Psalm 81

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 81 and its interpreters.  I’ll post Psalm 81 in the King James Version (which is in the public domain) and comment on select verses.

1To the chief Musician upon Gittith, [A Psalm] of Asaph.  Sing aloud unto God our strength: make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob.

Take a psalm, and bring hither the timbrel, the pleasant harp with the psaltery.

Blow up the trumpet in the new moon, in the time appointed, on our solemn feast day.

The phrase that the KJV translates as “on our solemn feast day” is regarded by many to mean “in the full moon on the day of our feast”.  The reason is that a Syriac version treats the Hebrew word keseh in Psalm 81:3 as the full moon.  There are other interpretations, but we’ll start with the one that considers keseh as the full moon.

So the Israelites are to celebrate on a new moon, then on a festival that occurs on a full moon.  What days is this verse talking about?  A common view is that we are talking about Rosh Hoshanah, a new year’s day that occurs on a new moon, and the Feast of Tabernacles, part of which occurs on the full moon.  The justification for this view is that Psalm 82:3 mentions the blowing of the trumpet, and that occurs on Rosh Hoshanah (Leviticus 23:24).

The view of Keil-Delitzsch, however, is that Psalm 81 is for the first day of Nisan (a new moon and the start of the first month of the year) and the Passover (which occurs on a full moon later in Nisan).  This view makes sense, for vv 4-6 appear to associate the command to celebrate this festival with the time of the Exodus.  And what was the festival that God instituted at the time of the Exodus?  The Passover.  But what about the trumpet?  While there is no explicit indication in Scripture that the trumpet was blown on the first of Nisan or the Passover, Numbers 10:10 mentions trumpets being blown on days of gladness, feasts, and new moons.  Perhaps that means that trumpets could be blown on various new moons and festivals, including the ones in Nisan.

Now let’s turn to other treatments of the Hebrew word keseh.  Rashi interprets it to mean the appointed time, and he cites Proverbs 7:20.  Incidentally, the KJV also interprets the similar word kese in Proverbs 7:20 as the appointed time, whereas other English translations render it as “full moon” in Proverbs 7:20.  The Septuagint has “in the distinct day of our feast”.  And the Midrash on the Psalms has a view that associates keseh with the piel for k-s-h, which means “cover”.  In Psalm 85:2, the piel of k-s-h is used for the forgiveness of sins, and so this interpretation understands Psalm 81:3 to be talking about the celebration of a day on which Israelites’ sins are covered.  As far as I know (and I am open to correction), the Day of Atonement was a day of self-affliction rather than music and celebration.  But perhaps this interpretation of Psalm 81:3 would be consistent with regarding the day of celebration as Rosh Hoshanah, for that, too, was a day on which atonement occurred (Numbers 29:5).  

For this was a statute for Israel, and a law of the God of Jacob.

This he ordained in Joseph for a testimony, when he went out through the land of Egypt: where I heard a language that I understood not.

On account of this verse, I agree with Keil-Delitzsch that there is good reason to believe that the festival of Psalm 81 is the Passover, since that was instituted at the time of the Exodus.  There are interpretations, however, which apply Psalm 81:5 to the release of Joseph from prison and his subsequent elevation by Pharaoh, rather than the Exodus.  The Targum goes with this view, and the Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hoshanah 10b affirms that Joseph was released from prison on Rosh Hoshanah, and so God ordained it as a festival at that time.  The phrase “when he went out through (Hebrew al) the land of Egypt” can be translated as “when he [meaning Joseph] went out over the land of Egypt”, and such a phrase in Genesis 41:45 refers specifically to something that Joseph did in Egypt.

But many interpret Psalm 81:5 in light of the Exodus, perhaps because v 6 refers to deliverance from a burden.  According to Marvin Tate, G.R. Driver and W. Thomas interpret al to mean “from”, since it supposedly can mean that in Phoenician, and thus they think that the phrase means “when he [indicating God] went out from the land of Egypt”, presumably at the Exodus.  But al can also mean “against”, and so some believe that the phrase is about God going out against Egypt to deliver the Israelites from bondage.

