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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 81

Verses 1-16

Psalms 81:1-16

THE psalmist summons priests and people to a solemn festival, commemorative of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, and sets forth the lessons which that deliverance teaches, the learning of which is the true way of keeping the feast. There has been much discussion as to which feast is in the psalmist’s mind. That of Tabernacles has been widely accepted as intended, chiefly on the ground that the first day of the month in which it occurred was celebrated by the blowing of trumpets, as the beginning of the civil year. This practice is supposed to account for the language of Psalms 81:3, which seems to imply trumpet blowing both at new and full moon. But, on other grounds, the Passover is more likely to be intended, as the psalm deals with the manifestations of Divine power attending the beginning of the Exodus, which followed the first Passover, as well as with those during the desert sojourn, which alone were commemorated by the feast of Tabernacles. True, we have no independent knowledge of any trumpet blowing on the first day of the Passover month (Nisan); but Delitzsch and others suggest that from this psalm it may be inferred "that the commencement of each month, and more especially the commencement of the month (Nisan), which was at the same time the commencement of the ecclesiastical year, was signalised by the blowing of horns." On the whole, the Passover is most probably the feast in question.

Olshausen, followed by Cheyne, regards the psalm as made up of two fragments (Psalms 81:1-5 a, - and Psalms 81:5-16). But surely the exhortations and promises of the latter portion are most relevant to the summons to the festival contained in the former part, and there could be no more natural way of preparing for the right commemoration of the deliverance than to draw out its lessons of obedience and to warn against departure from the delivering God. Definiteness as to date is unattainable. The presupposed existence of the full Temple ceremonial shows that the psalm was not written in exile, nor at a time of religious persecution. Its warning against idolatry would be needless in a post-exilic psalm, as no tendency thereto existed after the return from captivity. But beyond such general indications we cannot go. The theory that the psalm is composed of two fragments exaggerates the difference between the two parts into which it falls. These are the summons to the feast (Psalms 81:1-5), and the lessons of the feast (Psalms 81:6-16).

Delitzsch suggests that the summons in Psalms 81:1 is addressed to the whole congregation; that in Psalms 81:2 to the Levites, the appointed singers and musicians; and that in Psalms 81:3 to the priests who are intrusted with blowing the Shophar, or horn. {Joshua 6:4, and 2 Chronicles 20:28} One can almost hear the tumult of joyful sounds, in which the roar of the multitude, the high-pitched notes of singers, the deeper clash of timbrels, the twanging of stringed instruments, and the hoarse blare of rams’ horns, mingle in concordant discord, grateful to Eastern ears, however unmusical to ours. The religion of Israel allowed and required exuberant joy. It sternly rejected painting and sculpture, blot abundantly employed music, the most ethereal of the arts, which stirs emotions and longings too delicate and deep for speech. Whatever differences in form have necessarily attended the progress from the worship of the Temple to that of the Church, the free play of joyful emotion should mark the latter even more than the former. Decorum is good, but not if purchased by the loss of ringing gladness. The psalmist’s summons has a meaning still.

The reason for it is given in Psalms 81:4-5 a. It-i.e., the feast (not the musical accompaniments)-is appointed by God. The psalmist employs designations for it, which are usually applied to "the word of the Lord"; statute, ordinance, testimony, being all found in Psalms 19:1-14 and Psalms 119:1-176, with that meaning. A triple designation of the people corresponds with these triple names for the feast. Israel, Jacob, and Joseph are synonyms, the use of the last of these having probably the same force here as in the preceding psalm - namely, to express the singer’s longing for the restoration of the shattered unity of the nation. The summons to the feast is based, not only on Divine appointment, but also on Divine purpose in that appointment. It was "a testimony," a rite commemorative of a historical fact, and therefore an evidence of it to future times. There is no better proof of such a fact than a celebration of it, which originates contemporaneously and continues through generations. The feast in question was thus simultaneous with the event commemorated, as Psalms 81:5 b tells. It was God, not Israel, as is often erroneously supposed, who "went forth." For the following preposition is not "from," which might refer to the national departure, but "over" or "against," which cannot have such a reference, since Israel did not, in any sense, go "over" or "against" the land. God’s triumphant forth-putting of power over the whole land, especially in the death of the firstborn, on the night of the Passover, is meant to be remembered forever, and is at once the fact commemorated by the feast, and a reason for obeying His appointment of it.

