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Bible Commentaries

Albert Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible

Psalms 81


This psalm purports also to be a psalm of Asaph. See Introduction to Psalms 73:0. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, it may be assumed to have been composed by or for the Asaph who was the contemporary of David, and who was, appointed by him to preside over the music of the sanctuary. Venema, indeed, supposes that the psalm was composed in the time of Josiah, at the observance of the great Passover celebrated by him 2 Chronicles 35:0; but there is no positive evidence of this, though there is nothing in the psalm that is inconsistent with such a supposition. On the phrase in the title, upon Gittith, see the notes at the title to Psalms 8:1-9.

The occasion on which the psalm was composed seems to have been a festal occasion, and the circumstances in the psalm will probably best accord with the supposition that it was the Feast of the Passover. Rosenmuller has indeed endeavored to show (see his notes at Psalms 81:4) that it was composed on occasion of the Feast of Trumpets (Leviticus 23:24, following); but there is nothing in the psalm which would necessarily restrict it to that, and, as we shall see, all the circumstances in the psalm harmonize with the supposition that it was at the Feast of the Passover, the principal and the most important festival of the Hebrews. It is well remarked by DeWette (Introduction to the psalm), that as the Hebrews were required to make known to their children the design of the ordinance of the Passover (see Exodus 12:26-27), nothing would be more natural than that the sacred poets should take occasion from the return of that festival to enforce the truths pertaining to it in songs composed for the celebration. Such seems to have been the design of this psalm - reminding the people of the goodness of God in the past, and recalling them from their sins by a remembrance of his mercies, and by a view of what would be the consequences of fully obeying his law.

It would seem from the psalm not improbable that it was composed in a time of national declension in religion, and when there was a tendency to idolatry, and that the object of the author was to rouse the nation from that state, and to endeavor by a reference to the past to bring them back to a more entire devotedness to God.

The contents of the psalm are as follows:

I. The duty of praise, particularly on such occasions as that on which the psalm was composed; a duty enjoined even in Egypt, in the time of Joseph, when God delivered his people out of that strange land, Psalms 81:1-7.

II. The main command which was then ordained to be the guide of the people - the fixed law of the nation - the fundamental idea in their polity - that there was to be no strange god among them, but that they were to worship the true God, and him alone, Psalms 81:8-10.

III. The fact that the nation had refused to hear; that there had been such a proneness to worship other gods, and to fall into the habits of idolaters, that God had given them up to their own desires, and suffered them to walk in their own ways, Psalms 81:11-12.

IV. A statement of what God would have done for them if they had been obedient; of what would have been the effect on their national prosperity if they had hearkened to the commands of God; and consequently of what would still be the result if the people should be obedient, and submit themselves wholly to the law of God, Psalms 81:13-16. Particularly:

(1) Their enemies would have been subdued, Psalms 81:14.

(2) those who hated the Lord would have yielded themselves to him, Psalms 81:15.

(3) God would have given them abundant prosperity; he would have fed them with the finest of the wheat, and would have satisfied them with honey out of the rock, Psalms 81:16.

The psalm is of special importance to the church now, as reminding it of its obligation from the past mercies of God, and as showing what would be the consequences if it should be wholly devoted to the service of God.

Verse 1

Sing aloud unto God our strength - The strength and support of the nation; he from whom the nation has derived all its power. The word rendered sing aloud means to rejoice; and then, to make or cause to rejoice. It would be appropriate to a high festal occasion, where music constituted an important part of the public service. And it would be a proper word to employ in reference to any of the great feasts of the Hebrews.

Make a joyful noise - A noise indicating joy, as distinguished from a noise of mourning or lamentation.

Unto the God of Jacob - Not here particularly the God of the patriarch himself, but of the people who bore his name - his descendants.

Verse 2

Take a psalm - literally, “Lift up a psalm; perhaps, as we should say, “Raise the tune.” Or, it may mean, Take an ode, a hymn, a psalm, composed for the occasion, and accompany it with the instruments of music which are specified.

And bring hither the timbrel - For the purpose of praise. On the meaning of this word rendered “timbrel” - תף tôph - see the notes at Isaiah 5:12.

The pleasant harp - On the word here rendered “harp” - כנור kinnôr - see also the notes at Isaiah 5:12. The word translated “pleasant” - נעים nâ‛ı̂ym - means properly pleasant, agreeable, sweet, Psalms 133:1; Psalms 147:1. It is connected here with the word harp, as meaning that that instrument was distinguished particularly for a sweet or pleasant sound.

