There is a presence. We’ve all felt it. And, we keep seeking it until we feel it again.
The spiritual life can be frustrating. Spiritual enthusiasts testify to an overwhelming and even intoxicating cloud in the experience of an otherworldly presence of a higher power. But the experience evaporates like a morning mist under the intensity of the rising sun. What the spiritual sojourner seeks dissipates almost as soon as it is found.
For the Psalmist, particularly those of Asaph and the northern traditions, the entirety of God’s presence on earth–that which obvious, distinct, tangible–is encapsulated in the memory (re: worship) of God’s work in history. This Psalm is a corporate prayer of lament (see also Psalms 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, 90). The people wonder aloud in their worship just want happened, how it all went wrong in their collective spiritual journey.
Remember how God guided home the tribes of Israel? Ephraim, the first, Benjamin, the last, and even Manasseh, the one far away. Remember how the Shepherd went into the darkened world of oppression and slavery, guided Moses to lead the people into the wilderness, when the Ark of the Covenant went before the people and led them from slavery to freedom, from certain death by the hand of Pharaoh to the freedom of new life in the land promised to Abraham. Remember the work at God, the Divine Presence that will continue to “shine forth” (verse 1). Yes, this will alleviate all of the people’s troubles. If only God would listen . . .
The Psalmist lays on the superlatives in verses 1 and 2. Isn’t God great?
This prayerful psalm recalls the temple, the actual obvious, distinct, tangible presence of God, unlike history gets dusty and fades from memory. By entering God’s real presence, the people come before the Lord of hosts, divine nomenclature associated with the Ark of the Covenant. The people may finally get the divine attention long enough to listen again, to restore their fortunes, and to pave the way out of trouble (v. 1-2). If only God would listen . . .
Their desire for spiritual renewal begs, “Restore us, O God, let your face shine, that we may be saved” (verses 3, 7, 19).
This is not just any god but the One Who “dwells” among the people and radiates over the earth like rays of sunlight. Underneath the Ark, the cherubim, who are not chubby little children with feathery wings but great and powerful heavenly beings, resembling deities of associated with local religions of Canaan, but here on the Ark they carry the very throne of God, the only tru Almighty, All-Supreme, like no other gods. The bursting forth of God’s sovereign power is known by all in a theophany of God’s presence. God appears on mountaintops, like on Mount Sinai and Mount Zion (Deut 33:2: Ps 50:2). This is what the people need, right? To see another summit, to get a little closer to the heavenly Light, to leave behind the consequences of their own spiritual and moral darkness.
Their desire for spiritual renewal begs again, “Restore us, O God, let your face shine, that we may be saved” (verses 3, 7, 19).
By this time in Israel’s history, the term Shepherd was not just a herder of sheep but one who leads. It is a royal title, thanks to King David. The title is now bestowed by the psalmist upon God. This Leader, though, was no longer listening. How long will this divine passivity go on? In another of Asaph’s psalms of lament, the people also plead, “Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?” (Psalm 74:1 NRSV).
God’s anger may be translated to “smoke against” (see also Deut 29:20). The image evokes the tumult of a pyroclastic flow from an erupting volcano. There is nowhere to run from the destructive wall of heat and ash. Contrast this image of judgment to the fragrance of incense of the prayer desired by God from his people (Psalm 141:2; Revelations 5:8, 8:4). This prayer should be penitent in the earnest search for God’s presence and help.
In verse 4, the NRSV translates this prayer, “O God of hosts, how long will you be angry with his people’s prayers?” James Luther Mays suggests a reading more along the lines of: “The Lord God of hosts has been angry for a long time with his people, even though they pray to him.” Mays continues, “There is nothing wrong with their prayers; they just don’t help.” (263)
If God would only hear, pay attention, do something, maybe, just maybe, God’s people would be okay. The people plead in prayer to this God that seems to be absent from, or ignorant of, or even mocking them in their plight. The people are also scorned and mocked by those closest to them (verse 6, Psalm 79:4). It is impossible to ignore God’s lack of favor, the turning away of His face from His people, which means His Presence, and their sense of importance, is no longer obvious, distinct, and tangible.
The lectionary passage skips over the allegory of the vine (vv. 8-16). A recollection of God’s past work in history is common to the corporate prayers of lament in the Psalms (44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, 90). Here, the language evokes the exodus from slavery and entrance into the promised land, and even the ruined walls of the city and temple of the post-exilic period.
In verse 13 is find the scriptural allusion borrowed by Pope Hadrian in depicting his famous and vivid description of the Protestant reformer Martin Luther as “the wild boar in the vineyard,” causing further destruction of God’s land of promise. Could God destroy in judgment what was supposed to represent His presence in the world? See the Historical Note below.*
Ironically, the people of God in the psalm call upon the Lord to repent in verse 14: “Turn again [shuv, Hebrew], O God, look down from heaven, and see . . .” The irony is the One accused of destruction is not the one causing it. Yahweh, either in the time of Israel’s history or Luther’s Europe, was not the cause of divine judgment but the people encountered a divine response to the people turning away from God in the first place. God was not up there, looking down, as the psalmist suggests, rather it was that the people were ignorant of the One Who was and is and always present.
