Have you noticed in our studies of the psalms the continual theme of chastening and sorrow, the need and cry for repentance and restoration? There are a couple of reasons for this.
First, these psalms reflect the history of God’s people, from Egypt to Promised Land, through the reigns of various kings to captivities and return from exile. And this history is a history of failure and of the Lord’s mercies (Psalm 136). It is a history of grace.
Second, and closely related to the above, this is the experience of God’s people throughout history—both as individuals and corporately. It is probably your experience. It certainly has been mine.
We start the race well, and run well for a while, but then we lose our focus. There may be various reasons for this loss of focus: forgetfulness, neglect of worship (private and corporate), pride, unforgiveness, self-sufficiency, sexual sin, greed and covetousness, infatuation with that which is fallen and fading, or even unbelief.
We find ourselves turning away from the Lord, and before we know it seems that we have wandered far away.
Often, we may be in this condition for a while without any sense of the problem. Blameshifting and self-justification may kick in; that is, until the Lord graciously gives us a gracious but unmistakeable wake up call.
How will we respond? Will we reach out for the proverbial snooze button, time and again until it is too late? Or will we cry out to God for forgiveness, repentance and revival? That is, will we cry out for restoration—to fellowship, faithfulness and fruitfulness?
These psalmists did. And they longed for the nation to do so as well. Sometimes it did, most often it did not. This is the heart of Psalm 80. It is a cry for restoration. Did God hear and shine on them? Let’s see.
The psalm can be divided into three stanzas (vv. 1–3; vv. 4–7; vv. 8–19), each ending with a repetitive chorus. The chorus reveals the theme of the psalm: “Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; cause Your face to shine, and we shall be saved” (v. 19; cf. vv. 3, 7).
We should not lose hope since God is “the LORD of hosts.” That is, He is the sovereign ruler of all. And He can do anything, including granting repentance to those who turn away. He can return and cause us to return.
So, how do we seek God’s favour? What can we learn from this psalm concerning the process of God restoring us? At least three things arise from the text.
We Must Pray So As to Be Heard
First, we must pray so as to be heard.
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock; You who dwell between the cherubim, shine forth! Before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, stir up Your strength, and come and save us! Restore us, O God; cause Your face to shine, and we shall be saved!
“God, it seems, prefers an excess of boldness in prayer to an excess of caution…. We come to Him as sons, not as applicants.”1 This is displayed for us in this psalm, and particularly in these opening words.
The Lord Our Shepherd
In v. 1, God is referred to as the “Shepherd of Israel.” This speaks of the intimate relationships between shepherd and sheep. There are many references in Scripture to God’s shepherding care of His people (see Isaiah 40:11; Genesis 48:15–16; John 10; 1 Peter 2:25; Hebrews 13:20–21). But only here and in Psalm 23 is God identified as the Shepherd of His people.
It is an apropos metaphor because we are helpless, prone to wander and, frankly, quite stupid at times (see Proverbs 30:2). We rely on the Lord for provision, protection and guidance.
I suppose there is no more comforting symbol of God’s care, concern and commitment to us than Him being revealed as our Shepherd. May He give us the grace we need to return to Him, having wandered, and to stay close by Him, having been restored.
Arousing the Shepherd
“This glorious Lord, who is served by such great and glorious creatures as the cherubim, is implored to stir up His power and come.”2 Asaph cries out for the nation to be “saved.” The question is, saved from what?
The mention of Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh inform us that the conditions were probably not the same as those of Psalm 79. Clearly, the northern kingdom was still intact at this time, hence the mention of Ephraim. Benjamin, of the southern kingdom, was also still in existence. Hence, neither the Assyrian nor the Babylonian exiles had yet occurred.
Though we do not have the details concerning the historical occasion, nevertheless we can conclude that, whatever particular chastening they were experiencing (and God’s major means of doing so was by hostile nations), it effected both kingdoms. It is for this reason that I would conclude that the Assyrians had begun their sable rattling, with the result that the northern kingdom was deeply in trouble, and the southern kingdom, though not in the direct line of fire, was trembling too. Franz Delitzsch notes, “The psalmist, it seems, prays in a time in which the oppression of Assyria rested heavily upon the kingdom of Ephraim, and Judah saw itself threatened with ruin when this bulwark should have fallen.”3
So, what to do? Well, for those associated with Asaph, the thing to do is to pray.
