Psalm 80 is a lament. As such it is appropriate in the context of the reading from Isaiah 5:1-7 which concerns the judgment of God on Judah and Jerusalem. Such judgment will be seen to be delivered in terms of conquest by Assyria, the superpower to the north-east. The selection of Psalm 80 is also appropriate in a less obvious way. The psalm laments the fall of Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, speaking directly of the fall of that kingdom to Assyria in v. 2 with reference to Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh, northern tribes of Israel.
While the lectionary selects only vv. 1-2, 8-19 from Psalm 80 giving a strong connection with Isa 5:1-7 through the vine/vineyard imagery, we need to consider the whole psalm to see how it works. All the elements of lament psalms are evident in Psalm 80: 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) includes vv. 8-13 which deliberately picks up the imagery and content of Isaiah’s song of the vineyard (Isa 5:1-7). The latter 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 song 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.
The Old Testament reading speaks 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 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 5:1-7
looked down from heaven and seen;
and given us life.
In Christ your sins are forgiven.
Thanks be to God!
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