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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 81

Psalms 81

The exhortation to celebrate the passover with joyful heart, Psalms 81:1-3, is followed by the basis on which it rests, Psalms 81:4-7: the passover is the festival of Israel’s deliverance, through their Lord and God, from great trouble and deep misery. While the first part points to what the Lord has done for Israel, the second describes the position which Israel ought to occupy towards their Lord: inasmuch as the Lord, who brought Israel out of Egypt, is thus alone Israel’s God, sufficient for all his necessities. Israel ought therefore to serve him alone, and leave to the world its imaginary deities,—a preposition, however, to which Israel, alas, has not hitherto responded,—and hence the origin of all his troubles, Psalms 81:8-12. Would that he would now become obedient to the Lord! the salvation of his kingdom would be the consequence, Psalms 81:13-16.

In Psalms 81:1-5 the Psalmist speaks, as is manifest from the conclusion of Psalms 81:5, as the representative of the better self of the church; and in the ( Psalms 81:6) 6th and following verses the speaker is the Lord. But that this distinction, which has commonly been a great deal too much spoken of, is one of no moment, is evident from the fact, that Psalms 81:6 and Psalms 81:7 are nothing else than a continuation of Psalms 81:5, and from the conclusion, Psalms 81:15 and Psalms 81:16, where the address of the Lord, and the address of the Psalmist, who speaks in the spirit of the Lord, are immediately linked together.

If we keep this in view, the formal arrangement of the Psalm becomes easy and simple. The Psalm falls into two main divisions, an objective and a subjective one, which are even externally separated from each other by a Selah, at the end of Psalms 81:7.

The first, Psalms 81:1-7, is completed in seven verses. This, as usual, is divided into a three and a four. The second main division contains, in the first instance, only nine verses, and is divided by a five and a four. The defect of the conclusion, however, is, as in the case in Psalms 77, compensated by the title. The arrangement, therefore, is exactly the same as that which obtains universally in Psalms which contain 17 verses.

According to the title, “ To the Chief Musician after the manner of Gath (comp. at title of Psalms 8) by Asaph,” the Psalm was composed by Asaph. We showed already, at Psalms 74, that we must adhere to the Asaph who belonged to the age of David, in all the Psalms which bear this name, except in those cases in which the contents of the Psalm render this impossible. In the present instance this is not the case. “The contents,” observes Köster, “are of a general character, and the freshness of tone indicates the great age of the Psalm.” The verbal reasons which led Hitzig to assign it a very late date are of no consequence. He refers to the loose יהוסף in Psalms 81:5, and to the participle after לו in Psalms 81:13. But that the retention of the ה of the Hiph. (Ew. §. 284), is not at all characteristic of the language of later times, is evident, among other passages, from Psalms 45:17, and from 1 Sam. 22:47. These forms are throughout poetical, and are altogether independent of time. Poetry is fond of full and sonorous expressions. It can never be shown that the position of the participle after לו is characteristic of a later idiom; comp. 2 Samuel 18:12. In favour, however, of the Asaph of David’s tithe, we have to urge the prophetic character which our Psalm bears in common with the other productions of this bard, the “seer,” the prophet among the Psalmists, Psalms 50, Psalms 73, Psalms 78 (even Hitzig believed that he heard in the warnings here the voice of the author of the seventy-eighth Psalm), and Psalms 82. To this we may add the striking connection between ver. 8 here, and Psalms 50:7.

Verses 1-13

Ver. 1. Sing aloud to God, who is our strength, make a joyful-noise unto the God of Jacob. Ver. 2. Raise the song, and give the timbrel, the lovely guitar with the harp. Ver. 3. Blow in the month the horn, at the full moon, on the day of our feast.

The exhortation to praise God with all the might depends for its significance, as the second part of the strophe shows, upon its pointing to the rich treasures of salvation which he has imparted to his people.

On “our strength,” comp. as a commentary Psalms 81:14-15, and Psalms 46:1. The Lord manifested himself as the strength of his people on their deliverance from Egypt. In Psalms 81:3 the instruments are introduced in regard to their tone: timbrel stands instead of sound of the timbrel. Against the exposition “bring hither the timbrels,” it may be urged, that, according to the title and Psalms 81:2 d, those addressed are called upon both to sing and to play.

