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Psalm 81


God's Goodness and Israel's Waywardness
MT Intro
For the choir director; on the Gittith. A Psalm of Asaph
An Appeal For Israel's Repentance Liturgy For A Festival A Song For A Festival For the Feast of Shelters
81:1-5 81:1-2 81:1-5b 81:1-5b 81:1
    81:5c-10 81:5c-10 81:5c-7a
81:6-10 81:6-7      
81:11-16 81:11-12 81:11-16 81:11-16 81:11-12
  81:13-16     81:13-14

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Guide to Good Bible Reading")


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.



A. There is much debate over whether this refers to the Feast of Booths or Passover.

B. The Targum adds Tishri to Ps. 81:3, which is the month of the Feast of Booths.

C. This Psalm obviously refers to the exodus and wilderness experience, so both the Passover and Feast of Booths fit. I think it is the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, which commemorates the wilderness wanderings. JPSOA thinks it refers to the "New Year" liturgy. The difficulty is that Ps. 81:4 seems to refer to two different dates (i.e., first of the month and middle of the month).



 1Sing for joy to God our strength;
 Shout joyfully to the God of Jacob.
 2Raise a song, strike the timbrel,
 The sweet sounding lyre with the harp.
 3Blow the trumpet at the new moon,
 At the full moon, on our feast day.
 4For it is a statute for Israel,
 An ordinance of the God of Jacob.
 5He established it for a testimony in Joseph
 When he went throughout the land of Egypt.
 I heard a language that I did not know:

81:1-5 This strophe is an admonition of the psalmist to the covenant people to rejoice at YHWH's powerful deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage.

1. sing for joy - BDB 943, KB 1247, Hiphil imperative, cf. Ps. 32:11

2. shout joyfully - BDB 929, KB 1206, Hiphil imperative

3. raise a song - BDB 669, KB 724, Qal imperative

4. strike the timbrel - BDB 678, KB 733, Qal imperative

5. blow the trumpet - BDB 1075, KB 1785, Qal imperative

Notice the word play between #1 and 2; #3 and 4.

81:1 "to God our strength" "Strength" (BDB 738) is often linked with "refuge" (see Special Topic: Refuge) to describe God (cf. Ps. 14:6; 46:1; 62:6-7). Faithful followers' hope, peace, and joy are in Him, not in

1. personal merit

2. circumstances

3. physical resources


81:3 "the timbrel" This musical instrument (BDB 1074) was a small handheld, circular frame with stretched animal skin. It was used in association with women dancing in the exodus victory in Exod. 15:20 (also note Jdgs. 11:34; 1 Sam. 18:6).

81:3 This verse is an admonition to worship God at the appropriate time and place.

1. the new moon - Israel's way to mark a new month (BDB 294, i.e., totally dark, cf. Num. 10:10; 28:11-15)

2. full moon (BDB 409, i.e., totally bright, its use found only here and Pro. 7:20; it denoted the middle of the month)

3. feast day (lists of several annual feast days, cf. Exodus 23 and Leviticus 23)

Surprisingly Sabbaths are not mentioned (cf. 1 Chr. 23:31; 2 Chr. 2:4; Hos. 2:11).


▣ "blow the trumpet" This instrument (BDB 1051) is mentioned in Exod. 19:16,19, when Israel prepared herself for YHWH's giving of His laws. Again this is an allusion to the exodus experience. See SPECIAL TOPIC: HORNS USED BY ISRAEL.


81:4-5 "statute. . .ordinance. . .testimony" These terms are ways to designate YHWH's revelations to Israel.

1. statutes - BDB 349

2. ordinance - BDB 1048

3. testimony - BDB 730

In context these seem to refer to the revelations about feast days (cf. Exodus 23; Leviticus 23). See SPECIAL TOPIC: TERMS FOR GOD'S REVELATION.

These laws seem to be the crux of what Ps. 81:5c means.

1. Joseph's testimony of his faith in YHWH as he traveled through Egypt

2. Moses' testimony as he shared YHWH's predictions of plagues

3. the language of the Egyptians, which the Hebrews did not originally understand

4. YHWH's laws that Israel rejected (cf. Ps. 81:8,11,13)

5. the fearful voice of God on Mt. Sinai (i.e., relates Ps. 81:5c to Ps. 81:6) spoken in Hebrew, which by this time most Israelites did not understand because they spoke Egyptian. If so, Ps. 81:5c is more first person masculine singular verbs, which would denote YHWH.


81:5 "a language that I did not know" This is a literary idiom for Israel's time in Egypt (cf. Ps. 114:1). It is also used of the invasion and occupation of Canaan by

1. Assyria - Deut. 28:49

2. Babylon - Jer. 5:15

Many modern translations see Ps. 81:5c as going with 81:6, not 81:5b. If so, it applies to YHWH speaking on Mt. Sinai (i.e., in Hebrew or in thunder). Israel was afraid of the powerful physical manifestation of YHWH on Mt. Sinai (cf. Exodus 19-20).

The remaining verses record YHWH speaking (i.e., Ps. 81:6-16).

