Imagine one instant that you enter a church in the middle of their worship service. And you look around and people are singing loudly and happily, they’re clapping, they’re shakin’; and you can tell that it is just a time of rejoicing. You’ve got the Gospel choir in front, that are just rocking the place, singing with passion, the guitar is very melodic and sweet-sounding, the percussions are full of life; everybody is just enjoying and rejoicing.
Then during a song a certain line shows up on the screen. And as the people are singing, they see the line and they stop. The organist also stumbles over it and hits that loud minor chord. And everything stops. There is silence. And everyone in the congregation knows why. The atmosphere gets very cold. And they are all staring at the stage, waiting. And as they do so, an elder goes up. And in that very solemn moment, after looking at the congregation for a while, he starts speaking. And he says to them: “There is a reason why we could not sing this line. We cannot fake it any longer. There is an issue we need to deal with now; and we’re all guilty. Our rejoicing is fake and it has been fake for too long, for our hearts are not right before God. We have compromised and now we must come back to God.”
This story could be a modern version of the Psalm that we are going to look at today, Psalm 81. In this passage, we see Israel who after being called to worship, are rebuked by God because their hearts were not fully devoted to Him. There was compromise, they had failed to trust God in times of testing, and had turned to other sources for comfort.
And as we look at this Psalm of Asaph, Psalm 81, we will uncover 3 aspects of worship, so that we can learn to live uncompromised lives.
I. The Call to Worship (v.1-7)
The first aspect of worship that we see here is the call, the call to worship. We see this from verses 1-7. It begins:
“To the choirmaster; according to the gittith. Of Asaph.”
It is a song dedicated to the choirmaster, so you know you will have a lot of people involved, and secondly it is a Psalm of Asaph, the numero uno worship leader of King David and possibly of King Solomon. His name first appeared in 1 Chronicles 15 and 16, as he was appointed by David as the chief musician and singer for the precession of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem. His skills in leading worship impressed David so much, that on that very day the King appointed Asaph and his brothers as the official chief worship leaders of Israel. And not only was Asaph a talented performer and leader, but also a very skilled writer, as we see in this Psalm, one the twelve that we inherited in the canon.
Imagine the scene. You’ve got the official worship leader, appointed for official ceremonies and feasts, Asaph, the best of the best, with his big choir. And they are trying to bring the people of Israel into worship. And that is what Asaph’s name means, “to gather.” And so the choir goes in verse 1:
Verse 1: “Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob!”
They begin with a call for people to join them, to “sing loud” which is a word hard to translate but implies singing for joy, shouting with a ringing cry of joy. And there is a reason why there is joy: they are singing to God who is their strength! He is their protection, their security, their pride and glory.
Then they continue “shout for joy” which is a word that comes from the root meaning “to split” as of “splitting the ears” because of loud noise. The choir is not asking for some murmuring here. They are leading the people into loud, vibrant and exciting worship, and again it is all centered around God, their God, the God of Israel.
Verse 2: “Raise a song; sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp”
Now they get the intensity going up even more. You can imagine the song raising up at this point. They are getting the drum set, the sweet electric guitar and the keyboard. I mean close, they get the tambourine, which was often used with dancing and celebration, as Miriam, Moses’ sister, displayed after the crossing of the Red Sea. Then they have their string instrument, a lyre, which sounds sweet, it is musical, it is rich. And on top they have the beautiful resonating harp. And the people are there and their arms are already covered with goose bumps.
Verse 3: “Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our feast”
And when you think that the song cannot get more intense, they get the trumpet out, which is the shofar, the ram’s horn, the loudest sound of all. In fact, its sound is so loud that most of the times they would use it for the sounding of a signal or an alarm. When the shofar blew as God was at Sinai, the sound terrified the people and made them tremble. That was what the Israelites had used during the conquest of Jericho, what Ehud, Gideon, Jonathan and many more leaders had used to gather men for battle, what people would blow at coronation ceremonies and for national feast days and at the beginning of each month, at the new moon.
But there was also one month, the 7th month, around September/October, that was just a month of continual celebration. It started at the new moon, at the 1st day of the month, with the feast of trumpets, and then 10 days later was the Day of Atonement, and then five days later there was the feast mentioned here, at the full moon, the Feast of Tabernacles, or Booths. And that was the culmination of the celebration, as all the men of Israel were commanded to attend.
In Leviticus 23, the feast of Tabernacles was described as seven-day convocation in which the people of Israel would bring food offerings and drinks offerings to thank the Lord for His provision. It would come after the time when the produce had been harvested. These seven days were set apart to be a time of intense rejoicing in the Lord. And not only it was a time of joy, but also fun, as families would make booths of branches and live in them for the week, to commemorate the deliverance from Egypt and from the booths they used to dwell in during their time of slavery.
