Bible

PSALM 80–A MEDITATION FOR ADVENT ONE

Today is the first Sunday of Advent.  The Psalm for today is Psalm 80, verses 1-7 as well as 17-19.  The biblical text below is from the ESV Bible.

Psalm 80

[1] Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock. You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth. [2] Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up your might and come to save us!

Two things strike me about the opening of the psalm.  First, it asks the Lord to listen.  “Give ear,” is a poetic anthropomorphism that asks God to listen.  The humble request stands in stark contrast with our hubris.  We arrogantly assume that the Lord has to hear, or that he is just waiting, like an puppy dog outside the bedroom door, for us to come spend some time with him.  No, says Psalmist.  I know that you are God and have much to think on, but if you would please, hear us. The second thing that strikes me is that the writer asks God to come and save, but before he does that he acknowledges that the Lord is the leader, the shepherd, of the people.  Do not neglect the subtlety.  The Psalmists asks for deliverance in the same breath that he reminds the Almighty that he is responsible for the people. For my money, the usage of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh indicates that the psalm is either old or regional.  As such, it reflects a time before Judah and Israel were political entities.  It could simply be regional, because these three tribes were given adjacent land in the central part of Palestine just north of Jerusalem.  They were neighbors, and perhaps were under an identical threat at the time the prayer was composed.

[3] Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!

Do you catch that second anthropomorphism?  First God had an ear, now God has a face.  This particular reference should cause the reader to remember and reflect on the great Aaronic benediction from Numbers 6:25, “The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.”  God obviously doesn’t have a face, but the mental image is of one smiling at someone with love and affection.  Clearly the psalmist believes that part of the problem is that God has not been smiling on them.  He has been frowning. When I was a boy we often got these red stamps on our work.  They weren’t stickers, but were red stamps.  If the work was good then the teacher would stamp a smiley face.  If the work wasn’t good, the teacher would stamp a frowny face.  True story.  It seems to me that an important part of asking the help of the Lord is to admit that our work might be frowny face quality work.

[4] O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?

I hope not long.  This question forces a theological realization–sometimes our actions block our spiritual communication with the Lord.  This is one of the reasons why confession is vital for spiritual growth and spiritual strength.

[5] You have fed them with the bread of tears and given them tears to drink in full measure. [6] You make us an object of contention for our neighbors, and our enemies laugh among themselves.

These two verses are great poetics.  Notice that both are classic chiasm.  In verse five “fed” crosses over to “measure” while “tears” align with “tears.”  In verse 6 the language is tighter, as “object of contention” crosses over to “laugh” (although, in the English the crossing is really more of a straight line down) while “neighbors” matches with “enemies.”  These kinds of poetics reminds us that these prayers were constructed with the highest degree of skill and thought.  There is not a single “and um, Lord just be with us, and like, you know, Lord, bless our socks off.”  Not. A. One.

[7] Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved!

Host does not mean that God is entertaining.  It is an old English word that derives from the Latin “hostis” which means “enemy.”  It eventually came to mean armies in English.  The Lord is the head of a great heavenly army, and it is as the leader of this divine army that the psalmist appeals for salvation.

[17] But let your hand be on the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself! [18] Then we shall not turn back from you; give us life, and we will call upon your name!

By now you should see it.  It is yet another anthropomorphism.  Now God has an ear, a face, and a hand.  The “son of man” no doubt is historically referring to a human leader like a king, priest, or prophet.  Since I believe the text is old, and/or regional, it might be a judge of the sort we find in that sad book of the Bible.  Without a doubt, though, we who follow Jesus can see him as the “son of man” sent to bring about our salvation, the one who gives us life, and the one whose name we call upon (Romans 10:13, Acts 2:21, Joel 2:32).

[19] Restore us, O LORD God of hosts! Let your face shine, that we may be saved!

I know (I think I know, anyway) what the writer of the psalm had in mind with the idea of ‘restoration,’ but I’m not sure exactly what it might mean for me when I pray it.  Part of me wants to think of it in spiritual terms only:  Restoration is the place where forgiveness flows with confession and repentance and suddenly things are right now between me and the Lord.  But restoration might also be the concept of restoration of relationships between people.  Perhaps the three tribes were not threatened from an outside group, perhaps they were in conflict with each other, and the request is for restoration of the union?  It might even be restoration of a people who had walked away (turn backed on, as in verse 18) and now are asking for restoration into the true faith. Either way, I find the request for Yahweh to bring restoration to be one of the most wonderful things we can ask.

5 replies »

  1. Interesting to note that there is a transition in the Septuagint that is not in the Masoretic Text: between the question about God’s anger and the remark about the bread of tears, it switches from third to first person, as in “Will you feed us the bread of tears?” and some translations into English (such as the one I’m looking at) read that and “Will you give us as drink tears in measure?” as questions rather than declarative statements. The next remarks (offense to neighbors) then return to the declarative. I think this variation adds something to the poetry you’ve done such a lovely job of discussing. Is there not the question and one of its answers not prophetic in the Eucharist?

    Good post.

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    • Is there not the question and one of its answers not prophetic in the Eucharist?

      By which I mean to say something more coherent like, “Are the question and one of its answers not open to a reasonable prophetic understanding in light of the Eucharist?” Editing.

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      • wow–great input virgil. i went and looked at this in the greek, and sure enough you are right. the LXX uses “emas”. as to the eucharist, that would be an interesting hermeneutical jump many conservative scholars would reject, but i think, given a messianic reading of the psalms (which is a part of our ecclesiastical history–i mean, after all, this is a text for advent) i have no problem with it. we eat the bread with the tears of confession, and then drink the cup with tears of joy, perhaps the eschatalogical cup we share with Messiah in heaven?
        now, here is what is interesting. one of the hebrew ways of understanding ‘shine’ is that of a face, a head, that has been anointed with oil. so . . . work with me here, i know it is a stretch, if the bread and cup of tears is the eucharist, could we then see the liturgical oil of gladness, as symbolic of the Holy Spirit in verse 7? that might work well within orthodox theology, whereas the entire Trinity are understood more actively in the work of salvation than many protestants would feel comfortable with?

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      • You’re not far off as far as Orthodoxy would be concerned, I think. Oil is closely associated with the Holy Spirit (as well as with God’s mercy). For instance, Baptism includes Holy Unction, the anointing of the baptized with oil meaning the entry of the Holy Spirit. St. Clement of Alexandria went so far, for instance, as to compare the anointing of Christ’s feet with the filling of the Apostles with the Holy Spirit (they being, in his comparison, like the Lord’s feet walking about the urge preaching the Gospel). And the shining of one’s face with gladness is also clearly reflected in New Testament instructions on how to fast (without looking miserable). We also employ oil, with prayerful reference to James, in our services for healing.

        Your note of caution is well taken. As you can surmise from my flubbed edit, I worked on that comment a bit before posting it, so that I didn’t suggest anything radical. You are probably also correct to note that somewhere in here we could find sticking points between Orthodox and many Protestant understandings of the relative participations or activities in salvation. I like how you point out in the post about asking God to listen and asking to see His smiley rather than his frowny face.

        Now, this might be a stretch, but perhaps the Psalmist is really prophesying that the anointing of the Holy Spirit turns us into a new kind of Japanese emoji smiley, a kind that Old Testament unicode only anticipated. I don’t know. It’s getting late, and tomorrow’s Monday. 😉

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