Psalm 81: Ancient Liturgy and Timely Admonition
Rosh Hashanah, celebrated recently, is the two-day celebration of the Jewish New Year occurring on the first and second days of Tishri (roughly congruent to the second week of September). This festival, ordained of God in Leviticus 23:23–25, was absent of a name outside of Yom Teruah, or “Day of the Sounding of the Trumpet.”
Therefore while the celebration is biblical, the term Rosh Hashanah (New Year) is not. This celebration is seen in two other places in Scripture — Ezra 3, in celebrating of the rebuilding of the Temple, and in Psalm 81.
To the choirmaster: according to The Gittith. Of Asaph.
Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob!
Raise a song; sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp.
Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our feast day. For it is a statute for Israel, a rule of the God of Jacob.
He made it a decree in Joseph when he went out over the land of Egypt.
I hear a language I had not known: “I relieved your shoulder of the burden;
your hands were freed from the basket. In distress you called, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder; I tested you at the waters of Meribah.”
Hear, O my people, while I admonish you! O Israel, if you would but listen to me! There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god. I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it. “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels. Oh, that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! I would soon subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes. Those who hate the Lord would cringe toward him, and their fate would last forever. But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.
In this post, we will examine the superscription, the liturgy, and the admonition of this Psalm to better understand its history and message as it pertains to the worship leader.
Psalm 81, the ninth Psalm of “Book Three” of the book of Psalms, was probably edited and compiled by Asaph, who is mentioned in the epigraph: “To the choirmaster: according to The Gittith. Of Asaph.” Asaph was the son of Barachias (1 Ch 6:39, 15:17) and eleven more of the Psalms have his name in their corresponding titles (50, 73–83). Asaph was the chief worship leader during the Davidic reign (1 Ch 16:5), and was serving in this capacity upon the safe delivery of the Ark of the Covenant to the City of David. The term gittith or al-haggittit is also mentioned in Psalms 8 and 84. This musical terminus technicus presumably gives guidance of how the Psalm is to be performed.
There are two prevailing theories: First, that it implies the City of Gath, meaning “in the style of Gath”, or “upon the instrument of Gath.” This theory is further supported by the definite article, “ha” in al-haggittit. That being the case, it may be a zither, which was an instrument of Gath. The second speculation is that it has to do with a winepress, or a song by the “pressers of wine.” This may be a viable theory, specific to this Psalm, as it is clearly written to be sung during the harvest (verse three speaks of the “new moon and the full moon of feast days” implying both Yom Teruah and the Feast of Sukkot). A firm answer will most likely, always elude the reader.
This focal psalm is what would be known as a liturgical psalm. Over time it has become a schema for an entire Rosh Hashanah liturgy. This liturgy, formulated by Rabbi Moises ben Maimonides (RaMBaM for short) in the twelfth century A.D., uses this covenant psalm to frame three parts of the liturgy; each liturgical part then contains ten different scripture passages to be read in this time of annual worship. These are known as the Malkuyot (the kingship of God), the Zikronot (remembering His good works), and the Shofrot (trumpet blowing). The liturgy is as follows:
The Malkuyot: (1, 9–10) “Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob!” “There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god. I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.” The accompanying ten verses about the kingship of God are then recited: Ex 15:18, Nu 23:23, De 33:5, Ps 22:28, 93:1, 24:7–10, Is 44:6, Ob 1:21, Ze 14:9. Afterwards the shofar is blown along with prayers.
The Zikronot: (6–7) “I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket. In distress you called, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder; I tested you at the waters of Meribah.” The accompanying ten verses of remembrance are then recited: Ge 8:3, Ex 2:24, Le 26:42, Ps 91:4, 5, 106: 45, Je 2:2, Ez 16:60, Je 31:20, Le 26:45. Afterwards the shofar is blown along with prayers.
The Shofrot: (3–5) “Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our feast day. For it is a statute for Israel, a rule of the God of Jacob. He made it a decree in Joseph when he went out over the land of Egypt. I hear a language I had not known.” The accompanying ten verses on the trumpet are then recited: Ex 19:16, 19:19. 20:18, Ps 47:5, 98:6, 81: 3–5, 150, Is 18:3, 27:13, Ze 9:14. Afterwards the shofar is blown along with prayers.
The shofar calls that are used in this liturgy are the tekiah and teruah, which are referenced in Numbers 10 as “blow” and “alarm” respectively. The other two are extra-biblical: the shevarim, and the tekiah gedolah which appear later in Talmudic literature. You may click the associated links to hear these different calls.
In the liturgy, the Ba’al Tekiah, or the shofar blower will play one-hundred blasts combining these four calls, ending on the Tekiah Gedolah as dictated by the Ba’al Koreh (the prompter), in the presence of the worshippers. This tripartite liturgy has not appreciably changed over the years, and its use as a framework is quite similar to the practice of forming liturgy in Christian worship services using passages such as Psalm 95, 100 or Isaiah 6 framing their corporate worship.
While this liturgy is beneficial for a time of remembrance and celebration, there is another side. Christian theologian, Allen Ross, divides this Psalm in only two parts: “praise and preaching,” while similarly Charles Spurgeon renders it as “praise and chiding.” However, the Scripture itself divides this passage simply with one word, selah. After this liturgy of praise, a gentle, yet firm, admonition takes place, forming around a four verse chiastic structure warning the worshipers to follow God, YHWH, only.
Perhaps when the fanfares, liturgy and remembrances fade, the take-away should be something a little different. A single word is repeated five times, shema or listen (5, 8, 11, 13). The lack of which results in the horrible consequence of verse twelve, “So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,
to follow their own counsels.”
In the chapter entitled, “If You Want to Live, Listen,” author James Waltner reminds us that the need for festivals, and for admonitions alike, exists for the worshiper to listen to God, and ultimately heed the salvific words of his Son, Jesus Christ. For if we do, there is the promise to be gained in the final sixteenth verse when he says, “but he would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”
For the worship leader there are many lessons to be garnered from Psalm 81. The superscription is a lesson in communication emphasizing clarity of worship instruction, preventing misinterpretation. The post-scriptural liturgy of this Psalm can give us even more insight for planning worship around the construct of a passage. The admonition would be to always make the Creator God the constant object of our private and corporate affections. Then last but not least…
All Scripture used is from the English Standard Version of the Holy Bible
Joachim Braun, Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine: Archaeological, Written, and Comparative Sources, trans. Douglas W. Stott (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002).
Mark D. Futato and David M. Howard Jr, Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2007).
Sidney Hoenig, “Origins of the Rosh Hashanah Liturgy,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 57 (1967): 312–331.
Moses Maimonides and Horowitz, Meir Alter Halevi, Mishnah Torah L’HaRambam-Hilchos Shofar, Yad Hachazakah with Pirush Hameir Three (Nanuet, New York: Feldheim Publishing, n.d.).
Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps & Charts: Old and New Testaments (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1996).
Allen Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms: 42–89 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2013).
C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David : a Commentary on the Psalms. n.p.: London : Hodder and Stoughton, 1908.
Waltner, James H. Psalms. Scottdale, Pa: Herald Press, 2006. eBook Collection.
Abraham Witty and Rachelle Witty, Exploring Jewish Tradition: A Transliterated Guide to Everyday Practice and Observance, 1st edition. (New York: Doubleday, 2001).
Tzvee Zahavy. The Book of Jewish New Year Prayers: The Rosh Hashanah Machzor. (n.p. 2014).