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Psalm 80 Biblical Commentary:
After Solomon’s death, Israel divided into two nations. The ten northern tribes were known as Israel. The southern two tribes (Judah and Benjamin) were known as Judah. In 722 B.C., Assyria put down a revolt in Israel and deported large numbers of its people to Assyria, after which it repopulated the area with other peoples (2 Kings 17). The people of Israel became so assimilated after that time that Israel ceased to exist as a nation or a people.
This psalm is a plea for Israel’s restoration.
For the Chief Musician. To the tune of “The Lilies of the Covenant.” A Psalm by Asaph.
Most scholars think that the superscriptions were added later. The translation of this superscription is difficult, and there are a number of possibilities.
“A Psalm by Asaph.” Asaph was one of three musicians (the others being Heman and Jeduthun) put in charge of the service of song by David (1 Chronicles 6:39; 25:1-2). His descendants served as singers in the temple after the Exile (Ezra 2:41).
PSALM 80:1-3. HEAR US, SHEPHERD OF ISRAEL
1 Hear us, Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock,
you who sit above the cherubim, shine forth.
2 Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up your might!
Come to save us!
3 Turn us again, God.
Cause your face to shine,
and we will be saved.
“Hear us, Shepherd of Israel” (v. 1a). Shepherds were essential to the lives of sheep. Shepherds led their sheep to pasture and water, and protected them from a host of dangers, including wild animals.
Because shepherds were known for the care they took of their sheep, they became a metaphor for other leaders, including God (Psalm 23; Psalm 78:52; 80:1). That is the case here.
“you who lead Joseph like a flock” (v. 1a). Joseph (Jacob’s favorite son) was the father of two northern tribes: Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin. While Benjamin and Judah constituted the southern kingdom, Benjamin was located on the border of south and north, adjacent to Ephraim and Manasseh.
“you who sit above the cherubim, shine forth” (Hebrew: yapa) (v. 1c). This refers to the Mercy Seat, God’s throne. The Mercy Seat was positioned above the Ark of the Covenant and was guarded by two cherubim (Exodus 25:17-22).
“shine forth” (Hebrew: yapa). The Hebrew word yapa means to shine. When, as here, the psalmist is asking Yahweh’s help for Israel, yapa means shining a beneficial light on Israel.
“Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up your might! Come to save us!” (v. 2). Joseph and Benjamin were the only two sons of Jacob and Rachel. Rachel was Jacob’s favorite wife, and Joseph and Benjamin were his favorite sons. Ephraim and Manasseh were sons of Joseph, so Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh were the tribes of Rachel. As noted above, Benjamin allied itself with Judah in the Southern Kingdom. Ephraim and Manasseh were two of the ten tribes of Israel. Before Assyria crushed the Northern Kingdom, Ephraim and Manasseh were both key tribes of the northern kingdom.
“Turn (Hebrew: sub) us again, God” (Hebrew: elohim) (v. 3a). The word sub in this context means to bring back or to restore. Israel has been destroyed as a nation, so this is a prayer for restoration.
“Cause your face to shine, and we will be saved” (v. 3b). After Moses encountered Yahweh on Mount Sinai, his face shone with the reflected glory of God (Exodus 34:29-35). Yahweh gave Aaron a blessing for Israel that includes, “Yahweh make his face to shine on you” (Numbers 6:25).
PSALM 80:4-7. HOW LONG WILL YOU BE ANGRY?
4 Yahweh God of Armies,
How long will you be angry against the prayer of your people?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in large measure.
6 You make us a source of contention to our neighbors.
Our enemies laugh among themselves.
7 Turn us again, God of Armies.
Cause your face to shine,
and we will be saved.
“Yahweh God of Armies” (Hebrew: Yahweh saba) (v. 4a). The word yada means servants or service. It can mean an army in service to God or king. It can mean angels in service to God. The phrases, “Lord of hosts” (Yahweh saba) and “Lord God of hosts” (Yahweh elohim saba) appear frequently in the Old Testament.
