Commentary on Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
God has seemingly turned God’s face away. So distant, so imperceptible is God’s presence in Psalm 80 that the psalmist concludes that God must be angry with Israel. Why else would God allow the fruit of the vine of Israel to be plucked by others while Israel is left with nothing but “the bread of tears” to eat and “tears to drink in full measure” (verse 5)? Why would God allow the vine of Israel to be ravaged by wild boars, burned with fire, and cut down as though it were mere rubbish? Why would God allow this to happen to one in whom God has invested so much?
Even as God’s anger seems clear to the psalmist, however, no sin of Israel is evident that might provoke it. The psalmist has nothing of which to repent, but stands confused in the tension between what is known about God’s faithfulness because of what God has done in the past and the current experience of seeming disregard.
If the preacher’s congregation tends to view suffering as God’s punishment for sin, it may be helpful to point out that there is no sin named here. Given the magnitude of the suffering, one would expect the sin to be obvious if it was present. The reason for some suffering is simply unknowable. Preachers who take this route, however, will want to be discerning with the psalmist’s belief that God’s anger is the source of the suffering. Given the unknown reason for the suffering, in addition to God’s favorable track record, one might be cautious about naming God as the source.
Preachers may want to let the “Why?” questions of their congregation resonate with the psalmist’s, as well as any current tensions between the theology of the congregation and their experience. Giving voice to these things may begin to nudge away any present toxic positivity-infused theologies that disallow any truth-telling that makes God vulnerable. God can handle even our strongest emotions, as well as our interpretation of God’s role in our present plight. If we let these things come into the light, perhaps we can discern them with greater clarity.
The psalmist not only acknowledges Israel’s present suffering but boldly calls upon God to “stir up your might, and come to save us!” (verse 2b). Three times, while building upon God’s name each time, the psalmist cries, “Restore us, O (LORD) God (of hosts); let your face shine, that we may be saved” (verses 3, 7, 19).
Though not included in the lectionary, verses 8-16 are helpful for the preacher to keep in mind because they review God’s past mighty acts that ground the psalmist’s faith and make the present circumstances so shocking. God is the one who brought this vine of Israel out of Egypt and planted it in a new, nourishing land. God is the one who tended to the vine with such care that by its great height, even mountains were covered by its shadow and towering cedar trees by its branches; its width expanded to river and sea! Surely, God will not abandon but restore this vine that has been lovingly cultivated by God’s right hand.
Audacious hope is what I find most remarkable about this psalm, which makes it an ideal preaching text in Advent. Israel is walking in darkness due to the apparent turning away of God’s face, plagued by questions of “Why?” and “How long?” that have received no answers, and surrounded by the tears of loved ones and the scornful laughter of enemies. Still, the psalmist is convinced that God can and will restore Israel.
For even though they do not know where they are going, their Shepherd’s hand is upon them, leading them “like a flock” (verse 1). Even now, they are being “made strong” “at [God’s] right hand.” (Alternatively, the preacher might interpret “the one at [God’s] right hand” in verse 17 to be Jesus, which is rich with Advent possibilities.) Even now, the proclamation of God’s salvation is breaking into the dark surroundings through the psalmist. In anticipation of the fullness of this inbreaking, the psalmist declares, “We will never turn back from you” (verse 18).
With the psalmist, preachers may also give voice to all that God has done and audaciously proclaim God’s salvation through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Through that proclamation of the gospel, God’s face is already shining upon us, already saving us, already restoring our vision to see the great light that cannot be overcome even as we are still the people who walk in darkness. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the scornful laughter of enemies is being transformed into the joyous laughter of friends. The bread of tears we are eating is becoming the nourishing bread of heaven. The full measure of tears we are drinking is becoming the fruit of the vine that is tended by God’s right hand.
“Being confident of this,” we preachers may declare to our congregations, God “who began a good work in you will carry it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).