In Psalms 81:3 the month is the first and the chief month of the year, the month in which the passover occurred: comp. Exodus 12:1-2: “And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, This month shall be to you the chief of months, it shall be the first month of the year to you.” “In the full moon” of the second clause defines exactly the time within the sacred month which belonged to the festival. The general and special descriptions are connected with each other exactly in the same way in Leviticus 23:5: “In the first month, on the 14th day of the month, is the passover to the Lord.” In other passages throughout the law it is merely the general descriptions that occur; thus, Exodus 34:18: “The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep, seven days shalt thou eat unleavened bread, at the time of the month Abib” (comp. on the passage the Beitr. p. 361 ss. on Abib p. 364), Deuteronomy 16:1: “Observe the month Abib, for in the month Abib the Lord thy God brought thee out of Egypt:” comp. on the passage the Beitr. p. 365. According to the common construction, חדש signifies the new moon; throughout the Pentateuch, however, it invariably signifies a month; and everywhere, even in the later scriptures, it retains this signification, with this difference, that sometimes the month stands for the festival peculiar to the month. And the following grounds are decisive the other way. 1. As it is undoubted that כסה signifies full moon, we have two festivals according to this view—a supposition very unlikely in itself, and the more so that no inward connection whatever is indicated between the new moon and the full moon festival. 2. The contents of the Psalm shew that it was composed exclusively for use at the passover. The festival for which it was set apart was, according to Psalms 81:5, instituted at the departure from Egypt, and according to Psalms 81:6-7, and Psalms 81:10, stands in immediate reference to this deliverance;—that the new moon of the month Abib was celebrated as, a preparation for the passover is altogether an arbitrary assumption. 3. The horn (not at all the trumpets named in Numbers 10:10) appears here only as one among many instruments, while the sound of drums for the new moons, and especially for the 7th of the month, was the peculiar and characteristic ceremony. Such an amount of musical power as is here desired was not suitable for this festival. 4. There is no doubt that our verse as supplementing the title fixes the character of the Psalm. This, however, it cannot do, if חדש signify the new moon. In this case, in consequence of the indefinite nature, “in the new moon,” which demands explanation from what follows, we have our attention directed exclusively to “in the full moon;” and are thus left to waver in uncertainty, as the example of Gesenius shows, between the full moon of the passover and of the feast of tabernacles. [Note: It is clear from Proverbs 7:20, and also from the Syr. (See Gesen.), that כסה denotes in general the full moon, and not at all, as has been supposed, specially the feast of tabernacles.]

The idea of those who, after the example of Luther ( in our festival of booths), understand the feast of tabernacles, is confuted by the preceding context. By this reference, it becomes altogether impossible to understand the Psalm. The expression “on the day of our feast” is also in favour of the passover. The passover, which celebrates the fundamental deed of God on behalf of his church, is the feast: comp. the Christol. ii. p. 565. Beitr. iii. p. 80. The feast of tabernacles never has this name, not even in 2 Chronicles 5:3.

The correct interpretation of this verse is destructive of the position taken up by Venema, that the Psalm was composed for the celebration of the passover under Hezekiah; for this took place, according to 2 Chronicles 30:2, contrary to the usual custom, in the second month. The account of this celebration, however, is so far of importance to Psalms 81:1-3, as it shows that at that times music and singing formed a very important part of the celebration of the passover: comp. 2 Chronicles 30:21-22.

Verses 4-7

Ver. 4. For it is a law for Israel, a right for the God of Jacob. Ver. 5. Such a commandment he gave to Joseph, when he brought him over Egypt land, where I heard a language unknown to me. Ver. 6. I removed from the burden his shoulder, his hands were set free from the burden-baskets. Ver. 7. In the distress thou didst call and I delivered thee. I heard thee in the thunder-cover. I proved thee at the waters of strife. Selah.

In Psalms 81:4, the law for Israel and the right for the God of Jacob correspond. God, by the deliverance which he has wrought out, has acquired a right to the thanks of Israel, and it is Israel’s duty, by rendering obedience to the appointed law of the passover, to implement this right. Israel does not celebrate the passover at his own hand, he only pays to God what is his due,—a due demanded on the ground of mercies bestowed. It is this that distinguishes all festivals belonging to the true religion from those connected with religions that are false; the former depends throughout upon the foundation of a salvation imparted by God, and assumes the character of a right and a duty. The הוא refers to the festivals in general. The individual expressions of festive joy spoken of in Psalms 81:1-3 had not been expressly commanded in the law. They are, however, accidents which necessarily accompany the substance.

