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Bible Commentaries

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and Homiletical

Psalms 81

Verses 1-16

Psalms 81:0

To the chief Musician upon Gittith, A Psalm of Asaph

2     Sing aloud unto God our strength:

Make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob.

3     Take a psalm, and bring hither the timbrel,

The pleasant harp with the psaltery.

4     Blow up the trumpet in the new moon,

In the time appointed, on our solemn feast day.

5     For this was a statute for Israel,

And a law of the God of Jacob.

6     This he ordained in Joseph for a testimony,

When he went out through the land of Egypt:

Where I heard a language that I understood not.

7     I removed his shoulder from the burden:

His hands were delivered from the pots.

8     Thou calledst in trouble, and I delivered thee;

I answered thee in the secret place of thunder:
I proved thee at the waters of Meribah. Selah.

9     Hear, O my people, and I will testify unto thee: O Israel, if thou wilt hearken unto me;

10     There shall no strange god be in thee;

Neither shalt thou worship any strange god.

11     I am the Lord thy God,

Which brought thee out of the land of Egypt:
Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it.

12     But my people would not hearken to my voice;

And Israel would none of me.

13     So I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lust:

And they walked in their own counsels.

14     Oh that my people had hearkened unto me,

And Israel had walked in my ways!

15     I should soon have subdued their enemies,

And turned my hand against their adversaries.

16     The haters of the Lord should have submitted themselves unto him:

But their time should have endured for ever.

17     He should have fed them also with the finest of the wheat:

And with honey out of the rock should I have satisfied thee.


Contents and Composition. On the superscription see Introd. § 12, No. 7. The Psalm falls into two divisions of such distinct characters, that Olshausen has been led to assume the existence of two poems originally distinct, the second of which, moreover, has been mutilated at the beginning and end. But the first section, Psalms 81:2-6, forms the introduction to the second, Psalms 81:7-16, which in the form of a declaration from God Himself, contains an exhortation addressed to the Church bidding them celebrate a certain festival in a manner pleasing to Him. For after a demand for joyful celebration, with music of all kinds, which in Psalms 81:2 is directed to the whole people (Ezra 3:11,) there follows in Psalms 81:3, one addressed to the Levites (2 Chronicles 5:12); and lastly, in Psalms 81:4, one to the Priests (Numbers 10:10; 2 Chronicles 7:6), while in Psalms 81:5-6 this summons is supported by an allusion to the Divine institution of the festival. Then begins the exhortation placed in the mouth of Jehovah Himself, attention being called to the blessings which the festival was designed to commemorate (Psalms 81:7-8). Upon this is based a demand for His exclusive worship in Israel (Psalms 81:9-11). A complaint of former disobedience is then introduced, (Psalms 81:11; Psalms 81:13), which is followed by a desire for present and future obedience, enforced and impressed upon the minds of the people by the promise of abundant blessing (vers 14–17).