But just picture yourself inside the scene. The trumpets are blowing, the music is banging, and you’ve got thousands of men and families gathered lifting up their voices.
Verse 4: “For it is a statute for Israel, a rule of the God of Jacob”
Now, why were they doing all these things? Why were they celebrating? Because God, had decreed it. It wasn’t just a made-man feast. It was a feast that God had come up with and revealed to His people.
The God of Israel had commanded them to party! Now, seriously, that is just really cool. Getting a whole week of vacation with friends and fun and feasts and vibrant worship, that just sounds awesome. And it was their God, the God of Israel, who had come up with this awesome idea! What a great God!
Verse 5a: “He made it a decree in Joseph when he went out over the land of Egypt”
That’s right! This is a commemoration of the exodus from Egypt! That was God’s very word spoken to Moses at Sinai. It is not only that God is good and gives His people an opportunity to rejoice, but He must be worshipped because He made Israel a people when they were not a people. They used to be slaves in Egypt, all they knew back then was suffering and pain. The voice of Lord for hope and comfort was something unknown:
Verse 5b: “I hear a language I had not known”
Here you can almost picture the music dwindle. The choir gets quiet and Asaph begins a solo act. And he is reminding the people of the unique circumstances of the Exodus. God had spoken to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob directly. Joseph had had some dreams, but not very much direct revelation. And after that, for 400 years, we do not hear of any prophet or man of God receiving a word from God. Until Moses. And he comes with words of hope, with words of healing, with a revelation from Yahweh, something completely foreign to that generation of slaves. And then, as music begins to rise again, Asaph speaks as taking the very voice of Yahweh:
Verse 6: “I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket”
God speaks. He begins an oracle that will go until the end of the Psalm. Just as He had spoken to the generation of the Exodus, He speaks to the people gathered in Jerusalem for worship. “I relieved your shoulder of the burden;” speaking of a complete relief. The word used here literally means to “take off.” The people of Israel had been under a severe trial, working on difficult building projects, carrying heavy materials and laboring under severe heat. But as soon as they called on God, He came with revelation, and then with complete relief. Their hands were “freed” from the basket, a word meaning alienation, separation, a change of state, literally, to “cross over.” In other words, the basket was taken from them and thrown across the street. God had come to help, and to help fully, as we continue:
Verse 7a: In distress you called, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder”
When Israel had been in distress, they had trusted the Lord. They had called His name. They had trusted their burdens in His hands. And He had come to deliver fully. He had descended from the heavens, from the secret place of His glorious dwelling, to be with them. God’s theophanies with the generation of the Exodus were often accompanied by clouds and sometime thunder, which reflected His presence. When Israel called God, He came personally; He showed up with power and took His people out of the bondage that oppressed them.
Just imagine the people of Israel who had gathered for the feast. They come, and Asaph, the gifted worship leader, prepares their hearts for worship. He turns their focus towards God and brings them back in the cloud of the Shekinah. With intense music and powerful words, He draws them near to God, so close that God even begins to speak to them.
Then you get this one sentence that falls on them like an atomic bomb:
Verse 7b: “I tested you at the waters of Meribah. Selah.”
Then there is silence. The people are taken by surprise. They were not expecting this. They had forgotten what it meant to truly enter God’s presence. It came with holiness. They could praise the God of vibrant music and the God who delivered them out of Egypt, but they could not praise the God of Meribah.
Now what happened at Meribah? Meribah, also known as Massa, was the place where the people of Israel tested God because they were thirsty. We read in Exodus 17:7, “They tested the Lord saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?” Because of thirst, they hardened their hearts, put God to the test and provoked His wrath. They even caused Moses, the meekest and most humble man on earth at this time to lose his temper and his access to the Promised Land. It was at Meribah that God had told Moses to speak to the rock, but where in anger Moses hit the rock and did not give glory to God.
What is interesting here is that while all other passages of Scriptures mentioning Meribah or Massa speak of Israel testing God, this passage speaks of God testing His people.
God wanted to press them, like we press a sponge, to see what kind of water would come out, pure or clean.
At the Feast of the Tabernacles, the people praised God for two things: His past deliverance from Egypt, and for His provision for food. When it came to Egypt, yes, they could worship God. But when it came to provision, they could not. And they knew it. The year had been hard, the food had been sparse, and their trust in God had been tested severely, as we will see in more details as we unfold the text.
This was not an easy test. I asked one day my grandfather what was the hardest thing he had gone through during World War II. He told me, “To be young, hungry, and have no food.”
