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Liturgical use of Psalms 81 & 95

July 14, 2008

From Deuteronomy 16 we discover the feast of Tabernacles was one of the three major feasts of Israel’s liturgical calendar and it’s mentioned also in Leviticus 23:33-45. Baldwin suggests that it is the oldest pilgrimage festival and we find it in both Judges 21:19 and 1 Samuel 1:3. Israel was to give thanks to Yahweh for his blessing them by establishing his covenant with them. The feast brought to Israel’s mind Yahweh’s gracious deliverence and protection of them through the exodus out of Egypt and the journey to the promised land with forty-years in the wilderness. It was at this feast that Israel was to rejoice gratefully for Yahweh’s covenant and, as Waltke notes, they were to reflect upon the exodus as a motive for obedience.

It is then unsurprising that two Psalms were used at this feast both of which exhorted Israel to be obedient. These are Psalm 81 and Psalm 95. Psalm 81 is related to the feast of Tabernacles by means of verses 1-7 especially verse 3 which reads, “Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our feast day.” In verses 8-10 we find the Law alluded to, verse 10 is the prologue to the Decalogue “I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” whilst verse 11 is the first commandment, “There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god.” Then verses 11-16 exhort Israel to obedience reminding them of the blessings that flow from being faithful to the covenant Yahweh made with them, “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.”

This is then picked up in Psalm 95

Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.
Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
and they have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest.”

These Psalms then, I believe (following Mowinckel), form part of a covenant renewal ceremony wherein Israel is reminded of the covenant Yahweh made with them and are exhorted to keep faithful to it. The covenant that Yahweh had made with Israel was renewed not only by their singing these Psalms but also by having the Law read as per Deuteronomy 31:9-13

Then Moses wrote this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel. And Moses commanded them, “At the end of every seven years, at the set time in the year of release, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.”

This we find taking place upon the return from Babylon in both Ezra 3 and Nehemiah 8.

I therefore find it highly probable that Psalms 81 and 95 formed a central part of the liturgy for a covenant renewal ceremony that took place during the feast of Tabernacles whereby Israel was reminded of the covenant Yahweh established with them and exhorted to walk in faithfulness to it.

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