Psalm 81: Turning Around

Sing for joy to God our strength;
    shout aloud to the God of Jacob!
Begin the music, strike the tambourine,
    play the melodious harp and lyre.

Sound the ram’s horn at the New Moon,
    and when the moon is full, on the day of our Feast;
this is a decree for Israel,
    an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
When God went out against Egypt,
    he established it as a statute for Joseph.

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Psalm 81

The Christian life is a long journey of repentance, of turning around. In Moses’ last sermon on Mount Nebo he calls on the Israelites to turn to YHWH to keep his commandments, to turn away from disobedience that will end in disaster (Deuteronomy 28:15–29:28). When Jesus came proclaiming the rule of God had come to earth he called on his listeners to repent, to turn around and welcome the new thing that God was doing (Mark 1:15). Repentance, though, is not a one-off. In the book of Revelation it is those who are already his followers who are called by the risen Christ to repent (Revelation 2:4–5, 2:14–16, 2:20–22).

At some point in the 1960s Bob Dylan sang, ‘You gotta serve someone.’ Of course many people prickle at that suggestion that they ought to serve anyone except themselves. They claim to be free, not serving anyone, yet without realising that they are slaves to their own selfish or destructive behaviours (Romans 6:19–21). The opening verses of Psalm 81 (1-5) are a call – even a command – to celebrate and to remember the God of Israel in festive joy with loud percussion and shouts of joy.

The next section of the song (vv. 5b–10) recalls how YHWH rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. The God who delivered the Israelites from bondage also called them to an exclusive loyalty and devotion to maintain their liberty (v. 9). But the wilderness wanderings point to people who had experienced God’s blessing turning away, not listening and not walking in his ways (v. 13).

God might be almighty but he doesn’t micromanage the universe. He doesn’t make human robots, but gifts people freedom (v. 12) and lets them choose what they think is best (Romans 1:24–28). There are several places in the Old Testament like this one where God’s frustration surfaces, just as Jesus’ frustration was also sometimes evident in the Gospels.

The Psalmist ends with an implied question for the people of his own day (vv. 13–16). Are his people willing to listen to God, are they willing to turn from their own way? If they do, says God, then they will find that he is quick to bless and that they will be filled with good things (vv. 10, 16). The same invitation extends to us today: to turn to the Lord, the giver of life, or to turn away and miss out on all that he longs to give to us.