Appeals for Repentance, Justice and Deliverance From Foes (Psalms 81-83) September 4-8
The middle of the superscription of Psalm 81, which may be part of a postscript to Psalm 80, contains the Hebrew phrase al gittith. We saw this earlier in the superscription of Psalm 8, and it reappears in Psalm 84. The NIV leaves it mostly untranslated as "According to gittith," whereas the New King James Version renders it as, "On an instrument of Gath." The Zondervan NIV Study Bible comments, "The Hebrew word perhaps refers to either a winepress ('song of the winepress') or the Philistine city of Gath ('Gittite lyre or music'; see 2Sa 15:18)" (note on Psalm 8 title).
Asaph composed Psalm 81 as a festival song (verses 1-3)-albeit one in which national enemies remain a serious concern (see verses 14-15), as in other psalms of Asaph in Book III.
The people were to "sing aloud," to "make a joyful shout," to "raise a song," to "strike the timbrel," to play "the pleasant harp with the lute" (verses 1-2), to "blow the trumpet" (the shofar or ram's horn) because it was a statute and law of God to do so (verses 3-4)-revealed by God at the time of the Exodus (verse 5). It is important to recognize the congregational nature of worship here. As commentator George Knight remarks on these verses: "You cannot hold a festival all by yourself. It is God's will, however, that we should hold festivals. These verbs sing aloud, shout for joy and so on are all expressed in the plural" (Psalms, comments on Psalm 81). The word for "statute" (verse 4) or "decree" (NIV) "refers in its original usage to something that is meant to be imperishable for it has been chiseled in stone. God then 'demands' our regular worship. In his wisdom he knows that it is our regular participation in congregational worship that keeps us right with himself. Public worship is God's good idea, not ours" (same comments).
Verse 3 causes some confusion as to the timing of this particular celebration and trumpet blowing. Some take it to mean every New Moon (new month), every full moon and every sacred festival day. However, there was no law or statute to blow the ram's horn or celebrate at all of these times. Indeed, in the law God gave through Moses the blast of the ram's horn was commanded for only one festival, the Feast of Trumpets (see Leviticus 23:24; Numbers 29:1). This Holy Day actually falls on a New Moon-and is the only annual festival that does. Yet what of the mention of the full moon in Psalm 81:3? Some see other annual festivals indicated here. Passover and the First Day of Unleavened Bread come at the time of the full moon in the first month of the Hebrew sacred calendar. The beginning of the Feast of Tabernacles does as well-and many see verse 3 as indicating the entire fall festival period in the seventh month, from the Feast of Trumpets through Tabernacles. However, the word translated "full moon" can simply mean "full" or "fullness," and could here imply the completion of a month-thus the beginning of a new one. The Ferrar Fenton Translation makes no mention of the full moon-only the New Moon. So it may well be that the Feast of Trumpets is exclusively meant here, though the call to celebration and reflection on God's deliverance fits with all of God's festivals.
Note again the timing of God's revelation of the statute in verse 5: "This He established in Joseph [representative of all Israel] as a testimony, when He went throughout the land of Egypt." This translation would indicate the time that God sent the plagues against Egypt. However, nothing is recorded in Moses' writings about God revealing the command to blow the shofar at the Feast of Trumpets until Israel was later gathered at Mount Sinai. It is possible that He gave Moses an earlier revelation while in Egypt. Yet it seems more likely that a very general time frame is meant-that is to say, God gave the Israelites this statute long ago around the time that He destroyed Egypt to free them. Alternatively, some versions translate verse 5 as saying that God established the statute when Joseph (i.e., Israel) went out of Egypt (compare Tanakh, New and Revised English Bible, New American Bible, Fenton).
The end of verse 5 says, "I heard a language [literally, lip] I did not understand." There is some dispute as to who is speaking here. In the remainder of the psalm, from verses 6-16, it is clearly God who is speaking, referring to Himself as "I." That would seem to argue for the "I" at the end of verse 5 also being God. Yet how could the omniscient God not understand the Egyptian language? For this reason, many take the "I" in verse 5 to refer to each Israelite singing the song-following the Jewish understanding that each and every Jew even today was personally and individually delivered from ancient Egyptian bondage.
