Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 8, 2023
Psalm 80:7-15 Commentary
Carving out only the middle section of Psalm 80 (as the Lectionary does) has several drawbacks, not least that if you only read those 9 verses, you miss the framing refrain of this poem as it occurs word-for-word in verses 3, 7, and 19:
Restore us, Lord God Almighty;
make your face shine on us,
that we may be saved.
The psalm is clearly written from the context of exile while the land of Israel and Jerusalem are in ruins. The need for restoration is acute. The tone of the psalm is plaintive. And then there is the clear echo of the great Aaronic benediction from Numbers 6: “make your face shine on us.” Because that is a line from the Bible’s most well-known blessing—and because many (most?) of us who have been in the church for a while have heard that benediction of Aaron many times—we probably do not pause to puzzle over what exactly it means to have someone’s face shine on us.
But when you think about it, it is not language you use anywhere else in your life. If you and your spouse are at odds over something or have had a bit of a spat, it is unlikely that either of you would approach the other to try to “kiss and make up” by saying, “Honey, please make your face shine upon me again.” Or if you are telling a friend that you and your boss recently apologized to one another over some issue that cropped up at work, you don’t typically say “So after that my boss shined his face on me again and we’re good to go now.”
No, that would strike most anyone today as some pretty odd phraseology. So what does it mean in the biblical context to hope that God’s face would shine on us? Well, first it is abundantly clear that this is a positive posture for God to assume vis-à-vis us human beings. And second one could assume that the opposite of this would either be that God has turned his face away from your face—maybe a literal turning of God’s back with his arms crossed as he looks in the opposite direction. Or maybe the opposite is to have God’s face glower at us with a very dark visage or countenance.
Whether we usually think of someone’s face shining on us, we are perhaps more familiar with someone giving us a “dark look.” We have all seen this. The human face is amazingly expressive. And more than we know, we are pretty good at reading people’s faces. We all know deep down that when a smile is genuine, it affects the eyes just as much as the lips. In the recent years of the COVID pandemic when we all got used to seeing each other with masks coving all of our faces except our eyes, we could even so “see” that someone was smiling at us under the mask because of how a genuine smile crinkles up people’s eyes too. Conversely, we have all seen what we regard as a fake, forced, or even a very cold smile and we know it’s not genuine because we can see it in the person’s eyes.
We know a dark countenance when we see it. Most of us have endured the dark scowl of someone at some point. How much better to see a bright visage staring at us. Eyes that twinkle, lips that curve up into a broad grin and smile. When we see a bright face, we know it intuitively. It is the look of friendship. It is the look of love and affection. And so although we are not accustomed to describing that as someone’s face “shining” upon us, that is how it feels.
There is also some evidence that in the Ancient Near East, if a king or other sovereign was kindly disposed toward the request of one of their subjects, the authority would cup their hand under someone’s chin and lift their face to meet the sovereign’s gaze. And in that moment it was as though that face was shining upon the subject. It was a signal that the relationship was good, that all was well.
In Psalm 80 the poet cries out for restoration. And a key sign that such restoration could and would come—that they would be saved—was when God’s face would shine upon the people of Israel once more after a period of God’s having had a darkened countenance in judgment on the woeful sins of Israel.
It is what we all want of course. And it is what we received through the incarnation of God’s Son in Jesus Christ the Lord and Savior. Now God had a literal human face that could shine upon us as Jesus’s face did shine on his disciples but also as that human-divine visage shined on the poor, the lowly, the marginalized, the outcast, the lonely. That face shined on prostitutes and lepers and tax collectors and on all who approached seeking his mercy.
Thus it is no surprise that when the biblical narrative draws to a close in Revelation, we read this about the New Creation and the New Jerusalem: “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp . . . The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light.”
Somehow when I think of the idea of God’s face shining upon Israel to signal its restoration and salvation, I recall a lyric moment in one of the Lord of the Rings films. Frodo the Hobbit is on his quest to destroy the evil Ring of Power. But in this scene, he finds himself cut off from his companion Sam and is nearing the end of his strength. Suddenly he falls down but lands not in the dark and terrible place where he actually is but seemingly he is back in the bright Elvish land of Lothlorien where he encounters the Elf Queen Galadriel whose face, almost literally, shines on Frodo in ways that restore his strength and literally gets him back up on his feet again. It may be a nice vignette of what it means to have someone’s face shine on us in restorative and even saving ways.
If you would like to see a commentary on the alternate Psalm this week, see this link: https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2017-10-02/psalm-19/
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