Howard Wallace's home page

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

The theme of lament in the reading from Isaiah 64 is picked up in the psalm for this week, Ps 80:1-7, 17-19. While the lectionary selects certain verses from the psalm giving the 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 shepherd imagery is evident as in nearby psalms (cf. Pss 78:52 and 79:13; cf. also Psalm 23) and in last week’s reading from Ezekiel 34 (see Year A, Christ the King or the Reign of Christ). The sense of despair in nearby psalms is deepened. God’s wrath and the scorn of Israel that follows continue unabated.

The section of the psalm omitted by the lectionary (vv. 8-16) 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) 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. 14-17) which is only picked up in the lectionary reading at the end. Israel’s only hope lies in the ‘turning’, one could translate ‘repenting’, of God. This is also the message of the Isaiah 64 reading for this week.

The references to Joseph, Ephraim, and 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 Jerusalem temple theology (cf. the reference to the cherubim of the ark, v. 1, and the similarity of the refrain and v. 18 to the priestly blessing in 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 for a new people in their life.

The Old Testament reading, as well as the Gospel (Mark 13:24-37) speak of God coming to the world in both hope and judgment. 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. Lament and hope go together. The old story of the Gospel, the story of God’s people of old, finds new relevance in new times.

Suggestions for the use of the Psalm in worship.

The refrain in Ps 80:3, 7, 19:

‘Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved’
could be used as a refrain in the prayers of confession, or as a refrain in the intercessions.

Other verses such as v. 2b:

‘Stir up your might,
and come and save us!’
might also serve as a refrain in the prayer of confession.

Words selected from vv. 14a and 18 could also serve in the declaration of forgiveness after confession:

‘In Christ, God has turned again,
looked down from heaven and see;
and given us life'
even as you do in the words of Jesus Christ:
'Your sins are forgiven.'
Thanks be to God!
Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9

Return to OT Lectionary Readings contents page