Yet the word rendered "understand" in verse 5, yada, has the general meaning of "know." As Strong's Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary notes, this word can mean "acknowledge...regard, have respect [for]" (Abingdon Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Strong's No. 3045). Indeed, just as God says He does not "know" those who do not obey Him, He could just as well say that He does not "know" (acknowledge or regard) the speech of those who defy Him. Consider that Egypt's language and speech was thoroughly polluted with idolatrous references. "As in [Psalm] 114:1, there is a disdain for the history, culture, and language of Egypt" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 3-5).
In Psalm 81:7, God answering in "the secret place of thunder" is evidently a reference to the giving of His law and covenant at Mount Sinai, when "there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled.... Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire... And when the blast of the trumpet sounded long and became louder and louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by voice" (Exodus 19:16-19; compare 20:18). Thus, it would seem that in the "memorial of blowing of trumpets" at the Feast of Trumpets (Leviticus 23:24), the Israelites were to recall this earlier trumpet blast when God came down in power and glory, descending with thunder and fire, as a prelude to giving His law. Interestingly, the Feast of Trumpets primarily represents the time of Christ's return, when He will come in great power and glory, in a devouring fire, as a prelude to revealing His law anew to Israel and all nations. Moses gave the point: "Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin" (Exodus 20:20)-as they had at Meribah, when they questioned whether God was among them after having experienced the Exodus (17:1-7; Psalm 81:7).
In verses 8-10, God reminds the people of what He told them at Sinai-and implicitly holds out His offer of covenant relationship anew. In verse 9, He reiterates the first of the Ten Commandments-that there be no foreign gods among His people (see Exodus 20:3). And in verse 10 of Psalm 81, He repeats the preamble to the Ten Commandments: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt" (see Exodus 20:2). This great episode should have been enough to convince them to trust and obey Him. God promised to be His people's provider (Psalm 81:10b).
Historically, Israel failed to listen (verse 11), so God allowed them to go their own way (verse 12)-although that's not what He wanted (verse 13). If His people would obey, He would subdue their enemies (verse 14). It seems likely that God inspired Asaph to write this psalm while Israel was experiencing problems from enemies-perhaps while David was still battling foreign nations. And the words would certainly take on greater urgency in later times of foreign oppression.
In verse 15, the Israelites' enemies are referred to as God's enemies-"the haters of the Lord" (compare 83:1-4). The NKJV says that when God subdues them, they "would pretend submission to Him" (81:15). The NIV alternatively says they "would cringe before him." Then note the latter phrase in verse 15: "But their fate would endure forever." The Hebrew word translated "fate" here actually means "time." Most see this as meaning judgment on the enemies. But "their" might refer back to the Israelites, just as "them" in the next verse does-in which case the verse would mean that obedient Israelites would endure for all time.
God's desire is to give His people the very best of everything (verse 16)-and He eventually will if they will only heed Him and walk in His ways. The Feast of Trumpets and the other fall festivals picture the ushering in of a time when Israel will repent and all God's promises will come to fruition. Even other nations will be grafted into Israel to learn God's way and share in the promises as well. This is certainly a wonderful reason to joyfully celebrate.
In Psalm 82, Asaph delivers from God "a word of judgment on unjust rulers and judges.... [He shows] God presiding over his heavenly court [verse 1].... As the Great King (see...Ps 47) and the Judge of all the earth (see 94:2; Ge 18:25; 1Sa 2:10) who 'loves justice' (99:4) and judges the nations in righteousness (see 9:8; 96:13; 98:9), he is seen calling to account those responsible for defending the weak and oppressed on earth" (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, note on Psalm 82).
Observe in verses 1 and 6 the term "gods" (Hebrew elohim). This plural word can refer to a plurality of gods (usually false gods) or in a singular sense to the one God (or God family) comprising more than one Being-God the Father and God the Son, Jesus Christ. To learn more about this terminology and the nature of God, see our free booklet Who Is God?
Here the term "gods" refers to human beings-"children of the Most High" (verse 6). Consider that when God created the plants and animals of the earth in Genesis 1, He made them to reproduce each "according to its kind." But in the same context, God said of humanity, "Let Us [the Father and the preincarnate Christ] make man in Our image, according to Our likeness" (verse 26)-language denoting producing a child in one's image (compare 5:3). So man was made according to the God-kind. Yet this initially is in an incomplete sense of resembling God in appearance on a physical level and having an intelligent and creative mind (though still unimaginably inferior to God's). God ultimately intends for man to be a spiritual creation completely in His likeness.
