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Author:Rev. Mark Chen
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Congregation:First Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore
Title:Listen, O Church of Christ!
Text:Psalms 81:1-16 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Trinity Hymnal Revised 1990, The Psalter 1912

Psalter 222 - A Summons to Joyful Worship (stanzas 1-5)
TH 461 - Not What My Hands Have Done
TH 316 - The Mighty God, the Lord

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Listen, O Church of Christ!

Psalm 81:1-16

We all need reminders and warnings. As children, we all know our parents’ instruction. But we don’t always obey. Yes, we simply forget - we fail to value the privileges and responsibilities. We take our parents for granted. But we don’t only forget, we deliberately rebel. So what do parents do? They remind us of their love. But they also warn against future disobedience. They promise blessing for obedience. This was the same with Israel. God had chosen them as his people. They were redeemed from Egypt. But despite that, they disobeyed. They grew too comfortable and forgot God in the Promised Land. They had wells they didn’t dig, cities they didn’t built, vineyards they didn’t plant. But they also purposely disobeyed. So God reminded them of their deliverance. He warned them to listen and obey. Psalm 81 was one such occasion. Now, the psalms are divided into 5 books. Psalm 81 is the middle psalm of the middle book. And as poetry, the structure of the psalms gives insight into the main point. This middle book (Psalms 73–89) concerns a crisis. Some thing happened to Israel in Psalm 75; perhaps an invasion. Why? Because her kings who sat on the throne of David had failed to obey God, Psalm 89. But this was nothing new. Psalm 78 speaks about past disobedience in the wilderness. So the middle line of this middle psalm of the middle book is verse 8b - “O Israel, if you would just listen to me!” Because nation and kings failed to listen, they were now facing consequences. So God called them to listen to 2 things: Firstly, the reminders of God’s grace and mercy, and secondly, the warnings of privileges and penalties.

Firstly, the reminders of God’s grace and mercy. We see the occasion - it was a divine opportunity to remember. Verses 1-4 speak of a season of holy days appointed in the law. This is where Israel sung to God with a psalm on psaltery and harp. Also, they blew the trumpet in the new moon, and at the time appointed, or more precisely, at the full moon. Now, if we examine Israel’s calendar, only in the seventh month - September/October, do we find feasts on the new and full moon. In fact, at this time, there were 3 holy days - the Feast of Trumpets, the Feast of Tabernacles 15 days later, and in between them on day 10, was the Day of Atonement. The Feast of Trumpets was on the first day - on the new moon. They were to blow the trumpets. This signified the end of the harvest year where girls would celebrate with timbrels. After that, they commenced 10 days of repentance. Leviticus 23:24 called it the day of solemn rest. The trumpets signified repentance. Day 10 was the Day of Atonement. This was the most important day. On it, the sins of the whole nation were dealt with. The High Priest put on linen garments and offered 2 offerings - for specific and general sins. After that, he made atonement for the people with 2 goats. The first goat was a sin offering. He sprinkled its blood on the horns of the altar of incense and the mercy seat. Then he’d put both hands on the second goat’s head and confessed all Israel’s sins to transfer guilt. The goat was cast into the wilderness - signifying the removal of Israel’s sins far from them. Now, the solemn repentance for 10 days was necessary. No forgiveness without repentance. Then after 5 days, on the full moon, was the Feast of Tabernacles. At this time, Israel reenacted the exodus - they lived in tents for a week to remember their wandering; that after 40 years God led them to the Promised Land. These three feasts were a divine occasion to repent and remember their deliverance from sin and slavery, their pilgrimage, and their deliverance rom judgment to blessing. We see how.

These festivals reminded them of their deliverance from human masters. The psalm reminded the hearers these feasts were instituted by statute, verse 4, at Sinai, the secret place of thunder, verse 7. The mountain was shrouded with smoke. These feasts, Sinai, and the law all symbolized their freedom from Egypt. Asaph recalled in verses 5-6 how terrible it was. As people of Joseph, they were instructed to dig up mud, make bricks, and transport bricks. They carried burdens on their shoulders and carried pots with their hands - all the time scolded in a foreign language. These were not easy times. In fact, they cried out for deliverance, verse 7. And God mercifully delivered them from the hands of their enemies. He did that ultimately through the sacrifice of the first born son of Egypt - so that Israel, God’s first born, could be delivered. And after a season of wandering, he brought them into the Promised Land.

