Psalms For Life
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Yahveh Elohim hear our prayers

Psalm 81

Honey from the rock

Many voices now clamor for our attention, promising us the good life if we only take control, do more, buy more, consume more, etc. Amid that din, God calls to us too, though his voice may be unfamiliar. Choosing which voice to heed is vital.

An Asaph psalm.

Sing joyfully to God, our strength!
Shout triumphantly to Jacob’s God!
2 Raise a song, strike the tambourines
play the pleasant lyre and harp.
3 Blow the ram’s horn at the new moon
at the full moon and on our feast day
4 because it’s a statute for Israel
decreed by the God of Jacob.
5 A law he gave to Joseph’s family
when he went to war against Egypt
and I heard a voice I didn’t know.

6 “I relieved the load from his shoulder
and took the brick basket out of his hands.
7 You cried out in desperation
so I set you free.
Hidden in the thunderstorm
I answered you.
I tested you at the Waters of Meribah.
8 Listen my people while I warn you—
if only you’d listen, Israel.
9 You shall have no foreign god among you.
You shall not bow down to an alien god.
10 I am YHWH your God
who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.
Open your mouth wide
and I will fill it!
11 But my people didn’t listen to what I said—
Israel didn’t want me.
12 So I let them follow
the dictates of their stubborn hearts.
13 If only my people would listen to me
if only Israel would walk in my ways
14 how quickly would I subdue their enemies
and conquer all their foes.
15 Those who hate YHWH
would cringe before him
their doom being forever sealed.
16 But you I would feed
with the finest of wheat.
With wild honey from the rock
would I satisfy you.”

Asaph, a David-appointed worship leader, opens with the worship leader’s call to joyful praise and observance of three sacred festivals that point back to the exodus. The three comprise a series of autumn celebrations occurring in succession:  the Feast of Shelters, or Tabernacles, the Day of Atonement, and New Year’s Day (Rosh Hashanah).

While these festivals were held only in Jerusalem, the mention of Joseph’s family alludes to Israel’s breakaway northern kingdom, making the psalm inclusive of the entire nation. Joseph’s family lived peacefully in Egypt until God engaged in battle on their behalf under Moses. Asaph ends his call by admitting—as Israel’s representative—that he heard an unknown voice in the exodus, God’s voice, which addresses us in the rest of the psalm.

God refers to various situations—from Egypt to Sinai—in which he asked the Israelites simply to listen, trust him, and obey and they refused. Since they “knew better,” they weren’t willing to believe YHWH knew best and had their best interests at heart. So he let them go their own way. Now centuries later, the Israelites still run after foreign gods. Even so, God still counts them his people and utters his pathos-filled cry, “If only my people would listen.”

God calls his people to reject other gods and obey him wholeheartedly. Alluding to the baby bird’s total dependence on its parents, he invites his people to open their mouths wide in anticipation of all he’ll provide. He promises them prompt protection and the very best life has to offer if only they’ll worship and trust him alone.

God, you rescued me—like the Israelites—when I didn’t know your voice. Help me not to limit your grace, which counts lost rebels your people and urgently calls them home. Help me to believe you’ll give me more than I could ever ask for if only I hear your voice. Amen.

During your free moments today, meditate on God’s gracious invitation:

Open your mouth wide
and I will fill it!

Why YHWH?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH or YHVH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and sometimes transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Likewise, all modern translations either translate or transliterate it. Some other options for translating it are “the Eternal,” “the Almighty,” or “the Sovereign Lord.”

While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it seems to me more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. This roots it more firmly in the biblical story as the name God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Meaning “the self-existent One who answers to no one,” the name YHWH set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. I’ve chosen to transliterate only YHWH’s consonants since the earliest Hebrew manuscripts contain only consonants, the vowels being added much later. My aim in doing so is to honor God’s name and set it apart, as unique.

One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it out of reverence. (They read Adonai instead whenever they come to YHWH in the text.) I take the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard, who advocated pronouncing it as Yahveh (Yah·vay). He favored that over the standard Yahweh since the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish. It also makes it sound more robust, period.

Finding strength in the ancient psalms

May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.