Messiah’s ‘O My People!’

A brief study of Psalm 81, adapted from PCC Prayer Meeting Exhortation on 27 March 2009

Psalm 81 is another Psalm of Asaph. We have no reason to think that this is any other than ‘Asaph the Seer’ (2 Chr 29:30) who lived during David’s time. And this Psalm, like Psalm 75, which was clearly written by Asaph the Seer, is also unusual in its use of the first person pronouns.

Who are the ‘I’ and ‘we’ in this psalm? Read the commentaries and you will find a variety of views. Most will say that from verse 6 onwards, the speaker is God. But the ‘selah’ which divides the psalm into two is in verse 7! This means that if we take this view, then in the first division of this psalm we have confusion of 1st person pronouns. One moment the ‘we’ and ‘I’ is Asaph or Israel; and the next moment it is God!

Well, after reading several commentaries, I am convinced that Andrew Bonar has got it right. He asks:

In the first verses, is it the voice of Israel we hear? Is it not rather then voice of the Church’s Head and Israel’s, identifying himself with us and them? Is it not Messiah, the lawgiver and redeemer of Israel? To understand the speaker throughout to be He, gives beautiful unity and force to the whole.

This then, is how we will understand this psalm. I think it is least confusing and arbitrary and biblically most natural. Christ, the God-Man, alone can speak as one with His people, or as the Lord of His people. Only Christ, the God-Man can speak as God, or of God and to God. Only Christ can meaningfully speak of God as ‘He’ and ‘I’ in the same breath as in verse 16.

It is thought that this psalm was written for the celebration of the Passover, or as Luther supposed, for the feast of tabernacles. However, as W.S. Plumer puts it, “The fact is, this ode is fit to be sung on any joyous occasion of worship in Israel.”

Nevertheless, if you look at this psalm, you will realise that the two parts are very different. In the first section, we have a joyous call to worship; but in the second section, the tone changes to a lament and implicitly an admonishment.

We may entitle this psalm, “Messiah’s ‘O My People!’” or more technically, “Messiah’s Remonstration to His People to be Faithful & Grateful.” It has, as we mentioned, two parts. From verses 1-7, we see the Messiah calling His people to grateful and faithful worship. From verses 8-16, we have a warning by the Messiah of the consequence of ingratitude and unfaithfulness.

1. Call to Gratitude
& Faithfulness

1  Sing aloud unto God our strength: make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob.  2 Take a psalm, and bring hither the timbrel, the pleasant harp with the psaltery. 3 Blow up the trumpet in the new moon, in the time appointed, on our solemn feast day.

Christ our covenant head is one with us. When we worship the Father, our worship is only acceptable if it is offered in His Name and in union with Him. When He says, “Sing aloud unto God our strength,” He is calling us, is He not to worship God in union with Him?

Now, in Old Testament days, the people would worship the Lord with musical instruments. Four kinds of instruments were used in the temple in formal worship: cymbals, psaltery, harp and trumpets (2 Chr 29:25; 1 Chr 25:6; 2 Chr 5:12). Timbrels were used in more informal occasions (e.g. Ex 15:20; Jdg 11:24). But these instruments were no longer used in New Testament worship. The apostle Paul teaches us to strum our heart-strings. This is the literal meaning of Paul’s call to “[make] melody in your heart to the Lord” (Eph 5:19).

We must, therefore, obey our Lord’s call not by way of taking up musical instruments for worship, but rather by heartily and joyfully singing unto the Lord. And perhaps as Augustine suggests to us, by loudly and boldly preaching the Word of God. “Be not affrighted!” he says, for “as the prophet says in a certain place, ‘Cry out, and lift up as with a trumpet thy voice.’”

We must worship the Father both in private and in public, in obedience and grateful response to all that the Lord has done for us.

As the Lord puts in, verse 4—

4 For this was a statute for Israel, and a law of the God of Jacob. 5 This he ordained in Joseph for a testimony, when he went out through the land of Egypt: where I heard a language that I understood not.  6 I removed his shoulder from the burden: his hands were delivered from the pots.  7 Thou calledst in trouble, and I delivered thee; I answered thee in the secret place of thunder: I proved thee at the waters of Meribah. Selah. 

