Psalm 80 A People Waiting For God’s Forgiveness

By Hans Peter Feddersen – anagoria, Public Domain,

Psalm 80

<To the leader: on Lilies, a Covenant. Of Asaph. A Psalm.>
1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!
3 Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
4 O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.
6 You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.
7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
8 You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.
9 You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River.
12 Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
13 The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.
14 Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine,
15 the stock that your right hand planted.
16 They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down;  may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.
17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.
18 Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.
19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Over the years I have done a lot of work with couples preparing for a marriage or dealing with conflict in a marriage. One of the things I will remind them is that for a relationship to work it takes both parties working on the relationship. Both parties have to be willing to enter the dance, to move in complement to one another. In a time where forgiveness is needed and where trust is broken, both parties have to be willing to reenter into the relationship and enter into the hard work of offering and receiving forgiveness. Although the metaphor of marriage is not one of the images used in this psalm, these words revolve around a call to God to restore the relationship. It is a commitment that the people turned away from. In the aftermath of God’s act of turning away from the people and removing their protection they call upon God for forgiveness and a renewal of the relationship. Yet, the repentance of the people is not enough. They ask for a change in God’s stance towards them because there is no renewing of the relationship without God’s participation.

Psalm eighty deploys several images for God’s relationship with the people. God is the shepherd of Israel who leads the people like a flock, the one seated among the cherubim, the God of hosts, and the vintner who cultivates a vineyard. Shepherds are those responsible for the care and feeding of the flock and in the poetic dualism of the poem the feeder of Israel is now allowing it to be consumed. God who has been the faithful shepherd has turned away from caring for the flock as Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh now wander in the wilderness unprotected. Being a shepherd in the bible is also a common metaphor for kings/rulers. The flock stands in desperate need of God’s protection and provision as a shepherd or king. God as one seated among the cherubim is an image often associated with the ark of the covenant, which has two cherubim on the lid. Within the space of worship or within the tabernacle (or temple) God’s absence has been felt where God’s presence is expected. The LORD God of hosts is an image of God’s military might. The common translation of ‘God of hosts’ often obscures that what is being referred to is the God of armies.[1] The power of the ‘God of hosts’ is contrasted to the weakness of the ‘child of humanity’[2] Finally a second agricultural image is introduced as God is the vintner who transplants the vine from Egypt to the land of Canaan, clears the ground and allows for it to grow only to remove the walls protecting it allowing travelers and wild animals to leave it fruitless.

The reference to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh may refer to a time when the northern kingdom of Israel is encountering a crisis where they feel abandoned by God, perhaps the conquest of Assyria in 721 may form the backdrop of this psalm, but the words would provide language to call upon God to renew the relationship with the people of God in multiple situations. The psalmist asks three times for people to be restored with the full understanding that any reconciliation in the relationship now rests in God’s hands. The image of the vine transplanted, tended, and now abandoned calls attention to all the work God has put into the people as a motivation to resume God’s care. As Beth Tanner skillfully distills the question of these verses: “Why have you, God, destroyed what you have worked so hard to build?” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 634) Now God must decide whether the sunk cost into this relationship and the promise of faithfulness in the future is enough to overcome God’s broken heart and grief.

This psalm exists in the space between the confession and repentance of people of God and the broken heart of God. The people have begun to experience the consequences of the sins of the past as God’s countenance has turned away from them. They are fruitless without God’s protection, they are vulnerable without God’s guidance, and they are powerless without the might of the God of hosts. Yet in the aftermath of the broken covenant the congregation’s actions can only wait for a response in God. They can only hope for a turning in God: a turning back to them in grace, an assumption of the mantle of shepherd to the flock, returning to the space of worship, resuming the protection of the children of humanity and the rebuilding of the wall of the vineyard. They long, in the words of the priestly blessing given to Aaron, for a time when:

The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. Numbers 6:24-26

But they speak from an experience where God’s countenance has turned away and they wait for God’s gracious turning towards them again.

[1] This is what ‘hosts’ refers to. God as a leader of military might whether heavenly or earthly. The divine warrior is expanded to the divine general.

[2] Hebrew ben’adam literally ‘son of Adam, son of humanity, or son of man.’ Like the usage of the ‘son of man’ imagery in Daniel and the New Testament it is in the recognition of God that the ‘one’ is given authority or power.

1 thought on “Psalm 80 A People Waiting For God’s Forgiveness

  1. Pingback: The Book of Psalms 1-80 | Sign of the Rose

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