Psalm 81 — Psalms of Asaph
This is a prophetic song. The purpose of God’s prophets was not to foretell the future, their job was to say what God is saying now to his people, the importance of the covenant relationship, God subduing aggressive neighbouring countries is part of the blessings of relationship in the covenant. The prophet would plead with the people to be faithful to God, depending on God’s response and warning about the dangers of being disobedient or rejecting the covenant. Psalm 81 is in that tradition of prophesy.
Asaph had a long career. Appointed by David as one of the chief musicians in the Temple, and still serving under Solomon. Asaph’s role was prophetic, his job was to listen to the prayers concerns and laments of the people, and to give God’s reply. The Psalms of Asaph, Psalms 50 and 73–83 are both communal laments and words of prophesy
For the director of music. According to gittith. Of Asaph.
1 Sing for joy to God our strength;
shout aloud to the God of Jacob!
2 Begin the music, strike the tambourine,
play the melodious harp and lyre.
3 Sound the ram’s horn at the New Moon,
and when the moon is full, on the day of our Feast;
4 this is a decree for Israel,
an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
5 When God went out against Egypt,
he established it as a statute for Joseph.
I heard an unknown voice say:
6 ‘I removed the burden from their shoulders;
their hands were set free from the basket.
7 In your distress you called and I rescued you,
I answered you out of a thundercloud;
I tested you at the waters of Meribah.
8 Hear me, my people, and I will warn you –
if you would only listen to me, Israel!
9 You shall have no foreign god among you;
you shall not worship any god other than me.
10 I am the Lord your God,
who brought you up out of Egypt.
Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.
11 ‘But my people would not listen to me;
Israel would not submit to me.
12 So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts
to follow their own devices.
13 ‘If my people would only listen to me,Psalm 81 NIV UK
if Israel would only follow my ways,
14 how quickly I would subdue their enemies
and turn my hand against their foes!
15 Those who hate the Lord would cringe before him,
and their punishment would last for ever.
16 But you would be fed with the finest of wheat;
with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.’
Psalm 81 is in the tradition of prophesy. Well almost…
“This is what the Lord your God is saying,” and words to that effect comes over and over again in the prophetic writings. Thus says the Lord, as the old translations of the Bible has it.
After an exuberant call to worship, Psalm 81 starts the prophetic section with, “I heard an unknown voice say:” before listing events from the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. It is clearly God saying, “In your distress you called and I rescued you,” and the context is clear, God is saying through Asaph the Seer (another word for prophet) that the people do not know God, are not in communion with God and are not in a covenant relationship with God.
The analogy of the Exodus carries on to the promise at the end of the psalm. In the desert the Israelites ate Manna and water from the rock. Basic stuff. The promise in verse 16 is not to be fed by boring manna, but with the finest of wheat and not water from the rock, but with honey from the rock. God wants to bless his people with the good stuff. But…
Writing two blog posts back to back brings out things I has not noticed before. Psalms 80 and 81 are related, and not just by having the same author. Psalm 80 has the people calling to God to answer with fire and brimstone, Psalm 81 has the response you do not know God. That unknown voice line is damning.
This is a psalm for the Feast of Trumpets on the 1st day of the 7th month, like all Jewish months they start with a new moon, then on the 15th day the trumpets are sounded again on the full moon.the start of the festival of booths or tabernacles and the day after the day of atonement. In context this is a song not of an angry god cursing the people for their sins, but of a loving God who longs to take the people’s sins away and bless them.
Verses 11 and 12 are of interest, this is how God judges people who want their own way rather than follow God’s way, God’s judgement is to give them over to their own way. God says have it your way, and the people who follow their own way and do not listen to God calling them back have already been judged. Never mind God’s final judgement, they have already been judged in this world and already have their reward.
But that is not the reason for this psalm, this is a psalm for people who think they are the people of God, God says they are not his people but then offers them a way back. This is a song of atonement.