Theme: The Need to Worship God Rightly
In this week’s lessons, Psalm 81 serves as a warning to take care that our worship is of the true God, and in the right way.
Scripture: Psalm 81:1-16
Some time ago, some members of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia developed an advertising campaign that was intended to appeal to young, secular, inner-city people. One ad contained the headline “Jesus Hated Church Too,” which was a confession that there is often much about the institutional church that is rightly offensive to any thinking person—hypocrisy, sin, political scrambling for power and such things. But it went on to observe that Jesus didn’t stop going to church because of the church’s failures. It suggested that he might have known something today’s secular people do not know, and it invited them to visit Tenth Presbyterian Church.
A small group of people objected that the ad made fun of the true church, Christ’s body, and they attempted to intimidate the session. The people who were objecting could not (or perhaps would not) see that hating “church” is not the same thing as hating “the true Church” and that sometimes you have to hate one to love the other.
What was really surprising to me was the failure of these critics to remember that nobody spoke out against the hypocrisy and sin of the church more than Jesus Christ. Or God the Father, for that matter! After all, the church of Jesus’ day was a Judaism directed by religious leaders whom Jesus denounced in sharp terms. He called them “hypocrites,” “blind guides” and “fools.” He said of them, “You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matt. 23:13; see vv. 15, 16, 17, etc.). Similarly, in the book written by Amos, one of the Minor Prophets, God told the people, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them…. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps” (Amos 5:21-23).
These are reminders that just because we go to church and practice what we call worship does not mean that we are actually worshiping the true God or even doing anything at all that might please him.
I begin our study of Psalm 81 in this way because it is precisely the problem with which the psalm deals. If we fail to see this, we cannot really understand what is happening. Psalm 81 begins with a wonderful stanza calling for the joyful worship of God, who delivered the people of Israel from the power of the Egyptians (vv. 1-5). In fact, it calls all Israel to worship, much like a minister in one of today’s churches might begin a service with a call to the entire congregation to join in worshiping God. Franz Delitzsch, one of the great German commentators, points out that the summons in verse 1 is to the whole congregation; the summons in verse 2 is to the Levites, who were the appointed temple singers and musicians; and the summons in verse 3 is to the priests who had the specific task of blowing the trumpets.1 This gives the impression that all is well with the people and that they are all completely right in their worship.
However, from this point on the psalm continues with the words of God, who reminds the people of what he has done for them in the past and warns them to repent of their sin, particularly their worship of the false gods of the surrounding nations, in order that their enemies might be subdued and that they might be blessed. And it protests that they will not do this.
What a strange anomaly: a happy, joyfully worshiping congregation and a neglected and offended God. Strange? Yes, but all too characteristic of religious people. Isaiah wrote, in words quoted approvingly by Jesus, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isa. 29:13; see Matt. 15:8).
We have to ask ourselves: Is our worship like that? Do we please God? Or are we merely worshiping God outwardly while our hearts are set on sin?2
1Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms, trans. Francis Bolton, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), p.393.
2There has been a great deal of debate about what service or feast this psalm was intended to introduce, but it is undoubtedly one of the feasts of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar, probably the Feast of Tabernacles. Trumpets were blown to announce the beginning of this month, the time of the new moon, and the shophar or ram’s horn was sounded on the fifteenth day, which would have been the time of the full moon (Lev. 23:23-44). The first day of the month was a solemn assembly. The Day of Atonement was observed on the tenth of the month, and the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths) began on the fifteenth and lasted for seven days. The Feast of Tabernacles was associated with the wilderness wandering, after the people had come out of Egypt, and was intended to remind them of God’s care and provision during those days. Hence the psalm deals with remembering and has many echoes of the deliverance from Egypt and the instructions given at Mount Sinai.
Study Questions:

What is the point of the call to worship at the start of a church service?
How does Franz Delitzsch categorize the calls to worship in verses 1-3?
Of what does God remind the people in this psalm? Why?

Reflection: What elements of the institutional church might Jesus find offensive in churches today?
Application: Do you sometimes find yourself forgetting God in the midst of worship? What can you do to stay focused and not become distracted?
For Further Study: To learn more about worship, download for free and listen to Donald Barnhouse’s message, “How to Worship God.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)

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