Saturday, October 31, 2015

Psalm 81

Psalm 81 begins with a rousing summons to worship in full voice: "Sing aloud ... shout for joy ... Raise a song ..." (vv. 1-2a), and with all manner of instruments: the tambourine, the lyre, and the trumpet (vv. 2-3). All of this joyful praise is, of course, to be directed to "God our strength, ... to the God of Jacob" (v. 1), who has called for such resounding worship in statute, ordinance, and decree (vv. 4-5).  
            Two features of this introduction are particularly noteworthy. First, this threefold stipulation or ordination of worship, if it was encoded at Sinai, was divinely decreed in advance, that is, when the Lord "went out over the land of Egypt" (v. 5); this is the very worship of which Moses spoke to Pharaoh, and which Pharaoh long opposed. In other words, to the extent that Sinai is the scene of unsurpassed glory, it is clear that it is but the culmination of a "divine service" that began with a call to worship that was issued while Israel was still in captivity! 
            Second, the reference to the sounding of the trumpet is a double reference. The blowing of the trumpet was prescribed for every new moon or month, and a special feast was established for doing so at Rosh Hashana, the "head" of every new year. The trumpet was not always sounded, however, at the full moon; thus this double reference suggests that the first day of the fall Festival of Booths—the fifteenth of the month—is in view (Deut 16:13-15; Lev 23:23-44, esp. v. 24), though the tenth day, the Day of Atonement, is more explicitly a day on which the trumpet blast is to be "sounded throughout the land" (Lev 25:9). In short, where the Torah is concerned, the occasion for this double sounding of the trumpet at the new moon and again at the full moon is ambiguous and even mysterious.
            Adding to the mystery, the psalmist now testifies that he has heard a heretofore unknown voice (v. 5b), indeed, a voice that repeatedly complains of not being heard or heeded (vv. 8, 11, 13). The voice identifies itself first by the kindly deeds the speaker has done—granting relief and liberation from the burden of slavery—in response to the people's cry of distress (vv. 6-7). Yes, the unheard voice belongs to One who hears and responds to the voice of the people! Further compounding the mysterious nature of the speaker, the voice declares: "I answered you in the secret place of thunder"" (v. 7b), an apparent reference to Sinai; and adds: "I tested you at the waters of Meribah" (v. 7c). This is new! For elsewhere, the Lord identifies Meribah as they place where:

"your ancestors tested me,
   and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work" (Psalm 95:9).

But here it is clear that the true examiner was the Lord. That the mysterious speaker is indeed the Lord is clear enough from v. 10, where the voice identifies himself as such, but not without first reiterating the chief commandment: "There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god" (v. 9). But with the theophany comes both the reminder of the Lord's deliverance of Israel from Egypt and the promise of divine, parental provision: "Open your mouth wide and I will fill it" (v. 10b).
            The Lord goes on to record what happens when his people neither listen nor submit: he allows them to go their own way, following their own "stubborn hearts, ... their own counsels" (vv. 11-12). Such a path will surely lead back into some form of oppression, slavery, or even destruction. But the Lord — with a heartrending expression of charitable longing — promises his people, if they will only listen to him and walk in his ways (v. 13), relief from their enemies and plentiful and delicious sustenance: "I would feed you with the finest of wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you" (v. 16).
            Preachers should know that such promises neither support nor discredit so-called "prosperity theology." Properly speaking, they belong to covenant theology, which insists on making clear the terms of the God's promises, which (much as we would like them to be) are not unconditional: both the dreadful consequences of forsaking, and the delightful benefits of hearing and heeding, the unheard voice of the loving and liberating Lord.

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RCL makes infrequent use of selections from Psalm 81 as follows:

81:1-10 — Year B: Epiphany 9/Proper 4/Ordinary 9 [complementary]
81:1, 10-16 — Year C: Proper 17/Ordinary 22 [semi-continuous]

It is included in Year D owing to its thematic associations with Psalm 95, the irregularity with which Epiphany 9 occurs in Year B, and the nine verses omitted from the semi-continuous selection in Year C. 

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