What does the church most need today? In answering this important but rather general question, Psalm 81 is uniquely important and helpful. This psalm obviously contains beautiful promises and clear directions to help the people of God. But careful study of this psalm will deepen our appreciation of it, increase its value for us, and show us how distinctive it is for helping the church.
As we study psalms, we soon learn that the central verse of a psalm is often significant as a key to its interpretation. The central line of Psalm 81 is the heart of that psalm, as the plaintive cry of God is heard: “O Israel, if you would but listen to me!” (v. 8b). The center of Psalm 81—indeed the whole psalm—is a reflection on the Shema.
The centrality of this line and its importance are underscored when we recognize that Psalm 81 is the central psalm of Book 3 of the Psalter. Book 3 (Psalms 73–89) principally concerns the crisis in Israel caused by the destruction of the temple (Ps. 74) and the apparent failure of God’s promises that David’s sons would forever sit on his throne (Ps. 89). Something of the cause and character of this crisis is contained in this central line of the central psalm.
Since Book 3 is the central book of the five books of the Psalter, Psalm 81:8b actually is the central line of the whole book of Psalms. It stands at the very heart of Israel’s songbook. It calls Israel to deep reflection on her relationship to her God.
This psalm also appears to be central to Israel’s liturgical calendar. The praise at new moon and full moon can refer only to the seventh month of the year, the Feast of Trumpets (Lev. 23:24; Num. 10:10) and the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev. 23:26–32). Between these two feasts occurred the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27). As God called Israel to celebrate His great provisions as Creator and Deliverer, so He called His people to hear Him.