Psalm 81 is a remarkable and important psalm in the Psalter. This psalm of Asaph is more specific than many psalms about the original occasion for its composition. The formal occasion for writing this psalm was to celebrate a season of important religious festivals in Israel: “Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our feast day” (Ps. 81:3). Only in the seventh month of the year do we find holy days at the new moon and the full moon. In the festivals of this month, we see Israel called to reflect on God’s great mercy to and care for her, and we see Israel called to remember and repent of her sins.
The new moon marked the new year in Israel’s ecclesiastical calendar. Leviticus 23:24 calls this day a “day of solemn rest.” Numbers 10:10 speaks of this feast as a time in which the Lord remembers His people:
On the day of your gladness . . . you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings. They shall be a reminder of you before your God: I am the Lord your God.
The full moon of the seventh month marked the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. Israel was to live for a week in tents or huts to remember its wanderings in the wilderness and to remember that the Lord had given it the Land of Promise and its annual harvests (Lev. 23:23–43).
Between these two festivals, on the tenth day of the month, was the solemn Day of Atonement. This day was for repentance and sacrifice. It was for rest and for holy convocation. God commanded His people: “You shall afflict yourselves” (Lev. 23:27).
Even more remarkable than the occasion for writing Psalm 81 is the place of this psalm in the Psalter. In a sense, it is the central psalm in the book of Psalms. Of course, it does not stand at the numerical center of 150 psalms. But it is the central psalm in the central book of the Psalter. And at the center of Psalm 81 are these words: “O Israel, if you would but listen to me!” (Ps. 81:8). For all the mysteries of God’s providence with Israel, here is the central truth: Israel was suffering a crisis of exile because she had not listened to her God.
Israel’s failure to listen was a failure of faith and of obedience. At the heart of the Mosaic covenant, God had commanded His people: “Hear, O Israel” (Deut. 6:4), and that command is echoed in Psalm 81:8. Indeed, throughout Psalm 81, there are echoes from Deuteronomy (see, for example, Deut. 6:6–16; 32:12, 16, 21, 28, 43, 46–47).
Psalm 81 renews God’s call to His people to listen to His proclamation of truth. For what was Israel to listen? First, Israel needed to hear God’s word of deliverance. This psalm calls on Israel in very personal terms and very directly to remember how their God had delivered them in the past:
I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket. In distress you called, and I delivered you . . . I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (Ps. 81:6–7, 10a). God had heard His people’s prayers and saved them in the past.
God also reminds His people that He can deliver them in the future: “I would soon subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes” (Ps. 81:14). What God has done for His people in the past, He can do again.
The word of deliverance is accompanied with a word of direction. God reminds His people that they must listen to Him. He has given them His law (Ps. 81:4) and they must heed it. In addition to the call to listen in verse 8, God says, “But my people would not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. . . . Oh, that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!” (Ps. 81:11, 13).
As is often the case in the Old Testament, God focuses on the many ways in which Israel has failed to listen to Him on the central issue of worship (see, for example, Deut. 4). Here, after calling His people to worship Him (Ps. 81:1–3), God warns against false worship: “There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god” (Ps. 81:9).
The words of deliverance and of direction lead on to a word of destruction. God warns His people that He can and will judge His enemies: “I would soon subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes. Those who hate the LORD would cringe toward Him, and their fate would last forever” (Ps. 81:14–15). His people are warned implicitly by this word not to be numbered among those who oppose God.
This psalm is clear that despite all the calls to listen, both in this psalm and throughout her history, Israel has not listened. She has not followed the law of God and she has not kept her worship pure. The people have preferred their own wisdom to that of God: “So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels” (Ps. 81:12). These words are particularly ironic in the midst of feasts that remembered and celebrated how God had delivered them from Egypt. Time and again, the people made foolish choices in the wilderness—including actually wanting to return to the bondage of Egypt—rather than listening to the wisdom of their God.
The crisis of Book Three of the Psalter is a crisis provoked by the people’s not listening. Because they have not listened, God has taken away their king, their temple, and their land. But God has not utterly abandoned them. He still declares in this psalm that if they will listen, He will bless them. But is this promise really encouraging? If they have not listened in the past, despite all of God’s mercy and goodness to them, will they ever listen? Ultimately, the Psalter and the whole Bible teach that God must provide a king and substitute who will do for the people what they cannot do for themselves.
Psalm 81 begins with the words, “Sing aloud to God our strength.” God must be the strength of His people when they are weak. He will be their strength when He comes in His Messiah-King.
Jesus is the King who always listened and always did the will of God. Hebrews 10:5–7 quotes Psalm 40:6–8 (a psalm of David) and applies it to Jesus: “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’” At the transfiguration of Jesus, the Father declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 17:5b). The Father in this place also said to Jesus’ disciples, “Listen to him”—that is, listen to the good news that He brings for sinners.
As we see in Psalm 78, Jesus rejected the three temptations of the evil one that Israel had failed to resist. Here in Psalm 81, we again find echoes of those temptations and of the blessings God has promised to those who are faithful to Him. First, God promises to give His people the bread they need: “But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you” (Ps. 81:16). Second, God promises to preserve and protect His people who do not put Him to the test: “In distress you called, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder; I tested you at the waters of Meribah” (Ps. 81:7). Third, God promises abundant blessing to those who worship Him alone: “There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god. 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” (Ps. 81:9–10).
Jesus, the righteous King, keeps the law perfectly for His people and becomes their substitute and sacrifice. He fulfills the Day of Atonement by offering Himself as the full and final sacrifice for His people. Jesus is the solution to the crisis of Book Three. He is the One who listened, obeyed, died, and now ever lives for us.