These festivals also reminded them of their deliverance from God. Verse 7 says, “I proved thee at the waters of Meribah.” This was a sobering reminder. These festivals also reminded them of their disobedience. Despite seeing God’s power in Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, receiving daily manna, they sinned. When they came to Massah Meribah, they had no water. They asked - “Is God even amongst us?” They put God to the test - that’s the meaning of Massah. They dared challenge him - that’s the meaning of Meribah. What more did they want? They were insolent and God could’ve judged them for that. But he mercifully spared them. He showed grace. He miraculously provided them water. Moses struck a rock and water sprang forth from it. God didn’t have to do that. After all, he already delivered them from slavery, gave them food, took care of them. Yet they doubted him. But this was the only time. At the end of their 40 year wandering, they came to Kadesh. Again, they complained - no water! After 40 years of daily bread, guidance, protection, they again tested God. They deserved judgment! But again, he provided water. Now, something sad happened. Moses failed to follow the instructions; instead of speaking, he struck the rock. God could’ve judged Moses severely. But God spared his life. Only this - he couldn’t enter the Promised Land. But get this - the people did enter. And they survived this long. They were still celebrating feasts. It was a reminder of the mercy and grace of God.

But secondly, we see the warnings of privileges and penalties. The reminders of deliverance - of grace and mercy - were also accompanied by words of warning and direction. God firstly reminded them that he was in covenant with them. We see in verses 8-10 the direction to listen - “Hear, O my people, and I will testify unto thee: O Israel, if thou wilt hearken unto me; there shall no strange god be in thee; neither shalt thou worship any strange god. I am the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt.” These words “Hear, O my people” and “O Israel, if thou wilt hearken unto me, there shall no strange god be in thee” would’ve reminded them of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 - “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” Before they entered the Promised Land, the law was read a second time. These words called their attention to the fact that they were in covenant with God. He rescued them from Egypt. They belonged to him. They had privileges, but also penalties if they refused to obey. That’s why they wandered 40 years. The Feast of the Tabernacles didn’t only remind them of their preservation, but also their punishment. 40 years in the wilderness! And if they didn’t obey now, would they not be exiled from the land? It was a great thing to have the Lord as their God, but also a fearful thing. There were privileges but also penalties.

Let’s look at the privileges first. Verse 10 says, “open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it.” This tells us that their current calamity included famine - which come with foreign invasion.  If only they trusted God - he’d fill their mouths like he did in the wilderness. They gathered manna, even a double portion on the 6th day - trusting that God would always provide. So now, verse 16, if only they obey and follow God, he’d feed them with the finest of wheat - not just wheat - but finest wheat. It was not bread they received in the wilderness but bread from heaven. And while their ancestors received water from a rock, verse 16 says God would satisfy them now with honey out of the rock. At Massah Meribah and Kadesh Meribah, God quenched them with water. Here, the promise was satisfaction with magic honey. If they obeyed. The privileges enumerated were clear. Whatever their ancestors had experienced would pale in comparison if only their listen and obey. And verse 13 showed God’s desire to bless - if only my people had listened and walked in my ways, all these blessings would be theirs. It was not just food but further deliverance. Verse 14 says - “I should soon have subdued their enemies, and turned my hand against their adversaries.” God would have given such protection if they simply obeyed. Their enemies would be conquered. His hand would turn against their enemies. That tender hand that fed them and placed morsels of food into their opened mouths would be turned against the enemies to judge them. And verse 15 says that these enemies, these haters of God, would be subdued forever. Just as Israel had been enslaved and then freed from Egypt, these enemies would be conquered and enslaved by Israel. These were their privileges.

