Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 3, 2017

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 Commentary

In all three years of the Lectionary cycle, Psalm 80 is seen as an Advent Psalm, probably because of the central prayer in verse 2; “come and save us.”  In years A and C, it is the last Psalm of Advent.  This year, it is the first Psalm of Advent.  Its use here in the liturgical year shapes the way we think about and observe Advent.  Everyone knows that Advent is a time of waiting, expectation, and hope for the coming of the Christ.  Psalm 80 adds a note of desperation to all of that.  More importantly, it keeps us from a pre-mature celebration of Christmas by offering us a profound reflection on God’s role in the troubles of our lives and of the world.

It doesn’t take an exegetical genius to hear the desperation in the prayers that rise up out of Psalm 80—“hear us, shine forth, awaken, come, save, restore, make your face shine, let your hand rest.”  In all those pleas, and especially the first four in verses 1 and 2, there is, on the one hand, a sense of the caring closeness of God.  He is the Shepherd of Israel who leads Joseph like a flock.  He is right over there in the Temple enthroned between the cherubim that decorate the Ark of the Covenant.  But, on the other hand, it feels to Israel as though their caring covenant Lord may be deaf (“hear us”), or hiding in the dark (“shine forth”), or asleep (“awaken”), or weak (“your might”), or away (“come”).

Most scholars identify the trouble behind the text as the Assyrian invasion of the northern Kingdom of Israel described in II Kings 17.  The reference to Ephraim and Manasseh and, to a lesser degree, Benjamin point north.  And the description of the vineyard being invaded and ravaged by wild boars suggests a pagan incursion.  The precious people of God had undergone a dark time, and they beg God to come and save, to shine forth as he did in those hard years of wilderness wandering (cf. the Aaronic blessing taught to Israel during that wandering).

Indeed, more serious than that dark time caused by the Assyrians was the inescapable feeling that their God had gone dark and was, in fact, behind that invasion.  Verse 4 is filled with the pathos of confusion and terror.  Using all three names for God that echo through the thrice repeated refrain, the remnant of Israel cries, “O Lord God Almighty, how long will your anger smolder against the prayers of your people?”  That is a horrific idea.  God’s devastated people pray to God out of their pain, and they meet not the gentle Shepherd of Israel, but an angry, smoldering God, a God who is angry not just with their sins, but even with their prayers.

Now, to be perfectly accurate, it must be said that the word “anger” is not found in the Hebrew of verse 4.  It says that God fumes, or smokes, or, as the NIV has it, smolders.  And it doesn’t necessarily mean that he is angry with their prayers; it might mean that God is angry in spite of their prayers.  Their prayers don’t seem to do much good, because God remains angry.  All Christians have experienced something like that; it seems like our prayers aren’t answered, no matter how persistent and passionate they may be.

It does seem at times as though God is not favorably disposed toward us.  Indeed, the Psalmist is sure that God is directly involved in the sorrow caused by the Assyrian invasion and the ongoing harassment by Israel’s neighbors.  “You have fed them with the bread of tears (as opposed to the “bread of angels” as in the desert); you have made them drink tears by the bowlful (as opposed to water from the rock as in the desert).  You have made them a source of contention to our neighbors (as opposed to the way you defeated the enemy for us as we entered the land)….”

The Psalmist goes on in this vein, rehearsing how Yahweh had brought Israel out of Egypt, drove out the nations in Canaan, and planted Israel in the Promised Land, where they grew and prospered under God’s blessing.  But then, in a way that absolutely confused Israel, God seemed to turn against them.  “Why have you broken down the walls” of your protection that kept us safe and secure?  Why have you allowed those animals from the north to pluck our grapes, ravage the vineyard, cut down the vines and burn the whole thing with fire?  Though there is much disagreement about the exact meaning of verse 16b, the NIV translation surely describes how many of the remaining Jews felt; “at your rebuke your people perish.”

Why?  How can this be?  And how long must we wait until God comes to save?  These are not the kind of thoughts we want to entertain in this happy holiday season.  We want to focus on the “light that was coming into the world (John 1),” not on a God who not only hides in the dark, but even seems dark himself.

But the reality is that all of us have experienced dark times in life and asked those agonized questions in our darkness.  Who has not cried out to a God who seems deaf or asleep or weak or missing in action?  Even in this happy time (indeed, especially in the forced merriment of the holidays), many people struggle with hard situations and dark depression.  So, even though it may seem counter-intuitive, Psalm 80 is a perfect Psalm with which to begin Advent.  “Come and save us.”