The reference to the historical circumstances attending the establishment of the festival is favorable to the supposition that the Passover is intended, as the one which begins with the full moon of the month Nisan (Venema, De Wette, Hengst., Delitzsch, Hitzig). For Psalms 81:6 does not speak of the Exodus from Egypt (The ancient translators, Aben Ezra, Luther, Geier, Köster) or of the march of Joseph=Israel through the land of Egypt, that is, through the midst of the country before the eyes of the Egyptians while they were unable to prevent them, (Calvin, Rudinger, Hengstenberg), but of the passing of God against or over the land in connection with the slaying of the first-born (Kimchi and most of the recent commentators). Without this historical reference, we would be inclined to think of the feast of Tabernacles (Hupfeld and most of the ancients after the Targum and Talmudical tradition) for this was celebrated during the full moon of the month Tischri, whose new moon began the civil year of the Jews, the day of the sounding of trumpets, (Leviticus 23:24; Numbers 29:1), to which Psalms 81:4 a seems expressly to allude But it is to be remarked, against this supposition, that all the new-moons were distinguished as sacred days not only by sacrifices (Numbers 28:1 f) but also by trumpet blowing (Numbers 10:10). Hence there are no better means of deciding afforded by the latter, than by the expression: “day of our feast.” For, though the feast of Tabernacles is frequently named simply “the feast” (הֶחָנ) yet this expression denotes also the Passover (Exodus 12:14; Numbers 28:17, comp. Isaiah 30:29, and Hitzig on Ezekiel 45:21), and the assertion of Hupfeld (De primitiva et vera festorum apud Hebr. ratione1851), that the solemn character of the Passover-festival excluded the manifestations of joyfulness, and that what is said on the subject in 2 Chronicles 30:20 f. is to be rejected as unhistorical, has not been allowed to pass uncontradicted (comp. Delitzsch on the passover-rites during the period of the Second Temple in the Zeitschrift für luhh. Kerche und Theologie 1855). The original significance of the festival spoken of, lying, as it does here, beyond the field of the historical retrospect, does not come into view as bearing upon the observance of the feast, or the reference of the Psalms to the latter generally. There is therefore no importance to be attached to the remark of Delitzsch that the feast of tabernacles appears in the earliest giving of the law (Exodus 23:16; Exodus 34:22), as the feast of the ingathering of the harvest, and that it did not receive its historical connection with the journeying through the wilderness until the addition was made referring to the celebration of the festival in Canaan (Leviticus 23:39-44). But the fact that the great day of Atonement fell upon the tenth of Tischri is certainly of importance. For if the Psalmist were speaking of the feasts of that month it would surely be surprising that no allusion was made in the Text to this day, which fell directly between the new and the full moon. It is also in favor of Nisan, that the rejoicing, which begins on its new-moon as the first day of the sacred new year, could be united without any interruption to that of the full moon and its festival. This connection between the two would be distinctly expressed, if the words “at the full moon” could be placed at the end of the verse (Hupfeld). But such a transposition would be too violent. The juxtaposition, however, of the new and the full moon does not compel us either to assume, that this Psalm was intended to be sung at both feasts (Muntinghe, Rosenmüller), or to explain the words which denote the new moon, as referring to the month generally, (Venema, Hengstenberg). It is only the blowing at the new and the full moon that is spoken of, and the former could, without prejudice to its special meaning, be mentioned here also as the formal proclamation (Maurer) of the great festal day which fell in the same month. For the usual rendering: “in the day of our feast,” is wrong. Because לְ is used and not בְּ it must mean: against, or, for (Genesis 7:14; Job 21:30). Nor are we instead of, “in the full moon” (after the analogy of the Syriac since De Dieu) to translate indefinitely “at the appointed time”4 (Sept. Vulg., Aben Ezra and others), or even “in the new moon as in the day of the moon’s being covered” (according to the Talmudical explanation).

[The explanation of חדשׁ in Psalms 81:4 given by Hengstenberg and referred to above, namely, that it means the month, and that consequently “the month is first named, and then the particular part of it” seems to me to be more natural than Dr. Moll’s supposition. The verse seems to have been an imitation of the formula, employed in Leviticus 23:5, and frequently in the designation of any particular feast day. This view is also adopted and defended by Alexander. An additional reason may be given for this sense of the word. The historical allusions plainly require that the Passover be understood as the feast in question. All the various opinions and needless discussions thereon have arisen from the assumption that the word must mean “new moon,” which naturally suggests, as shown above, the feast of Tabernacles.—J. F. M.]

On the instruments comp. Introd., § 11. The time of the composition can only be inferred approximately from the fact that essential points of agreement with Psalms 77, 78 lead us to refer them all to one and the same author. The desultory character of the poem, and the circumstance that God addresses the Church in the declaration concerning the feast, are both conditions which suit the prophet-singer Asaph. According to Talmudical tradition this Psalm was also the Jewish new-year Psalm, and in the weekly liturgy of the Temple was to be sung on Thursday as Psalms 82:0 on Tuesday.

[The following is Dr. Alexander’s rendering of Psalms 81:4, on which compare the remarks above: “Blow, in the month, the trumpet at the full moon, on the day of our feast.”—J. F. M.]

