Commentary on Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Advent and Christmas never fail to stir up a vast range of emotions.
There is holiday cheer and family warmth and commercially-catalyzed retail therapy aplenty. There is also FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) in full blast, and nearly constitutionally-mandated trips home that can end in ruin. Church might be one of the only places where we can name these contradictions. And Psalm 80 is perfectly placed to help us name them.
God is praised in this psalm, no doubt. He is the shepherd-king over Israel, as in the beloved Psalm 23. He is splendid on the cherubim, and savior of the tribes of Israel, and so of the cosmos (Psalm 80:2,10). He is the only one who can save just through the shining of his face (verses 3, 7, and 19, in the psalm’s refrain).
Yet God is also absent. Israel is desolate. Scholars think this psalm originated in the devastation of the northern kingdoms in 722 BCE and then touched again by later editors’ fear of Judah’s pending devastation in the early 6th century. These twin bookends of Israel’s misery are the points of origin for a psalm seeking salvation.
The psalmist prays remembering God’s one-time mighty acts of deliverance and wondering where those acts are now, when the people could really use them. Aren’t you the God who defeated Egypt and drove out the nations? Can’t you lend us a little help? Psalm 80:14 asks God to “repent,” shuv in Hebrew, to remember again the surprising saving work he has done before and repeat it anew. “Then we will never turn back from you,” the psalmist promises ( verse 18).
It is hard to imagine Christmas-crazed consumers hearing God-talk this searing anywhere else this time of year: “How long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?” (Psalm 80:4). That is, God rejects those prayers before they even reach heaven. “You have fed them with the bread of tears.” “Our enemies laugh among themselves” (verses 5-6). No more mighty hand and outstretched arm, just a busy signal when we pray and opponents who mock our stories of God’s Exodus and world-making power. Anyone who has ever found prayer barren has a friend in Psalm 80.
It has become common for mainline Protestant churches to offer a Blue Christmas service around the winter solstice—the darkest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. The idea is for those who have suffered particular trauma that year or anytime to gather and lament and maybe dare to begin to look for hope. As a pastor I found folks reticent to come to this. It would be akin to admitting misery, which feels like the violation of a commandment of some sort. Plus it just sounds depressing.
This psalm shows the Bible is way ahead of us. It dares to name its worst fear. Not only are we defeated, perhaps about to be erased from history, but even God has abandoned us. It is remarkable that God’s people include such raw and honest expressions of misery in the Bible itself. God is teaching us to pray with skepticism about whether God hears prayer!
And yet who is still here after such colossal military and civic disasters as the destruction of the northern tribes, the defeat and exile of Judah? Who is still praying these prayers? The people Israel, and by Christ’s surprising act of including us, the Christian church. God hears, and records those tears, and teaches us to pray that he would “stir up” his might anew, that his face would shine, and we might be saved (Psalm 80:1).
The psalm’s closing offers several excellent arguments for why God should remember his might and stir it up once more. One, God likes praise (Psalm 80:18). This is akin to Moses reminding God on Mt. Sinai that he is vain, and cares what people think—does he want the Egyptians to say he led the Israelites into the wilderness just to kill them? “No, you’re right, I care about my reputation.”
The psalms often offer a sort of bargain with God: you deliver us, and we will praise you. Israel likes being alive and God likes praise. Can’t we get together and make this happen? Dust can’t praise. Only living, redeemed people can. So we need the living, redeeming God to work anew.
This psalm also includes the man at God’s right hand (Psalm 80:17), the one made strong for God’s sake. The psalms rarely identify these figures. James Mays suggests the right-hand-man is Israel itself, God’s own chosen and beloved in the world.1 The Jewish Study Bible suggests the man is the king, God’s regent in Israel.2 The psalm is non-specific for a reason, we trust. But for Christians the one at God’s right hand is, of course, Christ, the one whose birth we commemorate in just a few days’ time. Israel longs for a messiah to lead the people and usher in a new age of unmatched peace. Christians long for a messiah to finish his work of gathering unlikely people into an upside-down kingdom where the first are last and the last, first. The earth is full of longing. One day God will satisfy the longing he stirs up and make all things new.
The refrain in this psalm is particularly striking: that God’s face would shine, that we may be saved.
There is no non-metaphorical language for God, of course. Moses cannot see God face to face, neither can anyone else. God does not “actually” have a face any more than a beard or a bum to sit on a throne. And yet these anthropomorphisms form the church’s imagination about a God in our flesh.
Not only that, but Paul imagines all Christians standing in the place of Moses, in God’s presence, with faces shining (2 Corinthians 3). God will always work anew. That is what he shows again each Christmas. We long and wait for his coming, and as we do, our faces shine—and so do everyone else’s, if we look aright.