Saturday, September 14, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 81

Psalm 81 begins with an invitation to joyful, musical praise. “Sing aloud to God our strength;” the psalmist, Asaph, encourages, “shout for joy to the God of Jacob” (verse 1). The Hebrew word for “sing aloud” is rânan. This is a ringing cry, a loud, joyful sound. The Hebrew word for “shout,” rûa‛, also indicates high volume; it literally means to split the ear with sound. Whom are we praising with such emphatic noise? The psalmist offers two titles for God: “the God of our strength” and “the God of Jacob.” The former reminds us that any power, any boldness, any loudness that we might have comes from God. Without Him we would have nothing. He is even the source of our praise. If He didn't give us the ability to praise Him, we would not be able to do so. The latter title, “the God of Jacob,” is a type of shorthand that reminds us of Israel's history. God has involved Himself in His people's lives. He is active in Israel. He has saved them in the past; He is caring for them now; and He will lead them into a future better than they can ever imagine. 

The call to praise continues in verses 2 and 3: “Raise a song, sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp. Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our festal day.” The voices of the worshipers join with the sweet sounds of instruments, and the songs that result are lifted up to God. The trumpet blasts, calling Israel to their feast, to liturgical worship at the Jerusalem Temple. This “festal day” could perhaps refer to Passover or the Feast of Tabernacles. In any case, this is a time appointed by God. 

The Israelites must worship Him as He ordains. Verse 4 makes that clear: “For it is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.” The Hebrew word for “statute” refers to a decree, a prescribed task, something that is owed to God. But the word for “ordinance,” mishpâṭ, adds another dimension. This word means ordinance or law but also right and privilege. We have the duty but also the privilege of worshiping God. God commands us to worship, but He also gives us the right to worship. He wouldn't have to. He has no need of our praise. He orders it for our good, that we may recognize Who He is and who we are and grow closer to Him. 

Verse 5 further explains the necessity of liturgical worship. God has made it a testimony, a witness, to Him from the time He led the Israelites out of Egypt. Scholars like Dr. Scott Hahn have argued that God instituted Jewish sacrificial worship as a response to the Israelites' actions in Egypt. They had fallen into Egyptian idolatry, worshiping animals like bulls and goats and sheep. Therefore, in their own worship, they needed to sacrifice those animals in recognition that they were not gods. Only God is God. In doing so, they witnessed to Him, the one true God. They testified to His exclusive divinity and power, and they denied all other gods, sacrificing what they used to worship to the real God. 

In the midst of this praise, the psalmist receives a message from God Himself. “I hear a voice I had not known,” the psalmist notes. He had never heard God speaking in this way before. This is something special, something unique, something holy. And God has a very important message. 

God begins by reminding His people what He has done for them. “I relieved your shoulder of the burden;” He says, “your hands were freed from the basket” (verse 6). God delivered the Israelites from their burden of slavery. They were the lowest of the low in Egypt, an abused people. God heard their cries and rescued them (verse 7). He answered their prayers even though they couldn't see Him, for He was hidden by the dark clouds and rolling thunder on Mount Sinai. He remained transcendent, but He was also close to them, caring for them and protecting them. 

God also tested His people to see if they were faithful, and He reminds them of this: “I tested you at the waters of Meribah” (verse 7). During their journey through the desert, the Israelites had complained that they lacked water. They were ready to return to Egypt where at least they had enough to drink. God told Moses to strike a rock with his rod. Water poured out for the people to drink, and they could see that God truly did care for them. Of course, even this miracle didn't stop them from complaining again shortly afterward. (For the full story, see Exodus 17:5-7.) 

In verse 8, God pleads with His people: “Hear, O My people, while I admonish you; O Israel, if you would but listen to Me!” The Hebrew word for “hear” is shâma‛. It does not refer only to a physical hearing with the ears but rather to an intelligent hearing, in which the hearer pays attention and ultimately obeys the speaker. The word for “admonish” is ‛ûd, which in its Hiphal verb-form as it is here, it means to testify or bear witness, to warn or charge, to protest, to solemnly affirm something. There is an element of earnestness to this word. It hints at a message often repeated, and indeed God has admonished His people many times, but they very often fail to listen (again shâma‛) to Him. 

God then tells the people what He expects from them. They are to have “no strange god” among them. They are not to “bow down to a foreign god” (verse 9). God alone is their God. He is the One Who has done such marvelous things for them, bringing them out of Egypt. They have only to open wide their mouths, and He will fill them with all kinds of good things (verse 10). God is waiting to pour out blessings on His people, not just things to eat but all sorts of marvelous things, physical and spiritual. But they have to cooperate. They have to be open. They have to turn to Him and prepare themselves to receive what He gives. Then they will taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

In the next few verses, God laments His people's stubbornness. “But My people did not listen to My voice; Israel would not submit to Me” (verse 11). Israel closed itself to God. His people refused His blessings. They did not want Him or His way. They wanted themselves and their own way. So God gave them what they wanted. He let them have their “stubborn hearts” and the space to “follow their own counsels” (verse 12). But He longs for them. “O that My people would listen to Me, that Israel would walk in My ways!” (verse 13). This is a cry from the very heart of God. He loves His people. He desires their love in return, a love that is shown in attentive, obedient listening and action. He knows what is best for His people. He has shown them His ways, ways that will make them happy and fulfilled, ways that will lead them straight to Him. 

If the people would just turn back to God, amazing things would happen. He would “subdue their enemies” and turn His “hand against their foes” (verse 15). Those who hate God would feel the force of His wrath and would be sent off to their doom, cringing before God (verse 16). But for His people, God says, “I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you” (verse 16). He would pour out His blessings into His people's open mouths, just as He promised. And what blessings they would be! The finest wheat and honey from the rock. To Israel, this refers to the best of foods, the best part of everything. Catholics recognize the Eucharist, which is indeed the finest wheat, Jesus Christ Himself, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Catholics also recognize the Scriptures, which are the best of honey, the sweetest words of all, written by God Himself as a love letter to His children. The best of blessings indeed, and they are available for us. God wants us to have them. All we have to do is open our hearts and prepare ourselves to meet our Lord.

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