Psalms 81:6. I heard a language that I understood not.—In this Psalm as in many lyrico-prophetical utterances of the Old Testament God and the poet are alternately the speakers. It would be altogether unnatural to introduce between them, without any notice whatever, the people, first designated Joseph, as here speaking also, and to make them say that they had heard a language spoken in Egypt, which they did not understand. (The form יהְוֹסֵף is used poetically after the analogy of compound names beginning with יְהוֹ). It is true indeed that in other places (Deuteronomy 28:49; Isaiah 33:19; Jeremiah 5:15; Psalms 114:1) great importance is attached to this in order to set forth the blessings of deliverance from the oppression of a strange-speaking people and of the possession of a home freed from foreign occupation. It is also allowable to give a turn to the sentence, by connecting it with the foregoing infinitive (Ewald), which is unassailable on grammatical grounds, instead of supplying, incorrectly, the adverb of place: “where” (Hengstenberg and most of the ancients) which owes its origin to the false reference of the “going forth” to the people of Israel. But even if the people could be considered as the subject, the language heard and unknown, that is, strange to them, when God went forth against the land of Egypt, could not have been the Egyptian language, which they had listened to for 430 years. With this connection of the clauses it would be much more correct to understand the language of God (Lud. de Dieu, Köster) in the judgment inflicted upon Egypt heard by the Israelites and not understood by them. But if we assume that it is God’s speaking that is mentioned, and consider the Psalmist as the one who hears, it is then most natural to take the sentence as independent, and to understand it of the language of revelation. But the Psalmist does not say that he is now hearing the unknown voice uttering what follows (De Wette). God does, it is true, utter what follows, and His words are the contents of what is heard. But this utterance is neither cited as being His, nor introduced as a revelation made suddenly (Döderderlein, Muntinghe, Olshausen). It is rather presented in such a manner that the prominence is not given to what is sudden, unexpected, or overpowering in the communication, on account of which the recipient of it is unable to tell how it is made, but to the character of the language of revelation, as not coming within the range of human acquirement as other kinds of speech do. For שׂפת denotes neither a special declaration nor the voice by which it is pronounced, but primarily the lips, then (as also the tongue), dialect, idiom, language in its special signification (Böttcher, Proben, p. 50); and ידע expresses knowing by investigation, proof, or study. By this explanation: “language of such a kind, as, etc.,” we avoid the difficulty which results from supplying a genitive of the person, which is certainly admissible linguistically. For, in the present connection, the language or kind of speech of one not known by the Psalmist (or by the Israelitish Church) would only suggest again to us a spiritvoice, or that speaking, or the sound of a lip was heard, while the form could not be distinctly seen, nor the face be recognized (Job 4:12). For there is no ground given in the context for maintaining, by referring to Exodus 6:2, that God Himself is meant, who in His name and nature is both known and unknown (Delitzsch). The context rather refers to the “testimony” given by God, which is authentically explained by Him in the sequel (Hupfeld). [Perowne: “The interpretation which regards the language here spoken of as the voice of God, and as virtually given in the following verses, is now that most commonly adopted.” To express this we must omit the italicized where of the English Version, and make the words form an independent sentence.—J. F. M.]

Psalms 81:7-8. Carrying-basket [E.V.: pots]. Similar baskets are not only found represented on Egyptian monuments, but there are also inscriptions which mention the Aperin (עברים) who dragged stones to the great watch-tower (Papyrus Leydensis, I. 346) or to the treasure-house (id. I. 349, following Lauth) of the city of Rameses. But the translation: pot, is also allowable (many following Isaaki and Kimchi) with reference to the work of the Israelites in clay, (Exodus 1:14).—The veil of the thunder [E. V., secret place of thunder] is not the clouds generally, which in several theophanies (Psalms 18:12; Habakkuk 3:4) are mentioned as veiling the majesty of God, and at the same time manifesting it; but the cloudy and fiery pillar (Exodus 13:21), from out of which God wrought His wonders against the Egyptians in the passage of the Red Sea, Exodus 14:19 f. (most, following Kimchi). For along with the first great miracle of the journey the second is mentioned, the water smitten from the rock (Ex. 17:17). By employing the local designation “water of Meribah”=water of strife, as well as by the words. “I proved thee,” the way is prepared for the reproach which follows (Hengst.), and the unbelief and ingratitude of the Israelites at that time pointed out (Luther).