But instead, we see the penalties for not listening. Instead of conquering their enemies, Israel was now conquered. Why? Verse 11 says, “But my people would not hearken to my voice; and Israel would none of me. So I gave them up unto their own hearts' lust: and they walked in their own counsels.” Because Israel would have none of God - because they didn’t want God around - God let them do what their heart and counsel wanted. God never forces people to do anything they don’t want to do. They want to sin? Go ahead. Sin more. He let them follow their heart. It was not just a desire, but a lust - a stubborn desire of the heart. Their hearts were hardened against God to do what they wanted. And furthermore, he let them follow their own devices. If you know a better way of salvation, go ahead! 

Now, these words were ironic in the midst of feasts that remembered and celebrated God’s deliverance from Egypt. But if they heeded these feasts, if they remembered and repented, they’d be delivered. But if not, or kept them hypocritically, without remembering and repenting, God would let them walk into destruction. Unfortunately, that’s what happened in Israel’s history. She didn’t remember or repent. She didn’t want God. She wanted to worship her idols. And there were penalties. They were judged in 2 waves - Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BC and Judah was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. He only saved his remnant - those who truly believed. He brought them back. 

Now beloved, how does this apply to us? To the church under the New Covenant? We all struggle with sin - is it saying that if we don’t repent, we will lose our salvation? We will have food taken from us and enemies who will destroy us? As saints in Christ, this is how we can understand this psalm. Firstly, God has provided a person and a king that listens and obeys perfectly. The psalm begins with the words “Sing aloud unto God our strength.” God is our strength when we as a people are weak. He’ll do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. That’s why he gave us Christ - the perfect Son of God, the perfect son of David who rules. Where as all Israel, Judah, and kings in the Old Covenant always failed - Christ succeeded. Jesus always listened. He always did God’s will. He always listened to his Father. Jesus himself said, “my meat is to do the will of him that sent me.” God said of him at the Transfiguration - “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased. Hear ye him.” He didn’t need to repent but fulfilled the work of the Great High Priest - where once and for all, he offered an atonement for his own people - being that sin and burnt offering - for their general and specific sins. He was also that scape goat who took away the sins of his people. He came to tabernacle with us - from heaven, he came to live as a pilgrim amongst his people - having human form he lived for over 30 years. So that he can deliver many sons to heaven - the better city and better Promised Land. 

That’s why secondly, we see our privileges as God’s people. Because Jesus never fails, his people will never receive the penalties of disobedience - if we are in Christ, we will reach heaven - because of him. And that’s why we have privileges - he fills us with a water that always overflows - the Spirit, if we walk with him, we experience continual joy and victory over sin. We receive the bread of life through his Word - which transforms us. We have been forgiven of our sins because of Christ. He has given us a new heart and spirit - we desire to obey. Whereas the vast majority of God’s people in the Old Covenant failed, because we’re in Christ, we’ll desire to obey God. And when we do fail, he forgives us. He loves us. He restores us. He gives us strength and desire to obey him.

But are there no penalties for God’s people? Thirdly, we see that there are. Because of Christ, we’ll never be cast away, God will never allow us to be hardened. He chastens those he loves, to bring us back to himself. Christians who disobey can expect the chastening of God - not eternal penalties - but earthly pains that we may turn back to him. God’s cane is a sugar cane. But the one loss we can expect is that of rewards. If we build on Christ, we shall receive a reward at the judgment. But if we don’t build on Christ, our work shall be burned away. We will suffer loss - even though we’re saved. But the real loss is this - there are those among God’s outward people who have not truly trusted in Christ. This warning in the middle line of the middle psalm of the middle book of the book of Psalms is for you. If you only listen and trust in Christ to save you. If only you repent and come to him, and have his perfect obedience as yours and have his atonement to forgive you - God, for his sake, will conquer the enemy of sin and death, and feed you with all spiritual food, satisfying you with the sweetness of Christ.


1. The Reminders of God’s Grace and Mercy

    A. Divine occasion to remember

    B. Deliverance from man

    C. Deliverance from God

2. The Warnings of Privileges and Penalties

    A. The covenant of God

    B. The penalties

    C. The privileges

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2022, Rev. Mark Chen

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