“How long will you be angry (Hebrew: ‘asan) against the prayer of your people?” (v. 4b). The word asan has to do with something that smokes or smolders. It is used here to portray Yahweh’s smoldering anger against Israel––and his rejection of their prayers for help.
“You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in large measure” (v. 5). God is known as a shepherd who leads his sheep into green pastures for food and by still waters for drink. But Israel has no green grass or pools of fresh water. She has only tears for food and tears for drink. She is overwhelmed by tears––the expression of her pain and sorrow.
“You make us a source of contention (Hebrew: madon) to our neighbors” (Hebrew la’ag) (v. 6a). The word madon means strife––the kind of dissension that keeps worsening––that creates barriers. A lawyer friend once told me, “Never get into a pitched battle with a neighbor. In those situations, no one wins.”
But the psalmist says that Yahweh caused this strife. How could that be true? One possibility is that the faith of Yahweh’s people conflicts with the unfaith of their neighbors. More likely the Israelites see this strife as God’s way of punishing them for their sins.
“Our enemies laugh among themselves” (Hebrew la’ag) (v. 6b). The word la’ag means to scorn or mock. Their neighbors are mocking the Israelites––making fun of them––laughing at their distress.
“Turn us again, God of Armies. Cause your face to shine, and we will be saved” (v. 7). See the comments above on verse 3.
PSALM 80:8-16. HEADER
8 You brought a vine out of Egypt.
You drove out the nations, and planted it.
9 You cleared the ground for it.
It took deep root, and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shadow.
Its boughs were like God’s cedars.
11 It sent out its branches to the sea,
Its shoots to the River.
12 Why have you broken down its walls,
so that all those who pass by the way pluck it?
13 The boar out of the wood ravages it.
The wild animals of the field feed on it.
14 Turn again, we beg you, God of Armies.
Look down from heaven, and see, and visit this vine,
15 the stock which your right hand planted,
the branch that you made strong for yourself.
16 It’s burned with fire.
It’s cut down.
They perish at your rebuke.
“You brought a vine out of Egypt” (v. 8a). Israel is the vine. Yahweh brought Israel out of 400 years of Egyptian slavery and led them (after a delay of forty years in the wilderness) to the Promised Land. The book of Exodus tells that story.
“You drove out the nations (Hebrew: goyim), and planted it” (v. 8b). While the word goyim can mean nations in general, it was often use to mean Gentile nations––heathen.
Yahweh enabled little Israel to drive out the residents of Palestine so that it could become Israel’s homeland. The book of Joshua tells that story.
“You cleared the ground for it. It took deep root, and filled the land” (v. 9). Yahweh cleared the ground (drove out the inhabitants of the land), and Israel took root there––deep root.
“The mountains were covered with its shadow. Its boughs were like God’s cedars” (v. 10). The vine behind this metaphor is the grapevine, which stands for Israel. Grapevines are delicate and small. But the psalmist says that those small vines cast such a great shadow that it overwhelmed mountains––that the grapevine’s small branches became as mighty as a great cedar tree (which could grow to a height of 90 feet or 28 meters).
With Yahweh’s help little Israel became great.
“It sent out its branches to the sea, its shoots to the River” (v. 11). The sea would be the Mediterranean, which formed the western border of Israel. The River could be the Jordan, which formed part of the eastern border of Israel––but parts of Israel extended beyond the Jordan. More likely, this is a reference to the Euphrates, the great river of that region (see Psalm 72:8).
“Why have you broken down its walls, so that all those who pass by the way pluck it?” (v. 12). After bringing Israel out of Egypt––and guiding her through the wilderness wanderings––and planting her in the Promised Land––and making her a great nation––why would Yahweh break down her walls, making her easy prey for anyone who happened to walk by?
The prophet Isaiah answered that question (Israel 5:1-7):
(IN THE VOICE OF THE PROPHET)
“Let me sing for my well beloved a song
of my beloved about his vineyard.
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fruitful hill.
“He dug it up,
gathered out its stones,
planted it with the choicest vine,
built a tower in its midst,
and also cut out a winepress therein.
“He looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
(IN THE VOICE OF YAHWEH)
“Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
please judge between me and my vineyard.
What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?