Jesus would later use Psalm 82:6 to confound the Jewish religious authorities who were upset because He declared Himself the Son of God. Reminding them that their own law (Scripture) referred to human beings as "gods," he asked them why they were so upset at Him for merely saying He was the Son of God (John 10:31-37).
One godlike characteristic human beings were given at man's initial creation was that of having dominion over the earth-representing Him as ruler over creation (Genesis 1:26-28). For many, this dominion would extend over other human beings. Yet for the most part, people have not taken after God's nature in the way they have fulfilled this responsibility. Rather, they have taken advantage of and abused each other. Psalm 82 addresses this failing. It is in fact a message for everyone-but applies all the more to those who are in positions of power, who have the capacity to help others in the ways called for in verses 2-4.
Verse 5 speaks of the colossal failure of human misrule. Commenting on this verse, the Zondervan NIV Study Bible notes: "They ought to have shared in the wisdom of God (see 1Ki 3:9; Pr 8:14-16; Isa 11:12), but they are utterly devoid of true understanding of moral issues or of the moral order that God's rule sustains (see Isa 44:18; Jer 3:15; 9:24).... When such people are the wardens of justice, the whole world order crumbles (see 11:3; 75:3...)."
Clearly the human beings addressed in Psalm 82 as gods are not truly gods in an ultimate sense-as God says they will die as mere mortal men, falling "like every other ruler" (verse 7, NIV). Yet for those who submit to God's ways, other passages show that men can receive eternal life and divine glory as spirit-born members of the God family.
Thankfully, while the current societal order will fall to pieces, the ultimate world order God has ordained will stand (75:3; 93:1). As the concluding verse of Psalm 82 calls for, He will intervene and set all things right in all nations. For all nations will at last be His, not just as His property but as His true children in His likeness-not only of form, but of character.
Psalm 83, the last of Asaph's psalms and the concluding psalm of the second cluster of Book III, implores God to rouse Himself against a confederacy of national enemies conspiring to wipe out Israel-these nations here declared to be God's enemies (compare 81:14-15).
We earlier read Psalm 83 in the Bible Reading Program along with the account of the chariots of Mesopotamia helping the Ammonites against David's army (see the Bible Reading Program comments on 2 Samuel 10; 1 Chronicles 19; Psalm 60; Psalm 108; Psalm 83). This may be what is meant in Psalm 83:8: "Assyria also has joined with them; they have helped the children of Lot." The nations of Ammon and Moab were both descended from Abraham's nephew Lot. Yet there is a larger coalition mentioned in verses 5-7, containing nations not mentioned in 2 Samuel 10 or 1 Chronicles 19. However, some of these, having been subdued by David in earlier campaigns, could have been in revolt on this later occasion (see the Bible Reading Program comments on Psalm 60). Of course, considering that other prophecies of various nations here describe them rising up together against Israel in the end time, Psalm 83 may well be an end-time prophecy of "Asaph the seer" (see 2 Chronicles 29:30). Perhaps the song is dual in meaning-with an ancient coalition prefiguring a similar confederacy of the last days.
In the list of conspiring enemies, the foremost and perennial enemy of Israel is given first-Edom (Psalm 83:6), the nation descended from Jacob's brother Esau. David subdued the Edomites prior to the fight with Mesopotamian forces (see 2 Samuel 8; 1 Chronicles 18). But since the Syrians were also earlier subdued and rebelled at the time of the later conflict, it is possible that the same thing happened with the Edomites. In an end-time setting, which seems applicable here, the Edomites may be found among the Palestinians in Israel and Jordan, among the Turks, among the Iraqis and other Middle Eastern peoples and, due to immigration, in growing numbers in Europe. (For more on the Edomites and their modern identity, see the Bible Reading Program comments on Obadiah, Isaiah 34 and 63, Jeremiah 49:7-22 and Ezekiel 35.)