In Psalms 81:5-7, the deed is more particularly described on which the right of God and the duty of Israel are founded. In reference to עדות a testimony, next a law, comp. at Psalms 19:7, Psalms 78:5. Joseph occupies the place of Israel here, because, during the whole period of the residence in the land of Egypt, the nation owed everything to Joseph, “the crowned one among his brethren,” Genesis 49:26; their whole existence there was founded on the services which Joseph had rendered to Egypt; comp. Exodus 1:8, according to which, the oppression of Israel arose from the new king, who did not know Joseph. It was only during this period of his existence that Israel could bear the name of Joseph; and it is altogether incorrect to generalize what is founded singly and entirely on the special circumstances connected with that period. The passage before us has assuredly nothing whatever to do with Psalms 77:15 and Psalms 80:1. The suffix in בצאתו refers to Joseph. “ Out of Egypt” is the expression which commonly occurs in the Pentateuch; comp. Exodus 12:41, “All the armies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt,” Exodus 12:51, Numbers 22:5, Deuteronomy 9:7; particularly in connection with the feast of the passover, comp. Exodus 34:18, “Thou shalt keep the feast of unleavened bread, seven days shalt thou eat unleavened bread as I have commanded thee at the time of the month Abib, for in the month Abib thou wentest out of Egypt.” Here, however, the expression is “over Egypt,” across, על , in the same sense in which it occurs in Job 29:7, “When I went out to the gate over or across the city.” This over is more expressive than out of. The marching out appears all the more glorious, inasmuch as the marching extended over the whole country, across Egypt. Numbers 33:4 supplies the commentary,—“The children of Israel went out with a high hand before all the Egyptians;” comp. Exodus 14:8. [Note: Calvin: The people, led on by God, traversed freely the whole land of Egypt, a passage having been afforded them in consequence of the broken and terrified state of the inhabitants.] Many expositors have suffered themselves to be led astray by the על . They translate: when he (the Lord) went forth against the land of Egypt, with reference to Exodus 11:4, “About midnight I go out in the land of Egypt.” Against this, however, we may urge, besides the manifest reference to the passage from the Pentateuch above referred to, the obviously corresponding expression “who led thee out of the land of Egypt,” in Psalms 81:11. There is next added very suitably, according to the first-mentioned rendering, “where I heard a language unknown to me,” an expression which denotes more exactly the oppressive nature of their previous condition, and the unspeakable benefit arising from their deliverance; comp. Psalms 114:1, “When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from the people of strange language.” Finally, in the continuation in Psalms 81:6-7, the language refers entirely to the deliverance out of Egypt, and not at all to the destruction of the first-born of the Egyptians, to which there is nowhere else one single reference throughout the whole Psalm. The last words of the verse indicate, as has been already observed, what it was that rendered the departure of the Israel so very desirable. To dwell in the midst of a people of strange language, to serve a people from whom they were inwardly in a state of utter estrangement, must have been very painful and oppressive. The subject is Israel represented by the Psalmist. We cannot translate, “a language of such a one whom,” “but a language (of the kind that) I did not understand,” “a language of unintelligibility for me;” Comp. Böttcher, proben p. 51. Many expositors translate: the voice of one unknown to me (a God whom I till that time did not know) I heard then in Egypt, or I hear now, the oracle referred to in Psalms 81:6-16. But a comparison of the parallel passages, Psalms 114:1, which is particularly decisive, Deuteronomy 28:49, “The Lord will bring upon thee a people from afar, . . . . a people whose language thou dost not understand,” Isaiah 33:19, and Judges 5:15, leaves no doubt whatever as to the correctness of the interpretation given above. Farther, the description of the miserable condition in which Israel existed in the land of Egypt is continued in Psalms 81:6-7. To the unknown language here, corresponds the burden, the burden-basket there; and to the marching out here the rescuing, the delivering there. Then the designation of Jehovah as one unknown, for the whole people, or for the individual, to whom a revelation begins, is destitute of all real foundation and analogy. Finally, this translation, which proceeds from an entire misapprehension of the whole train of thought, must be rejected on etymological grounds. שפה never signifies a particular discourse, but a way of speaking, a language; comp. Böttcher.

