Psalm 81
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The beginning of each month was marked by the blowing of the silver trumpets (Numbers 10:10); but the first day of the month Ethânîm or Tisri (Sept.–Oct.), the seventh month of the ecclesiastical year and the first of the civil year, was kept as a solemn festival and was called ‘the Day of trumpet-blowing’ or ‘the Feast of trumpets’ (Numbers 29:1; Leviticus 23:24). Upon the fifteenth day of the same month, at the full moon, the Feast of Tabernacles began (Leviticus 23:39). To this double celebration Psalm 81:3 plainly alludes; and we find that from ancient times this Psalm has been the New Year’s Day Psalm of the Jewish Church, and that by an apparently unanimous Jewish tradition it is connected with the Feast of Tabernacles. It is unreasonable to disregard the evidence of practice and tradition, and maintain that the Psalm was intended for the Passover, on the ground of the reference to the Exodus in Psalm 81:5. In point of fact its contents are more appropriate to the Feast of Tabernacles than to the Passover. The Feast of Tabernacles was the most joyous of all the feasts, and the opening verses are a call to a jubilant celebration. The Feast of Tabernacles was the time appointed for the septennial recitation of the Law (Deuteronomy 31:10); and the leading thoughts of the Psalm are that allegiance of Israel to Jehovah alone which was the fundamental principle of the Law; Jehovah’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt, which was the ground upon which that claim rested; and Israel’s failure in its duty and consequent loss of promised blessing.

The Psalm falls into three divisions:

i. A call to celebrate the festival with shout and song and blowing of trumpets, for it is a divine ordinance for Israel (Psalm 81:1-5).

ii. Throwing himself back in imagination to the time of the Exodus, the Psalmist hears the voice of God proclaiming the decree for Israel’s liberation, and the fundamental principle of the covenant made at Sinai, the absolute allegiance of Israel to Jehovah as their God (Psalm 81:6-10).

iii. But Israel would not obey, and Jehovah was forced to leave them to experience the consequences of their obstinate self-will. Yet even now, if they would obey His commands, He would subdue their enemies, and satisfy them with the promised blessings of plenty (Psalm 81:11-16).

Some commentators regard the Psalm as a combination of two fragments, Psalm 81:1-5 a, b, Psalm 81:5 c Psalm 81:16, on the ground of the want of connexion between Psalm 81:5 b and Psalm 81:5 c, the dissimilarity in style between the two parts, and the unsuitability of the latter part for a festival hymn. But these arguments are not convincing. If the transition in Psalm 81:5 is somewhat abrupt, it is not more so than is frequently the case; that the Psalmist should pass from a summons to the celebration of the festival to a consideration of its religious significance is perfectly natural; and a review of Jehovah’s relation to Israel is surely not unsuitable for a festival hymn, in view alike of the general commemorative purpose of the festival, and of the particular fact that it was the occasion for the septennial recitation of the Law, which was based upon that relation. That rejoicing should be tempered by warning is fully in accord with the prophetic spirit of the Asaphic Psalms. Comp. also Psalms 95.

There is nothing in the Psalm by which its date can be fixed with certainty. It contains several allusions to Deuteronomy 32, , Psalm 81:11-12 may be a reminiscence of Jeremiah 7:24. The summons to the festival implies that the Temple was standing, and from Psalm 81:14-15 it may be inferred that the nation was threatened or oppressed by foreign enemies. Perhaps it may belong to the later years of the kingdom, and if so, probably to the reign of Josiah.

It is the special Psalm for Thursday as well as for New Year’s Day according to the ancient Jewish usage. See Introd. p. xxvii. Presumably the title in the LXX once contained a reference to this usage, as the Old Latin Version has Quinta Sabbati; but it has disappeared from all but one or two MSS of the LXX.

On the title, For the chief Musician; set to the Gittith (R.V.), see Introd. p. xxv.

To the chief Musician upon Gittith, A Psalm of Asaph. Sing aloud unto God our strength: make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob.
1. God our strength] Cp. Exodus 15:2; Psalm 46:1.

1–3. A call to the joyous celebration of the festival, addressed to the whole congregation (Psalm 81:1), to the Levites as the appointed leaders of the Temple music (Psalm 81:2), and to the Priests, whose special duty it was to blow the trumpets (Psalm 81:3). See Numbers 10:8; Numbers 10:10; Joshua 6:4 ff.; 2 Chronicles 5:12 ff; 2 Chronicles 7:6; Ezra 3:10.

Take a psalm, and bring hither the timbrel, the pleasant harp with the psaltery.
2. Take a psalm &c.] Or, Raise a psalm and sound the timbrel. The timbrel, or tabret, was a tambourine or hand drum; the psaltery, like the harp, a stringed instrument.

