Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, June 20th, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 81

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-16


PROFESSOR CHEYNE regards this psalm as composed of "two distinct lyrical passages," accidentally thrown together (compare his theory of Psalms 19:1-14, Psalms 24:1-10, Psalms 36:1-12, Psalms 55:1-23, Psalms 77:1-20, etc.); and certainly there is more reason for this than can be adduced for his other separations. It is difficult to trace any connection between the joyous opening strophe (Psalms 81:1-5) and the sad and chastened monody which follows (Psalms 81:6-16).

Psalms 81:1-5 appear to be the preface of a song of thanksgiving, intended for public recitation at one of the great public festivals—either the Passover or the Feast of Tabernacles.

Psalms 81:6-16 are part of a psalm of complaint, wherein God expostulates with his people.

Psalms 81:1

Sing aloud unto God our Strength. "Loud" singing is regarded as indicative of earnestness and sincerity (see 2 Chronicles 20:19; Nehemiah 12:42; Psalms 33:3; Psalms 98:4, etc.). (On God as Israel's "Strength," see Psalms 27:1; Psalms 28:8; Psalms 46:1; Psalms 111:7.) Make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob. The word translated "make a joyful noise" is especially used of the blare of trumpets (Leviticus 23:24; Numbers 29:1).

Psalms 81:2

Take a psalm; or, lift up a song. And bring hither the timbrel; rather, strike the timbrel. The pleasant harp with the psaltery. The instruments ordinarily used in the service of the sanctuary were harps, psalteries, and cymbals (1 Chronicles 15:16; 1Ch 16:5; 1 Chronicles 25:6; 2 Chronicles 5:12; 2 Chronicles 24:25; Nehemiah 12:27). Here the timbrel (תֹף) seems to take the place of the cymbal.

Psalms 81:3

Blow up the trumpet in the new moon. There was a Mowing of trumpets at the beginning of every month (Numbers 10:10), in connection with the appointed sacrifices (Leviticus 28:11-15); so that the month intended cannot, so far, i.e. fixed. As, however, the chief blowing of trumpets was on the first day of the seventh month (Leviticus 23:24), most commentators regard the psalm as composed for this occasion. There are some, however, as Hengstenberg, Professor Cheyne, and Professor Alexander, who consider it to be a Passover psalm. In the time appointed; rather, at the full moon; i.e. on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when the Feast of Tabernacles was opened (see Numbers 29:12). Trumpets were probably blown then also. On our solemn feast day. The Feast of Tabernacles is called κατ ἐξοχὴν, "the feast," in many passages of the Old Testament.

Psalms 81:4

For this was a statute for Israel, and a law of the God of Jacob; rather, this is a law (Kay, Cheyne, Revised Version). See the passages quoted in the preceding note.

Psalms 81:5

This he ordained in Joseph for a testimony. The special mention of "Joseph" here is strange. Professor Cheyne explains, "God appointed the Law to be valid in northern as well as southern Israel." Hengstenberg and Professor Alexander account for the expression by the pre-eminence of Joseph during the sojourn in Egypt. When he went out through the land of Egypt. When he (Joseph) went out over (or, across) the land," i.e. at the time of the Exodus. Where I heard a language that I understood not. It can scarcely be supposed that this clause belongs properly to Psalms 81:5. It is rather an introduction to the monody wherewith the psalm (as it has come down to us) concludes—the mournful complaint of God against his people. So Professor Cheyne, who translates, "The discourse of no whom I had not known (i.e. of God) did I hear."

Psalms 81:6-16

The "discourse" is now given. It commences somewhat abruptly, and is, perhaps, itself a fragment, the beginning of which is lost. God reminds Israel of his past favours (Psalms 81:6, Psalms 81:7), exhorts them to faithfulness (Psalms 81:8, Psalms 81:9), promises them blessings (Psalms 81:10), complains of their waywardness (Psalms 81:11, Psalms 81:12), and finally makes a last appeal to them to turn to him, and recover his protection, before it is too late (Psalms 81:13-16).

Psalms 81:6

I removed his shoulder from the burden. In Egypt, burdens were borne upon the shoulder, either simply held upon it with both hands, or distributed between the two shoulders by means of a yoke. His hands were delivered from the pots; rather, from the basket; i.e. the basket in which the clay was carried before it was made into bricks.

Psalms 81:7

Thou calledst in trouble, and I delivered thee (see Exodus 2:23; Exodus 3:7; Exodus 14:10, etc.). I answered thee in the secret place of thunder. The pillar of the cloud seems to be meant. In this, and from this, God answered the cry of his people (Exodus 14:24). I proved thee at the waters of Meribah (Exodus 17:7). The "selah" after these words marks a pause, during which the people addressed might reflect on the manifold mercies which God had vouchsafed to them in Egypt, in the wilderness, and elsewhere.

