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Psalm 81

Honey from the rock

More voices clamor for our attention now than ever before. Loudest of all, consumerism says we can buy the good life. And listening to any lie often enough, we believe it. So choosing which voice to heed is vital.

An Asaph psalm.

Sing joyfully to God, our strength!
Shout triumphantly to Jacob’s God!
2 Raise a song, strike the tambourines
play the pleasant lyre and harp.
3 Blow the ram’s horn at the new moon
at the full moon and on our feast day.[1]
4 Because it’s a statute for Israel
decreed by Jacob’s God.
5 A law he gave to Joseph’s family
when he went to war against Egypt
and I heard a voice I didn’t know.

6 “I relieved the load from his shoulder
and took the brick basket out of his hands.
7 You cried out in desperation
so I set you free.
Hidden in the thunderstorm
I answered you.
I tested you at the Waters of Meribah.[2]
8 Listen my people while I warn you—
if only you’d listen, Israel.
9 You shall have no foreign god among you.
You shall not bow down to an alien god.
10 I am Yahveh your God
who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.
Open your mouth wide
and I will fill it.
11 But my people didn’t listen to what I said—
Israel didn’t want me.
12 So I let them follow
the dictates of their stubborn hearts.
13 If only my people would listen to me
if only Israel would walk in my ways
14 how quickly I’d subdue their enemies
and conquer all their foes.
15 Those who hate Yahveh
would cringe before him
their doom being forever sealed.
16 But you I would feed
with the finest of wheat.
With wild honey from the rock
would I satisfy you.”

This psalm opens with the worship leader’s call to joyful observance of sacred festivals pointing back to the exodus. While these festivals were held only in Jerusalem, the mention of Joseph’s family alludes to Israel’s breakaway northern kingdom, making the psalm inclusive of the entire nation. The leader ends his call by admitting—as the nation’s representative—that he heard an unknown voice in the exodus, God’s voice, which then addresses us in the rest of the psalm.

God refers to various situations—from Egypt to Sinai—in which he asked the Israelites to listen, trust him and obey and they refused, unwilling to believe he had their best interests at heart and knew best. So God let them go their own way. Now, centuries later, the Israelites continue to run after foreign gods. Even so, God still counts them his people and utters his pathos-filled cry, “If only my people would listen.”

God calls his people to reject other gods and obey him wholeheartedly. Alluding to the baby bird’s total dependence on its parents, he invites them to open their mouths wide in anticipation of all he’ll provide. If only they’ll worship and trust him alone, he promises prompt protection and the very best life has to offer.

O God, you called your people Israel before they knew your voice, and you loved me like that too. Help me not to limit your grace, which counted lost rebels your people and pled with them to come home. Help me believe you’ll give me the best I could ever ask for if only I hear your voice. Amen.

During your free moments today, meditate on God’s gracious invitation:

Open your mouth wide
and I will fill it.


[1] The psalmist refers to a series of three autumn celebrations occurring in succession:  the Feast of Shelters, or Tabernacles, the Day of Atonement and New Year’s (Rosh Hashanah).

[2] In his extended plea (vv. 6-16), God alternates between addressing his people directly and speaking about them—as if to a third party.

Why Yahveh?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and occasionally transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Modern translations, likewise, either translate or transliterate it. While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it is more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. I’ve chosen to transliterate it to root it more firmly in the biblical story as the name—meaning the “self-existent One”—that God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. This name set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it in order better to hallow it. In transliterating it, I follow the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard. He advocated transliterating it as Yahveh—pronounced yah·vay—arguing that following the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish than Yahweh.
May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Robert Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.