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Psalm 81

God’s Appeal to Stubborn Israel

To the leader: according to The Gittith. Of Asaph.


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.


He made it a decree in Joseph,

when he went out over the land of Egypt.


I hear a voice I had not known:


“I relieved your shoulder of the burden;

your hands were freed from the basket.


In distress you called, and I rescued you;

I answered you in the secret place of thunder;

I tested you at the waters of Meribah. Selah


Hear, O my people, while I admonish you;

O Israel, if you would but listen to me!


There shall be no strange god among you;

you shall not bow down to a foreign god.


I am the L ord your God,

who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.

Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.



“But my people did not listen to my voice;

Israel would not submit to me.


So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,

to follow their own counsels.


O that my people would listen to me,

that Israel would walk in my ways!


Then I would quickly subdue their enemies,

and turn my hand against their foes.


Those who hate the L ord would cringe before him,

and their doom would last forever.


I would feed you with the finest of the wheat,

and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”

13. O if my people had hearkened to me! By the honorable designation which God gives to the people of Israel, He exposes the more effectually their shameful and disgraceful conduct. Their wickedness was doubly aggravated, as will appear from the consideration, that although God called them to be his people, they differed nothing from those who were the greatest strangers to him. Thus he complains by the Prophet Isaiah,

“The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib:
but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.”
(Isaiah 1:3)

The Hebrew particle לו, lu, which I have rendered O if! is not to be understood as expressing a condition, but a wish; and therefore God, I have no doubt, like a man weeping and lamenting, cries out, O the wretchedness of this people in wilfully refusing to have their best interests carefully provided for! He assumes the character of a father, and observing, after having tried every possible means for the recovery of his children, that their condition is utterly hopeless, he uses the language of one saddened, as it were, with sighing and groaning; not that he is subject to human passions, but because he cannot otherwise express the greatness of the love which he bears towards us. 416416     “Nothing,” says Dr Adam Clarke on this verse, “can be more plaintive than the original: sense and sound are surprisingly united. I scruple not to say to him who understands the Hebrew, however learned, he has never found in any poet, Greek or Latin, a finer example of deep-seated grief, unable to express itself in appropriate words, without frequent interruptions of sighs and sobs, terminated with a mournful cry —
   יל עמש ימע ול
וכלהי יכרדב לארשי
Yishrael-bid’ rakee-yehallekoo!

   “He who can give the proper guttural pronunciation to the letter ע, ayin; and gives the ו, vau, and the י, yod, their full Asiatic sound; and does not pinch them to death by a compressed and worthless European enunciation; will at once be convinced of the propriety of this remark.”
The Prophet seems to have borrowed this passage from the song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32:29, where the obstinacy of the people is bewailed in almost the same words: “Oh that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end!” He means tacitly to upbraid the Jews, and to impress upon their minds the truth, that their own perverseness was the only cause which prevented them from enjoying a state of great outward prosperity. If it is objected, that God in vain and without ground utters this complaint, since it was in his power to bend the stiff necks of the people, and that, when he was not pleased to do this, he had no reason to compare himself to a man deeply grieved; I answer, that he very properly makes use of this style of speaking on our account, that we may seek for the procuring cause of our misery nowhere but in ourselves. We must here beware of mingling together things which are totally different — as widely different from each other as heaven is distant from the earth. God, in coming down to us by his word, and addressing his invitations to all men without exception, disappoints nobody. All who sincerely come to him are received, and find from actual experience that they were not called in vain. At the same time, we are to trace to the fountain of the secret electing purpose of God this difference, that the word enters into the heart of some, while others only hear the sound of it. And yet there is no inconsistency in his complaining, as it were, with tears, of our folly when we do not obey him. In the invitations which he addresses to us by the external word, he shows himself to be a father; and why may he not also be understood as still representing himself under the image of a father in using this form of complaint? In Ezekiel 18:32, he declares with the strictest regard to truth, “I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth,” provided in the interpretation of the passage we candidly and dispassionately take into view the whole scope of it. God has no pleasure in the death of a sinner: How? because he would have all men turned to himself. But it is abundantly evident, that men by their own free-will cannot turn to God, until he first change their stony hearts into hearts of flesh: yea, this renovation, as Augustine judiciously observes, is a work surpassing that of the creation itself. Now what hinders God from bending and framing the hearts of all men equally in submission to him? Here modesty and sobriety must be observed, that instead of presuming to intrude into his incomprehensible decrees, we may rest contented with the revelation which he has made of his will in his word. There is the justest ground for saying that he wills the salvation of those to whom that language is addressed, (Isaiah 21:12,) “Come unto me, and be ye converted.” In the second part of the verse before us, we have defined what it is to hear God. To assent to what he speaks would not be enough; for hypocrites will grant at once that whatever proceeds from his mouth is true, and will affect to listen just as if an ass should bend its ears. But the clause is intended to teach us that we can only be said to hear God, when we submit ourselves to his authority.