With the psaltery - On the meaning of the word used here - נבל nebel - see the notes at Isaiah 5:12. These were the common instruments of music among the Hebrews. They were employed alike on sacred occasions, and in scenes of revelry. See Isaiah 5:12.

Verse 3

Blow up the trumpet - The word rendered blow means to make a clangor or noise as on a trumpet. The trumpet was, like the timbrel, the harp, and the psaltery, a common instrument of music, and was employed on all their festive occasions. It was at first made of horn, and then was made similar in shape to a horn. Compare Joshua 6:5; Leviticus 25:9; Job 39:25.

In the new moon - On the festival held at the time of the new moon. There was a high festival on the appearance of the new moon in the month of Tisri, or October, which was the beginning of their civil year, and it is not improbable that the return of each new moon was celebrated with special services. See the notes at Isaiah 1:13; compare 2 Kings 4:23; Amos 8:5; 1 Chronicles 23:31; 2 Chronicles 2:4. It is not certain, however, that the word used here means new moon. Prof. Alexander renders it in the month; that is, in the month, by way of eminence, in which the passover was celebrated. The word used - חדשׁ chôdesh - means, indeed, commonly the new moon; the day of the new moon; the first day of the lunar month Num 29:6; 1 Samuel 20:5, 1 Samuel 20:18, 1 Samuel 20:24; but it also means a month; that is, a lunar month, beginning at the new moon, Genesis 8:5; Exodus 13:4; et al. The corresponding or parallel word, as we shall see, which is rendered in our version, in the time appointed, means full moon; and the probability is, as Professor Alexander suggests, that in the beginning of the verse the month is mentioned in general, and the particular time of the month - the full moon - in the other part of the verse. Thus the language is applicable to the passover. On the other supposition - the supposition that the new moon and the full moon are both mentioned - there would be manifest confusion as to the time.

In the time appointed - The word used here - כסה keseh - means properly the full moon; the time of the full moon. In Syriac the word means either “the first day of the full moon,” or “the whole time of the full moon.” (Isa Bar Ali, as quoted by Gesenius, Lexicon) Thus, the word means, not as in our translation, in the time appointed, but at the full moon, and would refer to the time of the Passover, which was celebrated on the fourteenth day of the lunar month; that is, when the moon was at the full. Exodus 12:6.

On our solemn feast day - Hebrew, In the day of our feast. The word solemn is not necessarily in the original, though the day was one of great solemnity. The Passover is doubtless referred to.

Verse 4

For this was a statute for Israel ... - See Exodus 12:3. That is, it was a law for the whole Jewish people, for all who had the name Israel, for all the descendants of Jacob. The word was is not in the original, as if this had been an old commandment which might now be obsolete, but the idea is one of perpetuity: it is a perpetual law for the Hebrew people.

A law of the God of Jacob - Hebrew, a judgment; or, right. The idea is, that it was what was due to God; what was his right. It was a solemn claim that he should be thus acknowledged. It was not a matter of conventional arrangement, or a matter of convenience to them; nor was it to be observed merely because it was found to be expedient and conducive to the welfare of the nation. It was a matter of right and of claim on the part of God, and was so to be regarded by the nation. The same is true now of the Sabbath, and of all the appointments which God has made for keeping up religion in the world. All these arrangements are indeed expedient and proper; they conduce to the public welfare and to the happiness of man; but there is a higher reason for their observance than this. It is that God demands their observance; that he claims as his own the time so appropriated. Thus he claims the Sabbath, the entire Sabbath, as his own; he requires that it shall be employed in his service, that it shall be regarded as his day; that it shall be made instrumental in keeping up the knowledge of himself in the world, and in promoting his glory. Exodus 20:10. People, therefore, “rob God” (compare Malachi 3:8) when they take this time for needless secular purposes, or devote it to other ends and uses. Nor can this be sinless. The highest guilt which man can commit is to “rob” his Maker of what belongs to Him, and of what He claims.

Verse 5

This he ordained in Joseph for a testimony - literally, he placed this; that is, he appointed it. The word Joseph here stands for the whole Hebrew people, as in Psalms 80:1. See the notes at that verse. The meaning is, that the ordinance for observing this festival - the Passover - was to be traced back to the time when they were in Egypt. The obligation to observe it was thus enhanced by the very antiquity of the observance, and by the fact that it was one of the direct appointments of God in that strange and foreign land.

