The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father Boylan’s Introduction to Psalm 81 (A Hymn for the Feast of Tabernacles)

Posted by Dim Bulb on August 3, 2013


IT is generally held by commentators that this psalm is a hymn composed for use at the Feast of Tabernacles (15th to the 22nd of Tishri, the first month of the civil, and the seventh of the ecclesiastical year). It is not a difficulty against this view that the psalm seems to begin with a priestly exhortation to the people to join in the festivities of the New Moon ceremonial, for the New Moon in question is that of the New Year, of Tishri, and the first fortnight of Tishri was celebrated as a sort of continuous festival leading up to Tabernacles. The blowing of the trumpet, or horn, at the New Moon of Tishri could be spoken of, therefore, as a part of the ritual of Tabernacles, and the hymn may be regarded as a New Year’s Hymn and a hymn for Tabernacles at the same time. Tabernacles was intended, primarily, to be a commemoration of Exodus, and of the years when the Israelites dwelt in tents in the wilderness: but it was also celebrated as a sort of thanksgiving-service at the close of the vintage season (which may account, perhaps, for the phrase, ‘For the wine-presses,’ of the title). Thus the Feast celebrated the mercies of God both in history and in nature.

The psalm begins with an address from a choir of priests exhorting the people (verse 2), the Levites (verse 3) and the priests (verse 4) to join with full heart in the ceremonial of song and music at the Feast of Tabernacles, and reminding them that the Feast is of divine origin, and that all Israel is bound to observe it (2-6a).

In the second part of verse 6 a single speaker comes forward (as in Ps 83:9; Ps 93:8 ff.; Amos 7:10; Isa 5), and, as it were, interrupting the festive music, sings in prophetic style a message which he has received, or, repeats, as a prophetic messenger, what he has heard the Lord say. This prophetic singer represents Yahweh as reminding His people of the freedom which He had given them at the Exodus, and of the blessings with which He had favoured them in the desert (7-8).

In verses 9 to 11 the words of the Lord deal with the greatest of His mercies towards Israel—the giving of the Law, the manifestation of Himself as the God and Father and Leader of His people. This manifestation demands the unswerving loyalty of Israel to Yahweh; and the complete rejection of all forms of heathen worship.

Yet, in spite of the love and favours of the Lord, Israel forgot Him, and followed after other deities. As a punishment for this Yahweh left them to themselves, withdrawing His support. Deserted by their God the Israelites fell under the power of the heathens, and became their bondsmen. Even now Israel is not altogether loyal, and the stranger god, and the stranger ruler have influence among the people (12-13). How splendid it would be if only Israel would now turn wholeheartedly to its God! Its enemies would be quickly broken, and their defeat would continue as long as Israel remained loyal. Every blessing promised in the Law would be poured out upon the nation. It is only a loyal Israel which can truly join in the celebration of Tabernacles. It is useless for a people that hankers after strange faiths and heathen customs to join in songs of thanksgiving for the liberation from Egypt. This is the lesson of the prophetic message, and it is an appropriate lesson for the season which began with New Year’s Day, included the penitential Day of Atonement (10th of Tishri) and closed with the rejoicings of Tabernacles (15-22 of Tishri).

It has been often maintained that there is no real connection between verses 2-6a and the rest of the psalm, and that, therefore, we must regard the two parts 2-6a and 6b-17 as having been originally portions of distinct poems which were brought together because of the reference to the Exodus in verses 6a and 7. There can be no doubt that verse 6b marks a completely new section in the psalm, and that 6b-17 is not intrinsically related to 2-6a. The prophetic singer in 6b appears as a sort of foreign element in the midst of the celebrations of the Feast. Yet, though his words stand out in striking contrast with the joyous summons to celebrate the festival (2-6a), they help to bring home to the minds of the people the implications of the Feast, and can thus be brought into relation with the first part of the psalm. That it was sometimes customary to construct feast-hymns of elements thus apparently unrelated we can see also from Ps 93. If we read Ps 81 in the quasi-dramatic fashion suggested in the translation, there will be no need to look on it as an artificial and casual fusion of unrelated fragments.

The date of the psalm is uncertain, but the best modern critics agree in regarding it as pre-Exilic.

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