"Restore Us, O God" (Psalms 79-80) September 1-3
Psalm 79, which begins the second cluster of psalms in Book III, is a lament over a devastating attack on Jerusalem and its temple. As with Psalm 74, this setting raises questions over Asaph's authorship noted in the superscription since Asaph would have seen no such invasion unless he lived well over a century to witness Pharaoh Shishak's invasion in the fifth year of Solomon's son Rehoboam (ca. 925 B.C.). Refer back to the Bible Reading Program's comments introducing Psalm 74 to see various suggestions for resolving this matter—the likeliest perhaps being that Asaph, as a seer, was foretelling the future.
Asaph may have been writing in Psalm 79 of Shishak's invasion, but it is likely that even later destruction was also being prophesied, such as that wreaked by the Babylonians (586 B.C.) and, later still, by the Romans (A.D. 70). The invasion and temple defilement by the Greek Syrians during the time of the Maccabees (ca. 168 B.C.) could also be represented here—as could the destruction and defilement of the end time yet to come.
Note verse 2 in this regard: "The dead bodies of Your servants they [the invaders] have given as food for the birds of the heavens, the flesh of Your saints to the beasts of the earth." God through Jeremiah later warned of what His people would experience at the hands of the Babylonian invaders in similar terms: "Their dead bodies shall be for meat for the birds of the heaven and the beasts of the earth" (Jeremiah 34:20; compare 7:33; 16:4; 19:7). Of course, Jeremiah's prophecy, in a dual sense, was foretelling both immediate and end-time devastation.
The word "saints" in Psalm 79:2 means "holy ones." This could perhaps refer to God's holy nation generally or more specifically to priests at the temple, yet it may have referred, as it would today, to spiritually converted people. An end-time setting would indicate the latter—and other prophecies do show that even some of God's end-time saints will be slain in the coming time of tribulation along with the people of Israelite nations generally.
The wording of verse 4, about being a reproach and target of scorn and derision, is very similar to that of Psalm 44:13.
Asaph asks "how long" this terrible situation will continue (verse 5). Will God be angry with His people forever? Will His "jealousy burn like a fire"?—that is, will His anger over His people's unfaithfulness utterly consume them? Things appeared so bad as to seem like this might be the case. So the psalm asks God for mercy, deliverance, atonement and salvation (verses 8-9). And it appeals to God to be true to His name as the Savior of His people—to defend His own reputation, as the enemy taunts, "Where is their God?" (verse 10).
The psalm is also a call for just retribution on the enemy and all nations that oppose God and His people: "Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You...for they have devoured Jacob" (verses 6-7). It asks for God to act as His people's divine Kinsman-Redeemer and Avenger of Blood, avenging the deaths of His slain servants (verse 10) and rescuing those who will likewise die at the hands of the enemy if He doesn't act (verse 11). Again, God's reputation is shown to be at stake: "Pay back into the laps of our neighbors seven times the reproach they have hurled at you, O Lord" (verse 12, NIV). "The sevenfold restitution expresses a concern for full justice...the judgment must be equal to the severity of the reproach of God's name!" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verse 12).
Asaph at last expresses confidence that God, as a caring shepherd over His flock (see Psalms 23; 80), will act in His people's favor—so that they may praise Him for all time (79:13).
Where the superscription of Psalm 80 has "Set to 'The Lilies' [Hebrew Shoshannim]. A Testimony [Eduth] of Asaph," this could be rendered "Set to 'The Lilies of Testimony.' Of Asaph." The NIV has "The Lilies of the Covenant." Compare the superscription of Psalm 60, which has, "Set to 'Lily of the Testimony'" (Shushan Eduth). As in other cases throughout the Psalter, the first part of the superscription of each of these psalms may be a postscript of the preceding psalm.
As in the previous psalm (79), the nation is in distress—plundered by enemies (compare 80:12-13). And as before, it may be that Asaph was prophesying of national invasion beyond his lifetime—perhaps even of the end time still to come. Yet, just as Psalm 79 ends with reliance on God as the Shepherd of His people (see verse 13), so Psalm 80 opens with an appeal to the Shepherd of Israel who leads Joseph (the leading birthright people and therefore representative of the nation as a whole) like a flock (verse 1; compare Psalm 23; John 10).
God, who dwells between the cherubim—as represented on the earthly copy of God's throne, the mercy seat atop the Ark of the Covenant (see Exodus 25:17-22)—is asked to "shine forth" (Psalm 80:1), showing His glory through His intervening power (verse 2). Note the beginning of verse 2: "Before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh." The psalm is here essentially pleading, "March against the [enemy] nations as you marched in the midst of your army from Sinai into the promised land (in that march the ark of the covenant advanced in front of the troops of these three tribes; see Nu 10:21-24...)" (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, note on Psalm 80:2).
