On one occasion Jesus’ enemies came to him with a trick question: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not” (Matt. 22:17)? They thought that if he said it was right to pay taxes, they could discredit him in the eyes of those who hated Rome and for whom taxes were a much-resented burden. On the other hand, if he said that the Jews should resist Rome by refusing to pay their taxes, then they could denounce him to the Roman authorities as an insurrectionist who was trying to overthrow Caesar.

At the end of the fourth stanza of this psalm, God indicates the result of his people's refusing to hear his voice and worship and proclaim him only. He gives them up to their own devices, precisely as in Romans, where Paul indicates that he gives up the unbelieving world to its devices (see Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). In the case of the world, this abandonment by God is to moral perversion and to spiritual insanity. What is happening among the evangelicals? In our day evangelicals are being abandoned to materialism and secularism, the very things they rail against and deplore.

The people of God should know the Bible and practice its commands within the context of the wider world. But often they do not, which is what the fourth stanza of Psalm 81 is about (vv. 11, 12). Looking to their actions in the past, God says that he heard them, delivered them, instructed them and warned them. "But my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me" (v. 11).

A short time ago I came across an article in the magazine First Things by Robert L. Wilken, a professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Virginia. It was titled "No Other Gods” and it was a moving attempt to apply the first commandment to our times. Wilken began with an analysis of our current secular Western culture, which he accused of undermining the beliefs, attitudes and conventions that have nurtured our civilization for centuries. In fact, that is its explicit goal.

There are two main parts to this psalm, the opening invocation or call to worship, and God's rebuke of the people in the words we have already begun to study. But pressed further, the second part can also be divided into sections along the lines of the New International Version's stanzas. By this arrangement there is: 1) the reminder of what God had done (vv. 6, 7); 2) a warning because of the people's idolatry (vv. 8-10); 3) a record of the people's disobedience, followed by a description of the sad result (vv. 11, 12); and 4) a jump to the present to indicate that the situation is still continuing because the hearts of the people were unchanged.