Tate discusses different views regarding the phrase “I heard a language that I understood not”.  One view is that the Psalmist is assuming the perspective of the enslaved Israelites of the past and is expressing their inability to understand the Egyptian language.  Another view is that God is the one who is saying this, expressing that he has just started to hear and to understand the plea of the Israelites for deliverance from Egypt.  The second view is understandable, for the following verses (vv 6-14) are the words of God.

I removed his shoulder from the burden: his hands were delivered from the pots.

Thou calledst in trouble, and I delivered thee; I answered thee in the secret place of thunder: I proved thee at the waters of Meribah. Selah.

One interpretation is that “the secret place of thunder” is Sinai, where God gave the law amidst thunder.  Others, however, maintain that the thunder occurred at the Exodus, for the verse says that God answered the Israelites’ plea for deliverance with thunder.  But does the Exodus story say that God used lightning and thunder at the Exodus?  As far as the Pentateuch is concerned, the answer seems to be “no”, but Psalm 77:18 may be suggesting that God used lightning when he delivered Israel from the Egyptians at the Red Sea.

Regarding “I proved thee at the waters of Meribah”, a common view is that God did so in Exodus 17, when the thirsty Israelites complained to Moses about their thirst, and so Moses (with God’s power) brought water out of the rock.  How did God prove or examine Israel during this incident?  Essentially, God allowed them to be thirsty to see if they would trust in God or complain, and they failed the test because they complained.

Marvin Tate offers another view, however.  He thinks that Psalm 81:7 is referring to a variant of the Meribah story, in which God tests the Israelites at Meribah by giving them water and then telling them to obey his commandments.  According to Tate, the Israelites in this variant pass the test by accepting God’s commandments.  Tate refers to Exodus 15:25-27, in which God proves the Israelites by sweetening bitter waters and then exhorting them to obey his commands.

I think that there’s something to Tate’s interpretation, and the reason is that Psalm 81:1-10 is so positive: celebrate, God delivered in the past, obey, God will provide, etc.  It’s in v 11 that the Psalm takes a negative turn, as the topic becomes the rebellion of the Israelites against God.  Consequently, I have a hard time believing that Psalm 81:7 would toss in something negative—-Israel failing a test at Meribah. 

Meribah may be mentioned because it was a place of God’s provision, for God’s provision is a theme in v 10.  The idea may be that the Israelites should not be like the Israelites at Meribah but should trust in God’s provision, or that they should be like the Israelites at Meribah by accepting the authority of God’s commandments on account of God demonstrating his power and beneficence by providing for them.

Hear, O my people, and I will testify unto thee: O Israel, if thou wilt hearken unto me;

There shall no strange god be in thee; neither shalt thou worship any strange god.

I’ve been reading Theodore of Mopsuestia’s commentary on the Psalms, but it only goes up to Psalm 81.  To replace my reading of that, I’ve decided to read the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture for the Psalms that I have not yet studied.  I decided to start reading this commentary this week, and I found one church father’s comments on Psalm 81:9 to be intriguing.  Essentially, he applied Psalm 81:9 to the Arians, since the Arians make the logos who became Jesus Christ into a created god, thereby setting up a god in addition to the true God.  The position of the church father, by contrast, is that the logos who became Jesus Christ was the true God (along with God the Father), and so worshiping Jesus in this scenario is not idolatry.  I doubt this will be the only time when church fathers use the Psalms as a launch-pad in Trinitarian controversies!

10 I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt: open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it.

11 But my people would not hearken to my voice; and Israel would none of me.

12 So I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lust: and they walked in their own counsels.

This reminds me of Romans 1:18ff., in which God turns people over to their own desires after they reject God.  But God did not desire to do so.  According to this Psalm, God’s hope was that Israel would obey him and be recipients of God’s blessings.  That, in my opinion, is the heart of God: God desires reconciliation with us.

It’s interesting that a Psalm of celebration becomes a recounting of Israel’s sin, as well as God’s lament that he would have blessed Israel if only she had not rebelled.  Does this spoil the celebration?  Perhaps it exhorts Israel to do better than her ancestors: to obey God and to receive God’s blessings.

13 Oh that my people had hearkened unto me, and Israel had walked in my ways!

14 I should soon have subdued their enemies, and turned my hand against their adversaries.

15 The haters of the Lord should have submitted themselves unto him: but their time should have endured for ever.

16 He should have fed them also with the finest of the wheat: and with honey out of the rock should I have satisfied thee.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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