That is particularly true when we probe the ambiguous refrain that runs through the Psalm (verses 3, 7, 19).  I say it is ambiguous first of all because of the increasing passion of it, as indicated by the addition of another name for God with each repetition—“O God, O God Almighty, O Lord God Almighty.”  While that might signal increasing panic, it is also a sign that faith has not been lost even in the darkness.  Our first plea is simply to God, the generic Elohim.  Our second approach in the darkness caused by invading armies is to God Almighty, which, in the Hebrew is sabbaoth, the Lord of hosts, the God who leads the armies that can defeat anyone.  And our last plea is to Yahweh, the covenant God with whom we have a personal/corporate relationship, the God who has taken us by the hand and promised to bless us forever.  As life gets darker, faith must cling more firmly, which is exactly what the Psalmist does here.

Second, that refrain is ambiguous because of the verb “restore.”  It might simply mean, “O Lord God Almighty, restore us to our former prosperity, reverse our fortunes and let your vine flourish again.”  However, the verb there is the Hebrew word shub, the classic word for repentance.  It means to turn, or turn around, or more precisely “cause to turn around.”  So, whom are we asking God to cause to turn—us or God.  One eminent scholar says there is no hint of repentance in this Psalm, but that seems far too definite a statement to me.  One response to dark times is self-reflection and changes in oneself.  Surely that would be a good thing to do as we begin Advent.

But the rest of the refrain suggests that this is really a prayer asking God to change himself.  Come out of the darkness and “make your face shine upon us….”  Stop being angry and “save us.”  If God is really behind the trouble in our lives, however indirectly, why wouldn’t we ask God to cause himself to turn around?

Admittedly, this is a potentially problematic line of thought.  Let’s not spend sermonic time speculating about the possibility of changes in the God-head, as former generations of theologians have done, writing major tomes on the simplicity and impassivity of God.  If we simply look at the way the Psalm talks, the Psalmist is asking God to return to the way God treated Israel in the past.  Renew the work you began in Egypt and in the conquest and in the glory days of David.  Do it again, O Lord God Almighty, return to the way you acted in history, turn yourself back to it.

If we combine those two ways of understanding “restore,” we have a complete Advent prayer.  Do something to us, O Lord, and do something to yourself.  Turn us to yourself and turn your face to us again.  Verse 14 captures the second part of that prayer in words that resonate with the spirit of Advent.  “Return to us, O God Almighty!  Look down from heaven and see.”  And verse 18 suggests the ultimate result of a repentant turn to God.  “Then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name.”

We talk about New Year’s resolutions.  Here is an Advent resolution.  We know we have turned away from you and called on the name of other gods.  But now, O Lord, we make you a promise, a vow.  If you will restore us, if you cause us to turn around, we will not turn away from you again.  We will call only on you, O Lord God Almighty.

There are two ways you can turn this text in a Christ-ward direction.  First, verse 17 asks God to let his “hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself.”  It is easy to see that as an allusion to David, but the context indicates that the initial reference is to Israel itself.  Note how verse 15 talks about the vine, which is obviously Israel, but it uses the very language of verse 17—”right hand” and “the son you have raised up for yourself.”  This is a prayer, like the rest of the Psalm, that God will bless his firstborn son, Israel, again.

However, later Judaism and early Christianity saw verse 17 as a messianic text and understood it as a future promise.  The fact that Jesus was and is at God’s right hand and the fact that he called himself “the Son of Man” make such a Christ-ward reading of verse 17 a legitimate interpretation.   It is in Christ that we are restored.  He causes us to repent and he was most surely God’s face shining again on his sinful people.  He was “the light that shined in the darkness.”  And even though the darkness did not understand him, to “all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God….”

Second, in Christ we look forward to the restoration of all things, as Peter said in his second sermon.  In Acts 3:19-21, he echoes Psalm 80.  “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus.  He must remain in heaven, until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.”  In the spirit of Psalm 80, Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6).”

Illustration Ideas

The predominance of the concept of turning in this Psalm evokes a number of associations that might help you illustrate your sermon.  I thought of the old Pete Seeger song popularized by The Byrds in the 1960’s.  Entitled “Turn, Turn, Turn,” it was a word for word recitation of Ecclesiastes 3.  “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”  Between the phrases from Ecclesiastes 3, the title words were repeated, suggesting that in all the times of life, we can “turn, turn, turn.”  A good theme for the beginning of Advent.  And I thought about a simple old Christian song that has echoes of Psalm 80.  “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”  And I thought about that famous phrase from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, “the still point of the turning world….”


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