So far the thoughts and language are limpid, but Psalms 81:5 c interrupts their clear flow. Who is the speaker thus suddenly introduced? What is the "language" (lit., lip) which he "knew not"? The explanation implied by the A.V. and R.V., that the collective Israel speaks, and that the reference is, Psalms 114:1, to the "strange language" of the Egyptians, is given by most of the older authorities, and by Ewald and Hengstenberg, but has against it the necessity for the supplement "where," and the difficulty of referring the "I" to the nation. The more usual explanation in modern times is that the speaker is the psalmist, and that the language which he hears is the voice of God, the substance of which follows in the remainder of the psalm. As in Job 4:16 Eliphaz could not discern the appearance of the mysterious form that stood before his eyes, and thus its supernatural character is suggested, so the psalmist hears an utterance of a hitherto unknown kind, which he thus implies to have been Divine. God Himself speaks, to impress the lessons of the past, and to excite the thoughts and feelings which would rightly celebrate the feast. The glad noises of song, harp, and trumpet are hushed; the psalmist is silent, to hear that dread Voice, and then with lowly lips he repeats so much of the majestic syllables as he could translate into words which it was possible for a man to utter. The inner coherence of the two parts of the psalm is, on this explanation, so obvious, that there is no need nor room for the hypothesis of two fragments having been fused into one.

The Divine Voice begins with recapitulating the facts which the feast was intended to commemorate-namely, the act of emancipation from Egyptian bondage (Psalms 81:6), and the miracles of the wilderness sojourn (Psalms 81:7). The compulsory labour, from which God delivered the people, is described by two terms, of which the former (burden) is borrowed from Exodus, where it frequently occurs, {Exodus 1:11; Exodus 5:4; Exodus 6:6} and the latter (basket) is by some supposed to mean the wicker work implement for carrying, which the monuments show was in use in Egypt (so LXX, etc.), and by others to mean an earthen vessel, as "an example of the work in clay in which the Israelites were engaged" (Hupfeld). The years of desert wandering are summed up, in Psalms 81:7, as one long continuance of benefits from God. Whenever they cried to Him in their trouble, He delivered them. He spoke to them "from the secret place of thunder" ("My thunder covert, " Cheyne). That expression is generally taken to refer to the pillar of cloud, but seems more naturally to be regarded as alluding to the thick darkness, in which God was shrouded on Sinai. when He spoke His law amid thunderings and lightnings. "The proving at the waters of Meribah" is, according to the connection and in harmony with Exodus 17:6, to be regarded as a benefit. "It was meant to serve the purpose of binding Israel still more closely to its God" (Baethgen). It is usually assumed that, in this reference to "the waters of Meribah," the two similar incidents of the miraculous supply of water-one of which occurred near the beginning of the forty years in the desert, at "Massah and Meribah," {Exodus 17:7} and the other at "the waters of Meribah," near Kadesh, in the fortieth year - have been blended, or, as Cheyne says, "confused." But there is no need to suppose that there is any confusion, for the words of the psalm will apply to the latter miracle as well as to the former, and, if the former clause refers to the manifestations at Sinai, the selection of an incident at nearly the end of the wilderness period is natural. The whole stretch of forty years is thereby declared to have been marked by continuous Divine care. The Exodus was begun, continued, and ended amid tokens of His watchful love. The Selah bids the listener meditate on that prolonged revelation.

That retrospect next becomes the foundation of a Divine exhortation to the people, which is to be regarded as spoken originally to Israel in the wilderness, as Psalms 81:11 shows. Perowne well designates these verses (Psalms 81:8-10) "a discourse within a discourse." They put into words the meaning of the wilderness experience, and sum up the laws spoken on Sinai, which they in part repeat. The purpose of God’s lavish benefits was to bind Israel to Himself. "Hear, My people," reminds us of Deuteronomy 5:1; Deuteronomy 6:4. "I will bear witness to thee" here means rather solemn warning to, than testifying against, the person addressed. With infinite pathos, the tone of the Divine Speaker changes from that of authority to pleading and the utterance of a yearning wish, like a sigh. "Would that thou wouldest hearken!" God desires nothing so earnestly as that; but His Divine desire is tragically and mysteriously foiled. The awful human power of resisting His voice and of making His efforts vain, the still more awful fact of the exercise of that power, were clear before the psalmist, whose daring anthropopathy teaches a deep lesson, and warns us against supposing that men have to do with an impassive Deity. That wonderful utterance of Divine wish is almost a parenthesis. It gives a moment’s glimpse into the heart of God, and then the tone of command is resumed. "In Psalms 81:9 the keynote of the revelation of the law from Sinai is given; the fundamental command, which opens the Decalogue demanded fidelity towards Jehovah, and forbade idolatry, as the sin of sins" (Delitzsch). The reason for exclusive devotion to God is based in Psalms 81:10, as in Exodus 20:2, the fundamental passage, on His act of deliverance, not on His sole Divinity. A theoretic Monotheism would be cold; the consciousness of benefits received from One Hand alone is the only key that will unlock a heart’s exclusive devotion and lay it at His feet. And just as the commandment to worship God alone is founded on His unaided delivering might and love, so it is followed by the promise that such exclusive adhesion to Him will secure the fulfilment of the boldest wishes, and the satisfying of the most clamant or hungry desires. "Open wide thy mouth, and I will fill it." It is folly to go to strange gods for the supply of needs, when God is able to give all that every man can wish. We may be well content to cleave to Him alone, since He alone is more than enough for each and for all. Why should they waste time and strength in seeking for supplies from many, who can find all they need in One? They who put Him to the proof, and find Him enough, will have, in their experience of His sufficiency, a charm to protect them from all vagrant desire to "go further and fare worse." The best defence against temptations to stray from God is the possession by experience, of His rich gifts that meet all desires. That great saying teaches, too, that God’s bestowals are practically measured by men’s capacity and desire. The ultimate limit of them is His own limitless grace; but the working limit in each individual is the individual’s receptivity, of which his expectancy and desire are determining factors.