As the difference in regard to the speaker (in Psalms 81:6-7 it is the Lord that speaks, while previous to this the Psalmist, or Israel represented by him, had spoken in the name and spirit of the Lord) is one merely of form, and as, in reality, Psalms 81:6-7 merely continue the train of thought of Psalms 81:5 (when the Lord removed, or, then the Lord removed) it is altogether inappropriate, by marks of quotation, to favour the idea of the beginning of a new address. Such a change as to speakers requires very little attention to be paid to it, especially in the Psalm of Asaph, as they are of a highly poetical character. At the first clause of Psalms 81:6, comp. Exodus 6:6-7, “I the Lord bring you out from under the burden of the Egyptians.” The basket דוד is, according to the parallelism, the burden-basket. Baskets of this kind were found in the sepulchral vaults which have been opened in Thebes, of which Rosellini first furnished drawings and descriptions: the Israelites used them for carrying from one place to another the clay and manufactured bricks: comp. Egypt and the Books of Moses, p. 79, &c. [Note: Calvin: “We may now apply the subject to ourselves: inasmuch as God has not only removed our shoulders from burdens of bricks, and our hands from kilns, but has redeemed us from the tyranny of Satan, and brought us up from perdition, we are laid under much more solemn obligations than were the ancient people.”]

On “I heard thee in the thunder-cover,” in Psalms 81:7, comp. Habakkuk 3:4, “And there (in the lightning-flash which surrounds the Lord at his appearance) was the hiding of his power.” As in that passage God is concealed in the lightning-flash (comp. Delitzsch), so is he here in the thunder, i.e., the thunder-cloud, “the darkness,” Exodus 20:18, the storm. There is no need for assuming that the Psalmist alludes, specially and exclusively, to Exodus 14:24, according to which, while the Egyptians were passing through the sea, the Lord looked upon their chariots from the pillar of fire and cloud, and thus completed the deliverance of the Israelites. It is a common figure of poetry to represent the Lord as riding forth in a storm, mighty against his enemies, and on behalf of this people; comp. Psalms 77:16-18; Psalms 18:11:—and hence the Psalmist has assuredly before his eyes the whole series of Egyptian plagues. At the last clause, I proved thee at the water of Meribah, Luther says correctly: “He makes mention of the waters of strife in order that he may remind them of their sins.” The words do not properly belong to the train of thought in the preceding context, which is occupied only with the salvation of God. They look in the first instance very like the expression of an idea which had started up uncalled-for. This apparently arbitrary reference to Israel’s unfaithfulness and ingratitude prepares the way, however, for the following exhortation and complaint, and thus forms the connecting link between the first and second portions of the Psalm. The proving at the waters of strife, Exodus 17:1 &c. (comp. on the relation which this narrative bears to that at Numbers 20:1, &c., the Beitr. p. 378, &c.) is specially referred to, because it was here that the first proper act of rebellion took place on the part of the people who had only a short while ago beheld the glorious deeds of the Lord—the first manifestation of his real nature. The proving comes into notice here in reference to the well known result by which it was followed.

Verses 8-12

Ver. 8. Hear my people, and let me swear solemnly to thee, if thou harkenest unto me. Ver. 9. Let there not be among thee another God; and thou shalt not worship a God of the strangers. Ver. 10. I am the Lord thy God who have brought thee out of the land of Egypt: open thy mouth wide, I will fill it. Ver. 11. But my people does not listen to my voice, and Israel will not be mine. Ver. 12. So I have given them over to the wickedness of their heart, they walk in their own counsels.

On ver. 8, comp. Ps. 1. 7. On “my people,” Luther says: “You are my people, I have preserved, nourished, and redeemed thee; therefore listen to me.” As אם is never a particle expressive of desire, it is necessary to supply: it will be well with thee, or something similar,—a construction rendered also probable by comparing Psalms 81:13. Similar ellipses occur in Exodus 32:32; Ps. 27:17 (comp. at the passage), Luke 19:42; Luke 19:9 (see Koenöhl on the passages).

Psalms 81:9-10 depend on Exodus 20:2-3. It has been very unjustifiably maintained that the first commandment stands instead of the whole decalogue. This would deprive the thought of all point. It was only their fathers’ God, their country’s God, that had manifested himself in the past as Israel’s Redeemer (comp. Deuteronomy 32:12, “the Lord alone did lead him, and there was not with him one God of the stranger),” and thus he is still rich in help for them; therefore they should even now serve this one God only.

Psalms 81:10 is in reality connected with Psalms 81:9 by a “Because.” The expression, “who led thee out of the land of Egypt” is literally from Deuteronomy 20:1. The words, “Open thy mouth wide, I will fill it,” are equivalent to “I am rich for all thy necessities, even for thy boldest wishes,” as is evident from their development in Psalms 81:14-16.

