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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Psalms 81

To the chief Musician upon Gittith, A Psalm of Asaph.

To encourage the people in prompt and cheerful attendance upon one of the great annual festivals is the primary object of this psalm. That this feast was the passover is shown from Psalms 81:5, where the date of its institution is referred to. Exodus 12:0. It was fit now, as then, to celebrate the passover in connexion with the national deliverance. That the people were in their own land at this time need not be affirmed; equally evident is it, from the whole tone of the psalm, that they needed some special urgency to call their attention to the institutes of Moses. That they had been in subjection to their enemies is implied. (Psalms 81:11-15.) The undertone of humiliation cannot be suppressed, yet hope prevails, and the admonition is softened and made more salutary by the encouraging richness and fulness of the promises. In the absence of historic data the internal evidence would seem to assign the psalm to the dedication of the second temple, in the days of Ezra, at which, also, the passover was kept. Ezra 6:16-22. In this psalm the lyric element is preserved in a high degree without abatement of the didactic two qualities difficult to combine. It belongs to the same class with Psalms 77, 78, where, in the former, he calls the entire Hebrew family by the title “sons of Jacob and Joseph;” in the latter, “sons of Ephraim;” here, simply “Joseph.”

“The artificial structure of the psalm gives one strophe of eleven lines and two of twelve.” Delitzsch. But, more practically, Hengstenberg gives two main divisions, an objective and a subjective one, separated by the selah. (Psalms 81:7;) the former historic, the latter spiritual.


Upon Gittith After the manner of Gath. See note on title of Psalms 8:0. The psalms bearing this title are of a lively movement and of a thanksgiving character. The Asaphic origin of this psalm is too clear to require argument.

Verse 1

1. Sing aloud This call upon the people to join together, to shout aloud joyfully to God, is according to all Old and New Testament ideas of divine worship. “Thou shalt rejoice in thy feast” was a command, (Deuteronomy 16:14;) and therefore Nehemiah disallowed mourning on a day of worship. “This is a holy day unto the Lord your God; mourn not nor weep… for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:9-10. Mourning was counted by the Hebrews as an unclean act, unfitting the worship of God. It was regarded as the immediate consequence of sin and the death sentence. Hence, the bread eaten by mourners was unclean. (Leviticus 26:14; Hosea 9:4;) the high priest and Nazarite were prohibited mourning, even for a father or a mother, (Leviticus 21:10-11; Numbers 6:2; Numbers 6:7-8;) though the inferior priests might take on mourning for near relatives, Leviticus 21:1-4. The reason assigned for this prohibition of mourning is, that the priest was holy, and “the anointing oil of God was upon him.” Leviticus 21:8; Leviticus 21:12

Verse 2

2. Take a psalm Bring a song: addressed to the Levites appointed for choristers, as the “shout aloud,” (Psalms 81:1,) was to the people.

Bring… the timbrel Hebrew, ת Š, ( toph,) also translated tabret; a sort of hand drum, as the tambourine. It was much used in public festivities and triumphal processions, as a bass accompaniment, and often played by women. Psalms 68:25; Nahum 2:7.

Harp כנור , ( kinnor,) the favourite national stringed instrument of the Hebrews, here called “the pleasant harp,” used much on occasions of joyfulness and praise, though not unsuited to meditative or solemn strains. See Psalms 92:3. It had ten, sometimes twenty-four, and even forty-seven strings. Its general shape was triangular, like the modern harp, with a rounded or arched rim at its broadest end, from which last circumstance Furst supposes it derived its name, rather than from its stridulous sound, as Gesenius thinks.

Psaltery Another harplike stringed instrument, made to accompany the voice. In Psalms 33:2, (which see,) it is translated, “an instrument of ten strings,” literally, the ten-stringed psaltery.

Verse 3

3. Blow up the trumpet This was an order to the priests, whose business it was to give public notice by sound of “trumpet” of the new year, the beginning of months, the calling of assemblies to the festivals, the jubilee, the sacrifice, etc. The particular instrument here mentioned is the שׁופר , ( shophar,) or cornet, commonly made of the horn of the ram or chamois. On the silver trumpets see Psalms 98:6.