In Psalms 81:11-12, the Divine Voice laments the failure of benefits and commandments and promises to win Israel to God. There is a world of baffled tenderness and almost wondering rebuke in the designation of the rebels as "My people." It would have been no cause of astonishment if other nations had not listened; but that the tribes bound by so many kindnesses should have been deaf is a sad marvel. Who should listen to "My voice" if "My people" do not? The penalty of not yielding to God is to be left unyielding. The worst punishment of sin is the prolongation and consequent intensifying of the sin. A heart that wilfully closes itself against God’s pleadings brings on itself the nemesis, that it becomes incapable of opening, as a self-torturing Hindoo fakir may clench his fist so long, that at last his muscles lose their power, and it remains shut for his lifetime. The issue of such "stubbornness" is walking in their own counsels, the practical life being regulated entirely by self-originated and God-for-getting dictates of prudence or inclination. He who will not have the Divine Guide has to grope his way as well as he can. 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 lets his active powers, which are in themselves blind, be led by his understanding, which he has himself blinded by forbidding it to look to the One Light of Life.

In Psalms 81:13 the Divine Voice turns to address the joyous crowd of festal worshippers, exhorting them to that obedience which is the true keeping of the feast, and holding forth bright promises of the temporal blessings which, in accordance with the fundamental conditions of Israel’s prosperity, should follow thereon. The sad picture of ancient rebellion just drawn influences the language in this verse, in which "My people," "hearken," and "walk" recur. The antithesis to walking in one’s own counsels is walking in God’s ways, suppressing native stubbornness, and becoming docile to His guidance. The highest blessedness of man is to have a will submissive to God’s will, and to carry out that submission in all details of life. Self-engineered paths are always hard, and, if pursued to the end, lead into the dark. The listening heart will not lack guidance, and obedient feet will find God’s way the way of peace which steadily climbs to unfading light.

The blessings attached in the psalm to such conformity with God’s will are of an external kind, as was to be expected at the Old Testament stage of revelation. They are mainly two-victory and abundance. But the precise application of Psalms 81:15 b is doubtful. Whose "time" is to "endure forever"? There is much to be said in favour of the translation "that so their time might endure forever," as Cheyne renders, and for understanding it, as he does, as referring to the enemies who yield themselves to God, in order that they "might be a never-exhausted people." But to bring in the purpose of the enemies’ submission is somewhat irrelevant, and the clause is probably best taken to promise length of days to Israel. In Psalms 81:16 the sudden change of persons in a is singular, and, according to the existing vocalisation, there is an equally sudden change of tenses, which induces Delitzsch and others to take the verse as recurring to historical retrospect. The change to the third person is probably occasioned, as Hupfeld suggests, by the preceding naming of Jehovah, or may have been due to an error. Such sudden changes are more admissible in Hebrew than with us, and are very easily accounted for, when God is represented as speaking. The momentary emergence of the psalmist’s personality would lead him to say "He," and the renewed sense of being but the echo of the Divine Voice would lead to the recurrence to the "I," in which God speaks directly. The words are best taken as in line with the other hypothetical promises in the preceding verses. The whole verse looks back to Deuteronomy 32:13-14. "Honey from the rock" is not a natural product; but, as Hupfeld says, the parallel "oil out of the flinty rock," which follows in Deuteronomy, shows that "we are here, not on the ground of the actual, but of the ideal," and that the expression is a hyperbole for incomparable abundance. Those who hearken to God’s voice will have all desires satisfied and needs supplied. They will find furtherance in hindrances, fertility in barrenness; rocks will drop honey and stones will become bread.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 81". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".