Commentary on Psalms (42 - 89)
© by Francis Foulkes
& Cyril Okorocha



"1. Sing aloud to God our strength;
shout for joy to the God of Jacob.
2. Raise a song, sound the tambourine,
the sweet lyre with the harp.
3. Blow the trumpet at the new moon,
at the full moon, on our festal day.
4. For it is a statute in Israel,
an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
5. He made it a decree in Joseph,
when he went out over the land of Egypt.

I hear a voice I had not known:
6. 'I relieved your shoulder of the burden;
your hands were freed from the basket.
7. In distress you called, and I rescued you;
I answered you in the secret place of thunder;
I tested you at the waters of Meribah. Selah
8. Hear, O my people, while I admonish you;
O Israel, if you would but listen to me!
9. There shall be no strange god among you;
you shall not bow down to a foreign god.
10. I am the Lord 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 did not listen to my voice;
Israel would not submit to me.
12. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,
to follow their own counsels.
13. O that my people would listen to me,
that Israel would walk in my ways!
14. Then I would quickly subdue their enemies,
and turn my hand against their foes.
15. Those who hate the LORD would cringe before him,
and their doom would last forever.
16. I would feed you with the finest of the wheat,
and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you'."

This psalm is clearly both a call to the people of Israel to worship the Lord and a challenge to them to hear his word.

The worship of God

The call to worship in verses 1-3 was made at the time of a special festival. God is to be praised with songs and shouts of joy, and with instruments of music. The beginning of each month, the "new moon", was always kept, like the sabbath, as a special time to praise God (see 2 Kings 4:23, Isaiah 1:13, Hosea 2:11 and Amos 8:5). The festivals and special times of worship were set down in the Law. In the seventh month the trumpets were blown at the beginning of the month, and then on the 15th day of the month there was the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:23-43 and Numbers 29). It was at the time of "full moon" and it was a "festal day" when the people remembered God's provision for them after they came out of Egypt and were in the wilderness for forty years. Also on that day every seven years the Law was read in the ears of all the people (Deuteronomy 31:9-13). The Feast of Tabernacles was of very great importance in Israel because of what it stood for, and it was a time when the people were challenged to renew their covenant loyalty to God. It was therefore very appropriate that they should hear God's word through a priest or prophet, and that is what we have in verses 6-16.

The word of God

God's word, as so often in the Old Testament, is first of all a reminder of what he had done for them. In Egypt they were slaves and made to carry great "burdens", heavy "baskets" of building materials for the construction work that was going on in that land (as we are told in Exodus 1:11-14). They cried out to the Lord in their distress (see Exodus 2:23-25), and he answered them. In the "thunder" on Mount Sinai he came to them and gave them his law (Exodus 19). They tested him, but he also tested them at Meribah, when they complained and said to Moses, "Give us water to drink" (Exodus 17:1-7 and Numbers 20:1-13). Now his word to them could be summed up, "Hear", "Listen".

a. "Hear, O my people". That is how the summing up of the law began in Deuteronomy 6:4, and Jewish people have always called it the Shema, which is the Hebrew word for 'hear'. It means more than just 'listen'; it means being attentive and willing to obey, the way we are called to 'hear God's word'. If only the people would listen to the Lord, then they would remember that it was he alone who brought them out of their slavery in Egypt and made them his people. They would realise that, as the first two commandments expressed it, they must have no other God but the Lord alone (Exodus 20:2-6 and Deuteronomy 5:6-10).

b. The sad story of Israel's history, however, was that they "did not listen" and they were not willing to serve him whole-heartedly. They might have been deeply religious, but their hearts were far from God (see 2 Timothy 3:5). Verse 12 describes the worst thing that can happen to anyone. If people refuse to follow God's way and to say for their lives, "Your will be done", the Lord lets them go their own way and have their own will. But can such self-chosen ways ever be good compared with God's wise and loving purpose for one's life? When people reject God's will, they always get less than the best.

c. Yet he gives his people another opportunity, though they have rebelled against him. He says, "O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! (verse 13)" What happens then? They prove God's victory over all the forces of evil that oppose them, and they find his provision for all their needs in their land, a land that was often called a "land flowing with milk and honey".

The words of this psalm are as meaningful for Christians as they were for the Jewish people. God intends us to come together regularly for worship (see Hebrews 10:24-25). In particular we come together for our special feast, the Lord's Supper, the Holy Communion, when we remember what Jesus Christ has done for us by his sacrificial death on the cross (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). It is right also that at such a time of worship there should be the preaching of God's word, so that we are reminded of what God has done and we are called afresh to hear him speak to us challenging us to serve him alone in our daily lives. The worship of God and the word of God still belong together.

Prayer Pray especially for those who in your own Christian community have the responsibility of preaching God's word and leading others in the worship of God.

For further thought and study

a. In relation to what happened at Meribah it is said that the people put God to the test (see Psalm 95:8-10 and also Exodus 17:1-7 and Numbers 20:1-13). How is it also true that God was testing the people? See Deuteronomy 8:2-5 and James 1:2-4 and 12. b. In what other parts of the Bible do we find similar statements to those of verse 12 about people having "stubborn hearts", following "their own counsels, and given over to the consequences of them? In the New Testament see especially Romans 1:18-32. Notes

1. The heading speaks of this as another "Asaph" psalm, and "according to the Gittith", as in Psalm 8, may refer to the tune to which the psalm was sung.

2. The words at the end of verse 5 have been understood in different ways. The New International Version links them with what goes before, Israel hearing in Egypt "a language we did not understand". Our Version takes it to be the voice of God "not known" in this way before. At least it is clear that what follows from verse 6 is God's message to the people.

3. The words at the end of verse 10, "Open your mouth wide and I will fill it" are usually taken to mean that if God's people turn to him in prayer, they will receive abundant blessings from him. This is certainly what is said in verse 16. It is possible, however, that the opening of the mouth at this point in the psalm is to receive God's word (compare what Jeremiah 1:9 says about the prophet receiving God's word in his mouth).

4. Verse 16 should not be taken as a prosperity gospel for the individual Christian today, that if we serve God we will enjoy material riches and plenty. Many have to suffer hardship and be deprived of earthly possessions for Christ's sake. This psalm was speaking of the blessing of the nation when faithful to the Lord.