Psalms 81:8

Hear, O my people (comp. Psalms 81:11, Psalms 81:13). Israel is still "God's people," however rebellious (Psalms 81:11, Psalms 81:12). God has not yet given them up. And I will testify unto thee; or, "protest unto thee" (Kay, Cheyne). O Israel, if thou wilt hearken unto me; or, "if thou wouldst but hearken unto me!"

Psalms 81:9

There shall no strange god be in thee; neither shalt thou worship any strange god (comp; Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7). Such worship had evidently begun, and required to be forbidden afresh.

Psalms 81:10

I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt. The reminder was continually needed (see Exodus 20:2; Le Exodus 26:13; Deuteronomy 5:6; Hosea 12:9; Hosea 13:4). Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it. God's gifts, both temporal and spiritual, are proportioned to our eager longing for them. As Christ could not do his miracles in one place because of their unbelief, so God cannot give lavishly unless we desire largely.

Psalms 81:11

But my people would not hearken to my voice (comp. Psalms 78:10, Psalms 78:41, Psalms 78:56; 2 Kings 17:14; 2 Chronicles 36:15, 2 Chronicles 36:16). And Israel would none of me; literally, would not obey me (see the Prayer book Version).

Psalms 81:12

So I gave them up unto their own hearts' lust. God's Spirit will not always strive with men (Genesis 6:3). After a time, if they persist in evil courses and disobedience to his commands, he "gives them up," withdraws from them, leaves them to themselves, to the "lust," or rather "stubbornness" of their own hearts—to their own perverse wills and imaginations. And they walked in their own counsels (comp. Jeremiah 7:24). This result is inevitable. If God no longer guides their thoughts and enlightens their understandings, they can but follow their own foolish counsels, and the result cannot but be disastrous.

Psalms 81:13

Oh that my people had hearkened unto me! rather, would hearken unto me!. And Israel had walked in my ways! rather would walk!

Psalms 81:14

I should soon have subdued (rather, I should won subdue) their enemies. Israel is still surrounded by enemies, anxious for his destruction. God could subdue them and sweep them away in a moment, if he pleased; and would do so, if Israel would repent and return to him. The appeal is to the living Israel—the Israel of the psalmist's time, which is given one more chance of triumph over its enemies. And turned my hand against their adversaries. Logically, the two clauses should have been inverted, since the subjugation of Israel's enemies would be the effect of God's hand being turned against them.

Psalms 81:15

The haters of the Lord. Israel's enemies are always spoken of as God's enemies also (comp. Psalms 3:2, Psalms 3:7; Psalms 9:3; Psalms 68:1; Psalms 79:6, Psalms 79:7, etc.). They "hate" Jehovah (Psalms 21:8; Psalms 83:2), not merely as Israel's Protecter, but as the Source of all good, whereas they delight in evil. Should have submitted themselves unto him; rather, should submit themselves, or "should yield feigned obedience". But their time (i.e. Israel's time) should have endured forever; rather, should endure.

Psalms 81:16

He should have fed them also; rather, he should feed. With the finest of the wheat; literally, with the fat of the wheat (comp. Deuteronomy 32:14 and Psalms 147:14). And with honey out of the rock should I have satisfied thee; rather, would I satisfy thee. The expression, "honey out of the rock," is taken from Deuteronomy 32:13. It evidently means "honey of the best"—native honey, stored by the bees in clefts of the rocks. Of course, both the "wheat" and the "honey" are metaphors, which we are to regard as shadowing forth all temporal and spiritual blessings.


Psalms 81:13

God's lamentation over man's lost opportunities.

"Oh that my people," etc.! Among the saddest words ever spoken are those we utter concerning what might have been. Lost opportunities; neglected duties; mischance that was within a hairbreadth of good fortune; misunderstandings that a little candour or patience would have prevented; voices we do not listen to, but whose echoes haunt us; the joy, wealth, success, love, happiness, within our grasp, if we had not let them slip;—what a weight of meaning, depth of sadness, these put into the words, "It might have been"! How many lives are wearing themselves out in the gloom of failure or disappointment! what countless multitudes have closed in sorrow and shame, whose whole course would have been different, if at some "parting of the ways," perhaps in the early morning of life, they had not taken the wrong turn! A more awful depth of meaning and pathos belongs to the closing verses of this psalm. God's lamentation over man's lost opportunities. We speak of what might have been and has been; God speaks of what ought to have been on men's part, and what surely would have been on his.