In Psalms 81:11-12, the Lord complains that Israel had hitherto, to their own loss, failed to respond to the exhortations addressed to them in Psalms 81:8-10, notwithstanding the solid foundation on which these rested in their deliverance. Comp. Proverbs 1:30-31, “They would have none of my counsel, they despised all my censures: therefore they eat the fruit of their way and shall be satisfied with their own counsels.” At Psalms 81:11, Luther says: “It is something dreadful and terrible that he says my people Israel. If it had been a stranger to whom I had manifested no particular deeds of kindness, &c.” Allusion is made to Deuteronomy 13:9, where it is said, in reference to him who should entice Israel to serve strange Gods: “thou shalt not consent unto him nor hearken unto him.” Israel had singularly and shamefully reversed the matter: they had lent their ear to the enticer and renounced their own God. The preterites denote the past stretching forward into the present.

At Psalms 81:12, God lets every one take his own way; the stiff-necked Israelites who would not have his truth and goodness, shall be given over to error and wickedness, to their own destruction; comp. Romans 1:24, 2 Thessalonians 2:10-11. The שרירות לב (not hardness but wickedness of heart) is here and everywhere else where it occurs, Isaiah 3:17; Isaiah 7:24, taken from Deuteronomy 29:19. To walk in their own counsels is to regulate the life according to them, according to the passions of their own corrupted hearts instead of the commandments of the holy God, comp. Jeremiah 7:24; Isaiah 65:2: “a rebellious people who walk in a way that is not good, after their own thoughts.”

Verses 13-16

Ver. 13-16. And.: “The blessed God in his great fatherly love and faithfulness cannot leave them, he must repeat his promise and call men again to him by the offer of his gracious deeds.”

Ver. 13. If now my people did hear me, and Israel walked in my way. Ver. 14. I would soon bring down their enemies and turn my hand upon their adversaries. Ver. 15. The haters of the Lord would feign submission to him, and their time would continue for ever. Ver. 16. He would feed them with the fat of the wheat, and out of the rock would I satisfy thee with honey. The לו , Psalms 81:13, denotes the condition notwithstanding the consciousness that it is not realized: if my people heard, which they do not: comp. Ewald, 627. Isaiah 48:18. The ways of the Lord form the contrast to their own stupid and ruinous plans, Psalms 81:12.

The phrase “to turn the hand upon,” ver. 14, is, when taken by itself, an indefinite one, to turn it to the object of trade or manufacture: comp. the Christol. p. 338. Here, according to the connection, it is the punishing hand; and to turn it back denotes the speedy overpowering of the enemies,—as formerly in the days of old, Psalms 81:6-7: comp. particularly there בצרה .

The first half of Psalms 81:15 depends on Deuteronomy 33:29: “thy enemies shall feign to thee” (comp. at Psalms 18:44.) The allusion to this passage shows that the לו is to be referred to Israel and accounts for the singular. On “the haters of the Lord,” Luther: “Thou shouldst not think that I am favourable to them, for they are my enemies also. But they are too strong for thee and gain the upper hand because thou hast forsaken me. Had it not been for this, matters would have been very different. It is not the enemies that plague thee; it is I: mine hand it is that oppresses thee when thine enemies oppress thee.” It was the design to give great prominence to the thought so comforting for Israel and so well fitted to lead them to reconciliation with God, that their enemies are also the enemies of God, which led to the expression, “the haters of the Lord,” instead of “my haters.” The use of the third person in the first clause of Psalms 81:16 is connected with this. But towards the conclusion, the usual form is resumed. On the second clause, comp. 2 Samuel 7:24. The עת signifies always time, never fortune.

On Psalms 81:16, Luther: “For there are two things of which we stand in need, nourishment and protection. Therefore, God now says, that if they turn to him he will not only be their man of war to fight for them, but also their husbandman: so that those who fear him and trust in him shall want nothing that pertains to this life.” The first clause is from Deuteronomy 32:14 (the fat of the wheat is instead of the best of the wheat), the second clause from Deuteronomy 32:13, and he caused Israel to suck honey from the rock, oil from the flinty rock.” That the honey from the rock is not at all what several very prosaicly have supposed, the honey which the bees had prepared in the crevices of the rocks, but something altogether unusual and supernatural ( out of the hard barren rock) is evident from the parallel clause in Deut., oil from the flinty rock, and also from the passage, Job 29:6, which in like manner alludes to the passage in Deut.: “when I bathed my feet in milk and the hard rock was changed for me into streams of oil.”

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Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 81". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-81.html.