Why, when I looked for it to yield grapes, did it yield wild grapes?
“Now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.
I will take away its hedge, and it will be eaten up.
I will break down its wall of it, and it will be trampled down.
I will lay it a wasteland.
It won’t be pruned nor hoed,
but it will grow briers and thorns.
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain on it.”
(IN THE VOICE OF THE PROPHET)
“For the vineyard of Yahweh of Armies is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah his pleasant plant:
and he looked for justice, but, behold, oppression;
for righteousness, but, behold, a cry of distress.”
“The boar out of the wood ravages it. The wild animals of the field feed on it” (v. 13). This is a measure of the pathetic state of Israel. It is like a corpse lying in a field, subject to desecration by wild animals––a terrible fate for a people who prized proper burial.
“Turn again, we beg you (Hebrew na’), God of Armies” (v. 14a). See the comments on verse 3 above––but this verse adds “We beg you” or “please,” a word that is omitted in some Hebrew manuscripts and some English translations.
“Look down from heaven, and see, and visit this vine” (v. 14b). When we are suffering, we often feel that God has abandoned us––that he doesn’t see us or care. The psalmist pleads for Yahweh to “visit this vine” (Israel), but first he asks Yahweh to “look down from heaven, and see.” If Yahweh will look and see, surely the sight of Israel’s suffering will inspire his compassion.
“the stock which your right hand planted, the branch that you made strong for yourself” (v. 15). The stock (the vine) and the branch are Israel. In his appeal, the psalmist reminds Yahweh that Yahweh planted the vine (Israel) with his right hand––his dominant hand––and that he made Israel strong to suit his own purposes.
“It’s burned with fire. It’s cut down” (v. 16ab). But the vine is no longer strong––no longer beautiful. It has been burned with fire and cut down––totally destroyed.
“They perish at your rebuke” (Heb: ge’arah ka paneh––”at the rebuke of your face.”) (v. 16c).
It is not unusual for a disapproving look from a respected person to inspire great remorse. Sometimes that kind of disapproval is harder to bear than corporal punishment. But Israel has suffered Yahweh’s disapproval––and defeat––and humiliation at the hands of her enemies
PSALM 80:17-19. REVIVE US, AND WE WILL CALL ON YOUR NAME
17 Let your hand be on the man of your right hand,
on the son of man whom you made strong for yourself.
18 So we will not turn away from you.
Revive us, and we will call on your name.
19 Turn us again, Yahweh God of Armies.
Cause your face to shine, and we will be saved.
“Let your hand be on the man of your right hand” (v. 17a). The hand of the Lord represents the Lord’s power and authority. The psalmist asks Yahweh to place his hand on “the man of your right hand” (Israel)––so that Israel might enjoy the strengthening effect of Yahweh’s endorsement.
“of your right hand.” In verse 15, the psalmist spoke of Yahweh’s right hand, meaning Yahweh’s dominant or favored or strong hand. Now he speaks of Yahweh’s right hand, meaning the place of honor at Yahweh’s right side.
“on the son of man whom you made strong for yourself” (v. 17b). In the Old Testament, the phrase “son of man,” tends to mean a human being. But the son of man whom Yahweh made strong for his own purposes was Israel. This verse, then, is an appeal to Yahweh to empower Israel once again.
“So we will not turn away (Hebrew: sug) from you” (v. 18a). The word sug (different from the word sub in the next verse) means to turn back or backslide. Israel had been guilty of turning away from Yahweh, but this verse is a promise that it won’t happen again.
“Revive us (Hebrew: hayah), and we will call on your name” (v. 18b). The word hayah means to revive (bring back to life) or to keep alive or to live. The psalmist is praying that Yahweh will revive Israel.
The psalmist promises that, once brought back to life, Israel will call on Yahweh’s name, asking God’s help and presumably seeking God’s guidance.
“Turn us (Hebrew: sub) again, Yahweh God of Armies. Cause your face to shine, and we will be saved” (v. 19). See the comments on verse 3 above.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150, Vol. 14b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 42-89, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2013)
Tate, Marvin E., Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
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Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
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