I. GOD'S VIEW OF HUMAN LIFE. The Bible mode of regarding human life differs from the way in which we naturally look at our own lives, by the same distinction which marks off Bible history from ordinary history, Bible poetry from ordinary poetry, Bible morality or ethics from those of ordinary moralists—supreme universal reference to God. Account for it as you please, the Scriptures in this respect stand apart from all other literature. Man naturally puts himself, as the old astronomers the earth, as the centre of all things. The Bible teaches him that God is the Centre as well as Source of all life (Romans 11:36). Even religious people talk and think of religion as an important element in human life, essential to its true happiness, neglect of which is guilty and disastrous. The Bible speaks of and to men as made for God, missing the whole purpose and blessing of life if estranged from him. So while we look at what is, God's Word shows him beholding what ought to be. We picture what might have been, he tells us what would have been; we hope or fear what may be, he reveals what will be. We are absorbed in the present; God shows us its root in the past, its fruit in the future (Galatians 6:7, Galatians 6:8). It may be asked—What room, then, for repentance and pardon? Is not this to throw us back under the dominion and condemnation of law? Answer: God's laws are of two sorts: the law of love and duty, fulfilled by willing obedience, which, therefore, man can disobey and break; and natural laws—spiritual as well as material—which cannot be broken. For God to set them aside would be to destroy, not to save. E.g. the thief, the liar, the drunkard, may repent of his sin, and God will pardon it; but the restoration of confidence, and conscious sense of honesty, or the regaining of health destroyed by intemperance, can come only by the practice of the appropriate virtues.

II. THE REAL TURNING POINT OF LIFE. God's own voice here sets forth the blessings which Israel not only might, but certainly would, have enjoyed, if they had not flung them away wilfully, ungratefully, mealy (Psalms 81:14-16). What, then, hindered? Where was the false step—"the parting of the ways"? Answer: Psalms 81:11, Psalms 81:12. This was the secret of all Israel's calamities and misery. Note that the Revised Version here uses the present and the future (Psalms 81:13-16). The Hebrew equally admits this rendering; nothing forbids our combining both meanings. But the reference of the whole psalm is to the past. It begins with a shout of joy, referring to the Feast of Trumpets, the beginning of the (civil) year, and the Feast of Tabernacles, at full moon of the same month. Then looks back to the institution of these festivals, the Law of Moses, the deliverance from Egypt. Then to the whole subsequent history—one long record of rebellion and ingratitude (Jeremiah 22:21). The LESSON is for us (1 Corinthians 10:11). By "turning point of life" I mean not some one fatal crisis, at some special time (though such there are, in many lives), but the guiding force, determining motive, master principle, which gives character to each day as well as to the whole life; makes each step an advance in the right path, or an error. Obedience to the voice of God. 1. In his Word (John 10:27; John 12:47-50). 2. Conscience, which is the inward echo of God's voice. 3. His providence. 4. His Spirit, who alone can give the hearing ear and understanding heart. Here is something sadder yet: "Israel would none of me" (John 5:40, John 5:42; John 8:47). To disobey, to wander, to be lost, you need not resolve on self-destruction; you need only to be careless, let things drift, like one who sleeps when his boat is drifting towards the rapids. You can be careless. God cares, "Oh that my people," etc.! (Luke 19:41, Luke 19:42; Matthew 23:37).


Psalms 81:10

Open thy mouth wide; or, great expectations encouraged.

There is no one that we like less than a man who is always begging. Our way is to tell people who ask of us, that they are not to come again, or that we can do but very little for them. And those who ask know how we feel, and hence they plead, perhaps, that they have never asked before, or that they never will again, or that they only ask for a very little. Now, it is not difficult to defend this our common conduct with suppliants; but what a contrast it offers to our God's dealing with us! He does not send us away when we come to him, nor complain that we come so often, or that we ask so much; but, as here, he encourages our greatest expectations, and bids us "open our mouth wide," etc. Such immense encouragement does he give to us to all boldness in prayer.

"Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For his grace and power are such,
None can ever ask too much."

The psalmist had probably often noticed how the young birds open their mouths wide for the food which they know the parent bird will give them, and for which, therefore, they wait with such eager expectancy. And he points to this familiar fact, and bids his countrymen in like manner expect blessing from God, for God will not disappoint them. Now, on this subject, note—

I. THAT THERE ARE SOME WHO NEVER OPEN THEIR MOUTHS AT ALL. They do not believe in prayer, they count it so much waste breath, and affirm that it avails no more than the piteous cry of the hare when she knows that the hounds are upon her. They urge that all things are governed by fixed law, and no desire of ours, however fervent, can make the slightest alteration. Or else, they say that if what we ask for be right for God to give, he will give it without our prayer; that if it be not right, then, as certainly, he will not give it: he knows our need without our telling him. But we have one short reply to all this, and we say to all such disbelievers in prayer—Have you ever really prayed? Myriads of believing souls there are who with one voice will affirm, "I sought the Lord, and he heard me;" and we prefer to believe these who know that God heareth prayer, rather than you who have never really prayed.

