Psalm 81 (NIV)
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 timbrel,
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 festival;
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,
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 forever.
16 But you would be fed with the finest of wheat;
with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”
This psalm has an incredibly rich history as well as applicability to us today.
The author of this psalm is likely Asaph, the chief musician in the tabernacle (the tent of meeting during King David’s reign). King David had appointed Asaph to oversee the music and musicians responsible for daily worship at the tabernacle (1 Chronicles 16:4-7, 37).
While the psalmist does not explicitly call out which festival they are celebrating, it seems fairly certain that this psalm is meant to go with the Passover. The subject matter of the psalm (the exile from Egypt, the Israelites’ subsequent turning from God to idols) all point to remembering what God had done for them. By commemorating God’s protection and provision, the psalmist is hoping to spark a revival among the Israelites.
Verses 1 – 4 remind us that this celebration is a joyous occasion, not a sad one. The psalmist brings out the orchestra, the singers, and invites the audience to participate! If you have ever been part of a Handel’s Messiah “community sing-along” where the audience is an active part of the performance, you understand what the psalmist is saying.
Verses 5 – 7 recall God’s protection and provision through the exile from Egypt and the journey to the Promised Land where they now reside. The reference to “the waters of Meribah” reminds the Israelites when the Lord tested their allegiance to Him when Moses was leading them through the desert, and there was no water available (Exodus 17:1-7).
Verses 8 – 10 remind and warn the Israelites what God had done for His people in the past, and His ask of them currently – make Him first and only in their worship and attention. The last phrase of verse 10 is a gentle reminder that God protected and provided for His people while they were in the desert, and will do so again, just as a mother bird provides for her babies while they are in the nest.
Verses 11 – 12 are sad reminders of Israel’s past – how God called them to Himself, but they insisted on going their way, apart from Him.
Verse 13 is a national call to repentance. When the Israelites humble themselves and put God first, then God promises to do two things:
- quickly subdue their enemies (vv. 14 – 15)
- lavishly and bountifully provide for them (v. 16)
This psalm is so applicable to our world today. God calls us to Himself and offers peace, protection, and provision if we will only put Him first and foremost in our lives. Like the Israelites, we are easily distracted by lesser things that promise much but are empty and leave us wanting more. Money, things, career, entertainment, recognition by others – they are all distractions that fail to satisfy.
May we turn from our pursuit of lesser false gods and pursue the One True God that fulfills our innermost longings and provides the nourishment our souls long for.
The Father is eagerly awaiting our return to Him!
What are we waiting for?
What is keeping us from running back into His loving and open arms?