Blow up the trumpet in the new moon, in the time appointed, on our solemn feast day.
3. the trumpet] Heb. shôphâr, the horn, as distinguished from the metal trumpet. In the Pentateuch the use of the shôphâr is only prescribed in connexion with the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:9), but according to practice it was used for the New Year as well.

in the new moon] The Targum expressly states that the new moon of Tisri is meant here, and there is no sufficient reason for setting aside this ancient Jewish tradition and supposing that the new moon of Nisan, the first month of the ecclesiastical year, is meant, on the ground that the contents of the Psalm shew that the festival at the full moon referred to in the next line must be the Passover.

in the time appointed &c.] Better, at the full moon, for the day of our feast. If the month referred to is Tisri, our feast must be the Feast of Tabernacles, which began at the full moon on the 15th of that month. It was often called simply “the feast” (1 Kings 8:2, &c.), and was regarded as the most joyous of all the feasts. The trumpet blowing at the beginning of the month is regarded as pointing forward to it, and it was repeated on the day itself, in accordance with the law of Numbers 10:10.

For this was a statute for Israel, and a law of the God of Jacob.
4. For it is a statute for Israel,

An ordinance of the God of Jacob. (R.V.)

It refers to the feast. The title God of Jacob carries our thoughts back beyond the Exodus to the providential dealings of Jehovah with the great ancestor of the nation (Genesis 46:2 ff.).

4, 5. The reason for the celebration in the divine appointment of the festival as a memorial of God’s goodness to Israel.

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.
5. He appointed it in Joseph for a testimony (R.V.): to bear continual witness to His care of Israel. when &c.] Render, When he (i.e. God) went out against (or over) the land of Egypt, to execute judgement upon the Egyptians. See Exodus 11:4.

where I heard a language that I understood not] The poet identifies himself with his nation and speaks in the name of Israel of old. It was an aggravation of their misery that they were toiling for masters whose language they could not understand. This meaning however, though Psalm 114:1 offers a parallel, is hardly adequate here. It is possible to render, The speech of one that I know not do I hear, and to regard the line as the words of the poet himself, introducing the divine oracle which follows. He suddenly breaks off, hearing a supernatural voice addressing him. Cp. Job 4:16; and for the introduction of God as the speaker, Psalm 60:6; Psalm 62:11. But it is difficult to see how the poet could speak of God as one whom I know not: the phrase must surely mean more than ‘strange,’ ‘unearthly’: and it is preferable to render, The speech of one that I knew not did I hear. The Psalmist speaks in the person of Israel at the time of the Exodus. This he can do, since Israel of all time is one in virtue of the continuity of its national life. Israel then began to hear Jehovah (such is the proper force of the tense in the original), Whom it had not yet learned to know as the self-revealing God of redemption, speaking to it in the wondrous works of the deliverance from Egypt. See Exodus 3:13; Exodus 6:2 ff., Exodus 6:7. The substance of the words which Israel heard in Egypt is given in the next verse, which contains God’s decree for Israel’s liberation from servitude:

I removed his shoulder from the burden: his hands were delivered from the pots.
6. I have removed his shoulder from the burden:

His hands shall go free from the basket.

The term ‘basket’ does not occur in Exodus, but baskets for carrying the burdens of bricks or clay so often referred to in Exodus (Exodus 1:11; Exodus 2:11; Exodus 5:4-5; Exodus 6:6-7) are frequently represented in Egyptian paintings.

From the pots (A.V.), i.e. from making the pots (P.B.V.), is an improbable explanation.

The P.B.V. in Psalm 81:5, “when he came out of the land of Egypt and had heard a strange language,” is derived through the Vulg. from the LXX. Similarly Jerome; but it is probably only a conjectural rendering of a difficult passage, and does not represent a different text.

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.
7. From the divine decree for Israel’s liberation the transition to an address to Israel is easy. Israel of the present is regarded as one with Israel of the past.

Thou calledst &c.] For the phrase cp. Psalm 50:15; and for the fact, Exodus 2:23 ff.

in the secret place of thunder] In the covert of the thunder-cloud God conceals and reveals Himself (Psalm 18:11; Psalm 18:13; Psalm 77:17 ff.). At the passage of the Red Sea, when Israel was sore afraid and cried out unto Jehovah, He “looked forth upon the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of cloud, and discomfited the host of the Egyptians” (Exodus 14:10; Exodus 14:24).