So the music stops. There is a Selah. That minor chord on the keyboard with a lot of black notes. And then nothing. Silence. And the people get ready for the next verse of the song with fear.
II. Confrontation for True Worship (8-10)
And they fear because next comes the confrontation. And they know it. First there was the call to worship, then comes the confrontation for undivided worship. From verses 1-7 there was the call, then from verses 8-10 there is the confrontation.
Verse 8: Hear, O my people, while I admonish you! O Israel, if you would be listen to me!
Verse 9: There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god.”
What is scene. It’s just like when you are a kid, and you are sent to your room for doing something bad, and you know your parents are coming soon to lecture you and punish you. “Hear O my people while I admonish you!” And here the word “to admonish” finds its root in the noun “witness.” There has been evidence of evil. They were caught in the act.
But here, even in the midst of the rebuke, God is pleading to His people “O Israel, if you would be listen to me!” This was not the first time. There was a continual pattern of disobedience and a continual pattern of pleading from God. He would never abandon His child. But here again, they are found disobeying the first commandment.
The language that Israel had not known in Egypt, they had never fully understood either. They had readily accepted the victory of God from Egypt, but the holiness and exclusiveness of God was something very much harder to grasp. That’s what we had seen with the golden calf, and that’s what was happening right there again with the people of Israel, turning again to other gods.
And so God goes back to the language of Deuteronomy 6:4-9, the great Shema: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one…These words that I command you shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently…”
But they did not take those words to heart. I times of testing, they turned to other gods, to other sources for comfort, hope, and satisfaction.
One of the most sobering moment for me when I lived in Israel for four months in the IBEX program was we spent a day excavating in Jerusalem. We were digging a shaft that was believed to have been a secret passage leading to a spring in the times of the Canaanites, the same shaft that Joab might have climbed to go in the city and take it by surprise. During one of our breaks the chief archaeologist came to us and showed us a little figurine they had found. I would never forget what he said, “This is from the time of King David, we have found many from that period.” I could not believe it. King David? The one who prepared the building of God’s Temple? Who organized the Levites? Who saw God’s hand with Him time and time again?
Yes. Even during the reign of this king zealous for the Lord and blessed by the Lord, the people still turned to other gods.
And while because of David’s obedience God blessed the people with military success, we know that He still judged them many times, one time even sending a 3-year famine. This was part of His covenant with them. You obey, you get food. You don’t obey, you starve. And then less you get it, the more the spiral goes down and the worse the judgment is.
Would you trust God after 3 years of famine? After all your savings have been consumed and your children have only skin on their bones? After half your farm animals have died and you’ve gone to your 10th funeral in just a few months? This was not an easy test.
For sure, when trials come, if we focus on our poor miserable selves, we will be miserable. You will lose hope. But even trials are not about us.
Verse 10a: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt”
“Israel! This is not about you! It’s never been about you! I didn’t choose you because you were a great nation, I chose you because I had plans for you, for my glory! I am the one with the plans for your lives, for the nations, for this world! Focus on yourselves, you will be lost in your miserable distress, just as miserable as the plans you come up for yourself!”
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt! I spoke these words to your fathers when I gave them my 10 commandments, now I speak them to you! I who delivered Israel from Egypt, I am the same today! I saved you, redeemed you, you belong to me, and if you trust me, I will take care of you! Remember your fathers! 40 years they were in the desert, and they lacked nothing (Deut 2:7)! For 40 years their clothes did not worn out and their sandals did not worn off their feet! (Deut 29:5)” [when I was in Israel, after 2 weeks I had already broken 2 pairs]
Verse 10b: “Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.”
“Take a step of faith! Open your mouth wide and call on my name, and see if I will not provide for you, as I did to your fathers! I was with the in the desert every day, and they lacked nothing! Just open your mouth! And open it big, because I am no small god! ‘Try me, and see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down a blessing until there is no more need!’ (Malachi 3:10). Stop trusting other sources to find comfort and satisfaction trust in me and worship me!”
The problem of Israel is that they only gave God 50% of their worship. They could praise God for His past faithfulness, but they could not wait on Him to be faithful from day to day. They could praise Him for His goodness it some areas, but then they would turn to different gods in the areas He was not answering them in their own timing.
But for God, the first commandment was very straight-forward. True worship is 100% or nothing. It is all worship or not worship at all. You can’t offer God an omelet with 11 good eggs and one rotten one. You got to give everything. It is either the pure and blameless lamb, or else it is nothing better than a cursed pig. 60 or 80% is not worship. Giving 60% to your family as an excuse that you are giving 100% to ministry is not an excuse. True worship is a question of the heart. Either something is completely committed to God, or else it is not worship.
