New European Commentary


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Deeper Commentary

Psa 81:1

For the Chief Musician. On an instrument of Gath. By Asaph-
This "Asaph" could be the Asaph of Hezekiah's time (Is. 36:3) who used the Psalms in the context of the events of the Assyrian invasion. The Asaph Psalms all have parts in them relevant to that context (Ps. 50, 73-83). Or the "Asaph" may have been the singers who were relatives of Asaph, prominent at the restoration (Neh. 7:44; 11:17,22). It could mean that the psalms were a part of a collection from the Asaphites, and the name "Asaph" was therefore simply used to identify the temple singers. And again, parts of the Asaph psalms also have relevance to the restoration. The fact the Asaph Psalms speak of elohim rather than Yahweh would support the idea that they were used in the exilic / restoration period. But Asaph was the "chief" of the Levites to whom David assigned the ministry of praise before the ark (1 Chron. 16:4,5). It seems he did compose his own Psalms, which were used by Hezekiah at his time (2 Chron. 29:30). So I would again suggest that all the Asaph Psalms were composed originally by David "for" [not necessarily "by"] Asaph, but were rewritten and edited for later occasions.

Sing aloud to God, our strength! Make a joyful shout to the God of Jacob!-
The Psalm begins in :1-5 with a call to joyfully celebrate a feast, probably Passover or Tabernacles. We note the Levites are called to make music (:2), and the priests to blow the trumpets (:3). But the Psalm then abruptly changes. God answers this call for joyful celebration with a rebuke of His people for their sinfulness. This Psalm is therefore a commentary and exemplification of the frequent prophetic complaint that God found Israel's keeping of the feasts to be a smoke in His nostrils. It was mere external religion; and from :5 onwards we have His commentary upon their desire to keep the feast.

Psa 81:2

Raise a song, and bring here the tambourine, the pleasant lyre with the harp-
See on :1. The tambourine may have been to recall the rejoicing of Miriam and the women of Israel after the Passover deliverance of Israel through the Red Sea. This may therefore be a call to keep Passover, although it would be just as appropriate for Tabernacles.

Psa 81:3

Blow the trumpet at the New Moon, at the full moon, on our feast day-
As noted on :1, this was an invitation for the priests to blow the trumpet to begin the feast. The mention of "New Moon" may simply mean the start of the month, so perhaps :1-4 is a generic text for use at any feast or religious celebration.

Psa 81:4

For it is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob- As noted on :1, we have here a call to keep one of the feasts, and there is pride in their obedience to God's commands about this. But His response from :5 onwards dashes this exuberant spirit, in condemning Israel for being apostate and impenitent. We must take the lesson that apparent external obedience and religious joy and praise- are no guarantee of our real standing with God, nor are they necessarily the same as true spirituality.

Psa 81:5

He appointed it in Joseph for a testimony-
The mention of Joseph appears to put right some of the reasoning in Ps. 78, which presents "Joseph", especially the tribe of Ephraim his son, as rejected by God in favour of Judah (see on Ps. 78:67). God's response to Judah's desire to keep a feast to Him is that actually He had chosen Joseph / Ephraim as much as them.

When he went out over the land of Egypt, I heard a language that I didn’t know-
This reference to the Passover Angel going forth over Egypt suggests that :1-4 was a liturgy to be used in summoning the people to keep the Passover feast (cp. Is. 37:36). But now begins God's response to their feast keeping. He begins by stressing His identification with His people and His grace towards them, for what will follow after this is a deep criticism of them. God so identified Himself with Israel that in Egypt, He Himself heard a language which He understood not (AV). He could have understood it, and in a sense He did; but so identified is Yahweh with His people that He allows Himself to be limited by their perceptions.

Psa 81:6

I removed his shoulder from the burden, his hands were freed from the basket-
This reflects the degree to which God was intensely aware of His peoples' sufferings; and that is just as true today. He saw their shoulders and hands at work. But the RV speaks of the people as being delivered from the basket, alluding to the personal deliverance of Moses. The people were for the most part spiritually weak, taking the idols of Egypt with them through the Red Sea (Ezekiel), and carrying through the desert the tabernacle of Remphan as well as that of Yahweh. The idea is that God saved Israel by grace on account of their identification with Moses, just as we are baptized into Christ and counted righteous in Him, as Israel were baptized into Moses (1 Cor. 10:1,2).

Thus there is a parallel drawn in Ps. 103:7: "He made known His ways unto Moses, His acts unto the children of Israel". "After the tenor of these words have I made a covenant with thee [Moses] and with Israel" (Ex. 34:27). Is. 63:11 (Heb.) is even more explicit: "He remembered... Moses his people" . Moses seems to have appreciated fully his representative role on that last glorious day of life when he addressed Israel: " The Lord said unto me... I will deliver [Og] into thy hand... so the Lord our God delivered into our hands Og" (Dt. 3:2,3). David recognized this unity between Moses and Israel; David describes both Israel and Moses as God's chosen (Ps. 16:5,23). Moses is described as encamping in the wilderness, when the reference clearly is to all Israel (Ex. 18:5). Moses recalled how “the Lord said unto me, Behold, I have delivered up Sihon and his land before thee [you singular- i.e. Moses]; begin to possess it, that thou [you singular again!] mayest inherit his land”. Yet Moses then comments that therefore God “delivered” Sihon “before us” (Dt. 31,33 RV). The land and victory that Moses personally could have had- for it was God’s wish to destroy Israel and make of him a new nation- he shared with Israel. Ex. 7:16 brings out the unity between them by a play on words: “The LORD God of the Hebrews hath sent me [lit. ‘let me go’] unto thee, saying, Let my people go”. “Let go” translates the same Hebrew word as “sent me”. Just as Moses had been let go by Yahweh, so Israel were to be.


