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August 29, 2010
Psalm 81:1-2, 10-16

Psalm 81, and especially the selection set for reading this week, echoes the reading from Jeremiah with reference to the Exodus and the subsequent unfaithfulness of the people. In that sense, it is appropriate but we need to hear both from the whole of the psalm and the context in which it is set in the Book of Psalms to fully appreciate what is said here.

Psalm 81 belongs to Book III of the Psalms. This book comprises Psalms 73-89. The way the book of Psalms is organised this set of psalms is to be read after the time of King David (see Ps 72:20) and in the time of exile. Psalm 74 speaks of the destruction of the temple. In fact, Book III of the Psalms contains several communal psalms and speaks of not only the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem (Psalms 74; 79; 87), but the demise of the Lord’s people, Israel (Psalms 80; 81; 83; 85), and the fall of the dynasty of David (Psalms 78; 89). These issues constituted major questions for Israel’s faith at the time of exile.

Within this book of psalms we also find smaller sequences of psalms. Psalm 79 begins a second sequence of psalms (Psalms 79-82) leading from lament through divine pronouncement (Psalm 81) to God’s sovereignty in the divine council (Psalm 82), a sequence similar to that of Psalms 74-76. Even in the gravest of situations the cycle of lament and hope continues and stands as a comfort to the people.

Psalm 81 begins with an extended call to praise, vv. 1-5. It stresses that such praise can be dated back as far as the Exodus out of Egypt so many generations ago. This call to praise God at the start of the psalm might suggest a festal context. God has made a ‘decree’ (v. 5; cf. Ps. 78.5 and 79 [superscription]) in Joseph. But then, all of a sudden the psalmist hears an unknown voice (v. 5b). Maybe the voice is responding to Israel’s call for help in Psalms 79-80. This voice claims to have heard past cries for help (vv. 6-7). It is only at the end of v. 7, however, that we get a hint of whose voice this is, namely the Lord’s who had indeed tested the people in the time of Exodus at Meribah (see Exod 17:1-7). The identity of the voice is made certain in vv. 9-10. It is revealed to be God’s voice and God continues to speak through the rest of the psalm (vv. 6-16).

While Book III of the Psalms is meant to carry some comfort for the people there is some anguish in the Lord’s voce in Psalm 81. God’s response of rescue and freedom, of relieving the people’s burden, is complicated by the people’s continued rebellion. While God has fed them with tears (Ps 80:5) his desire has been to fill their mouth with ‘the finest of the wheat’ and ‘honey from the rock’ (81:10, 16).

This is a lovely message of sustenance, of feeding. Of course it is exaggerated in its language. While the ‘finest of wheat’ can be comprehended, one does not get honey from a rock! ‘Honey’ is clear. Its sweetness is a delight and desirable. It was a delicacy in ancient times. But the reference to the rock has little to do with the source of honey. Rather it is an allusion back to the Exodus, and the place of testing, Meribah, mentioned in v. 7. There the Lord had given the people water form the rock in the wilderness. It is a reminder of the harsh places through which the Lord has led the people, of the Lord’s provision in the most unlikely spots. Maybe, contrary to this week’s understanding of the Exodus in Jeremiah as something of a honeymoon, there is even in the psalm a hidden reminder of the Exodus tradition which speaks of the people’s complaining against Moses and God (see Exod 17:1-7). Nevertheless, there is even hope in the face of both a recalcitrant people and the direst of circumstances. It is the Lord’s desire to feed them with the finest wheat and honey. As the church comes regularly to the communion table we remember the fulfilment of that promise, the cost of it to God, the dire circumstances of the cross, and indeed the ongoing call to repentance and discipleship.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship

The opening verses could be used as a call to worship, either read by the liturgist or read responsively. If a significant occasion is being celebrated, a trumpet call may well suit the occasion.

Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob.
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.
For it is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
Verses 6-7a and 10, slightly adapted, could be used as the beginning of the declaration of forgiveness:
The Lord says:
‘I relieved your shoulder of the burden;
your hands were freed from the basket.
In distress you called, and I rescued you.
I am the LORD your God.
Hear of God’s relief of our burdens in the word of Jesus:
‘Your sins are forgiven.’
Thanks be to God.
Verses 10 and 16 could also be adapted to become an invocation to the Lord’s Table in a communion service:
The Lord says:
‘I am the LORD your God,
who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.
Open your mouth wide and I will feed you.
I would feed you with the finest of the wheat,
and with wine from the rock I would satisfy you.’
Come and feast at the Lord’s table.
Old Testament reading: Jeremiah 2:4-13

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