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Bible Commentaries

Kingcomments on the Whole Bible

Psalms 81

In this psalm, the remnant expects God to restore them. To that end, God will begin blowing the trumpet during the new moon. The only feast of the seven feasts in Leviticus 23 that coincides with the new moon is the Feast of the blowing of the Trumpets, which is at the same time Israel’s (civil) New Year celebration. The new moon represents the beginning of Israel’s restoration. As they wait for the LORD to intervene, the LORD makes it clear to them in Psa 81:6-16 that in the past, when the LORD had redeemed them, they still rebelled afterwards. It holds the warning to not fall into the same mistake.

Verses 1-5

A Celebration Song


For “for the choir director” (Psa 81:1a) see at Psalm 4:1.

For “on the Gittith“ see at Psalm 8:1.

For “[a Psalm] of Asaph” see at Psalm 50:1.

Asaph calls to “sing for joy to God” (Psa 81:1b). Singing is the giving thanks par excellence for Israel (cf. Hos 14:2; Heb 13:15). The LORD is the Holy One Who is enthroned upon the praises of Israel (Psa 22:3). Asaph calls God “our strength”. God is the strength of His people. The singing for joy is about the strength of God that He has shown in the redemption of His people. Asaph also calls to “shout joyfully to the God of Jacob”. Shout joyfully is a loud expression of joy, as opposed to loud lamentation.

To “the God of Jacob” is appealed for deliverance in a day of trouble (Psa 20:1b). Asaph here calls for singing and rejoicing before the God of Jacob in the confidence that He will intervene and deliver. King Jehoshaphat showed that he trusted the LORD so much that he had his choir of singers going out before the armed soldiers (2Chr 20:21).

The name “Jacob” recalls the weakness or inability of God’s people to trust in God to deliver them from bondage and give them His blessing. Through the power of God the people were delivered and received the blessing. Jacob himself calls God “the Mighty One of Jacob” (Gen 49:24). The God of Jacob also recalls God’s election of Jacob over Esau (Rom 9:10-12). All this makes it clear that there is no glory for man. Only God is worthy of all praise.

It is a reason for an exuberant celebration. The psalm should be raised (Psa 81:2). The joy is to be accompanied with musical instruments. Music supports the singing and creates harmony in the singing. The people are to “strike the timbrel”. This assumes that the people are singing while dancing. Striking the timbrel is often done by women (Exo 15:20-21; Jdg 11:34; 1Sam 18:6). Also “the sweet sounding lyre with the harp” accompany the expressions of joy. The lyre is called “sweet sounding” because of its pleasant sound.

Above this sounds “the trumpet”, the shofar, a ram’s-horn trumpet (Psa 81:3; cf. Jos 6:5). The shofar calls for the singing of praise to begin, and also calls for humbling. It announces that the darkest part of the night has been reached. It is “new moon”. The announcement also implies that from now on the people will face the light of the “full moon”. The new moon is the symbol of the beginning of Israel’s public restoration in the light of the sun. This restoration begins with humbling themselves. Israel is not accepted until the day of atonement. After that, Israel’s restoration will be celebrated, because then God has accepted the people as His people again. This will happen after the church is caught up.

On the first day of the seventh month God attached to the “new moon” a feast, the Feast of the blowing of the Trumpets (Lev 23:23-24; Num 29:1). Also “at the full moon” in the seventh month a feast was instituted by God. Full moon is on the fifteenth day. On that day the Feast of Booths begins (Lev 23:33-34). The Feast of Booths recalls the journey through the wilderness while living in the land and thanking God for all the blessings of the land (Lev 23:42-43).

It is called “our feast day” here, although it is one of the LORD’s feast days (Lev 23:1-2). Literally it says “at our feast”, that is, the feast Israel may celebrate in honor of the LORD (Exo 5:1).

These feasts are not a fabrication of the Israelites’ imagination, but are “a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob” (Psa 81:4). It is not that the people can celebrate the feast whenever they feel like it. It is “a statute” that they must obey. It is a statute “for Israel”, that is, for the land inhabited by a people called “Israel”, which means ‘prince of God’. They may celebrate the feast in faith – they are still praying for restoration – but they are already celebrating the feast, in trust and obedience to the LORD.

