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Bible Commentaries

Utley's You Can Understand the Bible

Psalms 81

Psalms 81:0


God's Goodness and Israel's WaywardnessMT IntroFor the choir director; on the Gittith. A Psalm of AsaphAn Appeal For Israel's RepentanceLiturgy For A FestivalA Song For A FestivalFor the Feast of Shelters
Psalms 81:1-5Psalms 81:1-2Psalms 81:1-5bPsalms 81:1-5bPsalms 81:1
Psalms 81:2-3
Psalms 81:3-5
Psalms 81:4-5b
Psalms 81:5-10Psalms 81:5-10Psalms 81:5-7a
Psalms 81:6-10Psalms 81:6-7
Psalms 81:7-8
Psalms 81:8-10
Psalms 81:9-10
Psalms 81:11-16Psalms 81:11-12Psalms 81:11-16Psalms 81:11-16Psalms 81:11-12
Psalms 81:13-16 Psalms 81:13-14
Psalms 81:15-16

READING CYCLE THREE (see “Guide to Good Bible Reading”)


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.


A. There is much debate over whether this refers to the Feast of Booths or Passover.

B. The Targum adds Tishri to Psalms 81:3, which is the month of the Feast of Booths.

C. This Psalm obviously refers to the exodus and wilderness experience, so both the Passover and Feast of Booths fit. I think it is the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, which commemorates the wilderness wanderings. JPSOA thinks it refers to the “New Year” liturgy. The difficulty is that Psalms 81:4 seems to refer to two different dates (i.e., first of the month and middle of the month).

Verses 1-5

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Psalms 81:1-5 1Sing for joy to God our strength; Shout joyfully to the God of Jacob. 2Raise a song, strike the timbrel, The sweet sounding lyre with the harp. 3Blow the trumpet at the new moon, At the full moon, on our feast day. 4For it is a statute for Israel, An ordinance of the God of Jacob. 5He established it for a testimony in Joseph When he went throughout the land of Egypt. I heard a language that I did not know:

Psalms 81:1-5 This strophe is an admonition of the psalmist to the covenant people to rejoice at YHWH's powerful deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage.

1. sing for joy - BDB 943, KB 1247, Hiphil imperative, cf. Psalms 32:11

2. shout joyfully - BDB 929, KB 1206, Hiphil imperative

3. raise a song - BDB 669, KB 724, Qal imperative

4. strike the timbrel - BDB 678, KB 733, Qal imperative

5. blow the trumpet - BDB 1075, KB 1785, Qal imperative

Notice the word play between #1 and 2; #3 and 4.

Psalms 81:1 “to God our strength” “Strength” (BDB 738) is often linked with “refuge” (see Special Topic: Refuge) to describe God (cf. Psalms 14:6; Psalms 46:1; Psalms 62:6-7). Faithful followers' hope, peace, and joy are in Him, not in

1. personal merit

2. circumstances

3. physical resources

Psalms 81:3 “the timbrel” This musical instrument (BDB 1074) was a small handheld, circular frame with stretched animal skin. It was used in association with women dancing in the exodus victory in Exodus 15:20 (also note Judges 11:34; 1 Samuel 18:6).

Psalms 81:3 This verse is an admonition to worship God at the appropriate time and place.

1. the new moon - Israel's way to mark a new month (BDB 294, i.e., totally dark, cf. Numbers 10:10; Numbers 28:11-15)

2. full moon (BDB 409, i.e., totally bright, its use found only here and Proverbs 7:20; it denoted the middle of the month)

3. feast day (lists of several annual feast days, cf. Exodus 23:0 and Leviticus 23:0)

Surprisingly Sabbaths are not mentioned (cf. 1 Chronicles 23:31; 2 Chronicles 2:4; Hosea 2:11).


“blow the trumpet” This instrument (BDB 1051) is mentioned in Exodus 19:16, Exodus 19:19, when Israel prepared herself for YHWH's giving of His laws. Again this is an allusion to the exodus experience. See SPECIAL TOPIC: HORNS USED BY ISRAEL.


Psalms 81:4-5 “statute. . .ordinance. . .testimony” These terms are ways to designate YHWH's revelations to Israel.

1. statutes - BDB 349

2. ordinance - BDB 1048

3. testimony - BDB 730

In context these seem to refer to the revelations about feast days (cf. Exodus 23:0; Leviticus 23:0). See SPECIAL TOPIC: TERMS FOR GOD'S REVELATION.

These laws seem to be the crux of what Psalms 81:5c means.

1. Joseph's testimony of his faith in YHWH as he traveled through Egypt

2. Moses' testimony as he shared YHWH's predictions of plagues

3. the language of the Egyptians, which the Hebrews did not originally understand

4. YHWH's laws that Israel rejected (cf. Psalms 81:8, Psalms 81:11, Psalms 81:13)

5. the fearful voice of God on Mt. Sinai (i.e., relates Psalms 81:5c to Psalms 81:6) spoken in Hebrew, which by this time most Israelites did not understand because they spoke Egyptian. If so, Psalms 81:5c is more first person masculine singular verbs, which would denote YHWH.

Psalms 81:5 “a language that I did not know” This is a literary idiom for Israel's time in Egypt (cf. Psalms 114:1). It is also used of the invasion and occupation of Canaan by

1. Assyria - Deuteronomy 28:49

2. Babylon - Jeremiah 5:15

Many modern translations see Psalms 81:5c as going with Psalms 81:6, not Psalms 81:5b. If so, it applies to YHWH speaking on Mt. Sinai (i.e., in Hebrew or in thunder). Israel was afraid of the powerful physical manifestation of YHWH on Mt. Sinai (cf. Exodus 19-20).

