Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Psalm 80

I preached on Psalm 80 last Sunday. I won’t post my actual notes, but (inspired by the example of a friend and colleague) I thought I’d use the blog as a place to think out loud about what I did and was trying to do. I preach 2-3 times a month, sometimes more, and if I have the time and inclination I may every so often try to record here some summary reflections on my sermons.


• With reference to Anne Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow, I began by talking about the value of the psalms in giving us a voice when we might not know how to pray. This led into describing Psalm 80 as a community ‘Help’ prayer and the significance of that as well as its general lack in our own repertoire of sung worship.

• I also drew attention to the repeated refrain in the Psalm, found first in verse 3 (‘Restore us, O God; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved’), repeated in verses 7 and 19, effectively dividing the psalm into three natural sections, and offering a big clue to its main theme – Restore us!

• I mentioned that the words in the refrain are reminiscent of the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24-26 (‘May the Lord make his face shine upon you’), except that the people of God felt they were not experiencing that promised blessing at this time.


Taking into account the refrain, I looked at the psalm in three movements.

• 80:1-3 – Hear Us! (the heading is taken from the first words of the psalm – 80:1a). I drew attention to the requests, moving from ‘hear us’ (start of verse 1) to ‘save us’ (end of verse 2), and there being hope for this hearing and saving only because of who the Lord is – the shepherd of the flock (80:1a) and the enthroned king (80:1b-2). Not wanting to presume on knowledge, I spent a bit of time highlighting some of the biblical background of the image of the shepherd and the significance of the ark of the covenant.

• 80:4-7 – How Long? (again, the heading is taken from words in the psalm itself – 80:4a). I noted the number of times this question is asked in the Psalms. I also tried to emphasise the people’s sense here that they are suffering the seeming absence of God’s ‘face’ (signifying his blessing presence) due to God’s anger at their sin (80:4), leading to mourning (80:5) and mocking by others (80:6).

• 80:8-19 – Return to Us! (again, the heading is taken from the psalm itself, but midway through the section this time, in 80:14a). I went fairly quickly through the extended vine image, noting how it tells the story of Israel in picture language (80:8-13). To fill out the response to the question asked in verse 12 as to why God has overrun his vine, I read Isaiah 5:1-7 (where judgment comes because the vine produced only bad fruit), drawing attention again to elements of judgment in Psalm 80 (e.g., 80:4, 16), making the central request for God to return to the people (80:14) all the more dramatic. The recognition of God’s judgment doesn’t drive the people away from God, but towards him. The end of this section sees a number of references to a ‘son’ (80:15, 17). Not wanting people to jump too quickly to Jesus at this point, I tried to explain how the language of ‘sonship’ is used in the Old Testament for both Israel as a nation and the king. I sense I lost a few members of the congregation at this point (!), but ended by reinforcing the point that whether the ‘son’ is Israel or the king, it remains clear that renewal and restoration will come only from God (80:17-18).


• I didn’t reflect at all on the provenance of the psalm (commentators mostly suggest the evidence is equivocal anyway). In fact, I made the lack of specificity into a virtue, allowing us to think about the different contexts in which it might be applicable then and the different places it might apply today. I tried to offer a few possibilities ranging from the historical to the macro to the local and the personal.

• Using Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and John Wesley as examples, I spoke about the times God has been gracious to restore and revive his dying people. I also spoke about the situation of persecuted Christians in Iraq and Syria at the moment (though I tried to be careful to say that devastation might come to God’s people not necessarily through his judgment, but through the destruction that others cause). I drew attention to bigger issues that cause anxiety and fear in the world today – war, brutality, ecological disaster, including a recent local tragedy. Then, whilst recognising the corporate nature of the psalm, I invited a response on a personal level too, asking people to reflect on the state of their own ‘vine’. For rhetorical emphasis, I concluded each example with a call to pray the words of verse 19 – ‘Restore us, O Lord God Almighty; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.’

• Seeking to end on an upbeat note, I read from Isaiah 27:2-6 (the positive counterpoint to Isaiah 5), with its promise that God will protect his vine and that his people will bear fruit. I finished by speaking about Jesus as the Son, the king, the good shepherd, the true vine in whom we abide in order to bear fruit to the glory of God.


• If I was to do this again, I’d probably try to get through the body of psalm itself more quickly in order to spend longer reflecting on its implications, possibly in interaction with the congregation.

• I’d try to be clearer and more helpful on the ‘son’ references!

• I think I struggled most with the ‘judgment’ angle in the psalm. This is not because I have a problem with God judging his people, but more with how we can know for sure in any given contemporary context whether his people are suffering due to his discipline or displeasure (how do we read the nature of God’s hand in particular situations?), and what that looks like anyway this side of the cross. This is why I felt the need to make the qualifications in the case of persecuted Christians in Iraq and Syria.

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