Yet, does God relent? The people do not hesitate to exclaim for the third time to conclude the psalm, “Restore us, O God.” J. Clinton McCann notes that this restoration could be in the sense of returning from exile (1 Kings 8:34; Jeremiah 27:22; Daniel 9:25) or as a call to repentance from judgment and ways that lead to death (2 Samuel 12:23; Job 33:30) (McCann, 999). It is important to note, according to Mays, that the repentance called for is not of the leader alone or on behalf of the people (“son of man,” literally ben-adam, verse 17), but rather the entire community is called to repentance. All of the people–then and now, them and us–need to repent and inhale again the breath of divine life that comes only from the living God revealed in Christ.
For Christians today, one way to encounter the living Christ is to enter regularly into the practice of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In the bread and wine, one encounters the real Presence of God. In the midst of the fragrance of the Bread of the Presence, found in the temple of God, there is an obvious, distinct, and tangible encounter with God’s presence (Exodus 25:30; Leviticus 24:5-7; Hebrew 9:1-2; John 6:35). To stand before God (literally, panim or paneh in Hebrew) means to be in God’s presence.
It is a loose comparison, I admit, but anyone familiar with Latin and Romance languages cannot help but see linguistic similarity between the Hebrew for presence and panem (Latin), pan (Spanish), pane (Italian), and pain (French). There’s probably no real linguistic correlation between the Latin for bread and Hebrew for presence, but I’d like to think there is.
On a more theologically sound note, Roland Bainton, in his classical biography of Martin Luther, offers Luther’s perspective on the nature of sacramental presence revealing God as present in Christ:
“The sacrament for [Luther] was not a chunk of God fallen like a meteorite from heaven. God does not need to fall from heaven because he is everywhere present throughout his creation as a sustaining and animating force, and Christ as God is likewise universal, but his presence is hid from human eyes. For that reason God has chosen to declare himself unto mankind at three loci of revelation. The first is Christ, in whom the Word was made flesh. The second is Scripture, where the Word uttered is recorded. The third is the sacrament, in which the Word is manifest in food and drink. The sacrament does not conjure up God as the witch of Endor [1 Samuel 28] but reveals him where he is.” (Bainton, 1978, 139-140)
More recently, James Luther May, in his delightful commentary on the Psalms, summarizes the practical importance of Psalm 80 for this season of Advent, celebrating the hope of the newborn Christ among us:
“The psalm is a witness that the congregation must in the long last and in its extremity look away from its own repentance to a kind of repentance in God–his turning away from wrath and returning to grace. The trust that God will in the end do so is based on nothing in the congregation. It is based on the self-understanding that the congregation is the work of God, there in existence, wholly and only as the act of God. Believing that, the congregation can hope that God will not abandon what he has begun.” (Mays, 1994, 264)
It is in this hope that seekers may not immediately find what they are looking for but will always be found by turning toward God’s face, revealed at last in the work and presence of Christ, Immanuel, “God with us.”
* Historical Note: in 1525, “. . . Pope Hadrian addressed to Frederick the Wise a veritable manifesto of the Counter Reformation.
‘Beloved in Christ, we have endured enough and more than enough. Our predecessors exhorted you to desist from corrupting the Christian faith through Martin Luther, but the trumpet has sounded in vain. We have been moved by mercy and paternal affection to give you a fatherly admonition. The Saxons have ever been defenders of the faith. But now who has bewitched you? Who has wasted the vineyard of the Lord? Who but a wild boar? We have you to thank that the churches are without people, the people without priests, the priests without honor, and Christians without Christ. The veil of the temple is rent. Be not beguiled because Martin Luther appeals to Scripture. So does every heretic, but Scripture is a book sealed with seven seals which cannot be so well opened by one carnal man as by all the holy saints. The fruits of this evil are evident. For this robber of churches incites the people to smash images and break crosses. He exhorts the laity to wash their hands in the blood of the priests. He has rejected or corrupted the sacraments, repudiated the expunging of sins through fasts, and rejects the daily celebration of the mass. He has committed the decretals of the holy Fathers to the flames. Does this sound to you like Christ or Antichrist? Separate yourself from Martin Luther and put a muzzle on his blasphemous tongue. If you will do this, we will rejoice with all the angels of heaven over one sinner that is saved. But if you refuse, then in the name of Almighty God [p251] and Jesus Christ our Lord, whom we represent on earth, we tell you that you will not escape punishment on earth and eternal fire hereafter. Pope Hadrian and Emperor Charles are in accord. Repent therefore before you feel the two swords.’
“Frederick replied: ‘Holy Father, I have never and do not now act other than as a Christian man and an obedient son of the holy Christian Church. I trust that God Almighty will give me his grace that for the few years I have left I may strengthen his holy word, service, peace, and faith.’” (cited in Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1978, pp. 250-251)
Bainton, Roland. 1978. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press.
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr. 1996. “Psalms.” The New Interpreter’s Bible. Volume 4. Nashville: Abingdon Press. Pp639-1280
Mays, James Luther. 1994. Psalms. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox Press.