II. THERE ARE OTHERS WHO OPEN THEIR MOUTHS, BUT NOT "WIDE," as we are here bidden to do. They pray, but they do not expect much to come from it. In words they ask for great things, but they do not really believe they will have them. Our Lord's command to us is, "When ye pray, believe that ye receive" (Mark 11:24). Now, in regard to temporal blessings, it may be that we cannot have confident expectation that we shall have the precise favour we ask for; but we ought to have such expectation that that which is really best for us God will certainly give. But in regard to spiritual blessings, such as deliverance from sin, for which, in words, we so constantly pray, we ought to expect the very blessing itself. "The blood of Jesus Christ … cleanseth from all sin;" there is, therefore, absolute warrant for expecting such cleansing; and we need not think, though practically we do, that the blunder of a little lad known to the writer, is really the truth. In repeating the General Confession, when he came to the words, "and there is no health in us," he substituted for them, "and there is no help for it." And that is what so many practically think. They remember their own grievous past, they know the force of long evil habit, and their own wretched weakness, and they see the persistence of evil and sin everywhere, even in the good; and they come to the sorrowful conclusion that "there is no help for it" this side the grave. They have no real expectation of deliverance, and, therefore, they do not get it. And yet people go on perpetually asking for it. The reason of their not having is that they will not open their mouths wide, and so God cannot fill them with his blessing. But—


1. A mouth to open; that is, power to believe. Now, we all have that, and use it every day about other things.

2. Need of God's blessing. Unquestionably there is that.

3. Sense of this need. Consciousness of it, and distress because of it. Hunger after God's blessing.

4. Will to believe. Trust is more a matter of the will than of the reason. "I will trust, and not be afraid." Refuse to doubt, resolve to believe.—S.C.

Psalms 81:11, Psalms 81:12

Given up.



1. No longer held back from sin. "Their own hearts' lust" was to lead them now.

2. No longer urged to goodness.

3. The Spirit no longer striving with them.

4. Divine chastisements abandoned. (Cf. Isaiah 1:5.) See the history of Israel for proof of all this. And it is true still, when a soul is "given up" by God—when even his resources seem exhausted.


1. They are often naturally visible. A God-forsaken people, Church, soul, can be readily recognized. Disaster, defeat, shame, weakness, death,—these are some of the outward signs.

2. They are felt within. (See the history of Saul, 1 Samuel 28:6.) Ah! the inward misery of the soul given up of God.

III. THE INVARIABLE CAUSE. (Hosea 4:17; and see text.)

1. They would not hearken to God's voice. Neither by his messengers, nor through conscience, nor in providence.

2. They would have none of God. They cared neither for his favour nor for his frown.

IV. THE DIVINE RELUCTANCE TO THUS DEAL WITH THEM. (Psalms 81:13; Hosea 11:8; Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34.)—S.C.

Psalms 81:12

Our own way our worst woe.

Our text a declaration of God's dealing with rebellious men. We note concerning it that—

I. IT TELLS OF A PUNISHMENT WHICH SEEMS NO PUNISHMENT AT ALL. Those who rebelled so grievously against God were allowed to do just as they liked, to have their own way as they pleased.

1. Now, our text does tell of punishment. It is not a statement of indifference On the part of God, or of failure, but of his holy displeasure.

2. And it is a punishment of which we have many instances. As when Israel lusted after flesh (Psalms 78:30). And when they would have a king, and God gave them Saul (1 Samuel 12:1-25.; Hosea 13:1-16.). The history of Balaam. Ephraim joined to his idols. The devils asking and being allowed to enter the swine at Gadara. "Not this man, but Barabbas!" and they had their way. The prodigal would go into the far country. And there are many other illustrations beside.

3. God is slow to resort to it. He tries all other means first.

4. It convinces when none other will. Men are forced to believe, then, that God was right and they wrong.

5. But it seems the reverse of punishment. For the Law of God was to Israel a yoke which galled and fretted and chafed them incessantly. Its "thou shalt not" met them at every turn of their lives. Now, this punishment seemed to be deliverance from the yoke and licence to do as they pleased. Where was the punishment in that?

6. And men think the same still. For to them the service of God is so much restraint, religion a tight torturing ligature, which holds them back from what they chooses and binds them down to what they would never choose. And undoubtedly religion is a restraint and a bond. We are never to conceal this fact, and the really religious have no desire to. But men generally do not like it at all, and are glad to be rid of it.

II. BUT IT IS A PUNISHMENT SO TERRIBLE THAT NONE CAN BE MORE SO. To be given up to our own hearts' lust is God's most awful doom.

1. What would such so called liberty be in other regions? Suppose the stars, instead of obeying their Creator's laws, were each to wander at its own will? Where would music be it the laws of harmony were not obeyed? What home would that be where there was no law? Or state, where anarchy prevailed?

2. And so in regard to the soul. Man is made for God, and, as St. Augustine says, "Nostrum cor inquietum est donec requiescat in te." It must be so. See the varied and appalling judgments of which the Bible tells—the Deluge; Sodom; the destruction of Pharaoh, etc. What are they all but the natural results of determined sin? Better any punishment—even hell itself—than that God should leave us alone, or give us up, as told of here.