Would we work the same way if God was our boss? Would we speak the same if God was sitting in the classroom? Did you offer thanksgivings to God before the last movie or show or game you watched? Was your heart in the right disposition to do it?
Either God is in what we do or He is not.
It’s about faith. Worship is and has always been a test of faith. Worship in its essence is a response. When Paul wrote in Romans 12:1, “Therefore, brothers I urge you to offer your bodies as living, holy and acceptable sacrifices” the “therefore” mirrors back the 11 previous chapters filled with the gospel of Christ. And you can’t respond in worship to the Gospel unless you have faith. We must trust God fully.
I had a friend who had a line he could not sing. He could praise God for many things, but for some trials that had happened in his life in the past he could never praise the Lord. That friend could not grow. He could not take steps of faith. He often felt miserable. And I’m telling you, if you ever start calling into question God’s goodness into your life and refuse to give Him glory even for trials, it will ruin you.
And that is what we see in the last verses.
III. The Contrast of Worshippers (v.11-16)
First there was the call, secondly the confrontation, and now, thirdly from verses 11-16, there is the contrast of worshippers, a contrast between what happens to a compromising worshiper, and a true worshipper. In verses 11-12 we see the condition of those who offer partial worship, and in verses 13-16 we see the contentment of those who live by faith.
Verse 11: “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me.
Verse 12: So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels”
Those who did not listen and obey (which really are the same thing) would be given over to the lusts of their hearts, which would be the literal translation. And we know what that means. This is the same language as Romans 1:26-27. That is the fate of unbelievers who “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” And the result is that they end up following their own counsels. But the plans of mortal men are not immortal plans. They also lead to death.
But listen to the plans of God for the true worshippers:
Verse 13: “Oh, that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!
Verse 14: I would soon subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes.
Verse 15: Those who hate the LORD would cringe toward him, and their fate would last forever.
Verse 16: But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with the honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”
God had made a covenant with Israel. Disobedience meant judgment, and obedience meant blessing. But notice, all the verbs here are on the conditional tense. None of these blessings can happen, unless Israel truly begins to listen, and to walk in God’s ways, which basically means to keep God’s revealed commandments.
That is verse 13. God is pleading. He is like a father who keeps telling his fifteen year-old son, “I’ll give you a car when you turn 16 if you behave.” But the boy is so impatient he keeps sneaking in the garage to borrow his dad’s car, only to get arrested by the police and send home with tickets. And when his birthday comes, there is no blessing, only admonition.
And you keep thinking to yourself: why don’t you just wait a little bit longer? This time of testing is so short, and the blessings are right there around the corner!
But they wanted the here and now, their own way.
Then verse 14-15. “What I did to the Egyptians, I can do it again. I will subdue your enemies. Don’t even worry. Just trust me! All I have to do is to turn my hand (as one would do with the motion of a sword), and it will be all over. It’s that easy for me. I am God.”
“In fact, I would even made them cringe, bow down before me, and bring homage to me and to my people, and for those who refuse to submit, I would make their shame last forever. This is how committed I am to bless you. I am even willing to send to everlasting punishment those who would oppose you, so that no one would ever want to rise against you. Because, I have chosen you and I love you.”
And finally we get to the last verse, verse 16, the most beautiful verse of the chapter.
Verse 16: But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with the honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”
Now Asaph is quoting Deuteronomy again, the song of Moses, in chapter 32.
“Israel, if you would obey, I would give you the finest, or literally the fattest wheat, the kidney fat of the wheat, and even from something bare, cold and dry like a rock, I would give you honey.”
And I keep remember Deuteronomy 2:7, “These 40 years the Lord your God has been with you. You have lacked nothing.”
You mean in those lands of hard stones and dirt, where nothing grows? Nothing.
You mean in that moving cemetery where an entire generation died? Nothing.
You mean in that place where the same meal was served 15,000 days in a row? Nothing, for I was with you.
If you truly delighted in me, even that manna would have tasted like the finest of wheat; even that water from the rock of Meribah, would have tasted like honey. If only you knew what it meant to worship me.
Israel had been called to worship. They were the chosen ones. God had a covenant with them. He would bless, if they worshipped. In verses 1-7 we saw them show up, but their hearts were not right. So in verses 8-10 there was the confrontation. Then God ends the whole thing with a sobering contrast, from verses 11-16. Those who do not listen will fail miserably. Those who worship in faith will taste of the honey from the rock.
Why was that rock so good?
Let us read from the New Testament 1 Corinthians 10:1-4
“For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized by Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”