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Psalm 80

Psalm 80 is one of many psalms of lament contained within the Psalter. In fact, most psalms are lament, which is a form of praising God.[1] Lament is a way of worshipping in which we lift our brokenness and the brokenness of the world before God. Lament as worship offers us a means by which we can incorporate emotions such as anger, bewilderment, loneliness, grief, and sadness into our life with God. As I write this, the United States has experienced two mass shootings back-to-back in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. While Psalm 80 may not be the most apt words to express outrage and grief with these shootings, psalms of lament are a powerful liturgical tool to help people process such events while also calling on God to act.

Psalm 80 addresses Israel’s Exile. As J. Clinton McCann, Jr. observes, “It is likely that if Psalm 80 did not actually originate as a response to exile, it was placed in its present literary context to function as such.” McCann goes on to quote James L. Mays, stating that this psalm belongs to “the afflicted people of God on their way through the troubles of history.”[2] A question as you move from text to sermon could be: “What are the troubles we as community of faith are facing? What are we asking God to do about it?”

The text begins with a summons of God to “give ear” or pay attention in verse 1. The imperatives used throughout the psalms might strike some people today as too forward or demanding for an address of God; personally, I hear a lot of prayers that are couched in “may we be” and “please do this” type language. The Psalter, including this one, invite us into a bolder prayer life. Perhaps more shocking than beginning a prayer with the imperative “give ear” is that is implies that God is not listening or ever-attentive. Psalm 80 is shot through with the psalmist’s sense of God’s absence and abandonment of Israel. While in exile, Israel has been fed “with the bread of tears” and been given “tears to drink in full measure” (v. 5). And who has served up this distress? God (see vv. 4-6).

Here, it is worth noting—and perhaps carefully exploring within the sermon—that Israel’s claim of God’s agency in their exile is a particular theological claim about their specific circumstance. It is dangerous to generalize from Israel’s Exile to other calamities, natural disasters, invasions, etc. Within a Wesleyan theological framework, there is room for human agency and natural disasters rather than attributing all such things to God’s direct agency.

Paired with the belief that God has brought Israel to this place is the even greater belief that God alone is the way out. “Stir up your might, and come to save us!”, the Psalmist implores. Here we see that the response to God’s seeming absence is not disbelief but bold prayer. Wake up, God! You need to do something to save us! Psalm 80 contains a refrain to such an effect: “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (v. 3, see also vv. 7, 14, and 19). This psalm is pervaded with the sense that God alone can restore Israel. The psalmist does not call upon the people to try harder, be better, or take matters into their own hands. Rather the solution to their problem is to be found without: in the mighty power of God. It is only through God’s gracious action that Israel can say, “Then we will never turn back from you; give us life; and we will call on your name” (v. 18).

There is also a lengthy metaphor of God as a vineyard owner and Israel as God’s vineyard that begins in v. 8. Psalm 80 pairs with the Old Testament lectionary text of Isaiah 5:1-7 for this week. The Psalmist reminiscences of the height of Israel’s prominence when their kingdom stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates River (see v. 11). It was God who had planted this vine so carefully taken from Egypt. It was God who cleared a place for this vineyard. I imagine most readers, like me, have a hard time imagining the amount of work and time it takes to establish a fruitful vineyard. It is a profound investment, not of abstract capital in a distant market, but of one’s very self in the intimate work of fidelity to the vineyard. It takes years of work before a vineyard is in full production.

It is God’s intimate and costly investment in the life of Israel that forms the basis for the Psalmist’s case for restoration. Why would God work so hard, so to speak, only to tear down the walls and allow Israel’s decimation? The Psalmist is calling God to remember all that God has done for Israel. The central ask of God is for restoration, which is repeated throughout the psalm. Unless God turns again toward Israel, they will be left as a decimated vineyard with no protection.

There are at least three potential avenues to explore in a sermon on Psalm 80. The first would be a sermon about lament as faithful worship of God. People should know that they can bear their grief, anger, despair, and abandonment in prayer to God. In my work in college ministry, I have encountered quite a few students struggling spiritually because they have no idea how to process grief or anger as followers of Jesus. We find the psalms of lament on Jesus’ lips throughout the gospels; given all that we have to lament in our world today, they should be on ours as well. Where in its life together has your congregation felt abandoned by God? What would restoration look like?

The second avenue is to explore the vineyard metaphor contained in Psalm 80 and Isaiah 5:1-7. One note of caution is to avoid supersessionism or anything that could fuel anti-Semitism. While we can creatively explore how Israel’s plight and exile might give light to current issues faced by the Church, we should avoid presenting the Church as Israel’s replacement. In exploring the vineyard metaphor, we are offered a depiction of God intimately at work in our lives and in history. God is willing to get God’s hands dirty, so to speak, by carefully making room for this vineyard. This avenue also offers us space for self-examination, both individually and communally. Are we bearing the fruit that God expects of us? Does the seeming destruction of the vineyard offer room for something new for God to do? What are the broken-down walls that expose our community to threat? What are the boars that ravage what God is trying to do among your community? Such threats might be internal or external to the community!

Finally, a sermon on Psalm 80 could explore our utter dependence on God to save us. The repeated refrain for God to bring restoration surely resonates with anyone who has faced a habitual sin or addiction. But for some people, believing that they need saving and are powerless to change their lot will be hard to accept. Psalm 80 is intensely focused on God as the sole source of salvation and help. There is nothing that Israel can do except look to God, lament, and wait. Yet even in this waiting, Psalm 80 shows us how to pray. We can make bold asks of God in the expectation that God does indeed save. “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80:19, NRSV). [1] See Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, Cowley Publications (2001):15. [2] J. Clinton McCann Jr., “Psalms”, The New Interpreter’s Bible: a Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. 4, Abington (1994): 999.