Psalm 81: Honey from the rock

‘Honey from the rock’ (16)

Psalmist Asaph begins by calling for some energising activities:

Raise a song and sound the timbrel, the merry harp and the lyre. Blow the ram’s horn at the new moon, and at the full moon (1, 3)

Then this touch of mystery:

Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd

I hear a voice I had not known: “I eased your shoulder from the burden You called on me in trouble and I saved you; I answered you from the secret place of thunder and tested you at the waters of Meribah” (5-7)

Asaph knew his history and wove it into his songs. Meribah refers to a real historical event – disputation, angst and Moses striking water from the rock. (Numbers 20) For Asaph, despite familiarity with the Torah, inspiration could still arrive sometimes as a ‘voice not known’. So it is today.

‘Honey from the rock’ also occurs in Deuteronomy, painting a picture of the exiles drawing sustenance from desert lands. (Deut: 32:13. See also 1 Cor. 10) Whether today’s reader knows the background or not, the poetry sparks thought, dreaming, soaring imagination and hope. Knowing the history helps but in any event, one can still feel the warmth of being in the company of a great cloud of witnesses, hopeful and loving humanity, whoever they are or were.

Predictably, that opening call to raise a joyful song and blow the ram’s horn captured several classical composers such as Byrd (two setting for 5 and 6 voices), Hassler, Palestrina (again à5) and Scarlatti (SATB).

An upbeat refrain in The Emergent Psalter uses that mysterious verse 5 quoted above. Author Isaac Everett says: “This antiphon sounds great with guitar power chords and a little distortion”

Psalms For All Seasons has a small clutch of offerings that most musicians would relish. Like the phrases already mentioned, they seem to display a theatrical bent:

  • 81A Sing with joy, antiphonal, with solo and tutti voices and verses to a tone; words and music traditional Malawian
  • 81B Strike up the music! with a quiet ostinato of ‘Hear my voice’ behind the reading of the verses (and an added flute part)
  • 81C in hymn style, and therefore not our choice, but interestingly breaks for ‘a reading of the law’.