God’s people should serve Him in grateful obedience because this is what the Lord appointed for them to do after His mighty act of redeeming them (v. 4-6).

They were in bondage in Egypt. It was a foreign land. The people spoke a foreign language. The Jews in their enclave in Goshen continued largely to speak Hebrew. Our Lord identifying with the people spoke of Egyptians as a language he understood not (v. 5).

But He heard the cries of His people and delivered them. He led them in the wilderness. He provided water for them out of the rock despite the people’s ingratitude and grumbling. This is why the place was called Meribah (v. 7, cf. Num 20:11), which means ‘strife’.

There at Meribah, Moses in anger struck the rock, which symbolised Christ himself (1 Cor 10:4). Despite that the Lord gave them water, though Moses forfeited his privilege of entering the Promised Land.

All these have symbolic and typical significance. The apostle Paul says: “Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (1 Cor 10:11).

As God redeemed His people of old out of Egypt, so He has redeemed us out of spiritual bondage to sin and Satan. As He was longsuffering towards His people of old despite their sin, murmuring and ingratitude, so He is longsuffering towards us. Indeed, Christ our Lord was punished for our sin that we may enjoy life abundant and free without being bogged down by guilt.

What would be a reasonable response for us, but to praise Him and worship Him gratefully and joyfully with our lips and our life according to His commandments? “Sing aloud unto God our strength: make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob” (v. 1).

We shall no doubt enjoy God’s heavenly favour and blessing when we respond to His love in this way. 

But knowing our propensity to backsliding, let us take heed to the Lord’s warning:

2. Warning against Ingratitude
& Unfaithfulness

8 Hear, O my people, and I will testify unto thee: O Israel, if thou wilt hearken unto me; 9 There shall no strange god be in thee; neither shalt thou worship any strange god. 10 I am the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt: open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it.

When our Lord led Israel out of Egypt, He brought them to Mount Sinai where He gave them the Ten Commandments in their hearing. He reminded them that He was the Lord their God who brought them out of Egypt and charged them that they should have no other gods before Him. This was the first of the Ten Commandments.

He tells them that if they would walk in His ways, they would be His people. He would be their God. He would fill their mouth, however wide they open it. He would bless them exceedingly abundantly above all they could ask or think.

But sadly the people refused to hear His voice. Wickedly, they ignored God. And so the Lord decided to give them over to their own evil inclination that they might taste the sorrow of walking lawlessly and without the Lord’s favour (v. 11-12).

What was our Lord’s attitude towards His people’s rebellion? Did He entertain a vindictive, serve-them-right attitude? No, no; far from it. Our Lord was, no doubt, grieved:

13 Oh that my people had hearkened unto me, and Israel had walked in my ways! 14 I should soon have subdued their enemies, and turned my hand against their adversaries. 15 The haters of the LORD should have submitted themselves unto him: but their time should have endured for ever.  16 He should have fed them also with the finest of the wheat: and with honey out of the rock should I have satisfied thee.

Consider how similar in tone these words are to our Lord’s lament recorded in the Gospel:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Mt 23:37).

If these words were spoken by the Father, we would speak of the sentiment of regret and longing as ‘anthropopathic.’ But our Lord has a human nature in order that He might be our compassionate high priest. He was tempted at all points like as we are, yet without sin.

His longing for us is actual and literal. As He longed for the people of old to enjoy the blessings by way of grateful obedience, so He, no doubt, longs for the same for us.


Beloved brethren and children, when we sing this psalm, let us remind ourselves of our Lord’s longing for us. He paid for our redemption from Egypt with His own blood. He suffered the pains of hell for us that we may begin to experience heaven today and forever.

We will never enjoy heaven tomorrow if we do not begin to enjoy God today. How to enjoy God today? By walking according to God’s way in worship and life (v. 12). If we stubbornly continue to walk in our own ways (v. 13), we shall not only experience our Lord’s chastisement, but we shall experience the fruit of sorrow of our own doing.

Oh beloved brethren and children, will you not take a look at your own life. What are some things you have to change? What are some priorities you have to set right? Courageously make the changes with the Lord’s help. You will know a new joy in worship, you will know the Lord’s blessing in a way you’ve never experienced. “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” says our Lord (Mt 6:33). Amen.

—JJ Lim