“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.