Make your face shine on us — Psalm 80

Psalm 80 — Psalms of Asaph

This is a very structured psalm five stanzas with a refrain after the first, second and last stanzas, which is what you would expect to a song written to an existing tune. There are other ways of translating the introduction, but that ‘The Lilies of the Covenant’ is an existing composition is the most common.

Asaph had a long career. Appointed by David as one of the chief musicians in the Temple, and still serving under Solomon. Asaph’s role was prophetic, his job was to listen to the prayers concerns and laments of the people, and to give God’s reply. The Psalms of Asaph, Psalms 50 and 73–83 are both communal laments and words of prophesy.

Psalm 80

For the director of music. To the tune of ‘The Lilies of the Covenant’. Of Asaph. A psalm.

Hear us, Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph like a flock.
You who sit enthroned between the cherubim,
    shine forth before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.
Awaken your might;
    come and save us.

Restore us, O God;
    make your face shine on us,
    that we may be saved.

How long, Lord God Almighty,
    will your anger smoulder
    against the prayers of your people?
You have fed them with the bread of tears;
    you have made them drink tears by the bowlful.
You have made us an object of derision to our neighbours,
    and our enemies mock us.

Restore us, God Almighty;
    make your face shine on us,
    that we may be saved.

You transplanted a vine from Egypt;
    you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it,
    and it took root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
    the mighty cedars with its branches.
11 Its branches reached as far as the Sea,
    its shoots as far as the River.

12 Why have you broken down its walls
    so that all who pass by pick its grapes?
13 Boars from the forest ravage it,
    and insects from the fields feed on it.
14 Return to us, God Almighty!
    Look down from heaven and see!
Watch over this vine,
15     the root your right hand has planted,
    the son you have raised up for yourself.

16 Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire;
    at your rebuke your people perish.
17 Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand,
    the son of man you have raised up for yourself.
18 Then we will not turn away from you;
    revive us, and we will call on your name.

19 Restore us, Lord God Almighty;
    make your face shine on us,
    that we may be saved.

Psalm 80 NIV UK

Dating this psalm is difficult. Some put it when the Assyrians had destroyed the Northern kingdom of Israel, but as the latest of the historical events is the size of the kingdom under Solomon, ‘Its branches reached as far as the Sea, its shoots as far as the River,’ verse 11, it could easily be in the reign of Jeroboam I of Israel and if then, in the lifetime of Asaph.

There’s still a problem with that date. The named tribes are Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh. Ephraim and Manasseh were the sons of Joseph, Joseph and Benjamin are the sons of Jacob’s wife. When the nation of Israel split after Solomon’s reign the tribe of Benjamin went with the tribe of Judah. The wording of this psalm does not fit with after the split either. We have the extent of Solomon’s empire and tribes suggesting the united country, which gives late in Solomon’s reign, but no mention of the Temple. It could be a generic cry for help.

The refrain is crying out for God to bless the nation. ‘Make your face shine on us’ is a phrase from the blessing of Aaron on the people. Three times they ask God to bless them.

The form of the psalm is typical of Verse four suggests that the focus of God’s anger is not the people but their prayers. The Message puts verses 4 to 6 like this.

God, God-of-the-Angel-Armies,
    how long will you smolder* like a sleeping volcano
    while your people call for fire and brimstone?
You put us on a diet of tears,
    bucket after bucket of salty tears to drink.
You make us look ridiculous to our friends;
    our enemies poke fun day after day.

The people are expecting God to honour them in battle, bur it does nor work like that, God is not the provider of fire and brimstone to order, in fact the reverse id true, God is the God of all people and although he promised to protect his people from outside aggression if they were faithful; let me repeat that, he promised to protect his people from outside aggression if they were faithful, there is no promise to protect Israel if they were the aggressors. God is the god of all peoples, his purpose was always to bless people through Israel, not to destroy them. The prophet Isaiah, speaking to a people returning from an exile that was the result of their disobedience to God, reminded the people who returned of their purpose:

[God] says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Isaiah 49:6 NIV

Salvation of a people, whether the nation of Israel or the church, has never been the whole of God’s plan. The plan is much greater, going out to all people and beyond that to all of creation. The plan of redemption is simple. just like an item in a pawn shop can be redeemed, so can you and I, and the whole of God’s creation, through the payment of Jesus’s life an a Roman cross. This is God’s universe and he wants it back.


*American spelling retained as there is no British version of the Message.

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