Canticles: Psalm 81—Unknown

This post is part of a series called CANTICLES, in which I reflect upon a poetic biblical text chosen for the upcoming Sunday’s worship. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.

Sometimes, interpretation of a poem hinges on a single line. That’s the case with Psalm 81.

The hinge line comes in verse five. Verse five is the transition point between the words of the psalmist, which provide context for the rest of the psalm, and the words of God, which comprise the bulk of the psalm. In the NRSV, the line is translated, “I hear a voice I had not known,” and is given to the psalmist instead of God. But this interpretation is up for debate. See, the Hebrew original did not contain any quotation marks. It’s fairly clear from the psalm itself that God begins speaking. But the question is where in the psalm does God begin speaking, and what does this strange verse mean?

How can I hear God’s voice of freedom and love in the midst of my suffering? Am I attentive to God’s presence amongst those people I’d rather not encounter? When I’m in a situation that seems utterly foreign to me, am I more likely to put up my defenses or make the effort to retain an openness to what God has in store?

For instance, in their commentary, Beth LaNeel Tanner, Nancy deClaisse-Walford and Rolf Jacobson translate the line from God’s perspective, as the first words of God’s speech: “I heard speech I did not know; I took away from his shoulder his burden…” Tanner explains, “At v. 5c, the psalm changes to the first person, but there is no indication of who the speaker is….The exodus begins with God ‘hearing their groaning’ (Exod. 2:24). It is God’s hearing of speech I did not know that motivates God to act. Indeed, this pattern of God hearing cries of pain is what the prayers for help are based on.”1 So, the strange, otherworldly sound of thousands of people crying out provokes God to act.

OR. We follow the NRSV translation, as Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger do. “Apparently the liturgist hears an unknown voice, the divine voice, and that introduces the oracle in verses 6-16.”2 So the strange voice is God’s voice, erupting into the psalmist’s life with this divine speech.

OR. We follow the NRSV translation’s notion that it is the psalmist speaking; but the strange voice is not God’s voice. So argues Robert Alter’s commentary. He writes, “These words are a kind of interjection on the part of a speaker who is a representative Israelite, recalling ‘his’ time of enslavement in Egypt when his taskmasters spoke an alien tongue.3

So which is it? Is the people’s cry so horrific that it sounds like something never heard before? Is God’s voice strange and unknown, startling the psalmist? Or is it the psalmist’s situation that was strange, living among a people with a foreign tongue?

Or perhaps it is all three: unparalleled suffering, unexpected encounter, and inhospitable situation. It is in all three experiences that God’s voice may be heard. Which means that we do not know when we might hear God’s voice.

Now, this may not be new to you. In fact, I’m fairly certain most youth workers have at some point utilized this very same theological nugget to convince some of their young people to undertake tasks they would rather not do, or to go on mission trips, or to serve people. God makes us uncomfortable on purpose! Come on, get out of your comfort zone!

But I’m finding recently that it’s more important for me to heed these words than it is for me to use them as a prod or, let’s admit it, a theological bludgeon, for others.

How can I hear God’s voice of freedom and love in the midst of my suffering? Am I attentive to God’s presence amongst those people I’d rather not encounter? When I’m in a situation that seems utterly foreign to me, am I more likely to put up my defenses or make the effort to retain an openness to what God has in store?

The point is not to remain in the uncomfortability, or the suffering, or the strangeness indefinitely. God delivers the people, after all, in the very next sentence. But do we linger long enough in these moments to hear God? Are we attentive to God’s activity in all of aspects of our lives, not just the areas that seem obvious?

The people did not always listen to God’s voice. They turned to other voices, to their own counsels and desires. God cries out,

O Israel, if you would but listen to me!

…I am the Lord your God,

who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.

Open your mouth wide and I will fill it!

…I would feed you with the finest of the wheat,

And with honey from the rock I would satisfy you. (Psalm 81:8b, 10, 16)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had honey from a rock before. Evidently some wild bees in Israel make their hives in rocks, which is why Israel came to be called a land “flowing with milk and honey.” Still, I’m afraid of bees in general. But if God’s blessing can be found in a desert, wrought from a stone, protected by wild bees, I think, maybe, I’m willing to go.

Song Recommendations:

William Cowper, Sometimes a Light Surprises – The author, William Cowper, was no stranger to difficult circumstances. He battled mental illness for much of his life. At one point, he even believed that God had doomed him to eternal damnation. He also fought to end slavery, in a time when abolitionist views were not popular. This beautiful hymn seems to have emerged from those times when Cowper was surprised by God in the midst of suffering. Here are the lyrics. This would be beautiful sung with the tune “Salley Gardens.” The tune and the poetry are put together in the Glory to God hymnal #800, with guitar chords.

Will You Come and Follow Me (The Summons) – Here’s a neat version of this traditional song. I appreciate the modern chord voicings and the space that the slow pace gives for the lyrics to be heard.



1. Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson and Beth LaNeel Tanner, NICOT Commentary on The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), p. 639.

2. Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr. Psalms (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 352.

3. Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), p. 289.



Marcus A. Hong is a child of God, the Director of Field Education and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. A lover of movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, Marcus and his wife Sarah have their hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.

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