Psalm 81

February 25, 2001


Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

Life is a laboratory of faith. This is a sort of bumper sticker theology, I realize, but let me tell you how C. S. Lewis saw it:

“If you think of this world as a place intended for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.... The people who try to hold an optimistic view of the world... become pessimists: the people who hold a pretty stern view of it become optimists.” (From God in the Dock)

Here are words from a man who loved life immensely, but he was also aware of its dangers and sufferings. As the Psalmist is.

Psalm 81 begins with a celebration. In fact, the Psalms on the whole were not written to be read silently. They were written to be sung, even shouted. They are poems of celebration. Verse 1, “Sing for joy to God our strength.” Line two, “Shout aloud to the God of Jacob.” And then in verse 2 the music begins and in verse 3, the ram’s horn which would be something like that great Alpine horn in the Ricola ad drowning out all else. They are celebrating, but they aren’t without problems in their lives.

Paul Jamison asked me this week, what do you think is the quotation most often hung on the wall of homes in the Middle East? I had no idea. And Paul said, “Bacca Jesous.”, “Jesus wept.” But among Christian people in the Middle East, though “Jesus Wept” may hang as a placard on their walls, when they worship, they celebrate, though there is much sorrow in their lives. They celebrate because God asks them to.

Now notice the celebration the Psalm calls for is not spontaneous. It is commanded. It is decreed according to verse 4. God schedules times for joy. It is parallel to taking exercises classes. You know that exercise is good for you. There are articles in the newspapers and magazines, and there are news stories about exercise on television; but in our busy schedules, there are always things to do; so people pay for classes, and they exercise because they’ve paid to go to the classes which are in their schedules.

That’s what God is doing with worship in Psalm 81. He is decreeing worship to get it into our schedules. When God decrees times for joy and celebration, what does that tell us about God?

The Psalm calls God, our strength, and He decrees this celebration for a specific time. Verse 3, at the new moon. That is to be the time of the feast. Numbers 10:10 speaks of the times of Israel’s New Moon festivals when they sound the trumpet and offer their offerings as a remembrance. It was, says Psalm 81, a decree for Israel, an ordinance for Jacob and a statute for Joseph to commemorate that time they went out from Egypt, against all odds and against the wishes of Pharaoh. God wants Israel to rest assured in the fact that God is their strength so He gives them a specific time to recall that.

We celebrate at birthdays. Why? To remember the birth of us or our children or our friends. We remember this marvelous coming into the world as a new life, so helpless, so small. We make jokes about becoming 39, and we don’t like to be reminded when we get to be sixty. But see it’s good to remember and God knows that. Israel remembered God’s goodness to them at the new Moon because God decreed it.

Then in verse 5, “we went out... where we heard a language we did not understand,” or as it might better be translated, “we heard a voice we had not known.” This was God’s voice at Sinai, speaking his law to his people. Israel had never heard God speak to them. Then in verse 7, “I answered you in the secret place of thunder.” Remember how thunder came from Mt. Sinai and the people were afraid. This is God. The unknown voice and the thunder were part of how God helped the people to remember his presence.

Verse 7 begins, “in your distress - that was in Egypt - you called and I rescued you.” In Exodus 3 while Israel is in slavery, God appears to Moses in that burning bush and He says, “my people have called out to me for deliverance and I have heard them. Now I am going to use you, Moses, to deliver them.”

God didn’t stop delivering His people in the 14th century BC, or whenever the Exodus was exactly. He does that today. But we need to remember that old story because it gives us confidence in the strength of the Lord.

In verse 8 God asks His people to listen. When do you listen to God? Perhaps when you take time with Him in your devotions. But you also listen to God when you come to celebrate in worship and hear the preaching of God’s Word. Listen. Then in verse 11, “But my people would not listen to me.” And then down in verse 13, “If my people would but listen to me.” God knew the people of Israel was not going to listen once the time of deliverance wasn’t their personal experience but had happened to their fathers, or their grandfathers, so He decreed a celebration time where the very rite of the worship would be a reminder that God delivers His people from all ill.

In our lives there are both freedom and structure. God gave humans freedom when He created them and right away Eve and Adam disobeyed God’s decree in the garden in Eden. From the very beginning humans seemed intent on following their own ways without the structures God wanted. And God’s final word to such beings - who are a lot like us - is not, “well, if that’s the way you want to play, all right!” God’s final word is in verse 13a, “O that my people would listen to me.” And he gives us countless opportunities to listen to him. We would give up on people a long time before God does.