The Ishmaelites, listed second (Psalm 83:6), are the Arabs generally-descended from Abraham's first son Ishmael. The Arab nations of today stretch from across North Africa to Iraq.
Third on the list, Moab (same verse), as mentioned above, was, along with Ammon, descended from Lot (see verse 8). As with the Edomites, David subdued the Moabites prior to the fight with Mesopotamia's chariots (see 2 Samuel 8; 1 Chronicles 18). But, as with Edom, it may be that the Moabites rebelled during the later conflict. The Moabites are probably to be found today among the Palestinians in Jordan and Israel and among other Middle Eastern peoples.
Listed fourth are the Hagrites (verse 6). The Israelite tribes of Reuben and Gad fought against the Hagrites in the days of Saul (1 Chronicles 5:10, 18-19). As was noted in the Bible Reading Program comments on 1 Chronicles 5, the name Hagrites perhaps denotes descendants of Ishmael's mother Hagar (and thus Ishmaelite or related tribes). The conflict with the Trans-Jordanian tribes would make these north-ranging Arabs. Assyrian inscriptions mention Hagrites as part of an Aramean (i.e., Syrian) confederacy (Zondervan, note on Psalm 83:6). Thus, the Hagrites are perhaps to be identified in modern times with the Arabs of Syria.
Fifth is Gebal (verse 7). As The Nelson Study Bible notes on Ezekiel 27:9, Gebal was an important Phoenician port city "between Sidon and Arvad (see Josh. 13:5; 1 Kin. 5:18). It was called Byblos by the Greeks and Romans, and Gubla by the Assyrians and Babylonians." The Phoenician city is today known as Jbail or Jubayl in Lebanon, 25 miles north of Beirut. Yet the name Gebal, related to the Arabic Jebel, is simply the word for "mountain," and many believe another location could be meant. "Some interpreters...conclude that the reference here is to a place or region in Edom [southern Jordan], south of the Dead Sea near Petra" (Zondervan, note on verse 7).
Sixth on the list is Ammon (same verse). It was the conflict with Ammon that led to the fight against Mesopotamia's forces. The Ammonite capital, Rabbah, is now Amman, the capital city of Jordan. Like the related Moabites, the Ammonites today are probably to be found among the Palestinians in Jordan and Israel and among other Middle Eastern peoples.
Seventh is Amalek (same verse). The Amalekites were a hostile Edomite people of southern Canaan (Numbers 13:29) who ambushed the stragglers in the Israelites' rear ranks when they came out of Egypt. For this ruthlessness God said He would have war with them from generation to generation and eventually cause them to be wiped out (Exodus 17:8-16; Deuteronomy 25:17-19). Though suppressed under Saul and David, the Amalekites remained. They appear to have eventually ranged over a large territory-some migrating all the way up into Central Asia (see the Bible Reading Program comments on Obadiah and Esther 3). The Amalekites today may be among the Palestinians, Central Asian Turks and other Middle Eastern peoples.
Philistia, land of the Philistines, eighth on the list (Psalm 83:7), was located along the southwest coast of Israel. David had subdued the Philistines prior to the engagement with the Mesopotamian forces (see 2 Samuel 8; 1 Chronicles 18). But, as with Edom and Moab, it could be that the Philistines revolted at the time of the fight against Mesopotamia. A significant portion of the area of ancient Philistia is today the Palestinian Gaza Strip-Gaza being one of the ancient Philistine cities. The Philistines gave their name to Palestine, the name used by the Greeks and Romans for the land of Israel. And there may be some Philistines among the Palestinians of today.
Listed ninth are "the inhabitants of Tyre" (Psalm 83:7). It might seem problematic for this to apply to the time Asaph wrote-as King Hiram of Tyre was closely allied to David and Solomon. The same problem exists for a Phoenician Gebal if that is the city intended, as Gebal was under Tyre's dominion. Yet it could be that there were rogue elements in Tyre favorable to the Mesopotamians against Israel. Perhaps this is why the wording "inhabitants of Tyre" is used instead of just Tyre. On the other hand, it could be that the psalm simply did not concern events of Asaph's time-that it was instead exclusively a prophecy of the end time. In a modern setting, Lebanon could be indicated. However, modern descendants of the Phoenician Tyrians, along with modern descendants of the Babylonians, may be found in southern Europe (see the Bible Reading Program comments on Isaiah 13:1-14:2). And ancient Tyre prefigured the end-time European-centered Babylonian commercial system of the last days (see Ezekiel 27; Revelation 18).
