Tired of seeing ads while studying? Now you can enjoy an "Ads Free" version of the site for as little as 10¢ a day.

Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Psalms 81



This is plainly a festival song, but by no means one of that jubilant class of festival songs that conclude the Psalter. The poet is in the truest sense a prophet, and, while calling on all the nation to join in the music of the feast, he tries to convince them of the sad lapse in religion from the ideal which the appointed feasts were intended to support. By a poetic turn of high order, he represents himself as catching suddenly, amid the blare of trumpets and clash of drums, the accents of a strange, unknown voice. He listens. It is God Himself speaking and recalling, by a few brief incisive touches, the history of the ancient deliverance from Egypt. The servitude, the storm passage of the Red Sea, the miraculous supply of water, with the revelation it made of the faithlessness of the people; the covenant at Sinai, the Decalogue, by its opening commandment—are all glanced at; and then comes the sad sequel, the stubbornness and perversity of the nation for which all had been done.
But the psalm does not end with sadness. After the rebuke comes the promise of rich and abundant blessing, upon the condition of future obedience.

The particular festival for which the psalm was composed, or which it celebrates, has been matter of controversy. The arguments in favour of the Feast of Tabernacles will be found stated in the Note to Psalms 81:3. But the mode of treatment would equally well suit any of the great Israelite feasts. They were at once memorials of God’s goodness and witnesses of the ingratitude and perverseness which, with these significant records continually before them, the nation so sadly displayed. After the prologue the poem falls into two nearly equal strophes.

Title.—See Titles, Psalms 4:0, Psalms 8:1.

Verse 2

(2) Take a psalm.—Rather, Strike up a tune (with voice and harp).

Bring hither the timbrel.—Literally, Give a timbrel (or, drum), which evidently means “sound the timbrel,” and may, perhaps, be explained by a phrase sometimes found in Hebrew—“Give a voice,” i.e., speak. Such phrases as “Let them have the drum,” “Give them the drum,” may illustrate the expression. (For the instrument, tôph, see Exodus 15:20, and consult Bible Educator, 2:214 seq.)

Harp . . . psaltery.—See Note, Psalms 33:2.

Verse 3

(3) Trumpet.—Heb., shôphar. (See Exodus 19:16; Psalms 47:5.) In connection with this festival psalm the mention of the shôphar is especially interesting as being the only ancient Hebrew instrument of which the use is still on solemn occasions retained. (See Bible Educator, Vol. ii. 242.)

In the new moon.—Standing by itself this might mean the beginning of every month (comp. Num. x 10), and so many scholars are inclined to take it here. Others render “in this month.” But see next Note.

In the time appointed.—This is the rendering given of the Hebrew kçseh by a long array of authorities. But in Proverbs 7:20, the only other place where the word is found, the Vulg. gives “after many days;” and while the English margin has “new moon” Aquila and Jerome give “full moon.” This latter meaning is supported by the fact that the Syrian version gives keso for the 15th day of the month (1 Kings 12:32). But in 2 Chronicles 7:10 the same word is used for the 23rd day; hence, it is supposed to denote the whole time of the moon’s waning from the full. It seems, therefore, hardly possible that keseh as well as chadesh can mean new moon here as some think, though it is strange to find both the new and the full moon mentioned together. Some remove the difficulty by reading with the Syriac, Chaldee, and several MSS. feast-days in the plural, but the authority of the LXX. is against this reading. But apparently the festival in question was the Feast of Tabernacles. The word chag here used is said by Gesenius to be in the Talmud used pre-eminently of this feast, as it is in 2 Chronicles 5:3; 1 Kings 8:2 (comp. Psalms 42:4), and the Jews, always tenacious of ancient tradition, regularly use this psalm for the office of the 1st day of Tisri. Thus the new moon is that of the seventh month, which in Numbers 29:1 is called especially “a day of trumpet blowing” (sec Note Psalms 81:1), and the full moon denotes this feast, (See Numbers 29:12; Leviticus 23:24.)