I proved thee at the waters of Meribah] Testing thy faith and obedience. The name Meribah or Strife was a reminder of repeated unbelief and ingratitude (Exodus 17:7; Numbers 20:13; Psalm 78:20); of the long ‘controversy’ (Micah 6:2) of a long-suffering God with an obstinate people. It is possible that the reference to this miracle in particular was suggested by the libations of water at the Feast of Tabernacles, which commemorated the supply of water in the wilderness.

Hear, O my people, and I will testify unto thee: O Israel, if thou wilt hearken unto me;
8. Hear … and I will testify unto thee] Or, I will protest unto thee, of solemn warning and exhortation. Cp. Psalm 50:7; and numerous passages in Deuteronomy, e.g. Deuteronomy 6:4; Deuteronomy 5:1; Deuteronomy 5:6; Deuteronomy 4:26; Deuteronomy 30:19, Deuteronomy 31:28.

if thou wilt hearken &c.] Better as R.V., if thou wouldest hearken unto me!

8–10. Israel’s duty of allegiance to Jehovah alone; the fundamental principle of the covenant. Israel in the wilderness is primarily addressed, but Israel of every age is included.

There shall no strange god be in thee; neither shalt thou worship any strange god.
9. no strange god] Cp. Psalm 44:20; Deuteronomy 32:16.

any strange god] Any alien god. Cp. Deuteronomy 32:12. Absolute frdelity to Jehovah was the fundamental principle of the Sinaitic covenant, embodied in the first ‘word’ of the Decalogue.

I am the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt: open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it.
10. I am Jehovah thy God,

Which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.

Cp. Exodus 20:2 ff.; Deuteronomy 20:1. To Jehovah Israel owed its existence. The fact that He redeemed it from Egypt constituted His claim upon its allegiance. Cp. 1 John 4:10.

open &c.] God is ready liberally to satisfy all their needs. Cp. Matthew 7:7; Matthew 7:11.

But my people would not hearken to my voice; and Israel would none of me.
11. But my people hearkened not to my voice. For my people … Israel in a similar complaint see Isaiah 1:3.

11, 12. Israel’s disobedience and its punishment.

So I gave them up unto their own hearts' lust: and they walked in their own counsels.
12. So I let them go after the stubbornness of their heart,

That they might walk in their own counsels. (R.V.).

God punishes men by leaving them to their own self-willed courses of action, which prove their ruin. Cp. Job 8:4; Proverbs 1:30 ff.; Romans 1:24 ff.; 2 Thessalonians 2:10 ff. ‘Stubbornness’ is a favourite word with Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7:24, &c.), occurring elsewhere only in Deuteronomy 29:19.

Most editions both of the Bible and of the Prayer Book wrongly print hearts’ for heart’s. See Scrivener, Auth. Ed. of Engl. Bible, p. 152, and Earle, Psalter of 1539, p. 313.

Oh that my people had hearkened unto me, and Israel had walked in my ways!
13. O that my people were hearkening unto me,

That Israel would walk in my ways!

13–16. Yet God’s mercy is inexhaustible. Even now if Israel would obey Him, He would subdue their enemies, and bless them abundantly. Cp. Isaiah 48:17-19.

I should soon have subdued their enemies, and turned my hand against their adversaries.
14. I should soon subdue their enemies,

And turn my hand against their adversaries.

In my ways is the contrast to in their own counsels. (Jeremiah 7:23-24.) The hand which is now turned against Israel in chastisement would be turned against their enemies.

The haters of the LORD should have submitted themselves unto him: but their time should have endured for ever.
15. The haters of Jehovah should come cringing unto him,

So that their time should be for ever.

Unto him may mean to Jehovah or to Israel; but apparently the latter. Jehovah’s enemies are the enemies of His people, and He would force them to pay homage, however reluctantly (Psalm 66:3 note), to Israel; that so Israel’s time of prosperity might know no end, the nation’s life never fail.

He should have fed them also with the finest of the wheat: and with honey out of the rock should I have satisfied thee.
16. Tense and person both present serious difficulties, and it seems necessary to emend the text of the first line, and read:

Yea, I would feed him with the fat of wheat,

And with honey out of the rock would I satisfy thee.

Him = Israel. The transition to direct address in Psalm 50:2 (‘thee’) seems harsh, but is not uncommon in Heb. The third person ‘them’ or ‘him’ in LXX, Jer., Syr., is probably only a correction to avoid it. We have here another reminiscence of Deuteronomy 32, vv13, 14. Cp. Psalm 147:14. To an obedient people God would fulfil His ancient promises of blessing. Cp. Exodus 3:8; Deuteronomy 7:12-13; Deuteronomy 8:6 ff.

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