Psalms 81:11-12. Open wide thy mouth.—It is against the context to refer this expression to hunger for God’s word, and to the desire to appropriate God’s laws as the bread of life and the food of the soul, Psalms 119:131; Jeremiah 15:16; Ezekiel 2:8 (Targum., Schnurrer). For the words serve as a poetical momentum to raise into prominence the idea of God’s readiness to satisfy all needs (Hupfeld), but have their real ground in this truth, that the feeling of need and desire for its satisfaction must be accomplished by a confession of our own inability to accomplish this end. [Psalms 81:12. Perowne; “So I gave them up. The word is used of the letting go of captors, slaves, etc., of giving over to sin, Job 8:4. This is the greatest and most fearful of all God’s punishments. Comp. Psalms 78:29.—Stubbornness. The word occurs once in the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy 19:18. and several times in Jeremiah. The English Version renders it here lusts,5 and in all the other passages, imagination, but wrongly.”—J. F. M.]

Psalms 81:16 f. Their time is not the evil time of the haters of God (Theodoret, Isaaki, Aben Ezra) but the lifetime of the Israelites (Kimchi) and that as a people (Hitzig), Psalms 89:30; Psalms 89:37. The last verse has an unmistakable allusion to Deuteronomy 32:13. In that passage there follows besides: “oil out of the flinty rock.” Honey out of the rock is probably not wild honey, as an emblem of good things obtained without labor, or as describing the fertility of the country. But the later. which is frequently mentioned as a type of the Divine blessing, is distinguished as something extraordinary and preternatural by this hyperbolical expression. A change of צוּר into צוּף after Proverbs 16:21 (Olshausen) is consequently unnecessary. But the slight change in the pointing by which the vav conversive becomes vav copulative (Olshausen) is quite natural. In this case the promise is continued, and this continuation was not merely to be expected, but the transition to the third person (occasioned by the naming of Jehovah in the preceding verse) and the immediate return to the first person become hereby intelligible and agreeable. The present pointing, on the contrary, which arose, perhaps, from considerations of euphony, (Hupfeld) requires us in strictness to separate the last clause from the preceding, and to regard it as an account of an actual event (Sept., Syriac, Ewald, Hitzig, Delitzsch). But it has an altogether different position and significance from those of the historical pictures, with which Psalms 77, 78. abruptly conclude, and is followed by no further utterances from God. We can hardly assume that the narrative portion has been transferred from the end of Psalms 81:8 to the end of the Psalm, and there is the less reason for this assumption, as in that case there would be no occasion for the change of the personal pronouns. [Alexander: “The English Version refers these four verses all to past time, had hearkened, had walked, should have subdued, should have submitted, etc. This is in fact the true construction of Isaiah 48:18; but there the conditional or optative particle is construed with the preterite, and not with the future tense, as here, which makes an essential difference of syntax. See Nordheimer’s Heb. Gr., § 1078”.—J. F. M.]


1. The Church has at all times to give to God the Lord the honor and acknowledgment which are His due; but especially must it manifest to the whole world its sense of this obligation by its observance of the sacred seasons appointed specially for this end, and, by maintaining these sacred ordinances, contribute to their preservation in the world, and show themselves to be, and build themselves up as, a Church of God. This is most effectually done, partly by solemn prayers, psalms, and hymns, to the praise of the Lord, partly by proclaiming His mighty deeds, and especially those which have served to found and maintain His Church in the world, and by a practical meditation upon them; partly by appropriating in God’s worship the blessings, means of grace, and salvation, offered and supplied to the members of the Church through God’s special ordinances.
2. The obligation of the Church to honor and serve God is based upon His right to the Church which He has redeemed and purchased from bondage as His own inheritance. Thus all the sacred days of the Church of God have an actual and historical foundation, which on one side stands related to the revelation of God, and on the other to the salvation of its members. The feasts of the Old Testament receive in this way a typical significance, and their celebration, a moral character essentially distinct from heathen worship, and divested of the sensuousness which marks the rites of many forms of religion.