Psa 81:7

You called in trouble, and I delivered you. I answered you in the secret place of thunder-
LXX "I heard thee in the secret place of the storm". Despite their sinfulness and worship of the idols of Egypt in the desert, God still answered their calls for help in distress. The reference may be to how Israel at the Red Sea called to God in their trouble, and He answered them out of the pillar of cloud (Ex. 14:10,24); apparently that cloud appeared at times as a storm cloud.

I tested you at the waters of Meribah. Selah-
The weakness of Israel at Meribah is juxtaposed with God's enduring grace to them in the first half of the verse.

Psa 81:8

Hear My people and I will testify to you, Israel, if you would have listened to Me!-
The theme of God's appeal is that so much potential had been wasted by them ["if you would have..."], because for all their external obedience in keeping feasts (see on :1), they were not truly listening to Him. And so He repeats His appeals made so often in Deuteronomy, to "hear, O Israel", 'testifying' to them as He also did in Deuteronomy (s.w. Dt. 4:26; 8:19 etc.).

Psa 81:9

There shall be no strange god with you, neither shall you worship any foreign god-
The people were for the most part spiritually weak, taking the idols of Egypt with them through the Red Sea (Ezekiel), and carrying through the desert the tabernacle of Remphan as well as that of Yahweh. And they were no better at the point of this Psalm. God urges them not to abuse His grace and to quit idolatry.

Psa 81:10

I am Yahweh your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it-
God speaks of Israel as if they were His beloved baby child; for these are the words of a man seeking to feed his child. But the child refused to respond (:11). The feeding was with His voice and word (:11). And they turned away from it This passage alone makes me want to plead with Israel to return to their so loving Father.

Psa 81:11

But My people didn’t listen to My voice, Israel desired none of Me-
See on :10. They were as the young child who is estranged from the loving father even from early childhood. Is. 28:12; 30:9,15 seem to allude here. It was exactly because Israel "would not" (s.w. "desired none of Me") that they were not allowed to continue in the land.

Psa 81:12

So I let them go after the stubbornness of their hearts, that they might walk in their own counsels-
On their journey to Canaan, the Israelites worshipped idols. Because of this, "God turned, and gave them up (over) to worship the host of heaven... I gave them up to the hardness of their hearts" (Acts 7:42; Ps. 81:12 AVmg.). God reached a stage where He actually encouraged Israel to worship idols; He confirmed them in their rejection of Him. And throughout their history, He encouraged them in their idolatry (Ez. 20:39; Am. 4:4). But there was a point where His Spirit was working on their hearts to stop them from idolatry; but they reached a point where they so grieved His Holy Spirit that He gave up doing this, and instead psychologically confirmed them in the mental path of the heart which they wished to go.

Psa 81:13

Oh that My people would have listened to me, that Israel would have walked in my ways!-
God's pain is because they had not used the potential He had set up for them, described on :14. Grief is so often a function of considering what might have been; thus we grieve harder at the death of a child than for the passing of a peaceful 90 year old. And God passes through this same intense grief because of all the failed possibilities.

Psa 81:14

I would quickly have subdued their enemies, and turned My hand against their adversaries-
God had potentially cleared the land of all the Canaanites, victory could have been very quick. And indeed thus it began at Joshua's time; but they failed to drive out the majority of the Canaanites, they failed to make use of God's hand which was turned against their enemies. See on Ps. 80:8,9.

Psa 81:15

The haters of Yahweh would have cringed before Him, and their punishment would have lasted forever-
The victories won by Joshua were not permanent; the same areas he conquered and tribes he defeated rose up to dominate Israel later. Because they failed to make use of the Divine potential. Just as the Lord Jesus has won the battle and assured us of a place in the Kingdom; but we have to capitalize upon that. Asaph lived at the time of the restoration (Ezra 2:41). All his Psalms draw on the past dealings of God with His people and encourage them on this basis to make the wilderness journey back  to the land, just as they had done at the Exodus. Ps. 81:15,16 says that if Israel had been obedient, their neighbouring enemies would soon have submitted to them, and they would have experienced the blessings potentially in store for them. Just as God would have fed Israel with honey from the rock rather than just water (:16).

Psa 81:16

But He would have also fed them with the finest of the wheat, I would have satisfied you with honey out of the rock-
If Israel were obedient, they would have been fed with honey as well as Manna- whilst Dt. 32:13 says they did have honey on their journey. What they could have had and what they were given in prospect is spoken of as if it was reality due to the nature of how God's potentials work. Or it could be that God in His grace did give them some honey, even though they didn’t fulfill the requirement- for God is so gracious. The promised blessings of honey were conditional upon Israel's obedience (Dt. 32:13 cp. Ps. 81:16), although granted in prospect (Dt. 32:13).