CONCLUSION. Are you suffering under the hand of God now? Then assuredly he has not left you alone. Turn to him. Are you at ease in sin? Then "Awake, thou that sleepest!" You have need to. Are you serving God? Then let all men know that his service is perfect freedom, the delight of your soul.—S.C.

Psalms 81:13-16

What might have been.

These verses tell what Israel missed, but might have had. And they are written for our learning. Note—


1. Subdue their enemies.

2. Discomfit their adversaries.

3. Conversions should have been numerous.

4. Eternal life should have been theirs.

5. And fulness of joy.

And in reference to men now: God waits to be gracious and to do all for them that corresponds to the blessings told of here.

II. BUT NONE OF THIS CAME TO PASS; ONLY THE VERY OPPOSITE. In their character, conduct, and condition, things went from bad to worse. Enemies not subdued; their adversaries became stronger; sin rampant; their days few and evil; want and misery in their dwellings.


1. It was not God's will. Cf. the tears of Christ over Jerusalem. "How often would I have gathered thee," etc.!

2. But it was Israel's own fault. (Psalms 81:11, Psalms 81:12.) Thus it ever is.

IV. THE SORROW OF IT ALL. God dishonoured; the Holy Spirit grieved; their children and their neighbours led astray; themselves given up of God; and all this need not have been. Dread the doom of such.—S.C.


Psalms 81:1-3

The consecration of music.

Instrumental music was associated with the Mosaic festivals; but the organization of music for ordinary religious worship is supposed to have been the work of David. The important differences between ideas of music in the ancient East and in the modem West needs to be carefully shown. Noise is chiefly considered in the East, harmonies are most valued in the West. Even the chanting at religious services was more like that which we call "Gregorian" than like the double tunes ordinarily used. Public services gained a new and attractive feature when music was introduced into them; and those gifted with the power of singing and playing were allowed to take part in them. Then public services rose from being bare duty to become personal pleasure. Perhaps David's work in consecrating to God's worship poetical and musical gifts has never been worthily estimated. Thomson tells us that "the Orientals know nothing of harmony, and cannot appreciate it when heard." He went to a grand concert of instrumental musicians. "Seated on a raised platform at one end of the room were half a dozen performers, discoursing strange music from curious instruments, interspersed with wild bursts of song, which seemed to electrify the congregation. They had a violin, two or three kinds of flutes, and a tambourine. One man sat by himself, and had a large harp." "No doubt the temple service, performed by those who trained for it, stirred the deepest fountains of feeling in the vast assemblies of Israel, at the great feasts."

I. THE CONSECRATION OF MUSIC AND SONG TO GOD. All man's talents, gifts, and endowments can be devoted to the service of God. Man has no power—poetical, artistic, musical, dramatic, or practical—in the use of which he cannot or may not serve God. Very strange was the notion once entertained that instrumental music was not becoming to God's worship. And even yet there is a strange limitation to particular instruments, which alone are regarded as appropriate. We need to see more clearly that every gift has its Divine sphere of service.

II. THE CONSECRATION OF MUSIC AND SONG TO MAN. Especially to man's artistic culture, and to man's pleasant and healthy recreation. The gifted in this direction are human benefactors. But we need to secure consecration to the highest and best interests of man. The gifted should never pander to low tastes, or help to degrade their fellows.

III. THE CONSECRATION OF MUSIC AND SONG TO THE SERVICE OF GOD THROUGH THE SERVICE OF MAN. This should be the high aim of all the gifted. In the use of their gifts so to serve their fellow men, as that God should be glorified through their ministry.—R.T.

Psalms 81:4

Authority in religion.

"For this was a statute for Israel." Reference is directly to the "blowing up the trumpet in the new moon." However that might be done, because it was felt to be suitable, or because it was pleasant, it had to be done because it was required; and it would have to be done, whether men could recognize its suitability or not, whether men found it pleasant or not. There is authority in relation to religious observances; some persons more readily recognize and respond to that authority than others; but all pious persons find somewhere and in something an ultimate basis of appeal. For some it is the inspired Scriptures, for some it is the witness of the universal Church, and for some it is the requirement of some duly authorized teacher. There has always been discussion as to the proper centre of authority in religion, and the universal Church is divided into sections by the variety of opinion on this subject.

I. AUTHORITY IN RELIGION MUST SATISFY MAN CONCERNING THE TRUTH. So many men always nave been, and some always must be, incompetent to decide perplexing doctrinal or ethical questions for themselves. Some are unduly biassed by education; some have neither mental powers nor leisure time for carrying on the necessary studies. In every department of truth, most men take their opinions on the authority of others; and it is even more necessary, in regard to the higher truths of religion, that men should have their standards and their guides. True, we have the Bible; but men like Anselm, Augustine, Calvin, and Wesley, with the great teachers of later days, have been authorities in religious truth to thousands.

