Psalm 80 is one of the many psalms by Asaph, a man of whom little is said on the Bible (he, along with Heman the Ezrahite  and Ethan the Ezrahite) was one of the main leaders of the Levite musicians during the time of David and Solomon. From the writings of Asaph (see Psalm 78 as well), we can gather that he was a reflective and melancholy poet, and Psalm 80 certainly fits into this tendency of his writings. It is striking and ironic, given the content of Psalm 80, that it has the same tune (“The Lillies”) as Psalm 45, a royal wedding psalm written by the Sons of Korah .
Psalm 80 is a psalm I think about a lot in this day and age as I look at the state of Western civilization. Psalm 80 is a reflection on the judgment of God on a rebellious Israel and a call for restoration and repentance. It is a recognition of the removal of God’s protection and the results of it and a desire for the psalmist’s society to be right with God, knowing that requires God to forgive and restore a repentant people. Of course, often times what is the precise problem is that a people, even under God’s removal of protection and judgment, is not often quickly repentant. And repentance is the first step to restoration.
Psalm 80 is really divided into three roughly equal passages. Let us examine each of the passages in turn, and then close with some comments on why this particular psalm comes to mind for me so often. Psalm 80:1-7 reads: “Give ear, O shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock; You who dwell between the cherubim, shine forth! Before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, stir up Your strength, and come and save us! Restore us, O God; cause Your face to shine, and we shall be saved! O Lord of hosts, how long will You be angry against the prayer of Your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them ears to drink in great measure. You have made us a strife to our neighbors, and our enemies laugh among themselves. Restore us, O God of hosts; cause Your face to shine, and we shall be saved.”
Here we see something rather striking for a Jerusalem-based poet. There is a call for repentance and restoration largely for the northern tribes (which were led by Joseph) and the border tribe of Benjamin that was between Judah and Ephraim. Asaph calls on God as shepherd to save his sheep from disaster through his mighty strength, knowing that God has the power to save His people if He so chooses. Of course, the difficulty is that sometimes God chooses not to save–sometimes He is angry at a sinful and rebellious people, giving them sorry and making them a mockery in the world because of their rejection of His ways. Asaph, in calling out to God, is repentant himself, but it is unclear the extent to which the people he sings for are truly repentant. It is easy to pray to God when times are hard and to forget the severity of the offenses that have led to judgment. We have to understand that God is not like a cosmic waiter who is quick to answer our every request.
Psalm 80:8-13 reads: “You have brought a vine out of Egypt; You have cast out the nations, and planted it. You prepared room for it, and caused it to take deep root, and it filled the land. The hills were covered with its shadow, and the mighty cedars with its boughs. She sent out her boughs to the Sea, and her branches to the River. Why have You broken down her hedges? So that all who pass by the way pluck her fruit? The boar out of the woods uproots it, and the wild beast of the field devours it.”
Asaph is here commenting on a specific political situation at the end of the reign of Solomon. He is writing about how God had brought Israel out of Egypt during the Exodus, brought Israel to the holy land, and caused Israel to spread out its roots and its influence from Egypt to the Euphrates River. And then, after only a few decades of power and glory as a mini-empire, Israel’s power fractured again with the rebellion of Israel against Judah, and the divided kingdoms were soon prey to other nations like Egypt and Syria. Asaph is mourning the loss of power and glory of Israel because of their sins and hoping for a restoration of the brief glory of Israel, which was not to be except for one brief moment before Assyria’s shadow fell over Israel. And Asaph was wise to note that it was God’s doing, and not Israel’s strength, that had protected Israel and allowed it to grow in the first place.
Psalm 80:14-19 reads: “Return, we beseech You, O God of hosts; look down from heaven and see, and visit this vine and the vineyard which Your right hand has planted, and the branch that You made strong for Yourself. It is burned with fire, it is cut down; they perish at the rebuke of Your countenance. Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand, upon the son of man whom You made strong for yourself. Then we will not turn back from You; revive us, and we will call upon Your name. Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; cause Your face to shine, and we shall be saved!”
Asaph here closes the psalm (with its refrain) and comments on the results of God’s anger toward Israel for their sins–the desolation of Israel. Asaph calls on God to rebuild His vineyard and revive His nation, promising that His nation will not slip into sin again if they are forgiven and restored. Sadly, this has never occurred in history, as neither the Church nor Israel has ever been loyal to God and to His ways for a long period of time. Obviously, in the future God will restore Israel once and for all, but that time has not yet come. Even though this is a historical psalm with a specific context, it also has a prophetic aspect as well for the future.
Even though it is possible to read this psalm as a personal plea for safety, this song is a collective psalm of repentance and contrition, asking God to restore his favor on a repentant nation that has been facing the displeasure of God for their sins and rebellion. Sadly, throughout history, Israel’s periods of repentance and restoration have never been prolonged. Though they may say with their lips that they will be different this time, there has always been a return to the old ways after a very short time. And yet this psalm remains in the Bible despite the fact that it has never been fulfilled in history to date, perhaps as a sign of the repentance of God’s people and the promise that the people of Israel will eventually be repentant.
At this point, though, Western Civilization is not repentant. We have rejected God’s ways, even those few ways we have been taught through our traditions from our fathers. Because of this rejection we have invited God’s positive judgment as well as the removal of God’s blessings that we all so often take for granted. Having seen the same situation in my own society and my own civilization as Asaph dealt with in Psalm 80, I recognize my own desire that my people would humble themselves and pray to God in repentance that He would heal our land and restore us to His grace and love and protection and blessings. But will we repent?