In this Psalm there is a balance between the goodness and the graciousness of God and the need for human response. Indeed, there are big questions which the fickleness of human hearts poses for the goodness and graciousness of God. There were a number of times in the Sinai wilderness when God set out to destroy the Jews because of their stubborn disobedience. And between God and that destruction, stood the prayers of one man, Moses. Don’t think that your prayers can’t be effective. They can be. Moses prayed and God was actually listening for his prayers. He wanted to save His people.

When God calls Israel - or us - to joyfully celebrate, the very celebration is an education into a deeper obedience to God. That education is necessary in light of the history of failure, and we dare not forget the failures. Celebration helps us to do that. That’s why all evangelical worship centers around the preaching and teaching and singing of God’s Word.

Now since worship is decreed, how can one learn to rejoice on command? Well, the idea that to be true, worship must be spontaneous, is not a biblical idea. Jewish worship had a structure to it. What the Bible warns us about is not too much structure, but the freedom of individualism, neglecting to meet together. Hebrews 10:25.

One of the great commentators of an earlier day was Matthew Henry. Henry was both devotional and perceptive. He said, “No time is amiss for praising God.... But some are times appointed, not for God to meet us (He is always ready) but for us to meet one another, that we may join together in praising God.” This may be what God has in mind in making His decree in verses 4 and 5.

God’s major desire, based upon the command He gives, is that His people come together at specific times to celebrate His own goodness and deliverance. It is in that time God speaks to people. I wonder how many of you came this morning with the clear expectation that God would speak to you in this time of worship.

Now all this is leading somewhere, as is always true with the plans of God. There are two possible results when God asks people to listen to Him. One result is when people won’t listen, and one is when they do listen. When people won’t listen, according to verse 12, God gives them over to the convolution of sin. This is the worst possible punishment. It means God lets people continue in the direction in which they are going. This is like the macro level of telling a child not to touch a stove because it is hot. Don’t touch the stove. And the child touches it anyway and burns himself. I have had a couple of conversations with people recently about raising children. Always the same questions arise. How can we help our children to go in right ways? How can we help them to follow the Lord? How can we help them to choose good things in life? Both parents feared they had failed. Both wondered what might have happened had they as parents done something differently during the time their child was growing up. I think that where parents provide biblical structure for their children - and we don’t have to do this perfectly, nor can we - beyond that, the choice is the child’s. There has to be cooperation in this thing of growing up. Where there is rebellion there is often nothing a parent might have done to change things.

This is exactly parallel to God and Israel. There comes the time when all God could do was to allow His children to follow their own devices. Verse 12.

But, there is a second possible outcome. If people do listen, two results follow. Verse 14, “how quickly” God acts. When I went to seminary out in Pasadena, I really didn’t have much money. During the three years I was at Fuller, therefore, I worked forty hours a week, and carried a full load of classes. I don’t recommend that. In spite of it, I didn’t earn all that much money. Near the beginning of my second year I met Nancy who lived 100 miles away in Santa Barbara during the school year. Then, one of my jobs was visiting campuses for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Before I had a car I visited Cal Tech. Cal Tech is about two miles from the seminary and I could walk that; but Intervarsity wanted other campuses visited that were farther away. Not knowing what else to do, I wrote my parents - who at the time were putting my two sisters through nursing school. With the help of a man I had met while visiting for a church in Van Nuys, I looked at used cars. I found one that would cost $1200. Not a lot by today’s standards, but a lot of money then. So I wrote my parents and asked them for the money. Dad called back after the letter came to hear from me what the situation was, and by return mail he sent a check for the car. He would not have had to do that. Who knows how much he and mom had to sacrifice to send me that money. I never knew, because they didn’t tell me. They just sent the check. Now God is like that. “How quickly would I subdue their enemies.”

But there is one other thing God says in verse 16 He will do if we will only listen. “I would satisfy you.” The finest wheat and honey don’t sound like a great diet, but it is the picture of foods they didn’t have every day. Imagine people in refugee camps on the borders of Afghanistan getting fine wheat bread and honey! That’s what God will give to people who will listen to him.

Is that the experience of your life? Have you been listening to God? Oh, how quickly He will send a check for what you need. Oh, how quickly He will give you food. No wonder when they came together to celebrate, the people were shouting and singing. No wonder.