II. AUTHORITY IN RELIGION MUST LIMIT MAN'S VAGARIES. The speculative faculty leads men, in these times, to wander in all sorts of unknown regions; and produces a restlessness and uncertainty which are seriously imperilling faith. Perhaps we read men's books too much, and God's book too little. Happy they who can rest in the "truths most surely believed among us," because they are declared with an authority which they can recognize.

III. AUTHORITY IN RELIGION MUST ENFORCE MAN'S DUTIES. Social life has changed the conception of what is becoming to a Christian. We want guidance in the modern endeavour to live The Christian life. Self-indulgence weakens our will, and we want the help of distinct requirements in ordering our religious habits. But yielding to authority must be kept within healthy limitations, and preserve personal independence and responsibility.—R.T.

Psalms 81:5

The unknown tongue.

"I heard a language that I understood not." It is exceedingly difficult to trace the meaning of this sentence. The first suggestion is, that it may refer to the sojourning Israelites not understanding the language of the Egyptians. Another suggestion is, that Israel did not understand the voice of God when heard from Sinai. Jennings and Lowe give a fresh and striking suggestion. They think the sentence is the utterance of God when passing over Egypt to judge it; and they translate, speaking thus, "The saying, 'I know not,' I will hear." The reference is to the boastful saying of Pharaoh, "Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice? I know not the Lord." And God is represented as saying, "I will hear his speech; I will take notice of it; I will punish it." If we are to assume that God is speaking in this verse, as he seems to be in Psalms 81:6, then this reference to Pharaoh may be accepted. Another idea is, that in this sentence the psalmist makes a sudden break, and abruptly exclaims, "The language of one I know not, I hear;" and what he hears he proceeds to tell in the following verses. God's voice sounded strange to him.

I. THE UNKNOWN VOICE OF GOD. Illustrate by the direct speaking of God from Sinai, which so alarmed the people. All close communications of God with men, whether by vision or voice, are humbling, surprising, and overwhelming. Unknown, in the sense of being unfamiliar; and unknown because unexpected. God communicates in the language of men, since he desires to be understood; but his will is usually revealed through human agencies.

II. THE UNKNOWN LANGUAGE OF EGYPT. This may be shown to have made part of the burden and trouble of Israel, from which God so graciously delivered them. It was the laud of the stranger, and the different language spoken by the inhabitants constantly reminded Israel of its bondage and its hope.

III. THE "UNKNOWN" DECLARATION OF PHARAOH. His saying, "I know not." His declaring that Jehovah was to him unknown. His language about "not knowing" the God of the Hebrews. God took notice of the boastful speech; for the declaration that he did not know really meant that he did not care, and so he must be made to know, by seeing and feeling the judgments which Jehovah executeth. It is necessary to remember that Eastern poetical figures are often far fetched, and very difficult to trace.—R.T.

Psalms 81:7

The secret place of thunder.

"Thunder covert;" literally "hiding place of thunder;" i.e. the dark thunderclouds, from behind which God spoke to the Israelites. Some writers find a reference to the pillar of cloud and fire, in which God appeared for the guiding of Israel's journey. But there is no special reason for calling the pillar of cloud a "thundercloud." The poet is, in a very general way, reviewing the Divine dealings with Israel; and here the troubles connected with the time at Sinai are clearly referred to. The "hiding place of thunder" is surely the "thick darkness where God was" (Exodus 20:21) when the Law was given from the "smoking mountain," amid "thunderings and lightnings." The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews rhetorically contrasts the revelations from Sinai and from Zion (Hebrews 12:18-24). His description of the revelation given from Sinai may help us to understand this poetical figure, "the secret place of thunder." "Ye are not come unto a mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice they that heard in,reared that the words should not be spoken to them any more." Thunder, then, may be taken, poetically, as the characteristic of the Old Testament dispensation. We must keep in mind two things:

(1) the intensity of the thundernoise in mountain districts; and

(2) the peculiar Eastern sentiments about thunder. In illustration of (1), Dr. Stewart gives the following experience of a thunderstorm at Mount Sinai. "Every ball; as it burst, with the roar of a cannon, seemed to awaken a series of distinct echoes on every side;… they swept like a whirlwind among the higher mountains, becoming faint as some mighty peak intervened, and bursting with undiminished volume through some yawning cleft, till the very ground trembled with the concussion …It seemed as if the mountains of the whole peninsula were answering one another in a chorus of the deepest bass. Ever and anon a flash of lightning dispelled the pitchy darkness, and lit up the mount as if it had been day; then, after the interval of a few seconds, came the peal of thunder, bursting like a shell, to scatter its echoes to the four quarters of the heavens, and overpowering for a moment the loud howlings of the wind." In illustration of (2), the fear produced by thunderings now may be shown, though superstitious ideas are checked by some measures of scientific knowledge. The fear of thunder is shared by the animals in the fields. Thunder, then, is the fitting illustration of the old dispensation; but unsuitable to the new dispensation. It fits the old because it impresses on man the sense of mystery; it gives man an idea of force; and it fills man's mind with fear.

