Commentary on Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
In the conclusion to his excellent book, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor, William Brown explains that “the power of metaphor . . . lies in its ability (and manipulability) to inspire new theological vision.”1
The season of advent welcomes the faithful, even beckons the faithful to such a task: to cast a new, to cast again, a theological vision amidst a world swallowed up in the sounds and images of completing claims. Attention to the language found in the metaphorically rich Psalm 80 does more than simply provide imagistic language or poetic flair. Rather, attention to its language reveals that such images serve as rich fodder for theological reflection.
The images in Psalm 80 fall out into one of three categories: images of God; images of the people of God; and images of the world. The images associated with the world around the psalmist suggest that the world is a hostile place, a place that could surely undo the people of God. The previous psalm is a communal lament agonizing over both the ruined city of Jerusalem and the defiled precincts of the temple (79:1-3), as well as the verbal assaults of the nations (79:10, 12).
While such graphic imagery is lacking in Psalm 80, the psalm nonetheless refers to a similar militaristic scene. Places once deemed sacrosanct have been razed to the ground (80:16) and identities once deemed secure have been shaken by the mocking derision of the enemy (80:6). So great is the anguish that the psalmist can only revert to imagery, to images of people drinking tears by the bowlful (80:5, New Revised Standard Version). As James Mays suggests, “Whatever the original historical setting, the psalm in its continued use belongs to the repertoire of the afflicted people of God on their way through the troubles of history.”2
Ministers may tend to shy away from the militaristic portrayal of the enemy, lest our own congregations attempt to create a modern historical circumstance from which to read this psalm. Yet as Mays notes, this psalm now belongs to our repertoire. Such psalms and even further, such imagery cannot be avoided because the very same imagery is part of the construal of the advent proclamation. In advent, we confess the world remains undone; the world remains a place that leaves people drinking tears by the bowlful and in need of the advent of God.
The imagery associated with the people of God is centered on two metaphors, the flock and the vineyard. The people of God are described as a flock whose shepherd is the “Shepherd of Israel” (verse 1), further connecting Psalm 80 with Psalm 79. The anguish of Psalm 79 concludes with the people confessing, “We are your people and the flock of your pasture” (79:13). While continuing the theme of a hostile world, Psalm 80 begins with a similar confession. There is no identity for the people of God apart from an identity rooted in relationship to God.
The dominant metaphor for the people of God in this psalm, however, actually appears outside the lectionary reading, but should be considered. In 80:8-13, the psalmist recounts Israel’s history in an extended allegory about a vine; a vine brought out of Egypt and planted by the God of Israel. The allegory suggests that the history of Israel is the work of God.
Her history is not born of a self-initiating, self-sustaining, spirit among the people of God, but solely at the initiation of the Shepherd of Israel. It is this confession that is held in juxtaposition with their current plight in verses 12-13. In those verses we are told, the vine planted has become the vine consumed. How shall a people respond to the Divine Gardner when faced with such an existence? How shall they speak of God and his work in the world?
The images of God appear in the opening verses. As mentioned above, God is referred to as the “Shepherd of Israel.” This image, however, is not a pastoral, romantic notion of shepherd, but a metaphor reinforcing the kingship of God. In the Ancient Near East, kings were often depicted as shepherds because of their divine mandate to protect and care for the people entrusted to them.
In addition, God is described as “enthroned upon the cherubim,” and as the “God of hosts” (verses 4, 7, 14, 17). Both descriptors allude to the ark – -the place on earth where God makes his presence manifest as he reigns from the heavens. Throughout the Old Testament, being enthroned upon the cherubim suggests that God is one who is mobile, coming to his people in time of need, but also as Divine Warrior, prepared to race across the heavens to redeem his people (Psalm 18).
And further, the image can refer to the great wings spread out across the ark, providing refuge, relief, and deliverance for the people of God (Deuteronomy 33:11-12). These images create a response to the lamenting in Psalm 80 (and 79). While the world appears undone, the community confessing God is not. The reign of God stands above the transient and evanescent, but no less real, powers of the world. But this Shepherd of Israel is not static, nor stayed, but instead, enthroned upon the cherubim, coming to the people called his own.
The three sets of images set forth the following claims: 1) the world is overwrought with chaos; 2) the people of God were created and are sustained by God; and 3) the covenant God of Israel remains firmly established as king over all. These claims lead to the thrice-repeated refrain “Restore us O God; let your face shine that we might be saved.”
In the first Sunday of Advent, our claims are surely the same: 1) the world remains undone by chaos; 2) we are the people of God who remain sustained by God alone; and 3) the God we confess remains king over all. And so on the first Sunday of Advent, we pray into that tension and we implore God to restore us, to come again so that we might be saved.
Our hope rests not in what we have done, nor can do, but in all that God is. And so we join Paul in confessing that “God is faithful” (1 Corinthians 1:9). And we join with the confessing church in a spirit of expectation.
1William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 214.
2James L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 264.