“The Lord make his face to shine upon you . . .” That’s a line from the great Aaronic Benediction originally given to Israel in Numbers 6 and it is a line with which many Christians are exceedingly familiar on account of having heard it at the end of a church service so many times. It is also an image that is the key motif or refrain of Psalm 80, though if you pay attention to only the few verses assigned by the Common Lectionary, you won’t see it, which is a shame.
Three times in this poem—verses 3, 7, and 19—the psalmist asks God to let his face shine on Israel again so they may be saved. But it’s not only a refrain but a refrain that keeps building in intensity. Verse 3 addresses simply “God” (Hebrew Elohim). Verse 7 addresses (literally) the “God of Hosts” (Hebrew Elohim sabbaoth). Finally the last verse of the psalm addresses (literally) “Yahweh, God of Hosts” (Hebrew YHWH Elohim sabbaoth). It is as though the psalm at once builds up in intensity as to the identity of this God until finally we are given no less than the specific sacred name of Israel’s one and only true God. That last verse addressed specifically to Yahweh is like the poem’s crescendo.
Weaving through these verses is one of the more common images for Israel in the Old Testament: a vineyard of God’s own planting. Given the agricultural nature of that image, the notion of God’s face shining on Israel is most certainly one we can associate with sunlight shining on plants. And that may be a helpful way to understand the plea for God to let his face shine upon us. Again, this is such a common image used in benedictions that we maybe don’t often pause to ponder what it means. The words just kind of roll off us like the proverbial water off a duck’s back.
But when you think about it, it’s not an image most of us use anywhere else in life. We may hope for the approval of a parent, a sibling, a friend, a boss but we don’t usually ask these people to shine on us with their faces. When we get a good performance review at work with our manager or upline, we don’t typically come home and tell our spouse, “It was a good day—my manager’s face shined upon me!” You could try saying that to someone, I suppose, but my guess is you’d get a quizzical look in return.
But in the ancient world this was not an odd turn of phrase. In places where there were kings or pharaohs or other sovereigns, appearing before such a powerful figure usually meant you had to bow your head and probably keep it bowed as the sovereign considered whatever it was that brought you to meet with him or her. And the signal that your request had found favor was if the king (or whoever) raised your face to meet his face, your eyes to meet his eyes. Your countenance would meet the Majesty’s countenance and he would “shine” on you with favor. This was how you knew you would have your wish granted or your request fulfilled.
But, of course, what such shining could ever mean more than if we were talking about Almighty God shining upon you? Linking this to the image of the vineyard, it is clear that God’s shining is all about life, about growth, about flourishing. Grapes cannot grow without abundant sunshine and we cannot grow without abundant love and care from our Creator.
Of course, Psalm 80 is premised on the historical fact that Israel had failed God and so God had turned away the divine face. The vineyard was in ruins and what grapes it still produced in the wild were picked by strangers or foraged by wild pigs (a double-whammy for Israel given the prohibition to stay away from pigs). So there is the plea for God to shine with God’s face again, to reverse what had happened to Israel when God had to turn away for a time.
As Christians, we believe that God in Christ will never turn away from us again. But still we should not discount the importance of living life Coram Deo, before the face of God. God is the source of our life and our salvation. And if it’s true God will not turn the light of his countenance away from us now due to the grace we have received in Jesus, we are tempted sometimes to turn our faces away from God, to try to become our own source of light. We are tempted to think we can go it alone in this world. But it’s not true. It was not true for the vineyard that was ancient Israel and it is not true for all of us who have now been grafted onto the one true Vine that just is Christ Jesus the Lord.
Even as Psalm 80 builds in intensity in its pleas for God to shine once more upon them—moving from God to the God of Hosts to the Yahweh God of Hosts—so we now address very specifically the One Jesus instructed us to call “Father.” We have been brought by grace to the climax of Psalm 80 and we never want to turn away from this source of light and life. Indeed, when the kingdom fully comes and creation is restored, we are told in Revelation that God’s new Holy City won’t need a sun to shine: the Lamb upon the throne will very simply BE the light that shines upon all and gives Life to all forever and ever.
In the very fine film The Queen, there is a scene in which the newly elected British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife are brought to Buckingham Palace for the new P.M. to meet with Queen Elizabeth who will formally authorize his forming a government in the Queen’s name. Mrs. Blair is no fan of the royals and so chafes a bit under the tutelage her husband and she is given by the Queen’s chief valet as he prepares Prime Minister Blair to meet with the Queen for the first time. ‘When you are in The Presence . . .” he says. Causing Mr. Blair to exclaim, “The Presence?” “Yes, that is what we call it when you are in her Majesty’s company.” They are then told to bow from the neck, to remember that it is “Ma’am as in the rhyme for ‘ham.’” And one is never to turn one’s back to the Queen, which in the scene makes for a bit of comedy as they eventually back out of the room literally walking backwards. You can watch the scene here—it’s worth watching!
To many of us it all seems rather elaborate. We’re too democratic in our thinking, too egalitarian to think such a fuss should be made over just another person. But throughout most of history—and certainly back in ancient Israel’s time—such things were common when meeting a king or queen or other powerful figure, and for Israel such things were to be magnified a thousand-fold when it came to pondering appearing before God’s face.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 4, 2020
Psalm 80:7-15 Commentary