I. THUNDER BRINGS A SENSE OF MYSTERY. In those days, how it comes was not known. Always, when it comes is not known. It was, and it still is, something over which men can only wonder. Show that this character is preserved in the God of the Old Testament. He hides himself. "Clouds and darkness are round about him." His voice is to man but as the inarticulate thunder. In some ages of the world, and in some Conditions of the race, mystery in God is the best education; it awakens the spiritual faculties in child ages, as it does in children.

II. THUNDER GIVES MAN AN IDEA OF FORCE. When he hears it, man feels there is something wholly beyond his control. And force must be felt by the Israelites to lie behind law. He who gives the Law must be felt able to enforce its sanctions. Joubert tells us that the absolute rule of moral training is "force till right is ready." The thunderings and lightnings of Sinai impressed the force of the Divine authority.

III. THUNDER FILLS MEN'S MINDS WITH FEAR. If fear is not the highest motive inspiring obedience, it is the necessary motive for many people, and the first motive for all. Fear is not lost, as the inspiration of obedience, in Christianity, it is only glorified in love. "Perfect love casteth out fear." Storm and tempest clear the atmosphere, and prepare for the warmth and quickening of the steady sunshine; and so the thunder of the Old Testament prepares for the life giving sunshine of the New.—R.T.

Psalms 81:9

The sole Object of worship.

This verse recalls to mind the second recitation of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy 5:1-33. "In Deuteronomy 5:9 the keynote of the revelation of the Law from Sinai is struck; the fundamental command which opens the Decalogue demanded fidelity to Jehovah, and forbade idol worship as the sin of sins." The claim of Jehovah on the Israelites needs to be precisely described. God, as El, was very generally, perhaps universally, known. But men went wrong, in relation to him, when they began to make representations of him. Then two things happened:

(1) different representations became fixed to different localities and countries; and

(2) the representations came to be worshipped, rather than the spiritual Being whom they represented. Israel was selected, as a nation, to preserve for the world the imperilled primary truth of the unity and spirituality of God. So two things are firmly asserted as the basis of God's revelation of his will to Israel

I. GOD IS THE ONE GOD OF THE WHOLE EARTH. "Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one Lord." "The God of the whole earth shall he be called." There are no such things as "strange gods." An idol is a "nothing," a "vanity." God is God alone. See the importance of this for Israel. Looking on the nations around them, they might imagine that the gods of the nations were doing better for them than Jehovah was doing for his people, and so they might be tempted to join service to these strange gods with service to Jehovah. So they must learn that God was really the God of all nations; the one and only true God. In view of our work among the heathen, we still must hold fast this primary and fundamental truth—there is but one God; and he is as truly the God of the heathen as of the civilized and the Christianized.

II. GOD IS THE ONE OBJECT OF HUMAN WORSHIP. Man must worship. He feels dependent. He must look out of himself for some one on whom to lean. He must be sure that be on whom he leans is absolutely trustworthy. There never can be more than one absolutely trustworthy Being. If right ideas be attached to God, we must feel that there can only be one God. He must be the perfect realization of our highest conceptions; and therefore our admiration and our dependence will unite to make him the sole Object of worship. He who knows God wants to worship no other.—R.T.

Psalms 81:10

Sufficiency in God.

"Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it." Whatsoever be the needs or the desires of God's people, there is abundance of grace for the supplying of the needs, and the satisfying of the desires, Compare our Lord's saying to his disciples, "Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my Name; ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full," The figure in the text is explained in Thomson's 'Land and the Book.' "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." In declaring himself to be Israel's God, and demanding the sole and entire worship of the people, Jehovah graciously adds the assurance, that he is at once able and willing to meet and supply all their need. He could not ask their entire trust if he was not efficient to meet all their wants. There was no call to seek the help of any strange god, for they were in no sense straitened in Jehovah. This subject may be applied to Christians by taking illustrations, from the history of Israel's wanderings, of the following points.


(1) daily supply;

(2) wise guidance;

(3) efficient defence;

(4) patient bearing with infirmities;

(5) provision for social relations and national requirements.

So we can never think of any want we have that is beyond God's supply.

II. SUFFICIENCY IN GOD FOR ISRAEL'S UNKNOWN NEEDS. For our real needs are not those we find out for ourselves. Those are our superficial needs, and often not even real needs. It introduces a surprise of grace to say there is the supply in God of all the needs of which he knows and we do not. Often it is God's supplying us that brings the consciousness of the need. Flow good that God's grace is not limited by our knowledge!