“Restore” means “to turn again.” It implies the understanding that we can only turn to God if He first turns to us. We should be careful not to take repentance lightly. Do not presume on the grace and mercy of God (cf. Matthew 9:13; Acts 11:18; 2 Corinthians 7:10; 2 Timothy 2:24–26; 2 Peter 3:9; Romans 2:4).
We must acknowledge that we have turned away before we can expect God to turn to us. Be grateful when such awareness comes home.
We should desire, above all else, the shining of God’s face (Numbers 6:24–26). But “instead of the shining face of God there is the darkness of smoke, like that of Sinai.”4
“The Shining” might be an appropriate name for this psalm. In the movie The Shining, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, Jack Nicholson gradually becomes influenced by a supernatural presence, descends into madness, and attempts to kill his family. I am not sure what led King to call his book The Shining, but he could not have been more wrong. When the Christian experiences the shining of God’s face, he actually turns from madness to soundness of mind. The result of such a restoration is the wellbeing of others.
Leupold helpfully comments, “So potent is God’s good pleasure that, as soon as it becomes operative, deliverance sets in. Thus a nation, sadly beset by adversity, is taught to pray by this psalm.”5
We can therefore conclude from this thrice repeated chorus that, when God’s grants us repentance, we can expect to be saved, not necessarily from our circumstances, but from our condition as we are restored to communion with Him. And when you think about it, communion with God is a far better treasure than even great circumstances without Him.
It should be acknowledged that the prayer of Psalm 80 was not answered, at least for those of the northern kingdom. The Assyrians did invade, the Israelites were carried away captive, and the kingdom did cease to exist. God did not turn to them for, in fact, they did not turn to God.
We need to reckon with the reality that godly people can pray, but if those who claim to belong to the Lord will not repent then no restoration will take place. But, ironically, such an understanding should in fact motivate us to continue to pray—not for our circumstance but rather for our condition. We must pray for God to grant repentance.
We must pray for God to so work amongst His flock that His sheep will hear His voice and follow.
If God will hear us, we must pray so as to be heard. We must acknowledge Him as our sovereign Shepherd and we as His stubborn sheep, and seek repentance to become submissive sheep.
We need to pray for repentance and revival if we want to see a change in circumstances. The church, for example, must repent if we want to see the government repent. We need a healthy and holy fear of the God who dwells “between the cherubim.” A biblical and therefore a reverent view of God is needed if we will truly deal with our sin and be in a positon to commune with God.
We need to pray with confidence. Asaph was confident: “Stir up Your strength, and come and save us.”
God desires to bless His people. The question is, are we His? Most of the Israelites at this point in history were not. In the church today, we don’t want to assume that everyone gets the gospel.
We Must Properly Assess Our Need/Situation
In vv. 4–7 we see the need to properly assess our situation.
O Lord God of hosts, how long will You be angry against the prayer of Your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in great measure. You have made us a strife to our neighbours, and our enemies laugh among themselves. Restore us, O God of hosts; cause Your face to shine, and we shall be saved.
As we saw previously, when bad things happen to God’s people we would do well to consider whether or not our conduct is the cause. In this case, it certainly was. God was “angry” with them (v. 4). And because He was angry, they had had their fill of “tears.”
I find it instructive that the writer moves from addressing the Lord as the “Shepherd of Israel” (v. 1) to the “LORD God of hosts.” This is a move from intimacy to transcendence. The Lord can use a host of things (like nations) to chasten His people.
As we have been learning in Hebrews, we need to see God as not only all-consuming love but also as all-consuming fire. Asaph is concerned that God is “angry against the prayer of His people.” He is angry and unwilling to hear their prayers. If we pray while regarding iniquity, the Lord will not hear us (Psalm 66:18); in fact, such prayers are an abomination to Him (Proverbs 28:9).
The author is deeply aware of Israel’s shameful predicament before their enemies. They had become a laughing stock. The enemies were not impressed, neither with Israel nor with their God. This was a travesty. It remains a travesty in similar situations in our own day. May God grant us grace to restore us and shine His face upon us for His glory. And He can.
Sometimes, history repeating itself can be a wonderful thing—particularly the history of God’s gracious restoration.
We Must Understand Our Identity/Purpose
Finally, in the longest of the three stanzas, Asaph exhorts his readers to understand their identity and purpose.
