Ryan Hawkins

“If You Would But Listen to Me!” The Center of the Psalms, the Central Issue for Us

As we read Jesus’s interactions with the Pharisees, we get the sense that the Psalm 81 rebuke would still apply: “Oh, that they would but listen to me!” May we not be the same. May we read our Bible and listen to God’s word. But more that merely that, according to what we see in the center of the center of the psalms, may we listen by preferring God’s ways and counsel over our own ways and counsels.

Overall Israel disobeyed the Lord. They turned from his ways to their own.
We can say more, though. For mere disobedience sounds too external. It can imply their primary issue was their actions. It can imply the root issue was what they did or didn’t do with their hands, without much concern for their hearts, or heads—or ears.
What Is the Center of the Psalms?
As I’m reading and praying through the Psalms in my Bible reading, I’m reading through W. Robert Godfrey’s Learning to Love the Psalms. On the chapter for Psalm 81, Godfrey begins unlike he does for any other chapter so far. He writes, “Psalm 81 is a remarkable and important psalm in the Psalter” (142).
He says this for a handful of reasons. But primarily, it’s because of something I’ve never heard before. Godfrey writes, “In a sense, [Psalm 81] is the central psalm in the book of Psalms” (143).
Godfrey clarifies Psalm 81 of course isn’t central in terms of chapters (since there’s 150 psalms). Nor is Psalm 81 central in word count. Rather, Psalm 81 is central as “it is the central psalm in the central book of the Psalter” (143). There are five “Books” in the Psalms—divisions that are in the original text—and Psalm 81 is the middle psalm in the middle Book.
And thinking more about this, it seems that if anything, this is most likely what the Israelites saw as the center of their song book. With these five inspired “Books,” we can imagine that if an Israelite were asked, “What is the central psalm?” They probably wouldn’t answer “Psalm 75,” like we would with our focus on the 150. Instead, answering “Psalm 81,” since it is the psalm in the middle of Book Three would perhaps fit better.
The Center of the Center
Anyway, that’s Godfrey’s argument for why Psalm 81 is the central psalm in the Psalms.
What’s more interesting, however, is what the center of Psalm 81 itself is. If Psalm 81 is the center of the Psalms, what’s the center of the center? Godfrey writes,
“At the center of Psalm 81 are these words: ‘O Israel, if you would but listen to me!’ (v. 8b). For all the mysteries of God’s providence with Israel, here is the central truth: Israel was suffering a crisis of exile because she had not listened to her God” (143).
Fascinating, right? The central issue wasn’t merely or mainly disobedience or idolatry. Those were symptoms, results. What was the root? Not listening. Deciding to disregard God’s words. From there, everything fell apart.
The Diagnosis: Not Me, But Their Own Counsels
But in God’s word this root is even deeper still than just saying they didn’t listen—and it’s deeper for us. We can hear that Israel didn’t listen and imagine that they had closed off ears. But no one does. Instead, as God tells Israel, when we don’t listen to God, it’s because we’re listening somewhere else.
Notice how God talks in Psalm 81 when he diagnoses this central problem. Hear God’s specific judgment on their non-listening. I’ll italicize the ending of each line to get the point across.
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Sin is “Barbs in Your Eyes, Thorns in Your Sides”

While sin still is “barbs in your eyes and thorns in your side,” and so may we seek to avoid it, above all, let’s be thankful to the Barb-Taker, the Thorn-Wearer. Because he’s the one who, in love, not only illustrated, but who embodied, the indescribable harm of our sin. As Paul says, “For he who knew no sin became sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). 

