Call To Worship (81:1-3)
Psalm 81 is another psalm of Asaph. In Psalms 79-80 we saw Asaph describing God’s wrath against Jerusalem and his plea for the “son of man” (the Messiah) to deliver the people. Psalm 81 begins with a call to worship. The first three verses call for Israel to sing aloud to God and to shout for joy. It is time for Israel to worship the Lord. Verse 1 is probably a call to the whole congregation to sing and shout. Verse 2 is probably a call to the Levites who were appointed in the temple as singers and musicians. Verse 3 is probably a call to the priests who had the responsibility of blowing the trumpets. So this seems to be Asaph’s call to all the people to participate in worship. Verse 3 speaks about the feast day. This psalm was probably written in the 7th month when Israel had three festivals: New Year festival (7th month, 1st day), Day of Atonement (7th month, 10th day), and Festival of Tabernacles (7th month, 15th day). The full moon also coincided with the Festival of Tabernacles. The purpose of these festivals was for the people to remember the mighty works of God, specifically Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. This is what Asaph tells the people to recall as they worship in the Lord in the next few verses.
Remember What The Lord Has Done (81:4-7)
Asaph tells the people to recall the deliverance the Lord achieved for Israel in Egypt. Asaph says that the Lord went out over the land, which may be reference to the Passover, when God went through Egypt and struck down the firstborn of every child and animal that did not have the blood on the doorposts. In verse 6 the Lord Himself begins to speak. The Lord reminds the people how he relieved the people of their burdens in Egypt. The people repeatedly forgot the miserable lives they were leading in Egypt. Israel’s children at one point in time were being killed by the Egyptians. The people of Israel were forced labor and were treated harshly as the book of Exodus opens. The Lord says that he relieved the people from that labor and they are to remember that in the Passover and in the Festival of Tabernacles. Notice verse 7:
“In distress you called, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder; I tested you at the waters of Meribah.”
God says that the people called out to him and he responded with deliverance. I believe the “secret place of thunder” is a reference to Mount Sinai when God descended upon that mountain and spoke the Ten Commandments. “And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder” (Exodus 19:19; ESV). Also, “Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off” (Exodus 20:18; ESV). Then God reminds the people of the events at Meribah where the people complained for water and Moses struck the rock to bring forth water to the people. God says that he tested the people in that situation and the people failed because they did not maintain their trust in God.
Listen To Me… (81:8-10)
In verses 8-10 the Lord admonishes the people, calling for them to listen to the words He has to say. The Lord recognizes, however, that his plea for the people to listen to him is an empty request. The people will not listen. “O Israel, if you would but listen to me!” So the Lord reminds the people of the covenant that they are to keep with the Lord. They are not to have nor worship any other gods. However, we know one of the causes of the fall of Jerusalem and the captivity of the people was that their hearts had been turned toward the foreign gods of the Canaanites and Israel no longer worshipped the Lord in sincerity. Thus, the Lord reminds the people that they are not to bow down to any foreign gods because the Lord is their God. He is the one who brought the people out of Egypt. If the people will simply listen to the commands of the Lord, God says that he would provide for the people. “Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.” God wants to take care of the people.
The People Continue To Rebel (81:11-12)
The problem is that the people continue to ignore God’s commands. They do not listen to the voice of the Lord. “Israel would not submit to me.” So what is God supposed to do with a people who refuse to listen to his commands? What is God supposed to do with a people who will not submit their lives to the Lord? What shall God do towards people who will not bend their will to the Lord? God does not wait around for the people. The Lord does not chase after the people. Verse 12 tells us what God does: “So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.” If you want to do what you want to do, God is going to let you. God is not going to stop you from doing evil. Here is a good answer for people who ask the question why there is evil in the world if there is a God. God does not stop people from doing what they want to do. God is the author of free will and choice and we are allowed to follow our own desires and passions.
Paul reminds us of this concerning the Gentiles in Romans 1:22-28
“Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” (ESV)
I would like to point out that three times in these handful of verses Paul says that God gave the people up (vs. 24,26,28). God gave them up to their lusts, their dishonorable passions, and their debased mind. God allows to live our lives how ever we would like to live them. But that does not mean that since we have free will that we are exempt from judgment and the wrath of God. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth”; (Romans 1:18; ESV). But rather than talk about the wrath that was to come against Israel (which there was no need to as the prophets had warned the people about the impending judgment), God talks about the good life the people are missing due to their stubbornness.
Repent, Return, and I Will Act (81:13-16)
In verse 13 the Lord makes a similar cry again, desiring that the people would listen to the Lord and walk in his ways. If they would listen and obey, then God would act on their behalf. God says that he would take care of Israel’s enemies. God would subdue the enemies and turn his hand against their adversaries. Those who stood against God would be judged. But verse 16 describes the blessings God would bestow on the people of Israel. “But he would feed you with the finest of wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” God will give Israel the best if they would listen and submit.
- Listen to God. We may think that we are listening to God because we have been baptized and consider ourselves children of God. But the people of Israel also considered themselves children of God. But they were not listen because they were living their lives how they wanted to. Notice that they were not listening because they did not submit their lives to God. They were not listening because they bowed down to foreign gods. The Israelites were not listening because they forgot the deliverance God gave them in the past. So, though we are children of God, we need to ask ourselves if we are really listening to God. We need to really know God’s law. We need to make sure that we are not serving other gods. We have many gods in this nation: comfort, wealth, and sex, to name a few. We need to be sure that we do not serve the gods that this nation serves.
- Recognize the benefits of submission. We often have a difficult time releasing control of our lives and giving it to God. We do not see all that God will do for us if we will place our complete trust in God to rule our lives. God says that we would be able to open our mouths wide and God will fill it. I believe God is telling Israel a principle that the Lord tells us in the New Testament: “And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19; HCSB). Paul says this in the context of a letter to the Philippians about sacrificing ourselves for the glory of the Lord. By doing so, God will take care of us and supply our needs. In verse 16 of Psalm 81 God makes the promise again to take care of the people if they would only listen and submit to Him.
- Learn the lesson of Israel: Disaster for Disobedience. While we have a choice as to what we will do with God, the outcome of our choice is determined. Submit to God and we will have the blessings of God. Reject God and God will turn us over to our lusts and we will face the wrath of God. There is no changing of the outcome. We cannot reject God by following after our desires and think that we will still have the blessings of God in this life. The Proverbs teach us to look at our lives and consider our ways. We may think we are with God, but disaster is falling on our lives trying to show us that we need to listen to God. Repent and return, then God will act.