You have brought a vine out of Egypt; You have cast out the nations, and planted it. You prepared room for it, and caused it to take deep root, and it filled the land. The hills were covered with its shadow, and the mighty cedars with its boughs. She sent out her boughs to the Sea, and her branches to the River. Why have You broken down her hedges, so that all who pass by the way pluck her fruit? The boar out of the woods uproots it, and the wild beast of the field devours it. Return, we beseech You, O God of hosts; look down from heaven and see, and visit this vine and the vineyard which Your right hand has planted, and the branch that You made strong for Yourself. It is burned with fire, it is cut down; they perish at the rebuke of Your countenance. Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand, upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself. Then we will not turn back from You; revive us, and we will call upon Your name. Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; cause Your face to shine, and we shall be saved.
The metaphor of Israel as a vine or vineyard (vv. 7, 14–15), like the image of God as “Shepherd” in v. 1, is significant.
This closing stanza is the longest, perhaps because of the importance of the metaphor of the vine and vineyard. In fact, as Leupold notes, “Some commentators … give this psalm the title ‘Yahweh’s Vine’ (Kessler)…. This thought gives beautiful emphasis to the thought of God’s providence exercised in behalf of His people.”6
Isaiah used this picture (5:1–7; 27:2–6), as did Jeremiah (2:21) and Hosea (10:1; 14:7). Of course, Jesus did the same in the well-known discourse found in John 15:1–16.
This passage highlights the history of Israel as the vine of God. There is much by way of instruction, illustration and exhortation for we who are the vine of God. We should, in fact, be encouraged that “as the vine is a choice plant that requires much attention, so Israel is choice among the nations and is continually in need of God’s providential care if she is to survive and bear fruit.”7 So with God’s new covenant people (John 15).
The stanza can be subdivided into at least three sections.
The Planting of the Vine
First, in vv. 8–11, we read of the planting of the vine. The grapevine in the Middle East was a symbol of blessing, even of prosperity. It conjured images of shalom, much as it does in many places in our own day—and in our own country.
The grapevine is a plant that is treated with fastidious and tender care, with the expectation that its fruit will benefit many. Was this not precisely the purpose of the nation of Israel (Genesis 12:1–3; etc.)?
God planted His people in this world to be a fruitful nation to the glory of God. It is this fruitfulness that is the desire of the singer-songwriter. He desires the Lord to so work in the nation that she will bear fruit to God’s glory, but this will require the divine Vinedresser to return to His vine to restore it to fruitfulness. Gracious grapes is the psalmist’s desire.
God planted this vine so that the nations would one day drink of the wine of His gospel. “Abrahamic Blessing” was to be the label on the bottle, and it was to be one of a kind.
These verses recount their privileged selection. God brought this vine out of Egypt and then cleared the land of Canaan and planted His choice vine there (vv. 6–8).
In fulfilment of the Josephine blessing, the vine grew so abundantly that it grew over the wall (see Genesis 49:22) and blessed its own land and that of others (cf. Sheba).
In her land, the Lord grew her roots so deep that His providential care caused her to grow beyond anyone’s natural expectations as Israel became like a cedar tree (v. 10). She was blessed indeed.
No doubt, the psalmist is recording this history to press home Israel’s deep privilege and therefore her great responsibility. Perhaps he is also reminding her of God’s gracious good pleasure to encourage the people to return to Him so His blessed vintage graces will be restored to them. Again, it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance.
We would do well to pause to remember our gracious privileges. Meditate on Scriptures such as the opening verses of Ephesians. Reflect on where God has brought you from to where you are. Contemplate His power when He reached you. Consider deeply where He has planted you.
Christian, congregation, never minimise God’s grace in planting you in Christ. You have a purpose, and that purpose should drive our loyalties and therefore our living.
Kidner helpfully and hopefully comments, “He is not the one to begin a great work and lose interest in it.”8 As Paul put it, “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
The Plundering of the Vine
Second, Asaph pictures the plundering of the vine (vv. 12–15). The picture moves from one of beautiful privilege to that of barren judgement. The writer pictures Israel as a vine that is plundered by enemies, and even plucked up by wild boars. The protective hedge has been removed and the result is that the vine is fair game to all and sundry. “Since God permitted the protecting wall, as it were, to be plucked down, this event is ascribed directly to him…. This is merely a strong statement of God’s sovereign dispensation of all things, which is found so often in the Scriptures.”9 Therefore, “unprotected, Israel lies open to casual (12b) and piecemeal (13b) plundering, as well as to more formidable foes.”8
It is a frightening experience to lose God’s protective hedge. Look at Job, for example (Job 1:10). In fact, this very metaphor was used by Isaiah in 5:5 to make the same point. And, of course, the Lord Jesus used it again (Matthew 21:33).
