Psalm 81 is a very powerful psalm that goes through several changes in mood from verse 1 to verse 16. The first seven verses are clearly verses of joy and praise. “Sing for joy to God our strength; shout aloud to the God of Jacob!” In the first verses, the psalmist pointed to the source of strength of Israel – that strength was the Lord. In verse six and seven, the people were reminded of how the Lord had rescued them from bondage into their own land.
From reading the Psalm, it appears that it was probably written just before or during one of the feast days described in the Law of Moses; because verse 4 states, “For it is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.” The keeping of the festivals may have been commanded, but long centuries had passed since those great events had happened; and, probably, the people looked upon such things as only history. There was no real appreciation of what the Lord had done for them. Therefore, this psalm sought to emphasize the proofs of God’s strength and protection.
In verses 8 through 10, the psalm shifts from praise and joy to a warning for the people. The people were drawn to idol worship, and often in the history of Israel can be seen a wholesale falling away from the Lord God. The psalmist’s warning was almost a paraphrase of the first three commandments of the Ten Commandments. In addition, the warning also included a promise that God would provide for their needs – “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it” The point that the psalmist, and the Lord, was making was that there was no reason to turn from the Lord. God had delivered the people in the past, He had protected them and provided for their needs countless times, so why reject the Lord?
The praise for God’s faithfulness had been given, a warming was issued, and then the sad reality of the situation was shown by the psalmist, “But my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me”. The people of Israel wanted it both ways. They wanted to enjoy the protection of the Lord, but they also wanted to live their lives with no consideration of what God expected of them, or of the covenant that had been established.
In verse 13 is one of the saddest passages, “If my people would but listen to me, if Israel would follow my ways…” Many a parent has thought the same thought – “If only…” God loved His people Israel and their waywardness was a source of pain. Jesus Christ said, as he looked on Jerusalem, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under-her wings, but you were not willing.” Because of their unbelief, sin, and rebellion, the Kingdom would collapse, the temple would be destroyed, and the people would be taken into the Babylonian Captivity. “Oh, if only….”
The lessons of the psalm are many and obvious. Like the nation of Israel, the deliverance of God’s children can be found in an event that occurred in history. Jesus Christ died on the cross for the sins of the world – a historical event. However, the covenant established by that great sacrifice is still very much in force today.
The sin of pagan worship dogged the history of Israel. In parts of the world today, idol worship is still a very strong part of daily life. Even in cultures that have no obvious idol worship, it can still be as powerful. It may be the pursuit of a career, involvement in a hobby or organization, support of one or more sports teams, obsession over a singer or actor, or anything else that comes before God.
Yes, God has promised to protect and nourish His children. But, as with Israel, that promise is conditionally based upon each Christian growing in love for the Lord, and a deep inner commitment to let the Lord be the strength. As in the Old Covenant Age, there can be no fence sitting or trying to have it both ways. In verse 15, the Psalmist wrote, “Those who hate the Lord would pretend obedience to Him, and their time of punishment would be forever.” The people had to place the Lord God first then, and people must place God the Father first today. After all, what could possibly be worth more than eternal life with the Almighty God?