  6"I relieved his shoulder of the burden,
 His hands were freed from the basket.
 7You called in trouble and I rescued you;
 I answered you in the hiding place of thunder;
 I proved you at the waters of Meribah.  Selah.
 8Hear, O My people, and I will admonish you;
 O Israel, if you would listen to Me!
 9Let there be no strange god among you;
 Nor shall you worship any foreign god.
 10I, the Lord, am your God,
 Who brought you up from the land of Egypt;
 Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.

81:6-10 This strophe is a summary of all the gracious acts of YHWH in the exodus and wilderness wandering period. Notice all the first person masculine singular verbs! YHWH is directly addressing His people.

1. I relieved (lit. "removed"), Ps. 81:6 - BDB 693, KB 747, Hiphil perfect

2. I rescued (lit. "delivered"), Ps. 81:7 - BDB 322, KB 321, Piel imperfect with waw

3. I answered, Ps. 81:7 - BDB 772, KB 851, Qal imperfect

4. I proved, Ps. 81:7 - BDB 103, KB 119, Qal imperfect

5. I will admonish, Ps. 81:8 - BDB 729, KB 795, Hiphil cohortative

6. I, the Lord, am your God, Ps. 81:10 - covenant language

7. I will fill it, Ps. 81:10 - BDB 569, KB 583, Piel imperfect used in a cohortative sense

Also notice

8. I gave them over to, Ps. 81:12 - BDB 1018, KB 1511, Piel imperfect with waw (cf. Rom. 1:24,26,28)

9. I would quickly subdue, Ps. 81:14

10. I would feed you, Ps. 81:16 - BDB 37, KB 46, Hiphil imperfect with waw

11. I would satisfy you, Ps. 81:16 - BDB 959, KB 1302, Hiphil imperfect

YHWH speaks from Ps. 81:6 through 16 by means of a priest or prophet.

81:6 This verse refers to the forced labor of the Hebrew slaves (i.e., Exod. 1:8-14).

81:7 "You called in trouble and I rescued you" This is an allusion to YHWH's dialog with Moses in Exod. 3:7-10.

▣ "I answered you in the hiding place of thunder" This seems to allude to Israel's Mt. Sinai experience (cf. Exod. 19:19; 20:18).

▣ "I proved you at the waters of Meribah" This refers to the Israelites' experience recorded in Exod. 17:6-7 and Num. 20:13. The AB (pp. 265-266) sees this line as "though I was provoked by you" (cf. Exod. 17:7; Num. 14:22; 20:24; 27:14; Deut. 33:8; Ps. 93:8-9). Each of these texts states that Israel tested God, not God tested Israel.

Deuteronomy 33:8 seems to support the MT of Ps. 81:7c as God testing the Israelites.

▣ "Selah" See notes at Psalm 3:2.

81:8 "Hear" This is a Qal imperative! It begins a series of references to Israel's lack of responding appropriately to YHWH's revelation (cf. Neh. 9:34).

1. if you would listen - Ps. 81:8

2. My people did not listen - Ps. 81:11

3. Israel did not obey Me - Ps. 81:11

4. Oh that My people would listen to Me - Ps. 81:13

Derek Kidner, in the Tyndale Commentary series (p. 326), thinks "Hear, O My people" is an allusion to the Shema prayer of Deut. 6:4-6. It may well be!

81:9 Israel was commanded not to make or go after foreign gods (cf. Exod. 20:3,23). The Israelites were attracted to the fertility gods of Canaan. Israel's uniqueness in the ANE was her monotheism, which allowed for no rivals!

The Jewish Study Bible (p. 1374) asserts that Ps. 81:9-10 are an allusion to Exod. 20:1-2; Deut. 5:6, but in reverse order.

81:10 This refers to YHWH's provision of food and water during the wilderness wandering period.

 11"But My people did not listen to My voice,
 And Israel did not obey Me.
 12So I gave them over to the stubbornness of their heart,
 To walk in their own devices.
 13Oh that My people would listen to Me,
 That Israel would walk in My ways!
 14I would quickly subdue their enemies
 And turn My hand against their adversaries.
 15Those who hate the Lord would pretend obedience to Him,
 And their time of punishment would be forever.
 16But I would feed you with the finest of the wheat,
 And with honey from the rock I would satisfy you."

81:11-16 This strophe contrasts what Israel did with what YHWH wanted to do for them.

1. Israel's history of rebellion (cf. Ps. 78:17,40)

a. did not listen

b. did not obey

c. had stubborn hearts

d. walked in their own devices

2. YHWH's reaction

a. judgment

(1) gave them over to (cf. Ps. 78:29; Isa. 6:9-10; Rom. 1:24,26,28) the stubbornness of their hearts, Ps. 81:12

(2) gave them over to walk in their own devices, Ps. 81:12

(3) those who pretend obedience would suffer eternal loss, Ps. 81:15

b. His desire

(1) that they would listen to Him, Ps. 81:13

(2) that they would walk in His ways, Ps. 81:13

c. His blessings

(1) subdue their enemies, Ps. 81:14

(2) turn His hand against their adversaries, Ps. 81:14

(3) feed them

(a) the finest of the wheat (cf. Deut. 32:14)

(b) honey from the rock (i.e., the best food of the land, cf. Deut. 32:13)

(4) satisfy them

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