This psalm should not, of course, be interpreted as teaching that Christians can lose their salvation. But it does teach that God will not tolerate sin; He certainly will not tolerate apostasy. When the truth moves out of a congregation, so does the Lord. And, like the church at Ephesus, our lamps can be snuffed (Revelation 2:5).
But the writer, having confessed their dilemma, pleads again for God’s favour (vv. 14–16). When God visits His vine, the wine will flow again.
We need such visitations. We need God’s gracious interventions and the gracious outpouring of His Spirit. Such visitations may come with the still small voice of a Sunday school lesson or perhaps the louder voice of a longer sermon. It may come through a momentary flash reminding you of God’s goodness. It may also come with the louder voice of a trial or by painful confrontation. But regardless of how it comes, it must come if we will be restored.
The Prospering of the Vine
Finally, in vv. 17–19, Asaph anticipates the prospering of the vine. The psalm comes to a close with a final plea. He prays, “Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand.” The expressed desire is that, if God does so, the nation will return to the Lord. Of course, if they turn then God will turn toward them—presumably because He has caused them to turn. “It faces the fact that only God’s hand (17) can avert this, as only His breath of life (18b) can awaken faith.”8
The question is, who is “the man of Your right hand”?
Some say that it is a reference to the king who was reigning then. Therefore, the prayer is that God will bless this leader in such a way that he will lead the nation to victory over the surrounding enemies. The plea is that, by the leadership of this king, the wild boars will be destroyed and God’s vine will be protected so as to prosper. Perhaps.
Others view this as referring to Messiah. Perhaps. Spurgeon thought so.
Perhaps it refers to the nation of Israel itself. Exodus 4:22 speaks of Israel as God’s “son,” and this is referenced as well in Hosea 11:1.
Here is what I believe the author is saying: “Lord, if You will bless Your people by turning to us then we, Your people, we who are Your son will not turn back from You. If You revive us then we will be loyal to You.” The writer then concludes with the chorus, pleading for just such a work. “The prayer is that God would bless Israel by turning this “son of man” back to God again. It is how we should all pray.”12
But, how sad: From what we know of the history of Israel, this prayer was not answered. The Assyrians, and later the Babylonians, plundered and plucked the vine that God had planted. What God had established was disestablished. And, contrary to the cry of the psalmist she, was not reestablished. Or was she?
I think she was. You see, the Son of God’s right hand has made God’s people call upon His name. Jesus Christ has, is, and will continue to literally revive God’s people; the ones that He gave to His Son (John 6:37; John 17; etc.).
One day, the Son of God’s right hand came to earth. His most favoured self-description was “the Son of Man.” He was tempted and tried like Israel of old, yet He proved to be a faithful Son (cf. Hosea 11:1 with Matthew 2:15; the wilderness temptations; etc.). When He was killed by those who were stewards of God’s vineyard (Matthew 21:33–46), the Lord of hosts “made Him strong” as He raised Him from the dead. And ever since, He has very literally been reviving the dead to life by the power of His gospel (Ephesians 2:4–5)!
You see, the psalmist perhaps understood that, “regardless of what happened at Samaria and of what may happen to Jerusalem, the Lord will be true to David. God’s kingdom will be established by the Messiah of David.”13
Those whom Christ has spiritually revived prove it by loyalty to Him. And though we fall and fail, nevertheless He does protect and sustain us, and He will not allow us to be plucked from the field—or from His hand (John 10:28–30). And each time that He grants us forgiveness and restoration of fellowship we find ourselves calling upon His name in love and praise and trust.
Yes, if in repentance and faith we abide in the one who is the true Vine then He will be gracious and cause us to bear much fruit. And, in the end, we will be fully restored to the glorious image of God—just like His Son (Romans 8:29–30). That is, “we shall be saved.”
- Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 2:289. ↩
- H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 580. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:660. ↩
- Kidner, Psalms, 290. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 581. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 579. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 582. ↩
- Kidner, Psalms, 2:292. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 583. ↩
- Kidner, Psalms, 2:292. ↩
- Kidner, Psalms, 2:292. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 2:665. ↩
- Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:527. ↩