Listed tenth and last is Assyria (Psalm 83:8). This was probably the principal Mesopotamian power involved in the conflict with David. In a modern setting, the land of Assyria could perhaps indicate northern Iraq. However, it could be that the modern descendants of the ancient Assyrians are intended-apparently, as noted in the Bible Reading Program comments on Isaiah 10:5-34, to be found among the Germanic people of Central Europe. As the same comments note, the early Catholic theologian Jerome applied Psalm 83:8 to the Germanic tribes invading western Europe along the Rhine.
In modern times, all the various Middle Eastern peoples listed here have fiercely opposed the people of Israel (foremost among "Israel" being the United States and Britain) and Judah (the Jewish people, including the modern Israeli state)-constantly plotting and conspiring against them and at times actually fighting them militarily or through terrorism, with many shrieking "Death to Israel!" and "Israel into the sea!" After the Arab states came together in the Arab League at the end of World War II, one of its first major actions was a joint attack on the Israeli state when it was established in 1948. Conflict has erupted numerous times since, with Israel fighting several wars for survival against overwhelming odds.
As for European involvement, Germany fought America and Britain in World Wars I and II and waged the terrible Holocaust against the Jews. The Germans were allied with the Ottoman Turks in World War I and with anti-Semitic Arabs in World War II-the Muslim Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al Husseini, finding common cause with the Nazis. As pointed out in a recent article, "In late March 1933, al-Husseini contacted the German consul general in Jerusalem and requested German help in eliminating Jewish settlements in Palestine-offering, in exchange, a pan-Islamic jihad in alliance with Germany against Jews around the world" (David Dalin, "Hitler's Mufti," Human Events, Aug. 3, 2005). And since the formation of the state of Israel shortly after World War II, Germany and other European nations have politically and economically supported the Palestinian cause against what they see as Israeli "occupation" and "oppression."
This decades-long hostility (with its intermittent wars and intifadas) may be what is meant in Psalm 83, though the song could parallel other end-time prophecies in foretelling a more concerted and severe onslaught closer to the end of the age.
Asaph calls on God to deal with the enemy forces as He dealt with seemingly overwhelming enemies before (verses 9-12). "As with Midian" (verse 9) refers to God's victory accomplished through Gideon in Judges 7. "As with Sisera, as with Jabin at the Brook Kishon" (Psalm 83:9) refers to God's victory accomplished through Deborah and Barak in Judges 4-5. Oreb, Zeeb, Zebah and Zalmunna (Psalm 83:11) were leaders of the Midianites killed by Gideon and his men (Judges 7:25-8:21).
Asaph then calls for judgment on the enemy nations-remarkably for the cause of redemption. He asks that God would pursue, frighten and shame the enemies so that they would repent and seek a relationship with God (verse 13-16). He further prays that they be dismayed, confounded forever and shamed and that they perish (verse 17). Is there a contradiction here? Some think Asaph seeks for the enemies to repent but, if they still refuse, for them to then be destroyed. That may be, but the passage is not directly worded that way.
We should realize that the word translated "forever" in verse 17 does not necessarily mean for all eternity as in modern English usage (compare Exodus 21:6). Indeed verse 18, which says that the punishment is so that the enemies will know that God is "the Most High over all the earth," appears to hint at the second resurrection. For how will these enemies know anything if they are dead forever? While the lesson will of course be learned by those left alive, a straightforward reading of these verses would seem to say that the lesson is for those who perish. The desire in verse 18, then, seems to be that the mortal defeat the enemies experience from God in this age will convince them of His sovereignty when they are raised in the future-leading them to the repentance mentioned in verse 16. (Jesus spoke of this resurrection to repentance in Matthew 11:20-24 and 12:41-42, and the Bible mentions it in several other references. To learn more about God's plan to offer salvation to all human beings who lived without a proper understand of His ways, see our free booklet What Happens After Death?)
Supplementary Reading:"You Are Gods," The Surprising Sayings of Jesus Christ series, The Good News, July–Aug. 2002, pp. 28-29).