Psalm 80:1-2, 8-9
This is a psalm of lament. A Psalm of mourning. A Psalm of sadness. More specifically, this is the Psalm of a community in mourning. The depth of this Psalm can leave the reader breathless.
Really, at its core, this is a Psalm about identity, loss and prayers for the return of a life that once was, but is no longer.
One writer says it this way:
“It’s important to remember, in the ancient world their connection with the soil was everything. They literally believed that your tribe, that soil, was where you were to be. A deep connection with [the] land. Land was about family, security, future, Identity, economics, religion, worth, value.” (R. Bell, Learning to Lament)
To be uprooted, to be torn. This was a brutal reality with ripples that lasted generations.
Land was about family, security, future, Identity, economics, religion, worth, value.
The writer of this Psalm is a writer who has lost something significant to them. Their home. Their land. Their identity. Now, the exact historical context is is uncertain, many scholars belief this Psalm is most likely written in response to the fall of the Northern Kingdom (around 722 BCE) at the hands of the Assyrians. (J. Creach, Working Preacher, “Commentary on Psalm 80:1-7”)
When you begin to understand the context of this Psalm, and understand the deep loss being experienced by the writer, we begin to understand that this Psalm is far more than simply the loss of some land, or a few possessions. No, this is the lament of a person- of a community- who have lost everything up to and including their identity.
As 21st century readers, it is difficult to connect with this deep sense of loss. We’ve never watched our cities burned and our families carried away. Few of us know the loss of land which has been farmed by generations of family which share our blood and family name.
Though, while we may not immediately connect with this idea of soil and inherent identity, however, we all have “soil” in which we find our worth and identity.
As a pastors can root their identity in their ability to preach, or the growth of their church.
Teachers have their students and their success test scores or their ability to manage a classroom.
Students root their identity in their grades and which college accepts them.
Small business owners root their identity in their fragile new venture and their ability to turn a profit.
Women and men root their identity in their careers, their salaries, benefits and ability to move up a ladder.
Adults view their worth in their success or their failure as a husband or a wife.
As human beings, we all attempt to find our identity in the best parts of our life.
However, this is a trap, because while things are good, our identity feels secure, however when our carefully constructed lives begin to fall apart and our cities burn, our identity goes up in smoke.
Who are we when we’re not rooted in the soil of our successes?
This is the question the psalmist is asking out loud. God, you’ve saved us before. You’ve given us our identity. We know you can do it. Please. Please, do it once more.
Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved (v.4);
This Psalm is particularly heartbreaking because we know the ending to this story.
If this was, in fact, written in response to the fall of the Northern Kingdom, we know that they never resettled the land and took control.
We know they never went back to their “past glory.”
Time marched forward. Their laments seemed to never find an ear who would bend and listen.
We find ourselves here, too.
There’s a moment, in the life of the Christ follower, where the metrics we once used to justify and define our place in the world no longer give us the results we are hoping for.
Pastors watch their congregations diminish.
Teachers watch as they are forced into retirement just to be replaced by a college graduate.
Students get rejection letters from schools they spent their life working to get into.
Married couples, in spite of their best intentions, watch as their marriages fall apart.
Assyria comes for us all.
In the wake of this loss, we find ourselves praying to God in the darkness; hoping he can hear us.
God, restore us.
God, bring us back to our former glory.
God, we need you to save us.
Please. Save us.
There’s a point in all of our lives when things fall apart and we don’t know where to go.
This is the power of the Psalms.
The Psalms aren’t just poems. They aren’t just some neat images we can teach to kids in Sunday School; images of tables, and shepherds and towers and shields. No, the Psalms are so much more than this. The Psalms give us language for moments when our current language structure fails.
When our world falls apart and we find our identity in flames, the Psalms reminds us there is precedence for this sort of thing. When our Identity falls apart, when we no longer are connected to the “soil” of our ancestors, we are reminded that identity was never about the soil we call home.
It’s true, the Northern Kingdom never ruled again. They slid even further form their original roots. Mingling with different nationalities, different religions, eventually becoming the very antithesis of who they were supposed to be; samaritans.
The devout Jews wouldn’t look at them. There was no good left in them. They had no identity left.
God had surely abandoned them. 722 years later, though, a baby was born.
Described as a “shoot.” (Is 11)
Who would grow to become a powerful prophet and spiritual leader.
He would give sermons describing himself as a vine. (John 15)
This leader spent his time among those who had lost their way.
A spiritual leader who was willing to do what none of his peers would do: speak to Samaritans.
Telling them that he was the “living water.” That no temple, no man constructed place, no soil, can ever define their identity.
No, if the Israelites from the North wanted to find their place in the soil, if they wanted to recapture their identity, then it was going to have to come from Christ.
Herein lies the truth about this Psalm.
We know God is going to answer us. In his time and in his wisdom, but we know there are times when it doesn’t happen quickly, or in the manner we desire. This creates in us sadness, despair and frustration. We yearn for the “what once was.” God doesn’t always save us in the ways we want to be saved.
This creates in us real mourning.
And the Psalms reminds us that we’re allowed to mourn. To feel the feeling of sadness and loss. It gives us the language we can use to find our way home again.
And when we look at the trajectory of Israel, we quickly learn that in our lament, and in our loss, God is still at work redeeming the whole thing.
Bringing healing and wholeness on a very broken world. We might think our redemption looks like a nation being replanted in the soil of our ancestors, but we eventually discover redemption is actually participating in a new vine.