The central theme of the psalm is clear from the repeated refrain asking, "Restore us..." (verses 3, 7, 19), with building intensity in calling on God: "...O God" (verse 3), "...O God of hosts" (verse 7) and "...O Lord God of hosts" (verse 19). The rest of the repeated refrain, "Cause Your face to shine [i.e., smile favorably on us], and we shall be saved" (same verses), is essentially drawn from the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:25: "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace." We have previously noted the use of this language in other psalms as well (see Psalms 4:6; 44:3; 67:1; 119:135). Here in Psalm 80 the people had been experiencing the opposite—the rebuke of God's countenance (His angry expression) causing them to perish (80:16).
"How long," Asaph asks (as is common in laments), will God be angry and refuse to answer His people's prayers? (verse 4; compare 13:1-2; 79:5). In the desert wilderness, God, as His people's caring Shepherd, fed them with manna and gave them water to drink from the rock. But now, figuratively, He has given His people their tearful misery to eat and drink (80:5). They have become a source of contention and mockery to neighboring countries (verse 6)—rather than the blessing and positive example they were intended to be. So again the plea of restoration is raised (verse 7).
In verses 8-16 Asaph likens Israel to a vine and vineyard, imagery found in other passages (see Isaiah 5:1-7; 27:2-6; Jeremiah 2:21; 12:10; Ezekiel 15:1-8; 17:6-8; 19:10-14; Hosea 10:1; 14:7). God bringing the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land is pictured as transplanting the vine (Psalm 80:8). His driving out of the nations before them (same verse) is compared to a caring vinedresser clearing the ground for the vine (verse 9; compare Isaiah 5:2). The vine filled the land (Psalm 80:9), growing to immense stature so that hills and tall trees, symbolic of other national powers (compare Ezekiel 17), were overshadowed as the vine grew (Psalm 80:10). It spread from the Sea (the Mediterranean) to the River (the Euphrates) (verse 11), representing Israel's dominion reaching this extent, as it did during the reigns of David and Solomon.
Yet things have dramatically changed. God has broken down His vine's hedges—its protective fence (referring to His own divine protection)—and allowed others to plunder it (verse 12). The boar and wild beasts (unclean animals here representing foreign invaders) uproot and devour it. Because of God's anger it is burned with fire and cut down (verse 16). Compare God's later words, probably adapted from Psalm 80, in Isaiah 5:5: "And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned; and break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down."
The psalm calls on God to look at the sorry state of the vine now and to "visit" it (Psalm 80:14)—to show it care and restore it as it was. There is a play on words in the last several verses here. The Hebrew word for vineyard in verse 15 "is used only here in the Bible; it literally means 'root-stock'" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 4-17). Then we see the word "branch" in the same verse—giving us the common pairing of root and branch. Yet the Hebrew word for branch here is ben, meaning "son"—the same word translated "son" in verse 17 in the expression "son of man."
The nation of Israel was not just as a mere plant to God as a vinedresser but was God's own son (see Exodus 4:22)—intended to serve as His "right-hand man" (see Psalm 80:17), a model nation to properly represent Him to the world (as a vine bearing godly fruit). Yet the imagery here likely pointed to Israel's Davidic ruler as well, the particular "son of man" (meaning human being) who was to lead the nation in setting the proper example. Moreover, the words here no doubt look to the ultimate "Branch" who would come from the vine of Israel and the line of David—the Messiah. He too would be, in a unique way, God's own Son.
Jesus would later tell His followers that He is the true vine, that God the Father is the vinedresser and that they, abiding in Him as the vine, are the branches (John 15:1-8). Jesus Himself was brought out of Egypt and replanted in the Promised Land, preaching throughout the breadth of the land. He suffered terribly for sin at the hands of enemies (not His own sin but that of others). He was brutalized and died. But He rose again—and through His death and resurrection all may be saved. Indeed, it is through this Son and His followers that the vine of Israel would be reconstituted in a spiritual sense and revived—so that it would never turn from God again (see Psalm 80:18). The physical Israelites will be restored to God's favor or grace through being grafted into spiritual Israel (compare Romans 11; Galatians 6:16).
Thus, as the final refrain calls for again (Psalm 80:19), Israel will be restored, God will smile favorably on His people and they shall be saved.