God Is Not Indifferent
In its early setting, Psalm 81 invited pilgrims to Jerusalem to join in the rejoicing of the Feast of Tabernacles: “Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob. Raise a song, sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp. Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our festal day.”
The Feast of Tabernacles was a celebration intended to help the Jewish people remember and honor how God cared for their ancestors when he led them through the desert and provided for them during their forty years in the wilderness. During this week-long festival, people gave thanks for their recently completed harvest, and they lived in homemade shelters (tabernacles or booths) to recall the tents in which their ancestors lived while traveling through the desert. Every seventh year, the priests read aloud the Law of Moses so that people would keep that law in their minds and in their hearts. Psalm 81 stays faithful to the Feast of Tabernacles by recalling how God rescued his people and provided for their needs and gave them his law: “In distress you called, and I rescued you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder [Mt. Sinai]; I tested you at the waters of Meribah…. There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god. I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (verses 7 and 9-10).
Yet Psalm 81 grieves the fact that God’s people have not remained faithful to God: “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me” (verse 11).
Therefore, Psalm 81 calls us to renew our commitment to God: “Hear, O my people, while I admonish you; O Israel, if you would but listen to me!” (verse 8). And Psalm 81 concludes with the promise that if they return to God, he will restore them: “I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”
What grabs my heart in Psalm 81 is the awareness that it is God’s love that calls us to turn away from unfaithfulness and to turn back to God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer remarks, “Nothing is so cruel as the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be so compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother [or sister] back from the path of sin.” It is always God’s compassion that calls us to repent when we are going the wrong way.
Joseph Fletcher comments, “The true opposite of love is not hate but indifference. Hate, bad as it is, at least treats the neighbor as a THOU, whereas indifference turns the neighbor into an IT, a thing. This is why we may say that there is actually one thing worse than evil itself, and that is indifference to evil. In human relations the nadir of morality, the lowest point as far as Christian ethics are concerned, is manifest in the phrase, ‘I couldn’t care less.’” Thankfully, God is not indifferent! It is because God loves us so deeply that God calls us to turn away from our sins and to turn back to God.