14. I would soon have brought their enemies low. Here the Israelites are taught, that all the calamities which had befallen them were to be imputed to their own sins; for their enemies did not fight against them with any other strength than that with which they were supplied from above. God had promised that under his leading the chosen people would prove victorious over all their enemies; and now to take away all ground for charging him with violating his word, he affirms that he would not have failed to enable them to do this had he not been prevented by their sins. He doubtless intends tacitly to remind them that the victories which they had formerly achieved were not owing to their own military valor, but to Him under whose conduct they had been placed. Now, he tells them that he was not only kept back by their sins from putting forth his power to defend them, but that he was also compelled by their perverseness to rush against them with the sword in his hand, while he left their enemies to remain in undisturbed tranquillity.

15. The haters of Jehovah would have lied to him. Here the same thought is pursued, when the Israelites are informed that their enemies would have humbly submitted to their authority had not their impiety emboldened them to run to excess, when they shook off the yoke of God, and waxed wanton against him. In calling these enemies the enemies of Jehovah, it is intended to censure the folly of the Israelites in breaking the bond of the covenant made between God and them, and thereby separating themselves from him, and preventing him from forthwith engaging in war in their behalf against those who were alike their and his enemies. As earthly princes, when they are disappointed of the assistance promised by their allies, are excited to enter into terms of agreement with their enemies, and in this way avenge themselves on those who have been found to be guilty of perjury and covenant-breakers; so God declares that he had spared his own enemies, because he had been treacherously and wickedly deceived by the people of Israel. Why does he permit his avowed enemies to remain unpunished, and cease for a time to maintain his own glory, if it is not because his object is to set them in contrast with his own rebellious and disobedient people, whom, by this means, he intends to subdue? The meaning of the word כחש, cachash, which we have rendered lied, has been explained in a previous psalm 417417     See volume 1, page 301. . It is here intimated that peace with the reprobate cannot be looked for except in so far as God restrains their rage by hidden chains. A lion shut up in an iron cage still retains his own nature, but he is kept from mangling and tearing in pieces those who are not even more than five or six feet distant from him. Thus it is with respect to the wicked. They may greedily desire our destruction; but they are unable to accomplish what their hearts are set upon; yea God humbles and abases their fierceness and arrogance, so that they put on the appearance of gentleness and meekness. The amount of the whole is, that it was the fault of the Israelites themselves that their enemies prevailed against them, and insolently triumphed over them; whereas, had they continued the humble and obedient children of God, these enemies would have been in a state of subjection to them. When it is said, their time should have been everlasting, 418418     “Their time, etc.: that is, the time, the continuance, the prosperity of my people, would have been durable.” — Warner. the expression is to be referred to the promises; and so must the abundance of wheat and of honey, with which they would have been fully satisfied. God had solemnly declared that he would be their protector and guardian even to the end. The change, then, which so suddenly befell them is set before them as a matter of reproach, inasmuch as they had deliberately cast away all at once their happy state. The same remarks are applicable to the fruitfulness of the land. How is it to be accounted for that they suffered hunger in the land in which God had promised them abundance of wheat and honey, but because the blessing of God had been withheld on account of their iniquity? By the fat of corn 419419     It is an usual phrase with the Hebrews to call the most esteemed part of anything חלב, cheleb, “the fat.” The word is used with this combination in Deuteronomy 32:14; and is adopted again in Psalm 147:14. See also Genesis 45:18; Numbers 18:29; and Psalm 73:4. The translators of our English version have rendered it here “the finest of the wheat.” is meant, metaphorically, pure grain, unless it may be thought preferable to understand it of the finest wheat. Some are of opinion that the expression, honey out of the rock, is hyperbolical, implying that honey would have flowed from the very rocks rather than that God would have failed to satisfy his people. But as it is evident from sacred history that honey was found everywhere in the hollows of the rocks 420420     Palestine abounded in wild bees, which, living in the crevices of rocks, and in the hollows of trees, furnished honey in great plenty. To this there are frequent allusions in Scripture. In Deuteronomy 32:13, Moses, speaking of God’s goodness to Israel in the song with which he closed his long and eventful career, says, “He made him suck honey out of the rock.” As an evidence of the great abundance of wild honey in that country, we may refer to 1 Samuel 14:25, where it is said, “And all they of the land came to a wood, and there was honey upon the ground; and when the people were come to the wood, behold the honey dropped.” In proof of the same point, reference may be also made to the fact, that a part of the food of John the Baptist in the wilderness was wild honey, which most probably he found in rocks or hollow trees. In Scripture, the country is frequently described by a familiar phrase, as “A land flowing with milk and honey;” and in Job 20:17, we meet with the strong expression of “Brooks, floods, and rivers of honey.” Palestine is still remarkable for this natural production. It may be observed, that the change of person in this last verse from the third to the first is highly poetical. so long as they enjoyed the blessing of God, the meaning simply is, that the grace of God would have continued to flow in an unbroken and uniform course, had it not been interrupted by the perverseness and wickedness of the people.

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