When he went out through the land of Egypt - Margin, against. Or rather, In his going out of the land of Egypt. Literally, In going upon the land of Egypt. The allusion is, undoubtedly, to the time when the Hebrews went out of the land of Egypt - to the Exodus; and the exact idea is, that, in doing this, they passed over a considerable portion of the land of Egypt; or, that they passed over the land. The idea in the margin, of its being against the land of Egypt, is not necessarily in the original.

Where I heard a language that I understood not - literally, “The lip, that is, the language, of one that I did not know, I heard.” This refers, undoubtedly, not to God, but to the people. The author of this psalm identifies himself here with the people - the whole nation - and speaks as if he were one of them, and as if he now recollected the circumstances at the time - the strange language - the foreign customs - the oppressions and burdens borne by the people. Throwing himself back, as it were, to that time (compare the notes at 1 Thessalonians 4:17) - he seems to himself to be in the midst of a people speaking a strange tongue - a language unintelligible to him - the language of a foreign nation. The Jews, in all their long captivity in Egypt - a period of four hundred years (see the notes at Acts 7:6) - preserved their own language apparently incorrupt. So far as appears, they spoke the same language, without change, when they came out of Egypt, that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had used. The Egyptian was entirely a foreign language to them, and had no affinity with the Hebrew.

Verse 6

I removed his shoulder from the burden - The burden which the people of Israel were called to hear in Egypt. The reference is undoubtedly to their burdens in making bricks, and conveying them to the place where they were to be used; and perhaps also to the fact that they were required to carry stone in building houses and towns for the Egyptians. Compare Exodus 1:11-14; Exodus 5:4-17. The meaning is, that he had saved them from these burdens, to wit, by delivering them from their hard bondage. The speaker here evidently is God. In the previous verse it is the people. Such a change of person is not uncommon in the Scriptures.

His hands were delivered from the pots - Margin, as in Hebrew, passed away. That is, they were separated from them, or made free. The word rendered pots usually has that signification. Job 41:20; 1 Samuel 2:14; 2 Chronicles 35:13; but it may also mean a basket. Jeremiah 24:2; 2 Kings 10:7. The latter is probably the meaning here. The allusion is to baskets which might have been used in carrying clay, or conveying the bricks after they were made: perhaps a kind of hamper that was swung over the shoulders, with clay or bricks in each - somewhat like the instrument used now by the Chinese in carrying tea - or like the neck-yoke which is employed in carrying sap where maple sugar is manufactured, or milk on dairy farms. There are many representations on Egyptian sculptures which would illustrate this. The idea is that of a burden, or task, and the allusion is to the deliverance that was accomplished by removing them to another land.

Verse 7

Thou calledst in trouble - The people of Israel. Exodus 2:23; Exodus 3:9; Exodus 14:10.

And I delivered thee - I brought the people out of Egypt.

I answered thee in the secret place of thunder - That is, in the lonely, retired, solemn place where the thunder rolled; the solitudes where there was no voice but the voice of thunder, and where that seemed to come from the deep recesses of the mountain gorges. The allusion is doubtless to Sinai. Compare Exodus 19:17-19. The meaning is, that he gave a response - a real reply - to their prayer - amid the solemn scenes of Sinai, when he gave them his law; when he recognized them as his people; when he entered into covenant with them.

I proved thee - I tried you; I tested your fidelity.

At the waters of Meribah - Margin, as in Hebrew, strife. This was at Mount Horeb. Exodus 17:5-7. The trial - the proof - consisted in his bringing water from the rock, showing that he was God - that he was their God.

Verse 8

Hear, O my people, and I will testify unto thee ... - See the notes at the similar passage in Psalms 50:7. God calls their attention to what he required of them; to what his law demanded; to what was the condition of their being his people and of securing his favor. What the demanded was, that they should acknowledge him; obey him; serve him; that there should be no strange god among them, and that they should worship no false god, Psalms 81:9.

Verse 9

There shall no strange god be in thee - Worshipped by thee; or recognized and regarded as a god. This was a condition of his favor and friendship. Compare Deuteronomy 32:12; Isaiah 43:12. The word here rendered “strange” - זר zār - has reference to one of a foreign nation; and the meaning is, that they were not to worship or adore the gods that were worshipped by foreigners. This was a fundamental law of the Hebrew commonwealth.

Neither shalt thou worship any strange god - The Hebrew word here is different - נכר nêkâr - but means substantially the same thing. The allusion is to gods worshipped by foreign nations.

