Pray for God to restore you. Recognize God as the Shepherd/Vine-dresser. The setting seems to be the time of the Assyrian capture of Samaria and the exile of the northern kingdom of Israel, the 10 tribes. The references to Joseph, Ephraim, and Manasseh (as well as Benjamin) point in that direction. Ask the Shepherd to hear you. The author of the Psalm, though located in the southern kingdom of Judah, recognizes the affliction of God’s people, the seeming incongruity of the Shepherd allowing his flock to be ravaged and destroyed. Despite the earlier tensions between the two kingdoms, Hezekiah extended an invitation to the northern brothers to join in the Passover, only to be largely rejected, 2 Chronicles 30:1, 10, 11. God is also the divine Vinedresser, vv. 8-11, 15. See also Genesis 49:22; Isaiah 5:1-7; and John 15:1-8 in the New Testament. God brought this little vine from Egypt, planted it, cared for it—and how it grew! God is involved in the life of his people, as the images of both shepherd and vinedresser indicated. Don’t fall into a practical deism or a view that treats God as helpless, even when (or especially when) things are difficult.
Ask God to turn—and to turn you. The problem with which the Psalmist wrestles is that the Shepherd has allowed the sheep to go into captivity. They had sung Psalm 23—but the Shepherd does not seem to be leading beside still waters. The Vinedresser has broken down the walls and allowed his field to be ravaged. The response of the believing Psalmist to the affliction God’s people were undergoing is worship. And that should continue to be the response of the church to the suffering God’s people undergo. The Psalm is realistic about the trials God’s people face (no health and wealth gospel here), but summons you to respond by calling on God, and on him alone to save.
Note the contrast between this Psalm, probably written in the time of Hezekiah, and the attitude of Hezekiah’s father, Ahaz, whose refusal to ask for a sign was recorded in Isaiah 7. Ahaz personifies the attitude of the unbelieving world, looking not to the Lord, but to the things that are passing, for security. The Psalm pleads in strong language for God to respond.
“God, it seems, prefers an excess of boldness in prayer to an excess of caution, as long as the boldness is something more than loquacity (Ec. 5:2; Mt. 6:7). We come to Him as sons, not as applicants.” (Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150, p. 289).
Translations of the beginning of the theme verses (3, 7, 19) is variously translated “turn us” or “restore.” It involves movement in two directions: God turning to us, and God turning us to himself. God is faithful. Only he can restore. Trust him, and not any mere human strength. Basic to the good news of the Scriptures is the message that you can’t do it yourself.
Pray for God to make his face shine! Rejoice in the salvation God provides. God’s hand rests on the man of his right hand, verses 15, 17. Note the punning reference to Benjamin, mentioned in v. 2, see Genesis 35:18. God’s right hand man here is Israel, his covenant people. But as you see this in the sweep of redemptive history, you realize that Israel falls short of being what it should. The one who is truly the man of God’s right hand, who proves to be the Son of Man, is the Lord Jesus Christ. Psalm 80, together with 2 Corinthians 4:13-15 summons you to trust him. The call to renewed trust, the prayer for perseverance, is there in Psalm 80:18 as well as in the great New Testament vine passage, John 15:4. Three times the Psalm assures you, and even concludes with that comforting note, “that we may be saved.” God does respond to that kind of prayer.
Live in the glory of God’s presence. In the shock of the captivity of the northern kingdom, amidst the threat of Assyria to Judah and Jerusalem, the Psalmist points you to the glory of God. Three times (verses 3, 7, 19) this Psalm echoes the Aaronic benediction (Numbers 6:24-26) with its assurance of God turning his face towards his people. Note the building of those three verses, as the name of God is given in more detail each time. God has condescended to bring his exalted throne to a place in the midst of his people—between the cherubim in the Temple.
“The mercy-seat was a pledge of the presence of God, where he had promised to be near his people to hear their prayers. . . . [B]y the title which is here attributed to God, there is expressed his wonderful love towards men in humbling, and, so to speak, lowering himself in order to come down to them, and choose for himself a seat and habitation on the earth, that he might dwell in the midst of them.” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms, at Psalm 80:1).
The glory of God has been revealed to you in the person of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Note the reference to his glory in 2 Corinthians 4:6, but also look back to the comparison with the glory of the old covenant, 2 Corinthians 3:7-18. God is not just present in good times and absent from the difficult ones. He has not abandoned the world where suffering and tragedies take place, though we may not have easy answers to anguish. His presence takes the shape of a cross. The Baby born in Bethlehem came to suffer and die—and then to rise again for his people. Just as the glory of Christ was evident even in his suffering, so the glory of his people is sometimes seen most clearly at the times when things appear most bleak. Don’t think of the shining of God’s face as the removal of suffering—not this side of glory. Your union with Christ is a union with him in his sufferings.
“The form of Christ’s resurrection power in this world is the fellowship of his sufferings as the cross-conformed sufferings of the church (Phil. 3:10). . . . With Calvin, we must recognize that as Christ’s whole life was nothing but a sort of perpetual cross, so the Christian life in its entirety, not just certain parts, is to be a continual cross (Institutes, 3:8:1, 2). Where the church is not being conformed to Christ in suffering, it is simply not true to itself as the church; it is without glory, nor will it inherit glory. Just as the Spirit of glory came upon Jesus at his Jordan-baptism opening up before him the way of suffering obedience that led to the cross, so the same Holy Spirit, with which the church was baptized at Pentecost, points it to the path of suffering.” (Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “The Usefulness of the Cross,” Westminster Theological Journal, 41.1 [Spring 1979]).
Recognize that, as you live in Christ, God’s glory shines in your life in a wonderfully solemn way. The King of kings has called you to be his people, and to conduct your life each day in a way that reflects his glory. You glorify him, not only when you sing his praise this morning, but also as you go back to work tomorrow, as you recognize that there is a depth and breadth and stability to life because you live in a world which is God’s creation and is filled with his glory. The glory of your life this week is an imperfect reflection of, but also an anticipation of the full glory in heaven—because in both your identity is in the Lord Jesus Christ, the full revelation of God’s glory.
In this new year ask God to turn to you and to turn you to him, to restore you, to shine on you more clearly with the good news of his glory in Christ Jesus. As you trust the one whom God sent, live each day in the glorious weight of his presence.