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God’s Word for You

Psalm 81:8-16 If only

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, April 30, 2019

8 Hear, O my people, while I warn you!
  O Israel, if only you would listen to me!

Suddenly, after what seemed as if it was a call to praise going out to people who were willing to praise, the Psalmist serves God by condemning the listeners. They haven’t been praising God at all. They’ve been unwilling to worship. One of the very first ways people turn from God is to put themselves before him; to put their own opinions before the will of the Creator. By now, by verse 8, they have stopped listening to God at all.

9 There shall be no strange god among you.
  You shall not bow down to a foreign god.
10 I am the LORD your God,
  who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.
  Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.

Verse 9 quotes the First Commandment. The parallelism of the lines here suggests that the ancient numbering of the commandments which combines Exodus 20:2-6 into the First Commandment (and which reads Exodus 20:17 as two commandments) is the way that King David and his court understood the way one should count the Ten Commandments. Setting that matter aside for the present, we see that God once again calls out to his people with the Exodus as their reminder of the way he has loved them; it is only a dim shadow of the blessing to follow, but they have not listened to him. “Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it,” but they remain close-lipped.

11 “But my people did not listen to my voice;
  Israel would not obey me.
12 So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,
  to walk in their own advice.
13 If only my people would listen to me,
  if only Israel would walk in my ways!
14 I would quickly subdue their enemies,
  and turn my hand against their foes.

As much as Lamentations are the cries of God’s people for mercy (yet never using the word “mercy”), this Psalm is a lamentation, a cry from God for his chosen people to stop rejecting him. God grieves because his people have turned away. He has offered his love and his grace over and over, but because they consider his will to be oppressive, they have turned away. God knows that the alternative is their damnation, and he does not want them to be lost. Therefore he has done what he describes in verse 12. What a terrible thing it is to be allowed to sink into the pit of one’s own sin! What an awful, miserable life to lead, saying to God: “I do not love you!” and always wondering where love is in the world. Saying to God, “I do not believe in you!” and wondering why nobody in the world seems to believe anything anymore. Saying to God, “I hate you!” and wondering why there is so much hatred in the world. Shouting at God, “I don’t want your truth!” and spending the rest of one’s life searching for truth. It is acting out the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:23-34), except that being uncharitable toward their fellow man, God’s people had actually become uncharitable toward their God.

“If only!” God wails. “If only!” I would love you! I would help you! Let’s continue with the final two verses:

15 Those who hate the LORD will cringe before him,
  and their fate will last forever,
16 though he would feed them with the finest of wheat!”
  “With honey from the rock I will satisfy you.”

This is the difference between heaven and hell. This is the difference between what is inevitable for those who reject God and for those whom God has called. He wants to feed “them” (the unbelievers) “with the finest of wheat,” but they have turned away. But God does not want them to be lost.

This brings us to the last verse of the Psalm. Most translations make an attempt to keep the two halves of the verse in harmony with one another, even though grammatically they are very different. Even in my translation above, I have made one change. Literally, the Hebrew says:

He would feed him with the finest of wheat.
With honey from the rock I will satisfy you.

The four pronouns: He, him, I and you (the ‘you’ is singular) do not match. It’s not easy to see how they relate. Who is speaking in the verse? Is there another speaker in the second half? I have understood both “He” in the first half and “I” in the second half to refer to God. However, are “him” and “you” to be considered the same? Or is the first line, “feed him,” talking about unbelievers who are not fed (because of their unbelief), but the second line, “I will satisfy you,” talking about believers? Or perhaps something else?

For this reason, I have used quotation marks to set the last line apart from the others. I may be wrong in this. The theology of the Psalm does not change, either way. God wants man to trust in him. God wants our prayers. There is a beautiful line in the Apocrypha about the believer’s prayer: “His prayer will penetrate the clouds” to reach God (Sirach 35:20). If only we will put our trust in our Lord, he will hear our prayers, satisfy our needs, and bless us in ways we never imagined. Set Jesus at the center of your faith and your mind, and know that his forgiveness covers over all your sins. Now, O forgiven child of God, if he has wiped your tainted record of sin away, is there anything he is incapable of doing for you? Put your faith in him, and never invite him to cry out, “If only!”

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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