It is “an ordinance” of God. God has ordained that this should happen. He is God and they are His people. They must listen to Him. He is “the God of Jacob”. The name Jacob recalls practice and failure. The name Israel recalls position and privilege. Both aspects have a place in the praise of God.

God established these feasts “for a testimony in Joseph” (Psa 81:5). Here is a third name for the people. By Joseph is also meant the whole people (cf. Psa 77:15; Psa 80:1b). Here we have the transition to the connection between God’s people and Egypt. It was through Joseph that the people came to Egypt. There he has been God’s means of their blessing and life. After Joseph died, the people were enslaved. From this they were delivered by God.

Deliverance began with God going “throughout the land of Egypt”. This refers to the judgments God brought on the land of Egypt. It specifically refers to His going out through the midst of Egypt to kill all the firstborn in the land (Exo 11:4-5). This action of God is “a language” – the language of God’s redemption – which Israel did not understand. They did not understand what God meant by their deliverance. The proof of this is their disobedience.

Verses 6-7

God’s Care in the Past


“The burden” of slavery in Egypt, where the people had to lug stones, was taken from “his shoulder” by God (Psa 81:6; Exo 1:1-14; Exo 5:6-18; cf. Deu 26:7). “His hands were freed from the basket” means that God freed them from the baskets in which they had to put the raw materials for building. They no longer had to use them. God had delivered them from their forced labor.

They were in trouble because of their forced labor, and in trouble they called to God, and God rescued them and led them out of Egypt (Psa 81:7; Exo 2:23-24; Exo 6:4-5). God speaks of Israel in Psa 81:6 still in the third person singular – “his shoulder”, “his hands” – that is, there is still a distance. Here in Psa 81:7 Israel calls to the LORD, and now He addresses Israel in second person singular – four times “you” – meaning that Israel has come closer.

He answered them at Sinai “in the hiding place of thunder” (Exo 19:18-19; Exo 20:18; Psa 77:18). They said there that they would do all that the LORD would command. Then His answer came and He entered into a covenant with them. This covenant He established in the law, which He gave to Moses, who took the law from the mountain to the people.

He proved them “at the waters of Meribah” (Exo 17:1-7; Num 20:1-13; cf. Deu 33:8). It is a reminder of their disobedience without explicitly mentioning it, which is done in other places (Psa 95:8; Psa 106:32). The reminder should make them ashamed and also willing to trust God now. The word “prove” is to test for genuineness, that is, the genuineness of faith. At Meribah the test was whether Israel really listen and obey.

Verses 8-12

Hear and Not listen


After God redeemed His people, He made clear to them His purpose for their redemption. He addresses them as “My people” (Psa 81:8). He tells them to hear. It is an appeal to the heart, whether it is willing to listen. You can hear something with your ears, but the point is whether there is in the heart the willingness to do what the ear has heard.

God’s people must hear, for God “will admonish” them (cf. Psa 50:7). That is to say, God is presenting His will to them. He wants them to acknowledge Him, obey Him, and serve Him. If they accept His testimony among them, they will be able to receive what He has for them in His heart.

First, God wants the people He calls “My people” to obey the commandment that there shall be “no strange god” among them (Psa 81:9). This is covered in detail in Isaiah 40-48. It is the second great sin of the people of Israel – besides the rejection of Christ – that the apostate people accept the antichrist as king and god (2Thes 2:3-4).

There is only one God; the others are not real gods. These are gods of other nations, gods of strangers (Deu 32:12). This is the reminder of the first commandment of the law (Exo 20:3-4). The people whom God calls My people shall not worship any foreign god (cf. Exo 20:5). They broke this commandment even before Moses came down with the two tablets of the law (Exo 32:2-8).

In Exodus 20 this commandment of Psa 81:9 follows the introduction of the ten commandments, that the LORD is their God, Who delivered them from Egypt. That he reverses the order and first mentions the commandment that God’s people should have no other gods and should not bow down to them, is to underline the importance of this commandment.