But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. – Numbers 33:55
The Oxford dictionary defines a barb as “a sharp projection near the end of an arrow, fishhook, or similar item.” While a thorn—well, you know what a thorn is.
Imagine a barb in your eye. A thorn in your side. Talk about painful. Debilitating. Something that hurts.
That’s the picture God uses to warn the pre-land Israelites what it’ll be like if they don’t drive out the nations. The nations will be “barbs in your eyes and thorns in your side.” Translation: They’ll really hurt you. As he says, “They shall trouble you.”
Yet the bigger question is, Why? Why will these nations hurt the Israelites?
Why They Will Be Barbs and Thorns
To answer, first, let’s think about what we would assume to be the reason. With the language of “barbs” and “thorns,” our initial answers would probably assume that the nations would physically harm the Israelites. For example, that the nations would attack the Israelites back—that’d make the most sense of barb- and thorn-like language, wouldn’t it?
Or, if we were to take a non-physical answer, perhaps we’d assume that the nations will make the Israelites less prosperous. That sure would be “troubling.”
Or finally, perhaps we’d put a more modern emphasis on it and make it something like the nations would make the Israelite’s feel less secure and important and loved.
All those would be harmful. But the Lord gives us the true reason. And it isn’t any of the above. Instead, it’s simple: The nations will be barbs and thorns because they’ll lead the Israelites to turn away from God and to sin. It’s that simple.
A Much Bigger Barb
Now, let’s be honest. We may hear that and think it sounds just religious. “Really? The intensely painful barb is just idolatry and sin?”
Yet the reason God calls uses such an extreme descriptions as “barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides” is precisely because God wanted them (and wants us) to know how incredibly hurtful idolatry and sin actually are.
They may think that leaving the nations and engaging in their worship wouldn’t be that big of a deal—for “We’re still God’s people!” as they often thought, or “God is gracious after all!” as we often think. But the reality is, the picture of idolatry and sin’s effects is eyes being pierced with barbs and sides being struck with thorns.
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How Can Jesus Live in a Sinner Like Me?

He’s shown himself to be one who, although without sin and perfect in every way, can dwell with sinners. So now, with us as his people, it’s true, we are very sinful. But take heart, he hasn’t changed. He still longs to enter into the life of sinners. He still loves sinners. And because of such love, he’s in us sinners and changing us sinners to look more like his sinless self.

At a Bible study at our church recently, we came upon the point in Colossians where the climax of the gospel is, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). Remarking on the text, someone in the Bible study said, “But I’ve always wondered, ‘How could Christ be in me, when I’m so sinful?’”
It was apt insight. Christ is holy. And in a certain sense, the Bible says God cannot even look at sin (Habakkuk 1:13). So how can Jesus live in sinners like us?
What I said in response was inspired by the Gentle and Lowly book by Dane Ortlund I’ve been reading. There, Ortlund convincingly shows that Christ’s heart—the Triune God’s heart—is gentle, humble, and one which draws him near in mercy to sinners. This is supported from Jesus’s earthly life, but also from the epistles written about Jesus and from the Old Testament which foreshadowed Jesus.
But perhaps best of all, we could argue, we see this merciful heart in Jesus’s earthly life. Yes, he was appropriately tough against those who spurned his mercy and presumed to be children of God by virtue of their own works or ethnicity. Yet above all, Jesus was “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29). He entered with mercy into the sinful lives of many. He gently loved his disciples. And he generally become known as a “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34).
Most of all, he showed this gentle and lowly heart by his death. He decisively went to the cross, taking on the sin of his sheep and suffering in their place, never complaining or fussing, always loving. And he then rose again on the third day, revealed himself as the Savior to his sinful disciples, and ascended back to heaven.
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Something to Try: Scheduled Praying

If we don’t schedule to talk, we often won’t. Sin is amazing, isn’t it? We have the God of the universe who loves us and is waiting to listen, we have the way freely open to him through the gospel of Christ, we have the Spirit enabling us to pray…and yet, we still struggle. Yet, we’re talking about needing to schedule times of prayer.

“Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.” (Psalm 55:17)
“Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hours of prayer, the ninth hour [3 pm]” (Acts 3:1)
“The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour [12pm] to pray.” (Acts 10:9)
“And Cornelius said, ‘Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour [3pm]…’” (Acts 10:30)

Perhaps in your Bible reading you’ve noticed these verses as well. Especially the ones from Acts, it’s fascinating to us modern, usually unscheduled pray-ers to see how Luke records the early Christians praying at specific times. And it’s not in the morning or evening only, but at 12pm and 3pm—in the middle of the day.
Now, let’s be clear, God’s word never commands us we need to pray at specific set times like this. There is much in the Bible—especially in the book of Acts—that is descriptive while not being prescriptive. Nevertheless, might be we misguided if we don’t see these descriptions and wonder if they might help us to pray?
It could be argued this was simply Peter, John, and Cornelius’s culture. And so it was. Even for Cornelius, a Gentile God-fearer (not a Jew), it seems that praying in the middle of the day was somewhat of a given. While in contrast, we live in a culture where scheduled daily prayers are only monastic. We know of “quiet times” in the morning, of praying before meals and bed. But habitual 12pm and 3pm times of prayer? That’s foreign. And why? Because, we say, “I’m working then.” Or, “I don’t have the time.” Or especially, “I’m busy.”
But guess what? So were they.
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