The remaining verses record YHWH speaking (i.e., Psalms 81:6-16).

Verses 6-10

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Psalms 81:6-10 6”I relieved his shoulder of the burden, His hands were freed from the basket. 7You called in trouble and I rescued you; I answered you in the hiding place of thunder; I proved you at the waters of Meribah. Selah. 8Hear, O My people, and I will admonish you; O Israel, if you would listen to Me! 9Let there be no strange god among you; Nor shall you worship any foreign god. 10I, the Lord, am your God, Who brought you up from the land of Egypt; Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.

Psalms 81:6-10 This strophe is a summary of all the gracious acts of YHWH in the exodus and wilderness wandering period. Notice all the first person masculine singular verbs! YHWH is directly addressing His people.

1. I relieved (lit. “removed”), Psalms 81:6 - BDB 693, KB 747, Hiphil perfect

2. I rescued (lit. “delivered”), Psalms 81:7 - BDB 322, KB 321, Piel imperfect with waw

3. I answered, Psalms 81:7 - BDB 772, KB 851, Qal imperfect

4. I proved, Psalms 81:7 - BDB 103, KB 119, Qal imperfect

5. I will admonish, Psalms 81:8 - BDB 729, KB 795, Hiphil cohortative

6. I, the Lord, am your God, Psalms 81:10 - covenant language

7. I will fill it, Psalms 81:10 - BDB 569, KB 583, Piel imperfect used in a cohortative sense

Also notice

8. I gave them over to, Psalms 81:12 - BDB 1018, KB 1511, Piel imperfect with waw (cf. Romans 1:24, Romans 1:26, Romans 1:28)

9. I would quickly subdue, Psalms 81:14

10. I would feed you, Psalms 81:16 - BDB 37, KB 46, Hiphil imperfect with waw

11. I would satisfy you, Psalms 81:16 - BDB 959, KB 1302, Hiphil imperfect

YHWH speaks from Psalms 81:6 through 16 by means of a priest or prophet.

Psalms 81:6 This verse refers to the forced labor of the Hebrew slaves (i.e., Exodus 1:8-14).

Psalms 81:7 “You called in trouble and I rescued you” This is an allusion to YHWH's dialog with Moses in Exodus 3:7-10.

“I answered you in the hiding place of thunder” This seems to allude to Israel's Mt. Sinai experience (cf. Exodus 19:19; Exodus 20:18).

“I proved you at the waters of Meribah” This refers to the Israelites' experience recorded in Exodus 17:6-7 and Numbers 20:13. The AB (pp. 265-266) sees this line as “though I was provoked by you” (cf. Exodus 17:7; Numbers 14:22; Numbers 20:24; Numbers 27:14; Deuteronomy 33:8; Ps. 93:8-9). Each of these texts states that Israel tested God, not God tested Israel.

Deuteronomy 33:8 seems to support the MT of Psalms 81:7c as God testing the Israelites.

“Selah” See notes at Psalms 3:2.

Psalms 81:8 “Hear” This is a Qal imperative! It begins a series of references to Israel's lack of responding appropriately to YHWH's revelation (cf. Nehemiah 9:34).

1. if you would listen - Psalms 81:8

2. My people did not listen - Psalms 81:11

3. Israel did not obey Me - Psalms 81:11

4. Oh that My people would listen to Me - Psalms 81:13

Derek Kidner, in the Tyndale Commentary series (p. 326), thinks “Hear, O My people” is an allusion to the Shema prayer of Deuteronomy 6:4-6. It may well be!

Psalms 81:9 Israel was commanded not to make or go after foreign gods (cf. Exodus 20:3, Exodus 20:23). The Israelites were attracted to the fertility gods of Canaan. Israel's uniqueness in the ANE was her monotheism, which allowed for no rivals!

The Jewish Study Bible (p. 1374) asserts that Psalms 81:9-10 are an allusion to Exodus 20:1-2; Deuteronomy 5:6, but in reverse order.

Psalms 81:10 This refers to YHWH's provision of food and water during the wilderness wandering period.

Verses 11-16

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Psalms 81:11-16 11”But My people did not listen to My voice, And Israel did not obey Me. 12So I gave them over to the stubbornness of their heart, To walk in their own devices. 13Oh that My people would listen to Me, That Israel would walk in My ways! 14I would quickly subdue their enemies And turn My hand against their adversaries. 15Those who hate the Lord would pretend obedience to Him, And their time of punishment would be forever. 16But I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, And with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”

Psalms 81:11-16 This strophe contrasts what Israel did with what YHWH wanted to do for them.

1. Israel's history of rebellion (cf. Psalms 78:17, Psalms 78:40)

a. did not listen

b. did not obey

c. had stubborn hearts

d. walked in their own devices

2. YHWH's reaction

a. judgment

(1) gave them over to (cf. Psalms 78:29; Isaiah 6:9-10; Romans 1:24, Romans 1:26, Romans 1:28) the stubbornness of their hearts, Psalms 81:12

(2) gave them over to walk in their own devices, Psalms 81:12

(3) those who pretend obedience would suffer eternal loss, Psalms 81:15

b. His desire

(1) that they would listen to Him, Psalms 81:13

(2) that they would walk in His ways, Psalms 81:13

c. His blessings

(1) subdue their enemies, Psalms 81:14

(2) turn His hand against their adversaries, Psalms 81:14

(3) feed them

(a) the finest of the wheat (cf. Deuteronomy 32:14)

(b) honey from the rock (i.e., the best food of the land, cf. Deuteronomy 32:13)

(4) satisfy them

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Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Psalms 81". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". 2021.