Verse 10

I am the Lord thy God ... - See Exodus 20:2. The meaning is, “I am Yahweh, that God; the God to be worshipped and honored by thee; I only am thy God, and no other god is to be recognized or acknowledged by thee.” The foundation of the claim to exclusive service and devotion is here laid in the fact that he had brought them out of the land of Egypt. Literally, had caused them to ascend, or go up from that land. The claim thus asserted seems to be twofold:

(a) that in doing this, he had shown that he was God, or that he had performed a work which none but God could perform, and had thus shown his existence and power; and

(b) that by this he had brought them under special obligations to himself, inasmuch as they owed all that they had - their national existence and liberty - entirely to him.

Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it - Possibly an allusion to young birds, when fed by the parent-bird. The meaning here is, “I can amply supply all your needs. You need not go to other gods - the gods of other lands - as if there were any deficiency in my power or resources; as if I were not able to meet your necessities. All your needs I can meet. Ask what you need - what you will; come to me and make any request with reference to yourselves as individuals or as a nation - to this life or the life to come - and you will find in me all abundant supply for all your needs, and a willingness to bless you commensurate with my resources.” What is here said of the Hebrews may be said of the people of God at all times. There is not a want of our nature - of our bodies or our souls; a want pertaining to this life or the life to come - to ourselves, to our families, to our friends, to the church, or to our country - which God is not able to meet; and there is not a real necessity in any of these respects which he is not willing to meet. Why, then, should his people ever turn for happiness to the “weak and beggarly elements of the world” (compare the notes at Galatians 4:9), as if God could not satisfy them? Why should they seek for happiness in vain amusements, or in sensual pleasures, as if God could not, or would not, supply the real needs of their souls?

Verse 11

But my people ... - See Psalms 78:10-11, Psalms 78:17-19. “And Israel would none of me.” Literally, “Did not will me;” that is, “did not incline to me; were not attached to me; were not disposed to worship me, and to find happiness in me.” Compare Isaiah 1:19; Job 39:9; Proverbs 1:25. They refused or rejected him. See Exodus 32:1; Deuteronomy 32:15, Deuteronomy 32:18.

Verse 12

So I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lust - Margin, as in Hebrew, to the hardness of their own hearts. Literally, “I sent them, or I dismissed them, to the hardness of their hearts.” I suffered them to have what, in the hardness of their hearts they desired, or what their hard and rebellious hearts prompted them to desire: I indulged them in their wishes. I gave them what they asked, and left them to themselves to work out the problem about success and happiness in their own way - to let them see what must be the result of forsaking the true God. The world - and the church too - has been often suffered to make this experiment.

And they walked in their own counsels - As they thought wise and best. Compare Acts 7:42; Acts 14:16; Romans 1:24; Psalms 78:26-37.

Verse 13

Oh that my people had hearkened unto me - This passage is designed mainly to show what would have been the consequences if the Hebrew people had been obedient to the commands of God, Psalms 81:14-16. At the same time, however, it expresses what was the earnest desire - the wish - the preference of God, namely, that they had been obedient, and had enjoyed his favor. This is in accordance with all the statements, all the commands, all the invitations, all the warnings, in the Bible. In the entire volume of inspiration there is not one command addressed to people to walk in the ways of sin; there is not one statement that God desires they should do it; there is not one intimation that he wishes the death of the sinner. The contrary is implied in all the declarations which God has made - in all his commands, warnings, and invitations - in all his arrangements for the salvation of people. See Deuteronomy 5:29; Deuteronomy 32:29-30; Isaiah 48:18; Ezekiel 18:23, Ezekiel 18:32; Ezekiel 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9; Luke 19:42.

And Israel had walked in my ways! - Had kept my commandments; had been obedient to my laws. When people, therefore, do not walk in the ways of God it is impossible that they should take refuge, as an excuse for it, in the plea that God desires this, or that he commands it, or that he is pleased with it, or that he approves it. There is no possible sense in which this can be true; in every sense, and on every account, he prefers that people should be obedient, and not disobedient; good, and not bad; happy, and not miserable; saved, and not lost. Every doctrine of theology should be held and interpreted in consistency with this as a fundamental truth. That there are things which are difficult to be explained on the supposition that this is true, must be admitted; but what truth is there in reference to which there are not difficulties to be explained? And is there anything in this, or in any of the truths of the Bible, which more demands explanation than the facts which are actually occurring under the government of God: the fact that sin and misery have been allowed to come into the universe; the fact that multitudes constantly suffer whom God could at once relieve?

