Psalm 80 is a lament. It probably had a liturgical use given the refrain in vv. 3, 7 and 19. The theme of waiting for restoration fits the psalm for Advent and it appears in the lectionary in Advent in Years B and C as well. The selection of a lament psalm like Psalm 80 is also appropriate in a less obvious way. Our Old Testament reading speaks about hope with some ambiguity, allowing the possibility of God’s judgment sitting alongside hope for God’s deliverance.
While the lectionary selects only vv. 1-7 and 17-19 from Psalm 80 giving a strong sense of lament, we need to consider the whole psalm to see how it is working. All the elements of lament psalms are evident: God is addressed in several ways (vv. 1, 4, 7, 14), there is lament itself (vv. 4b-6, 12-13, 16), petition (vv. 1-2, 14-15-17) and the vow of praise (v. 18). The refrain in vv. 3, 7, and 19 reiterates the petition for deliverance throughout the psalm. At the beginning of the psalm the shepherd imagery evident in other nearby psalms (cf. Pss. 78:52 and 79:13; cf. also Psalm 23) is brought to mind. The sense of despair in those earlier prayers is deepened. God’s wrath and the scorn of Israel that follows continue unabated.
The latter part of the psalm (vv. 8-19), mostly omitted by the lectionary, includes a section (vv. 8-13) which alludes to a familiar image of Israel, the vine. This section of the psalm deliberately picks up the imagery and content of Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard (Isa 5:1-7; see Year C, Sunday between August 14 and August 20) which speaks of God as a vineyard owner and Israel as his vineyard, which having yielded stinking things instead of fine grapes, is broken, abandoned and left to the wild animals and plants. In Psalm 80 this image is turned on its head and made into a lament: ‘Why then have you broken down its walls …’ (v. 12). That then leads into the final plea to God (vv. 14-19). Israel’s only hope lies in the ‘turning’, one could translate ‘repenting’, of God.
The references to Joseph, Ephraim, Manasseh (vv. 1-2) suggest that the psalm has come from the old northern kingdom of Israel, but like the parable of the vineyard itself, Psalm 80 has been edited again later in the people’s history to tell its story in a new time and place, to make the old message speak hope to a new audience. Maybe the reinterpretation of the vineyard parable was added at the same time. The psalm now incorporates elements of Jerusalem temple theology (cf. the reference to the cherubim of the ark, v. 1, and the similarity of the refrain and v. 18 to Num 6:24-27). The earlier destruction of the northern kingdom and now that of Jerusalem are incorporated in this one lament. The old prayers for God’s help and deliverance of the people now find a new place in the people’s life. That is also the message of Christmas.
The Old Testament reading allows the possibility of God coming to his world in both judgment on the ways of the world and in hope. It also speaks of that coming being in ways and from places that we do not expect. We cannot divorce our waiting and anticipation of the coming of God in Christ at Christmas from the turmoil of our world, its corruption and greed, its death and destruction. Nor can we presume that the coming of God in Christ will be in ways or through people easily recognised or expected. Lament and hope go together but the fulfilment of that hope will never be in ways we anticipate. The God we wait for is one of surprises, even though God’s story is ‘from of old, from ancient days’ (Mic 5:2).
Suggestions for the use of the Psalm in worship.
The refrain in Ps 80:3, 7, 19:
‘Restore us, O God;could be used as a refrain in the prayers of confession, or as a refrain in the intercessions.
let your face shine, that we may be saved’
Other verses such as v. 2b:
‘Stir up your might,might also serve as a refrain in the prayer of confession.
and come and save us!’
Words selected from vv. 14a and 18 could also serve in the declaration of forgiveness after confession:
‘In Christ, God has turned again,Old Testament reading: Isaiah 7:10-16
looked down from heaven and seen;
and given us life.
In Christ your sins are forgiven.
Thanks be to God!
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