New moon The Hebrews reckoned time by lunar months, and the sacred calendar rested with the priests, who were to announce every “new moon” by the sound of the trumpets, but especially that of Nisan, answering to the “moon” of our March, which was the beginning of the ecclesiastical year and the month of the passover. Exodus 12:2. Its entrance was saluted with joy, as was the feast of the passover with music and trumpets. 2 Chronicles 30:21

Verse 5

5. Testimony See on Psalms 19:7. The terms translated “statute,” “law,” “testimony,” in Psalms 81:4-5, indicate the solemnity and obligation of the passover institution, and explain why it is ushered in with such joyful demonstrations.

He went out through the land of Egypt Hebrew, In his going forth over the land of Egypt, spoken, not of the exodus, but of God’s going out over “the land of Egypt” for purposes of judgment, especially on the firstborn, as Exodus 11:4, “Thus saith the Lord, About midnight will I go out into [or through] the midst of Egypt,” etc. An exactly similar form occurs Genesis 41:45, “And Joseph went forth over [ על ] the land of Egypt.” The phraseology exactly suits a reconnoissance of, never a departure from, a place. The exodus proper uniformly takes the particle מן , ( min,) out of, from, as Exodus 12:41-42.

Language I understood not A foreign or barbarous dialect. The description indicates, according to the spirit of those earlier ages, not only an entire want of national sympathy, as having no natural bond of “language” or religion, but often a hostile disposition. See Psalms 114:1; Deuteronomy 28:49; Jeremiah 5:15. The political jealousy and religious antipathy, therefore, of the Egyptians toward the Hebrews, were the more easily and implacably aroused. Thus, in the survey just mentioned, God found his people in the vilest condition, among an oppressive and hard-hearted nation. See Exodus 3:7-8.

Verse 6

6. Burden… pots The latter word also means baskets, as 2 Kings 10:7; Jeremiah 24:2. The allusion is to Exodus 1:11-14, and probably to the burden-basket used by slaves, in which the Israelites carried brick and other portables. Baskets of this kind have been found in the sepulchral vaults of Thebes. In looking at the condition of the people, their heavy burdens and the servile burden-baskets first meet the eye, and release from these is the fit opening of this passover-song, as it was the first item in the promise of deliverance. Exodus 6:6. Besides the making brick for the “treasure-cities,” (granaries, or store cities, as the word denotes,) “Pithom and Raamses,” and their agricultural and other labours, it is not improbable that the Israelites were detailed also for the mining colonies in the peninsula of Mount Sinai, where, anterior to the exodus, the Egyptians carried on extensive mining operations in iron, copper, and turquoise. The ruins of their slag heaps, smelting furnaces, shafts, hieroglyphics, carved tablets, propping of mining caves, etc., are yet to be seen. (See PALMER’S Desert of the Exodus.) Also, Exodus 1:11-14; Exodus 2:23; Exodus 3:7. Slaves, criminals, and captives taken in war were sent to these mines.

Verse 7

7. Secret place of thunder That is, the recesses of Sinai, at this time the mysterious seat of divinity. See the fundamental passage, Exodus 19:19. In other theophanies the pavilion of God is located “in darkness,” “dark waters and thick clouds of the sky.” Psalms 18:11; Psalms 68:7-8. The unwonted terror of thunderstorms on Mount Sinai is attested by travellers, but at this time the “thunder” and earthquake were supernatural. God is represented as thus speaking from the clouds and the storm, to teach us that the answer of prayer is not from earth, but from Heaven; from the same great Power that rules the forces of created nature. The physical scenery and awful phenomena of Sinai were adapted to impress the people with the majesty and power of God.

Waters of Meribah Both Meribah-Kadesh (Numbers 20:13) and Rephidim, called “Massah and Meribah, [ temptation and strife, ] because of the chiding of the children of Israel, and because they tempted the Lord, saying, Is the Lord among us or not?” Exodus 17:7. See on Psalms 78:15-16. This latter was the scene of the most signal temptation and miracle since the passage of the Red Sea. See on Psalms 78:15-16; Psalms 106:32. This last clause forms the link between the joyful retrospections of the previous section of the psalm and the admonitory address of God to his people which follows.

