The Book of Psalms

Tuesday: “If My People…”


Theme: The Very Heart of This Psalm
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
In the case of our psalm, God’s rebuke begins with a reminder of what he had done in delivering the Jews from Egypt (vv. 6, 7). The people had called to him in their distress, and he had heard, answered and rescued them, lifting the burdens from their shoulders and freeing their hands from the baskets with which they had carried the bricks for Pharaoh’s massive building projects. This last note (in verse 6) is an historical remembrance of what the deliverance from bondage actually entailed. Derek Kidner calls the mention of baskets “an independent memory, not mentioned in the record, but confirmed by many pictures.”1 They can be seen in the tomb paintings of Luxor from the Valley of the Kings, as well as in other places.
God had seen this, and he cared. In these words we find an echo of what God told Moses when he appeared to him at the burning bush, as recorded in Exodus 3. God said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of the land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod. 3:7, 8). Many such echoes of the Pentateuch, particularly from Deuteronomy and Exodus, occur in Psalm 81.
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. We are at the second of these last four sections now.
This is the most important part of the psalm, its very heart. And it is not just because it is the middle stanza, though the poem has intentionally been written that way. It is because it has to do with the worship of the one true God and him only, which is the heart of true religion. This warning is right out of the start of the Ten Commandments, but it also draws in reminiscences of other key texts. For instance, it begins with the first three words of the well-known and often-recited Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 (“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one”). The words “if you would but…” (later, “if my people”) echo similar phrases in Deuteronomy 5:29; 32:29 and elsewhere. Other phrases seem to be borrowed from the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32, for example, “foreign gods” (in vv. 12, 16). In fact, though it is shorter, the outline of Psalm 81 is more or less the same as that of Moses’ Song.
However, the most obvious and important reference to the earlier books of the law is the borrowing from the start of the Ten Commandments: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:2, 3). This is the law above all laws, the earliest equivalent of Deuteronomy 6:5, which Jesus called the first and greatest commandment: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (see Matt. 22:37, 38). From it all the other commandments follow naturally.
The importance of this for us is that this is also the greatest issue of all time and therefore also a critical command and warning that we need to pay attention to today. For the great issue in religion—indeed, the great issue of life—is not whether or not we worship “a” god, that is, whether or not we are religious rather than being atheists. Rather, the issue is whether we know the true God who had revealed himself in history, in the Old Testament to the Jews at the exodus and at Sinai, and in the New Testament to us in the person of Jesus Christ. And whether we obey him!
1Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150: A Commentary on Books III-V of the Psalms (Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1975), p. 294.
Study Questions:

How does God’s rebuke in this psalm begin?
What is the warning given in the middle stanza?
What is the law above all laws?
What are the two true issues of religion?

Reflection: What is the difference between being religious, and knowing the true God?
Shema: a liturgical prayer, prominent in Jewish history and tradition, that is recited daily at the morning and evening services and expresses the Jewish people’s ardent faith in and love of God.

Study Questions
Tagged under
More Resources from James Montgomery Boice

Subscribe to the Think & Act Biblically Devotional

Alliance of Confessional Evangelicals

About the Alliance

The Alliance is a coalition of believers who hold to the historic creeds and confessions of the Reformed faith and proclaim biblical doctrine in order to foster a Reformed awakening in today’s Church.

Follow Us

Canadian Donors

Canadian Committee of The Bible Study Hour
PO Box 24087, RPO Josephine
North Bay, ON, P1B 0C7