The Hebrew expression natsách (preceded by the preposition “to”) is commonly thought to signify “to the musical director” or “leader.” In the Septuagint, the rendering is “to the end.” An ancient Latin translation of the Hebrew Psalter reads victori (“to the victor”), probably because of linking the Hebrew expression to a root meaning “to defeat.” This suggests that considerable uncertainty exists about the significance of natsách.
There is also uncertainty about the meaning of the expression “according to the Gittith.” In the Septuagint, the rendering is “concerning the winepresses,” possibly suggesting that the psalm should be rendered according to the melody of a composition sung when men were treading grapes. Another possibility is that Gittith designated a musical instrument.
Psalm 81 is linked to Asaph, perhaps the prominent Levite musician in David’s time. Nothing in the contents of the psalm clearly points to a later period. (1 Chronicles 15:19; 25:1, 2; 2 Chronicles 29:30; 35:15) This, however, does not preclude the possibility that Asaph could have been a later descendant or member of his house.
God is to be praised with a joyous cry or a triumphant shout, as would be heard from a victorious army. The psalmist called him the “God of our strength” and the “God of Jacob” (the patriarch from whom the Israelites descended and, therefore, their God). In the Septuagint, the Almighty is spoken of as being the “helper,” which would also reveal that he was the source of Israel’s strength.
The people are called upon to sing, doing so to the accompaniment of timbrel, lyre, and harp. In Hebrew, the name of the stringed instrument translated “lyre” is kinnór, which has also been defined as “zither” and is the Latin rendering (cithara) of the Hebrew Psalter. The Hebrew term is followed by the adjective na‘ím, meaning “sweet” or “pleasant” and evidently applies to the melodious sound of the stringed instrument.
On the day of the new moon, the blowing of the shofar or ram’s horn announced the start of a new month. Either Passover or the festival of tabernacles would fit the blowing of the horn on the day of the full moon. Passover, followed by the seven-day festival of unleavened bread, fell on Nisan (mid-March to mid-April) 14, and the festival of tabernacles started on Ethanim (mid-September to mid-October) 15. Jewish tradition links this psalm with the festival of tabernacles. It does appear, however, with the focus on the deliverance from Egypt, the festival mentioned in verse 3(4) is more likely to be Passover.
Festival observance was divinely commanded. It was a “law for Israel,” a “decree of the God of Jacob,” and a “testimony” or “legal provision” in Joseph. (Exodus 12:14-17; Deuteronomy 16:1-16)
Probably in view of Joseph’s significant role in the preservation of the life of his father Jacob and the entire family during the time of famine and afterward, the psalmist’s reference to him applies to all Israel. At the time God went out against the land of Egypt, he commanded the Israelites to keep the Passover and the festival of unleavened bread annually to commemorate their deliverance from enslavement.
The unknown tongue likely designates the language of the Egyptians. Perhaps God is to be regarded as the one hearing the “tongue” that he did not “know,” because of his not recognizing the speakers as having any relationship to him. Another possibility is that the psalmist represented “Joseph” or Israel as making the first-person expression about hearing a foreign tongue. (For additional comments, see the Notes section on verse 5.)
God liberated his people from bearing burdens in Egypt and having to use their hands in lifting and carrying baskets containing heavy loads.
In their distress, the Israelites cried out to God, and he delivered them from their oppressors. The “secret place of thunder” or the “secret place of storm” (LXX) may be understood against the backdrop of the manifestation of the divine presence at Mount Sinai. On that occasion, the Israelites saw a thick cloud on the mountain and lightning. To their eyes, God was concealed as with a dense cloud.
At the waters of Meribah, the Most High tested the Israelites, miraculously providing water for them. The nature of the test involved whether they would believe that he could provide all that they needed. As the account in Exodus (17:5-7) reveals, they were shown up as lacking faith, making a test of God. They challenged the Almighty to act, as indicated by the question, “Is YHWH among us or not?”
Portraying YHWH as the speaker, the psalmist directed the words to Israel. The people were to “hear” or pay attention to God’s “testifying.” Both the Hebrew word for “testify” ‘ud and the corresponding Greek term (diamartyromai) in the Septuagint could be understood as meaning to “admonish” or “correct.” The divine appeal is, “O Israel, if you would [only] listen to me.”
He alone should be recognized as their God. No strange god should be found among them, and they should not be bowing down to a god other nations worshiped.
YHWH had brought them out of Egypt. If they would but open their mouths, looking to him to supply all their needs, he would do so.
The Israelites failed to listen to their God. Theirs was not a willingness to submit to him.
He abandoned them to their own stubborn way (the “stubbornness of their heart” or “the pursuit of their hearts” [LXX]), letting them follow their own “counsels.” Their “counsels” proved to be ways of conducting their affairs in a manner that ignored his guidance.
If they had but listened and walked in YHWH’s ways or conducted themselves according to his commands, they would have greatly benefited themselves. He would have subdued their enemies and directed his “hand” or power against their foes.
Those hating YHWH (as revealed in their hostility toward his people) would cringe before him. The reference to “their time” is commonly rendered as meaning the “doom” or “punishment” of the foes. “Those who hate the LORD would cringe before him, and their doom would last forever.” (NRSV) “Those who hate the LORD would tremble, their doom sealed forever.” (NAB) “Those who hate me would bow in fear before me; their punishment would last forever.” (GNT, Second Edition)
There is also a possibility that the reference is to Israel’s time of continued existence (as contrasted with the cringing of those hating YHWH). This is the meaning conveyed in the 1984 revised edition of Luther’s German translation (aber Israels Zeit würde ewiglich währen [but Israel’s time would last eternally]). In a footnote of the German revised Elberfelder Bibel, the words ihre Zeit (their time) are applied to Israels Zeit (Israel’s time).
The “fat of the wheat” denotes the best of the wheat. There would also have been an abundance of honey. As bees would nest in the crevices of rocky areas, the Israelites could be spoken of as being satisfied with honey “from a rock.” (Compare Deuteronomy 32:13.)
In verse 5(6) the first-person singular verbs may have the same significance as in verse 6(7), where the reference clearly is to God as the one who delivered his people. Translators vary in their renderings. Many retain the first-person singular of the Hebrew and indicate a change in speaker by altering the wording, adding quotation marks, or introducing a separating space. “I heard a language that I knew not.” After adding a separating space, the translation continues with a new section, “I relieved his shoulder of the burden, his hands were freed from the basket.” (Tanakh) “I hear a new oracle: ‘I relieved their shoulders of the burden; their hands put down the basket.’” (NAB) “In a language unknown to me, I heard someone say: ‘I lifted the burden from your shoulder and took the heavy basket from your hands.’” (CEV) “I heard a voice unknown to me, ‘I freed his shoulder from the burden, his hands were able to lay aside the labourer’s basket.’” (NJB)
In the New International Version, the change in speakers is made explicit. “He established it as a statute for Joseph when he went out against Egypt, where we heard a language we did not understand. He says, ‘I removed the burden from their shoulders; their hands were set free from the basket.’” (NIV)
The extant Septuagint text of verses 5 and 6 (6 and 7) uses the third-person singular verbs and could be understood to mean that the Israelites heard a language they did not understand. “A testimony in Joseph he set him when he went out from the land of Egypt. A tongue, which he did not know, he heard.”
Verse 7(8) ends with “selah.” The meaning of this transliterated Hebrew term is uncertain. In the Septuagint, the word is rendered diápsalma, considered to mean “pause” or “musical interlude.”
In verse 15(16), the extant text of the Septuagint represents the enemies as having lied to the Lord and that their “time” would be forever. This suggests that God’s adverse judgment respecting them would not be altered.