III. SUFFICIENCY IN GOD IS ASSOCIATED WITH GOOD WILL. That gets expression in gracious and satisfying assurances and promises.—R.T.

Psalms 81:11

The sin of self-will.

Observe that the sin of which complaint is here made is not that Israel did not hearken, but that Israel would not hearken. God goes in behind the acts of disobedience, and is concerned with the spirit of wilfulness which found expression in the acts. The judgment of God upon them brings to view the special feature of their sin. "So I gave them up to the obduracy of their heart, that they should walk in their own counsels" (Psalms 81:12).

I. SELF-WILL AS THE SIN INTO WHICH MEN FELL. Self-will is the perverted use of free will. Free will could be self-will if man were an independent creature. Free will must not be self-will, because man is a dependent creature. Free will became self-will, because man allowed himself to be guided by what seemed "pleasant to the eyes and good for food," rather than by what he knew to be the will of him on whom he depended. Serving himself is the essence of sin for one who has been made dependent—in every way dependent upon God. What we have to counteract is the delusion that man is an independent being, and therefore may "follow the devices and desires of his own heart." Illustrate from Daniel 5:28.

II. SELF-WILL AS THE SIN FROM WHICH MEN ARE DELIVERED. There are penalties into which men have brought themselves by their self will, and from these they need to be delivered. But it would be no effective redemption that dealt only with penalties. Deliverance from self-willedness, in a dependent creature, can only be effected by making him on whom he depends so infinitely attractive that he wins full trust and obedience. And this is accomplished by God's manifestation of himself to men in the Person, life, and sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ.

III. SELF-WILL AS THE SIN INTO WHICH THE REDEEMED ARE IN DANGER OF FALLING BACK. Illustrate from the Israelites, as redeemed unto the service of Jehovah, from Egypt. Bring out

(1) the open ways, and

(2) the subtle ways, in which nowadays Christians may be tempted to the self-trust which breaks them away from their dependence on God.—R.T.

Psalms 81:13

The sorrow of God.

Occasioned by this—he could not do for his people what he would. He would have delivered them from their foes, and fed them with the finest of the wheat. They, by their conduct, compelled him to withhold his hand, and even to smite instead of bestow. Compare the sorrow of Christ when looking from Olivet upon Jerusalem. He mourns over what he would have done for its people; but they "would not."

I. GOD'S JOY IN THE BLESSING OF HIS PEOPLE. Their temporal blessing, when the state of their minds and hearts makes his giving temporal blessings the highest moral and spiritual good to them. It is not merely that God "gives us all things richly to enjoy;" it is that he loves to give; he finds his joy in giving. Illustrate from the provisions made for Israel.

II. GOD'S SORROW BECAUSE OF THE RESTRAINT OF HIS BLESSINGS. Sometimes he cannot give temporal blessings, because the state of mind and heart of his people would turn them into moral and spiritual curses. See in the case of Israel; how vain, self-confident, and proud Israel would surely have become, if, taking no notice of its character, its wilfulness, and murmuring, and rebellion, God had showered all conceivable good on the nation! It is the grief of love that it must restrain its gifts lest they should be misused.

APPLICATION. If we lack good things that we desire, and think we need, let us never explain the lack by the Divine unwillingness to bless, or by any vague notions of Divine "sovereignty." God would give these things to us if, in view of our best interests, he could. He is to be thought of as grieved that he cannot. And the thought of his grief should incite us to get rid of the hindrance that is on our side. To the trustful, humble, obedient soul God's richest benedictions may safely come.—R.T.


Psalms 81:13, Psalms 81:14 (compared with Isaiah 48:18)

Man's inconsideration.

I. GOD HAS SPOKEN AND REVEALED TO MAN THE WAY OF LIFE. God's ways are the ways of life.

1. God's way is the way of law. Physical and moral and spiritual. "Whatsoever a man soweth," etc.; "To him that hath shall be given," etc.

2. God's way is the way of love.

3. God's way is the way of faith. So that through it he dispenses pardon, strength, and comfort.


1. A neglect of the Divine rule of life. An inconsiderate man is a man without understanding, a man without a steadfast purpose, given over to pleasure and selfishness.

2. A forfeiture of the Divine help against our difficulties. An inconsiderate man cannot accept or use the Divine help.


1. It hindered him from a benevolent exercise of his power on their behalf. "I gave them up to the stubbornness of their heart:" that was all God could do for them.

2. They are defeated by their enemies in the battle of life. It is only by God's help we can conquer in the great struggle we have to maintain.

3. God could not nourish them with heavenly food. (Deuteronomy 32:13.) The finest of the wheat and honey out of the rock. Like the prodigal, they lived upon the husks.—S.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Psalms 81". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/psalms-81.html. 1897.
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