Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 30, 2014
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 Commentary
Notes and Observations
You might think Psalm 80’s poet addresses Yahweh the way you’d address a napping grandfather: Wake up, Grandpa. Listen to me. I need you to help me. Yet the one to whom the psalmist speaks is no drooling, doddering geriatric. The poet clearly thinks of the Lord not only as a shepherd, but also as creation’s monarch who sits “enthroned between the cherubim.”
This imagery of Yahweh as King offers those who preach and teach Psalm 80 an opportunity to reflect with hearers on their own imagery of the Lord. Leaders might consider ways to help hearers share how they perceive the God of heaven and earth. Psalm 80 might also open the way for an exploration of how perceptions of God sometimes change according to people’s circumstances.
Scholars suggest that Psalm 80 is a communal lament. Yet its central message is a plea for Yahweh to once again help God’s Israelite people. Such pleas for help, after all, bracket the psalm. The poet also injects them at key junctures of the psalm. Three times (3, 7, 19) the psalmist begs Yahweh, Restore us. Twice (7, 19) the poet prays to God to Make your face to shine upon us, that we may be saved. Awaken, the poet begs Yahweh in verse 2. Return to us, she pleads with the Lord in verse 14. These pleas imply the psalmist thinks of God as having a hearing impairment and/or physical weakness.
The psalmist’s pain is heightened by his awareness of God’s great power. Psalm 80’s first two verses particularly emphasize God’s power to save God’s people. God the Shepherd (1) guides and protects God’s children with the power of a king. In fact this King is “enthroned between the cherubim” (2). So God is certainly capable of coming and saving (2) God’s adopted children.
The poignancy of the poet’s pleas for God’s help is heightened by the psalmist’s memories of what Yahweh has done in the past. Yet for whom precisely God did these things is somewhat unclear. Most of the time the poet seems to speak of the “vine” (8) as God’s Israelite people. The psalmist even speaks repeatedly in the first person plural. But in verse 15, for example, the poet almost seems to speak of the vine as God’s anointed Davidic king. Yet perhaps we try making too fine a distinction when we try to determine whether Psalm 80’s vine refers to Israel or to her king. Israel, after all, often seemed to conflate these two entities. She often thought of her king and herself as almost one.
Regardless of who exactly needs God’s help, the reason that help is needed is very clear. God is angry with God’s Israelite people. As a result, God’s children eat and drink little but their tears. What’s more, God’s anger has resulted in God’s children being reduced to little more than an object of their neighbors’ derision. How long, the poet wonders, must the Israelites endure this?
Verses 4-6, of course, raise hard issues for God’s children who trust that God has graciously forgiven sins through the saving life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Sin and sins may still cause God’s anger to smolder. But do we believe that God takes out that anger in punishment? Those who preach and teach this psalm will want to walk carefully through this issue, particularly since some Christians are still prone to view their troubles as God’s punishment for their sins.
The psalmist ends with another plea for help as well as a promise. Let your right hand rest on the man at your right hand, she begs in verse 17. Restore us, O God Almighty; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved, she adds in verse 19. Such pleas offer an opportunity for worshipers to express their own lament. Grief over churches that can only fill a few rows with elderly parishioners and homes that echo only with lonely cries of emptiness. Grief over relationships that have died and health that has waned.
Psalm 80 also offers those who preach and teach it an opportunity to begin to reflect on the problem of suffering. The poet addresses it to a God who is a mighty shepherd and king. Such a God is eminently capable of providing God’s children with everything they want. Yet worshipers know that God doesn’t always seem to provide even God’s most faithful children with what they want and even assume they need. So the psalmist’s cries of “Hear us … Come and save us … Restore us … Make your face shine upon us” are also the cries of 21st century worshipers.
Such pleas bracket the psalm’s only promise: Then we will not turn away from you … we will call on your name (18). This is the only place where the psalm intimates that she knows the source of God’s anger with God’s “vine.” While God’s anger almost seems to mystify her throughout the rest of Psalm 80, she seems to suggest that God has turned away from this vine because God’s Israelite people have turned away from the Lord.
Yet the psalm ends on a hopeful note. It concludes with the poet’s recognition of the only source of Israel’s hope. That hope doesn’t lie in Israel’s moral resuscitation. It lies only in God’s gracious turning of God’s face back toward God’s Israelite people. God’s people are only saved, only rescued because God graciously turns toward and acts for us.
In the season of Advent, worshipers remember that in Jesus Christ God has indeed come to restore (3, 7) God’s children. In Christ God has shone God’s face (7) on God’s people. God’s hand has, in fact, rested on the man at God’s right hand (17), Jesus Christ. However, in Advent worshipers also remember that we look forward to Gods’ return (14) in Jesus Christ.
The rock star and international icon Bono tells a fascinating story about Nelson Mandela. Mandela was imprisoned by the South African government for 27 years because of his opposition to apartheid. Part of his imprisonment involved working in a limestone mine.
Mandela didn’t, however, suffer bitterness or the blindness that was often the result of being around limestone’s bright white reflection day after day. Instead, the dust damage to his tear ducts left him unable to cry. Mandela certainly witnessed thins that made him want to weep. However, he couldn’t produce tears of anger or grief. Only after a 1994 surgery could he cry (5).
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