Psalm 81 is a psalm that fits, once again, into the broader context of the Babylonian exile. This psalm, however, is unique in that it speaks from God’s perspective. Rather than the people crying out to God for relief and asking why and how long, here he speaks back to them and tells them why and how long. It is a fascinating psalm to consider from that perspective alone.
But there is another helpful devotional consideration from this psalm, which has to do with the nature of praise. Simply put, this psalm encourages—indeed, commands—holistic praise to God in the dreariest of circumstances. Notice the enthusiasm with which this praise is described: “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” (vv. 1–3).
The worshipper here gives his whole heart in praise to God. But this seems strange in light of the circumstances. In recent psalms, the writers have wondered, on behalf of the people, why God has forsaken them and how long it will last. If Psalm 81 is (as I have suggested above) God’s answer to that question, praise is not the response we might expect. But it is the response that is expected.
It is easy to praise God when things go well. When we fervently pray for God to answer our prayers and he does so, the natural response is an outburst of praise. We want to share God’s kindness with others and ask them to join us in praising God. But when things don’t go as well as we would like, praise is not as easily forthcoming.
The writer of Psalm 81 knew that he couldn’t depend on spontaneous praise, given the circumstances. Praise needed to be done despite feelings to the contrary. Why should the people praise God fervently? “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” (vv. 4–5). Do you see what he is doing? He is instructing the people that praise to God is expected. The festivals that God commanded, celebrating his great deliverance from Egypt, must be celebrated even in exile. Even in adverse circumstances, God must still be praised for his salvation.
This psalm reminds us that God is worthy of our praise when we feel like it and when we don’t. He is worthy of our praise when things are going well and when they are not. He is worthy of our praise not because of our circumstances but because of who he is, which doesn’t change depending on our circumstances. In praise, we recognise God for who he is. And the nature of praise is such that it is able to shape our outlook on our circumstances.
If you have been a Christian for very long, you can probably attest to this. Have you ever walked into the doors of the church on a Sunday morning feeling downtrodden? Have you ever dreaded the thought of having to sing with the congregation but then found that, once you have started, your heart has been strangely warmed? What is the reason for that? Is it not because praise, particular in the corporate context, is instructive? When we praise God, we are reminded of who he is and what—ultimately—he has done for us. Present circumstances do not invalidate his goodness and kindness to us.
Christian, perhaps you are facing a day ahead in which praise seems impossible. Perhaps it is the furthest thing from your mind. Perhaps your circumstances have left you downtrodden. Let me encourage you to praise anyway. God is worthy of praise, even when providence seemingly does not smile on you. And as you praise him, your heart may be strangely warmed so that your present adverse circumstances take on a whole new light.