord (Psalms 81:15);

(3) God would have given them abundant prosperity (Psalms 81:16).[16]

This being true of the Old Israel, is it any less true of the New? The answer is negative. As Barnes expressed it, "This psalm is of special importance to the church now, reminding God's people of their obligation derived from the past mercies of God, and showing what would be the consequences if they should be wholly dedicated to the service of God."[17]

"With honey out of the rock would I satisfy thee" (Psalms 81:16). "This verse looks back to Deuteronomy 32:13-14 `Honey from the rock is not a natural product.' The parallel from Deuteronomy, where we have, `oil out of the flinty rock,' shows that we are `not here on the ground of the actual, but of the ideal.' The expression is hyperbole for incomparable abundance."

What a glorious thing it would be for all of God's people to devote themselves without reservation to the love and service of God. Should anyone be afraid that God either could or would fall to provide abundant blessings for his people who might do such a thing? Has not Christ himself said, "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world"?

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalms 81". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.