Verse 14

I should soon have subdued their enemies - This is one of the consequences which, it is said, would have followed if they had been obedient to the laws of God. The phrase rendered soon means literally like a little; that is, as we might say, in a little, to wit, in a little time. The word rendered subdued means to bow down; to be curved or bent; and the idea is, that he would have caused them to bow down, to wit, by submission before them. Compare Deuteronomy 32:29-30.

And turned my hand against their adversaries - Against those who oppressed and wronged them. The act of turning the hand against one is significant of putting him away - repelling him - disowning him - as when we would thrust one away from us with aversion.

Verse 15

The haters of the Lord - The enemies of the Lord, often represented as those who hate him - hatred being always in fact or in form connected with an unwillingness to submit to God. It is hatred of his law; hatred of his government; hatred of his plans; hatred of his character. See Romans 1:30; John 7:7, John 15:18, John 15:23-25. Compare Exodus 20:5.

Should have submitted themselves unto him - Margin, yielded retained obedience. Hebrew, lied. See the phrase explained in the notes at Psalms 18:44. The meaning is, that they would have been so subdued as to acknowledge his authority or supremacy, while it is, at the same time, implied that this would have been forced and not cordial. No external power, though it may so conquer as to make people outwardly obedient, can affect the will, or subdue that. The grace of God alone can do that, and it is the special triumph of grace that it can do it.

But their time - The time of his people. They would have continued to be a happy and a flourishing nation.

Should have endured for ever - Perpetually - as long as they continued to be obedient. If a nation were obedient to the will of God; if it wholly obeyed his laws; if it countenanced by statute no form of sin; if it protected no iniquity; if it were temperate, just, virtuous, honest, there is no reason why its institutions should not be perpetual, or why it should ever be overthrown. Sin is, in all cases, the cause of the ruin of nations, as it is of individuals.

Verse 16

He should have fed them also - He would have given them prosperity, and their land would have produced abundantly of the necessities - even of the luxuries - of life. This is in accordance with the usual promises of the Scriptures, that obedience to God will be followed by national temporal prosperity. See Deuteronomy 32:13-14; 1 Timothy 4:8; Psalms 37:11. Compare the notes at Matthew 5:5.

With the finest of the wheat - Margin, as in Hebrew, with the fat of wheat. The meaning is, the best of the wheat - as the words fat and fatness are often used to denote excellence and abundance. Genesis 27:28, Genesis 27:39; Job 36:16; Psalms 36:8; Psalms 63:5; Psalms 65:11.

And with honey out of the rock should I have satisfied thee - Palestine abounded with bees, and honey was a favorite article of food. Genesis 43:11; Deuteronomy 8:8; Deu 32:13; 1 Samuel 14:25-26; Isaiah 7:15; Ezekiel 16:13; Matthew 3:4. Much of that which was obtained was wild honey, deposited by the bees in the hollows of trees, and as it would seem in the caverns of the rocks. Much of it was gathered also from rocky regions, and this was regarded as the most delicate and valuable. I do not know the cause of this, nor why honey in high and rocky countries should be more pure and white than that obtained from other places; but the whitest and the most pure and delicate honey that I have ever seen I found at Chamouni in Switzerland. Dr. Thomson (land and the Book, vol. ii. p. 362) says of the rocky region in the vicinity of Timnath, that “bees were so abundant in a wood at no great distance from this spot that the honey dropped down from the trees on the ground;” and that “he explored densely-wooded gorges in Hermon and in Southern Lebanon where wild bees are still found, both in trees and in the clefts of the rocks.”

The meaning here is plain, that, if Israel had been obedient to God, he would have blessed them with abundance - with the richest and most coveted productions of the field. Pure religion - obedience to God - morality - temperance, purity, honesty, and industry, such as religion requires - are always eminently favorable to individual and national prosperity; and if a man or a nation desired to be most prospered, most successful in the lawful and proper objects of individual or national existence, and most happy, nothing would tend more to conduce to it than those virtues which piety enjoins and cultivates. Individuals and nations, even in respect to temporal prosperity, are most unwise, as well as most wicked, when they disregard the laws of God, and turn away from the precepts and the spirit of religion. It is true of nations, as it is of individuals, that “Godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is,” 1 Timothy 4:8.

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Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 81". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". 1870.