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Asbury Bible Commentary – III. Festival Songs And Liturgical Pieces (Pss 50, 81, 115, 121, 131, 133)
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III. Festival Songs And Liturgical Pieces (Pss 50, 81, 115, 121, 131, 133)

Although these pieces resist location in one of the established psalm categories, they reveal in fascinating ways the liturgical and temple background of the works now in the Psalter. They also convey the import of support in prayer and loyalty to God.

At points we can only guess the worship setting. Pss 131 and 133 seem scarcely more than benedictory affirmations, indeed benedictory sayings. The one contains an individual's affirmation of contentment in quiet, expectant waiting on Yahweh (131:1-2). The fretting of the nursing child has given way to the tranquillity of the weaned. This personal certitude the piece then appropriates for all Israel, with the exhortation to “put your hope in the Lord (v. 3). But together the piece is more comfort and benediction than challenge. Ps 133 celebrates the sheer goodness of unity among brothers in a world so fractured by intrigue and fighting (remember the Prayers for Deliverance). Ps 121 is a little longer. Two verses affirming the psalmist's sole reliance on the Maker of heaven and earth—not the hills and the idolatrous, earthbound “helps” they represent—open the song. The remainder holds instructive, encouraging affirmations addressed to the worshiper of vv. 1-2, supporting that faith and reassuring the listener of Yahweh's unending protection.

As to when such affirming, encouraging, comforting words may have been spoken, virtually to stand on their own in the worship, one can only speculate. Perhaps they followed the tep̱illôṯ when the worshiper had poured out his or her groaning, calling for protection or deliverance. Such benedictory affirmations would bring comfort. Other situations could be suggested. Perhaps as much as anything, these pieces underscore the value of corporate affirmation, the healing, helping force of affirmative, benedictory sayings in worship. For those who truly listen, the “speaking of the peace” has power, especially when one may find oneself unable to speak such words on one's own. Now in the Psalter, out of the temple courts, these poems bring that comfort to the reader.

Ps 115 opens a window upon the lively interaction probable in the liturgy of the temple. Trace the interplay. A congregational ascription of glory to the Lord opens the psalm (v. 1), followed by a corporate affirmation of faith in “our God,” denying, indeed ridiculing, the worthless gods of the nations (vv. 2-8). Growing out of this affirmation of faith comes a recitative liturgy of exhortation to trust this God (vv. 9-11). Sectors of the worshiping community are addressed in turn—the (royal) house of Israel, the (priestly) house of Aaron, and the lay community of Yahweh fearers, with each exhortation to trust followed by the assertion (apparently by another party) that he is their help and shield. These exhortations are then balanced by a mirrorimage response, affirming that the Lord will indeed bless the house of Israel, the house of Aaron, and those who fear the Lord (vv. 12-13). Finally a concluding affirmation undergirds the import of the entire community's praise of Yahweh (vv. 16-18) and closes now with the editors' line that places it in the series of Hallel songs (v. 18b). With imagination one can still sense the liveliness of such a liturgy, in spite of the mystery regarding its setting.

Whether there was a festival devoted solely to covenant renewal in ancient Israel we do not know. Some passages of Scripture present themselves as candidates for arguable liturgies for such occasions (e.g., Dt 26:16-30:20; Jos 24). Covenant renewal itself surely was a part of Israel's worship. Ps 50 no doubt addressed such a situation. V. 5 refers the gathered ones back to their covenant roots; v. 16 implies that recitation of the law and the covenant words was part of the service.

The piece is structured by an opening appearance of God, with emphasis on his “speaking” and “coming,” with echoes of the Exodus and Sinai (vv. 1-4), followed by three clearly introduced oracles in which God directly speaks. First stands the divine invitation (v. 5), then admonition to Yahweh's people (vv. 7-15), and finally the contrasting denunciation of the wicked (vv. 16b-23). El, the universally recognized High God (NIV “The Mighty One”), Yahweh God himself, will utter righteous judgments (vv. 4, 6). We must think most likely of a temple prophet or a Levitical preacher speaking Yahweh's word.

The sermons are heavily freighted theologically. The message to Yahweh's people hinges on realizing the implications of who their God actually is (50:7). It demolishes current, popular misunderstandings of the sacrificial system, rejecting the idea that Yahweh in any way literally feeds on the sacrifices offered (vv. 8-13). Israel's neighbors often envisioned the clothing, feeding, moving of their gods as indispensable functions of the priests and worshipers. God separates the whole endeavor from mythological approaches to worship, implying the sacramental (versus literal) quality of the drama. He urges authentic sacrifice and promises deliverance with it (vv. 14-15).

The contrasting oracle to the wicked expounds the equally important issue of integrity in worship (50:16-23). Persons who neither do nor intend to keep the law find scorn here. Their basic problem is also their distorted view of God, whom they project as devious like themselves (v. 21b). They seal their judgment by such folly. This hypocritical trifling with sacred words and litanies appears worse than simple ignorance, reminding one of Paul's strong words to the Corinthians' disdain for the Lord's Table (1Co 11:17-34).

At the climax of the year, Ps 81 (no doubt with many more songs and readings)) called Yahweh's people to festival joy and the hearing of his word. The blast on the ram's horn at the new moon and full moon (v. 3) locates Ps 81 at the seventh month. Opened with the horn blast at the new moon's first sliver, the month included the high Day of Atonement on the tenth day and the Feast of Tabernacles on the fifteenth day (the full moon), according to Lev 23:33-34.

Following the call to festival joy (81:1-5), Yahweh himself speaks (again, we presume, through a temple prophet or Levitical preacher) a message in four movements (vv. 6-7, 8-10, 11-12, and 13-16). Building on the review of his saving history with his people, Yahweh calls his people to listen to him, putting away foreign gods (vv. 6-10). Rehearsing their tragic habit of not heeding his voice (vv. 11-12), he indirectly calls the hearers to obedience by a lament over the truly satisfying blessing forfeited by those who will not hear (vv. 13-16).

These pieces presenting the Levitical preacher or temple prophet bring to the fore the power of the spoken Word of God in worship. The form of these sermons is astounding, for they speak directly as the oracles of God, quoting God, as modern English editions of the Psalter indicate by punctuation. Though these pieces now stand as the written Word of God to us, they were not first thus delivered. They constituted in worship the spoken word. But unlike the contemporary sermons, where the prophets or preachers give “the word of God” in “their own words,” these come with the conviction that the very “words” (plural!) of God are being spoken. Behind them we can perhaps assume the same agony to hear God, the same searching and openness to God experienced by persons now who address others in the name of God. At the very least they call attention to the marvel of God's speaking at all through human lips.

The burden of these last liturgies, Pss 50, 81, 115 (and implicitly, 121 as well) is clearly the continuing need to call God's people away from culturally accommodated, character-eroding understandings of him to the foundational commitments of the covenant. The hills seemed so near (121:1-2), where Canaanite and confused Yahweh worship claimed to present more tangible and believable help (Jer 3:6-10). To Israel's neighbors her “invisible god” (115:2) lacked credibility. One might like to think of the people of God as able to stay true to the One who saved them—without reminder and repeated reinforcement . Their history does not support that dream. In these psalms God clearly gives his Word and calls his people to continual renewal of their bonds with him. Just as the benedictory affirmations noted earlier may well have undergirded the believers' desperate prayers, these liturgies support God's people in continuing obedience.