3. Faithfulness to the only true God is manifested, on the one hand, by obedience to His commands and ordinances, and on the other, by trusting to His promises and gifts. In both aspects we have examples of warning and encouragement in the history of our forefathers. But it is of paramount importance that we do not study these examples merely as the subjects of a narrative, but that we make them subservient to practical wisdom in life. For, according to men’s desires, and according to their conduct, will there be measured out and allotted to them, what will cast them to the ground, or preserve them in life; and God deals out with no sparing hand, nor does the covenant relation protect the unfaithful, ungrateful, and disobedient. He who will not hear must feel. But if the sinner is converted from the error of his way, God gives him to taste renewed mercy, and to experience the transcendent power of His salvation. And He attracts and invites him in His compassion to this course by holding out to him His promises.


The mighty deeds of God, which we celebrate in our solemn assemblies have their significance, not merely in the history of our forefathers, but also for the life of the Church even to the end of the world.—In the sacred seasons of our Church let us not only praise God with joyful song and grateful prayer, let us also seek to be edified by the preaching of His word.—The solemn services of our sacred days are not founded upon human will, but upon the command of God.—True praise to God does not consist in outward actions and ceremonies, but in a personal consecration to God in order to more confirmed fidelity to His covenant.—God may prove us, but let us not dare to tempt Him.—As unfaithfulness to God bears its bitter fruits, so does faithfulness its sweet fruits of promise.—When we hear of the sins of the fathers, it is not enough that we deplore them, we must avoid them too.

Starke: Let him who will sing, sing to God’s glory.—Sabbaths and sacred days are nothing but monuments of Divine blessings. If men would but bear this in mind, many acts of desecration would be unperformed.—In the first commandment lies the ground-work of all the others; for to him who does not fear, love, and trust in God, there is no sin so great as that he cannot fall into it.—God is much more willing to bestow upon us His mercy than we are to receive it.

Osiander: Let us bear in mind, that it is not human devices, but true godliness, that makes us secure from our foes.—Menzel: It is the nature and custom of the world to let God say what He will, and then to do as it wills.—Frisch: Let the world follow its ways, but keep thou firm to the ways of God’s children, who seek their happiness in Him.—Rieger: What the Lord can arouse in the conscience of every one; with what powerful leadings and gracious offers He can encourage a heart, when He appears before it with these words: Hear, I will testify.—Richter (Hausbibel): God loves specially in us the ever-open mouth of the soul. It is no trouble to Him to feed and revive us. But he who despises His willing goodness and mercy is an abomination to Him.—Tholuck: Such is man! He laments that prosperity has forsaken him, and in departing from the way of his God, he leaves the way of happiness.—Guenther: We are and shall be the people of God. Do we hearken to His voice? Do we long after communion with Him?—Why is it so ill with thee here below? Because thou dost not hearken to God, because thou dost not walk in His ways. How well it might be with us if we would only have it so!—Taube: What God by His Divine right has ordained for a testimony to His people, is now Israel’s sacred duty and rich blessing.—The excellence of God’s love is displayed in three of its attributes. It rebukes, it complains, it allures.

[Matth. Henry: God’s grace is His own, and He is debtor to no man; and yet as He never gave His grace to any that could say they deserved it, so He never took it away from any but such as had first forfeited it.—God would have us do our duty to Him that we may be qualified to receive favor from Him. He therefore delights in our serving Him, not because He is the better for it, but because we shall be.

Scott: As the giving of the law from Mount Sinai, and the trials of Israel in the wilderness were proofs of the Lord’s peculiar regard to that people, so humiliating convictions of sin, and sharp afflictions, are generally, and the law written in our hearts, always, evidential of the love of God to our souls.—J. F. M.]


[4][So the Engl. Vers. In this the root is supposed to be cognate with כסם to divide out. But the Syriac Keso (comp. כסה), the full moon, as being covered furnishes the key to the right meaning.—J. F. M.]

[5][The meaning hardness (transferred by Hengstenberg to wickedness) is established beyond dispute. The Syriac and the Hebrew derivatives from the same root show this. The rendering “lusts” probably arose in this way. The LXX. being ignorant of the true meaning followed the parallelism and translated ἐπιτήδευμα in both clauses, which our translators adopted in the first.—J. F. M]

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Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Psalms 81". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". 1857-84.