God’s Word for You
Psalm 81:1-7 Sing to God our strength
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, April 29, 2019
Psalm 81 is a sad song. It begins with a reminder of some of the ways God has blessed his people, even testing their faith. But beginning with verse 8, following an interlude (“selah”), God preaches about his people’s failure to keep the First Commandment. Perhaps they had not so much turned to another god as they had simply stopped listening to their Lord—a very modern problem, and a sin current in our time.
For the choir director.
According to Gittith. By Asaph.
Asaph composed this Psalm to be sung in regular worship (“for the choir director”) and he also intended it to be played according to a particular rhythm or musical style which came to Israel from the olive presses of Gath, either the Philistine Gath (Joshua 11:23), one of the two towns called Gath Rimmon (in Dan, Joshua 21:24, or in Manasseh, Joshua 21:25) or Gath Hepher in Zebulun (2 Kings 14:25). Three different composers used this musical style in their writings: David (Psalm 8), Asaph (Psalm 81) and the Sons of Korah (Psalm 84).
According to the Mishnah, an ancient Jewish tradition, this was the Psalm sung by the Levites every Thursday (Mishnah, Tamid 7:2).
1 Sing to God our strength,
shout to the God of Jacob!
2 Raise a song, sound the hand drum,
play the sweet lyre with the harp.
3 Blow the ram’s horn at the new moon,
and at the full moon, on our feast day.
At first glance, the Psalm seems like a rousing call to worship, the sort of music we might expect on a joyful festival day. There is a call to worship God with shouts and songs, a call for musical instruments and the ram’s horn or shofar, blown twice each month, when the month began at the new moon and two weeks later at each full moon.
4 For this is a commandment for Israel,
a regulation from the God of Jacob.
5 He made it as a testimony for Joseph
when he went out against the land of Egypt.
There I heard a voice I had not known:
6 (The Lord said:) ¹
“I relieved your shoulder of the burden;
your hands were freed from carrying the basket.
7 You called in distress
and I rescued you,
I answered you
from the secret place of thunder;
I tested you at the waters of Meribah. Selah
¹ 81:6 The words “The Lord said” have been added for clarity.
Did verse 4 sting a little bit? Did all of the Israelites obey the Lord’s commands, even about new moons and full moons? We find examples in Nehemiah of the Israelites forgetting the Sabbath regulations (Nehemiah 13:17-22) and marriage restrictions as well (Nehemiah 13:23-24). God goes all the way back to the Exodus—a typical reminder of the most incredible miracle of the Old Testament. But while recalling the burdens God lifted from the people of Israel, the burdens on the shoulder and the baskets they had to carry, the Lord tosses out the waters of Meribah, where the whole nation questioned whether the God who had led them walking—walking!—out of Egypt, was going to let them die of thirst. He tested them there, and here Asaph lets this stand as a warning of what was happening now in David’s time. The people were grumbling and complaining all the time, always finding something that just wasn’t quite right.
It should shame us that we’re no different at all. We never quite learn the lesson of Godly contentment. “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6), but we always seem to want just a little more, just a little better, just a little this, just a little that. Yet the God we worship is the very same God who answered Israel “from the secret place of thunder,” the God who sent his Son into our world of sin and discontent to shoulder the burden of our sins. His hands were bound, then nailed to a cross. When he was tested, he cried out for thirst as a dying man for anything at all to wet his parched tongue. He called out in distress and was tested, even killed, on our behalf. His death meant the end of our sins and the end of our guilt. Let it be the end of our shame as well. Thrill to the sound of the Lord’s voice. Run to worship him. Be eager to get to the front pew in your church if you can, and open your throat to voice your praises.
Take a moment to ponder these things today. Asaph ends verse 8 with the cryptic word selah, which seems to signal some kind of musical interlude or change of style, pitch, or tempo. As this takes place, let the words you have heard sink into your memory. Praise God with your life, and worship him with your whole being.
Pastor Timothy Smith
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