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Psalm 80:7-15

If the Psalms give us anything, it is permission. Permission to come to God with whatever feelings we may have. And Psalm 80, traditionally considered a psalm of lament, comes with so many feelings that it is difficult to discern, at times, the psalmist’s tone. I like Walter Brueggemann’s description of it: “pathos-filled.” It shifts from a psalm of praise to mourning in almost a verse, as the psalmist remembers God’s goodness to Israel, then quickly changes course to ask why that same God would abandon God’s people. We feel, as it were, all the feels

The section for today is an extended metaphor. Israel is a vine, coming out of Egypt, and God, the one who has planted it. It is a lament that comes on the heels of six verses of praise and remembrance. It begins with a refrain that is used three times total in this psalm: “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”


This blessing is rooted in the familiar one from Numbers 6:22-26. The priests ask God to turn his face on God’s people, to shine on them.


We learn from the text that it was written in a time of intense distress, when Israel feels “burned” and “cut […] down.” And the One responsible? As Craig C. Broyles notes, God is the grammatical subject of the majority of verbs in this psalm, and even when God is not, the action is a direct result of His initiation.[1]


My lawn out front– if you can call it a lawn– is rife with crabgrass. The kind that shoots tendrils across regular, healthy grass and chokes it out. You can see this clearly after a bout of Weed ‘n Feed, when the crabgrass gets yellowed and withers under the legitimate grass that is supposedly getting the “Feed” instead of the poison. You can see how far the weeds have reached, when you had always just assumed it was part of the grass.


If the lawn could blame me for its hardships, it would. And I would be deserving of it. There are long bouts when I have no time to water or care for it. But is God a negligent gardener? The question is neither easy nor a comfortable one.


The psalm brings up many such intense questions: Why would God put so much care into a people only to watch them die? How much of this suffering is God actually responsible for? Is God’s inaction due to the choice of the people? Is the people’s suffering a consequence for bad behavior or for ignoring God’s leading? Is it OK to accuse God of this kind of neglect?

All of these questions are good fodder for a message.


But reading this pendulum-swing of a psalm does something else to me, too. It delivers a message about faithfulness. God’s, to be sure, but also a lesson for us about what it means to be God’s people. Because the psalmist, while he cries out to God with questions, a lack of understanding, and genuine anger and frustration, he is still calling out to God.


I wonder what this response might teach our churches? I wonder what this response might teach me? Because if I’m honest, it is the times in which I am angry and frustrated, when I don’t know exactly what to do with God, that I begin to turn elsewhere for answers and relief. This psalm teaches us that the honest questions are part of it. Part of the witness of the church is turning to God in the muck, even when that turning is full of hot tears and accusatory questions and we don’t know where God is.


Brueggemann writes: “The psalm exhibits a confident trust in YHWH, who can create a future and who may yet be the good shepherd. Israel has no alternative and therefore entrusts itself to the very God who has ‘broken down its walls.’ The God who judges is the God who will save! It is this God whom Israel trusts in every season of its life!”[2]


For Israel, the Lord is their only hope. Indeed, O God, “let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

 

[1] Craig C. Broyles, New international biblical commentary (Peabody (Mass.): Hendrickson, 2002), 332.

[2] Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Psalms (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015), 80.