Verse 4

(4) For this.—Better, for it is a statute. Referring either to the feast itself or to the mode of celebrating it.

Law.—Literally, judgment, as LXX. and Vulg.

Verse 5

(5) Joseph.—The prominence given to this name indicates, according to some critics, that the author belonged to the northern kingdom:. but when a poet was wishing to vary his style of speaking of the whole people—the names Israel and Jacob have just been used—the name Joseph would naturally occur, especially with the mention of Egypt, where that patriarch had played such a conspicuous part.

Through the land of Egypt.—The Hebrew means either upon, over, or against, but none of these meanings will suit with Israel as the subject of the verb. Hence, the LXX., in disregard of use, give “out of Egypt.” But God is doubtless the subject of the verb, and we may render, over the land of Egypt, in allusion to Exodus 12:23, or against the land of Egypt, in reference to the Divine hostility to Pharaoh.

Where I heard . . .—The insertion of the relatival adverb, where, makes this refer to the Egyptian tongue (comp. Psalms 114:1), giving an equivalent for, “when I was in a foreign country.” So apparently the LXX. and Vulg. But the expression, words unknown to me I heard, when followed by an apparent quotation, most naturally introduces that quotation. The poet hears a message, which comes borne to him on the festival music, and this he goes on to deliver.

Verse 6

(6) Pots.—Deriving from a root to boil, and with allusion to potteries, which, probably, together with the brick-kilns, formed the scene of the forced labour of Israel. The LXX. and Vulg. have “slaved in the basket,” but the basket, which is represented on Egyptian monuments, is doubtless meant by the burden of the last clause.

Verse 7

(7) Thou calledst.—The recital of God’s past dealings with the people usual at the Feast of the Tabernacles (Deuteronomy 31:10-13; Nehemiah 8:18) appears to follow here as if the feast were actually in progress and the crowd were listening to the psalmist.

I answered thee in the secret place of thunder.—Mr. Burgess is undoubtedly right in taking the verb as from ânan, “to cover,” instead of ânah, “to answer.” I sheltered thee in the thundercloud, with plain allusion to the “cloudy pillar.” The same verb is used in Psalms 105:39, “He spread out the cloud for a covering.”

Verse 8

(8) Hear, O my people.—The Divine voice here repeats the warnings so frequently uttered during the desert-wandering.

Verse 9

(9) Open . . .—A condensed statement of God’s gracious promise (Deuteronomy 7:12-13; Deuteronomy 8:7; Deuteronomy 8:9; Deuteronomy 11:13; Deuteronomy 11:16, &c). It is said to have been a custom in Persia, that when the king wishes to do a visitor especial honour he desires him to open his mouth wide, and the king then-crams it full of sweetmeats, and sometimes even with jewels. And to this day it is a mark of politeness in Orientals to tear off the daintiest bits of meat for a guest, and either lay them before him, or put them in his mouth. (See Thomson, Land and Book, p. 127.)

Verse 12

(12) Lust.—Rather, stubbornness, or perversity, from root meaning “to twist.”

Verses 13-14

(13, 14) Hearken . . . subdue.—The verbs should be taken in a future sense, “Oh that my people would hearken . . . I should soon subdue,” &c. The poet changes from reminiscences of the past to the needs of the present.

Verse 15

(15) Submitted.—See Note, Psalms 18:44.

Himi.e., Israel; Jehovah’s enemies being also Israel’s enemies.

Their timei.e., Israel’s. One of the sudden changes of number so frequent in Hebrew poetry. As a nation Israel would continue to live and prosper.

Verse 16

(16) Finest of the wheat.—See margin, and comp. Psalms 147:14. The construction of this verse is matter of difficulty. Properly we should render, And he fed them with the finest of the wheat, and with honey out of the rock satisfied thee. The change of person is harsh, though perhaps it may be illustrated by Psalms 22:27, &c, but the past tense seems out of keeping with the context. The conclusions of Psalms 77, 78 are hardly analogous. The pointing should be slightly changed to give, “And I would feed them also,” &c

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Psalms 81". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.