Verse 8

8. Testify unto thee Testify concerning thee. I will witness to things deeply involving thy wellbeing.

If thou wilt hearken The language expresses a doubt whether they would give audience, and implies a wish that they might, but that in any wise the things testified will not fail to have their judicial effect. The address throughout is made to the Israel of the desert, as if God spake to them at Meribah (Rephidim) after the miracle, but the application is here made to the Israel of the returned exiles then living.

Verse 9

9. No strange god Thus the psalmist strikes the fundamental doctrine of their dispensation. It has the Sinaitic ring of Exodus 20:1-7. This had been, before the exile, their point of departure from the religion of Moses. After that date they never fell into formal idolatry; but their after national sin was ritualism and indifference.

Worship The same word as “bow down.” Exodus 20:5

Verse 11

11. But my people would not hearken The doubt of Psalms 81:8 has become a reality.

Would none of me Were not inclined to me; had not a willing mind toward me. How affecting to trace the earnest workings of the divine Mind in his testimony concerning and against (for the Hebrew word may signify either) Israel. 1. The command, “Hear, O my people.” 2. The doubt, “If thou wilt hearken to me.” 3. The testimony against them, “But my people would not hearken.” 4. The lament, “Oh that my people had hearkened.” The first lays the ground of man’s obligation; the second recognises his free agency; the third testifies to his perverseness; the fourth is a twofold witness of the pitying love of God and the certain loss and suffering incurred by disobedience.

Verse 12

12. So I gave them up The testimony against his people being given by God, the language takes a tone of deeper sorrow as it passes to the consequences. “I gave them up,” is the form of the judicial sentence. He punishes and laments at one breath. His sorrow cannot avert the sentence. He cannot govern them by precept; he will, therefore, do it by penalty. So he gives “them up” to the hardness of their hearts. Their sins become the instruments of their punishment, as in Job 8:4, where read, “And he have delivered them over to the power of their transgression.”

Their own hearts’ lust Literally, to the stubbornness of their heart.

Verse 13

13. Oh that So Christ lamented over Jerusalem. Matthew 23:37. God sees the magnitude of the evils incurred, and the excellence of the blessings lost, and his regrets are commensurate.

Verse 14

14. I should soon In a little time, quickly. So near were they to a happy consummation, had they hearkened to God, and trustingly gone forward.

Turned my hand against their adversaries But disobedience reversed the order, and the judgments which might have held their enemies in awe, or swept them from the earth, were turned against themselves.

Verse 15

15. The haters… should have submitted… unto him Not necessarily in the sense of being converted. The word signifies a forced submission, as in Psalms 18:44; Psalms 66:3. The majesty of God would have caused his fear and dread to fall upon the nations, and they would have yielded to Israel the homage, at least, of fear. But now they have grown rampant and wanton in oppression toward Israel and blasphemy against God.

Their time should have endured for ever “Time,” here, should be taken in the sense of duration. If the pronoun refers to the “haters of the Lord,” it means that their time of being held in awe and submission to Israel would have been without end; but if it refers to God’s “people,” (Psalms 81:13,) the passage declares their endless prosperity: and the next verse seems to require this latter sense.

Verse 16

16. He should have fed them The excellent quality and abundant supply of food here stand generically for all needful things. The expression, honey out of the rock, is not to be taken literally, as in 1 Samuel 14:27, but figuratively, as denoting the richest supplies from the most sterile and unpropitious sources. The fundamental passage is Deuteronomy 32:13, where both “honey” and “oil” are made to flow from the rock, the “oil,” probably referring to the olive tree. See note on Psalms 92:14; Psalms 128:3: compare, also, Job 29:6. The stern admonition and the life giving promise go hand in hand. “God assures them, that if Israel of the present would hearken to the Lawgiver of Sinai, then would he renew to it the miraculous gifts of the time of the redemption under Moses.” Delitzsch.

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Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Psalms 81". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.