God alone is “the LORD … your God, Who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (Psa 81:10). He delivered them to be His people. This is the reminder of the introduction to the ten commandments (Exo 20:2). The basis of His right to their undivided dedication is their deliverance by Him from the bondage of Egypt. This is already a great privilege.

But it goes much further. God says to His people: “Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.” This is a great invitation. The people may open their mouths wide, as young birds do to receive their mother’s food. God can supply all their needs if they open their mouths to Him. It means that they expect everything from Him. He appreciates and rewards that attitude.

He is the Almighty God, Who says He will give what they ask. What He gives, other gods cannot give. It is primarily about their needs to live on earth, but He wants to give them much more. He wants to give from the fullness of His heart all His treasures that He has prepared for them. What applies here for the Israelite, applies to every member of God’s people in all times. What do we ask of Him?

Alas, how often we too are like Israel. God must say: “But My people did not listen to My voice” (Psa 81:11). Once again God calls the people “My people” (cf. Psa 81:8). He has made them His own people through redemption. Out of gratitude for their redemption in the past and His promises for the future, the people should be faithful to Him. But the people have persisted in their rebellion against Him. It has not listened to His voice.

Listening or obedience is the theme of this psalm; the verb sama or listen, occurs five times in this psalm. His people have not taken up God’s unlimited invitation in their hearts. God must say: “And Israel did not obey Me.”

Because their hearts were not set on Him and His invitation, but showed unwillingness, “so” God “gave them over to the stubbornness of their heart” (Psa 81:12). It is like what God did to Pharaoh (Exo 10:27). They chose not to respond to God’s invitation, but to hold fast to their own devices. They want to go their own way to success and happiness. Therefore, God causes them to continue in their own way, so that they will taste the bitter fruit of it (cf. Acts 14:16; Rom 1:24).

Verses 13-16

God’s Desire to Bless


God utters, as it were, a sigh, “Oh”, that His people would yet listen to Him and that Israel would walk in His ways (Psa 81:13; cf. Lk 19:42; Deu 5:29; Deu 32:29-30; Isa 48:18). They failed to do so, forfeiting all the blessings listed below.

Between the lines, however, we hear an invitation to still listen to Him in order to receive the forfeited blessings. God does not reject His people forever. The lesson came from the history of Israel, but the lesson is meant for the believing remnant of Israel. They will read this in the future. Today the lesson is for us as we reflect on this psalm.

Their enemies now have the upper hand, but if they listen to Him, He will intervene directly on their behalf and subdue their enemies (Psa 81:14). With this, God opens the possibility of a new deliverance, similar to the deliverance from Egypt. They only have to cry out to Him in their trouble, turn to Him and live in faith according to His will, and He will turn His hand against their adversaries. Now it is not so. Now His hand is turned against them and He has to surrender them into the hand of their enemies.

The situation will then be completely reversed. Their enemies, “those who hate the LORD”, will “pretend obedience to Him” (Psa 81:15). In contrast to the time of blessing the believing remnant will enjoy in the realm of peace, “their time”, that is, the time of the LORD’s haters, will be “forever” in subjection and punishment.

The blessing consists of “the finest of the wheat” and “honey from the rock” (Psa 81:16). These are two of the seven blessings that speak of the abundant blessings of the land (Deu 32:13-14; cf. Deu 8:7-8). They would have been fed on these blessings and satisfied with them if they had taken God’s statutes to heart. The reason why God holds these blessings before them is to induce them to become obedient to Him. Obedience to Him leads to life and blessing in abundance (Isa 48:17-19).

Spiritually speaking, “the finest of the wheat” speaks of Christ. He is the grain of wheat that fell into the earth and died and brought forth much fruit (Jn 12:24). The rock is also a picture of Christ (1Cor 10:4). Honey is sweet. Honey from the (struck) rock speaks of the sweet relationships of believers among themselves that have come as the fruit of Christ’s suffering.

Because every believer is connected to Christ, there is also close fellowship among them. This fellowship will be enjoyed perfectly in heaven. It is called honey in connection with the Word of God (Psa 19:10b). The interconnectedness is already enjoyed on earth as believers feed on God’s Word and are led by God’s Spirit.

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Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Psalms 81". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/psalms-81.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.