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Superscription.—“To the chief Musician upon Shoshannim-Eduth.” On “Shoshannim” see Introduction to Psalms 45:0. Probably “Shoshannim—Eduth” denotes “the melody or air ‘after’ or ‘in the manner of’ which the Psalm was to be sung. As the words now stand they signify ‘lilies, a testimony,’ and the two are separated by a large distinctive accent. In themselves they have no meaning in the present text, and must therefore be regarded as probably a fragment of the beginning of an older Psalm with which the choir were familiar.”—Smith’s Dict. of the Bible.
“A Psalm of Asaph”. See Introduction to Psalms 74:0. Perowne: “As in the case of most of the historical Psalms, so in the case of this, it is impossible to say with certainty at what period it was written. The allusions are never sufficiently definite to lead to any positive conclusion.… All that is certain is, that the time was a time of great disaster, that tea nation was trampled down under the foot of foreign invaders. The poet turns to God with the earnest and repeated prayer for deliverance, and bases his appeal on the past.”
THE DIVINE FAVOUR IMPLORED
In these verses the poet complains of the sorrowful condition of the people, and prays for salvation from God. Their sad condition he regards as the result of the withdrawal of the favour of God, and he prays for their salvation by the renewal of that favour. The Psalmist represents the people as—
I. Sorely needing God’s favour. The sad condition of the people appears from—
1. The reproaches of their neighbours. “Thou makest us a strife unto our neighbours; and our enemies laugh among themselves.” “The neighbours are always the petty tribes in the immediate neighbourhood of Israel, who continually availed themselves of those occasions when Israel was oppressed by more powerful nations, to give vent to their hatred.” These neighbours strove among themselves as to who should obtain most of the spoils of Israel, and who should be bitterest in their reproaches against them. When a people who have occupied a position of eminence and power are derided by petty neighbours they must have fallen very low, and great must be their sorrow as they realise the painful contrast between their present and their past. They who “laugh among themselves” over a fallen and suffering foe must have sunk very low in the scale of humanity. Yet their jeers may torment the sufferers to whom they are directed, may make their bitter drink more bitter, and their heavy burden more heavy.
2. The rejection of their prayer. “O Lord God of hosts, how long wilt Thou be angry against the prayer of Thy people?” The marginal reading gives a literal translation, “How long wilt Thou smoke against the prayer of Thy people?” The smoke of incense was a symbol of prayer amongst the Hebrews, “Let my prayer be set forth before Thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” According to the teaching of their Scriptures the smoke of the incense in prayer would propitiate God, and cause the smoke of His anger to cease. But instead of this the smoke of His anger opposes the smoke of the incense of their prayers. Such seems to be the poetic dress of the idea. The idea itself is that God rejected their prayer. If such were really the case there must have been something wrong in their prayers, or in the spirit in which they presented them. They must have “asked amiss.”
(1.) There might have been a lack of fervour and earnestness in their prayers. God does not regard cold, half-hearted petitions.
(2.) Or they might have supplicated Him from an impure or unworthy motive.
(3.) Or, while they sought Him in prayer, they might have cherished sin in their hearts. “If I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not bear me.”
(4.) Or, probably, God only appeared as though He rejected their prayer. He delayed His response in order to increase His blessing. By making them wait He would test and increase their faith, and the fervour of their desires, and the earnestness of their prayers. But to them He seemed as though He rejected their prayers; and it was a sore trial to them. Men reproached them, and God rejected their entreaties. Earth greeted them with cruel persecution or scornful laughter, and heaven with stony-hearted indifference or stern rejection.
3. The greatness of their sorrow. “Thou feedest them with the bread of tears; and givest them tears to drink in great measure.” God dealt out sorrows to them as though they were their food and drink. Their grief was intense and constant. Tears were their daily portion. All their trials and sorrows they regarded as proceeding from God. “Thou feedest them with the bread of tears.” “Thou makest us a strife unto our neighbours,” &c. In this they were certainly right thus far, that God had allowed these miseries to befall them. If He had not directly brought them upon them as a chastisement for their sins, He had withdrawn the shield of His protection from them because of their sin. He had hidden His face from them, and they were troubled. He had withdrawn His favour, and innumerable evils had compassed them about. Truly His favour was sorely needed by them.
II. Earnestly imploring God’s favour. In the prayer here recorded we have—
1. An implied confession of sin. “Turn us again, O God.” They are conscious of having turned aside into sinful ways. In them there had been an evil heart of unbelief, and they had departed from God, and were now feeling the bitter result. They had withdrawn their loyalty from Him before He withdrew His favour from them. And they humbly and repeatedly pray, “Turn us again, O God.” When sin is mourned over and confessed to God, and restoration to fidelity and righteousness is sought from Him, the return of His favour will not tarry long.
2. A recognition of the gracious relation of God to them.
(1.) God is addressed as their Shepherd. This relation is one of great intimacy and tenderness. It involves His guidance, protection, and provision. (See Hom. Com. on Psalms 74:1.)
(2.) God is addressed as dwelling between the cherubim. The allusion is to the Shecinah, the visible symbol of the Divine presence, which was above the mercy-seat and between the cherubim. From the mercy-seat He communed with man and dispensed His favour. There He had manifested Himself to the Hebrews as He had to no other people. In this address to Him they remind Him of this special favour shown to them, and seek to encourage themselves thereby. Jesus Christ is the true Shecinah. He is “the brightness of the Father’s glory, and the express image of His person.”
3. An earnest entreaty for His salvation. “Give ear, shine forth, stir up Thy strength, and come and save us. Turn us again, O God, and cause Thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.”
(1.) They pray that God would attend to them. “Give ear.” He had seemed to disregard their cries to Him, and even to reject their prayers in His anger; and they entreat Him to lend an attentive ear to the voice of their supplications.
(2.) They pray that God would arouse His strength for their salvation. For a time it seemed as though His mighty saving arm had slumbered. They knew how mightily that arm had wrought salvation for their fathers in ancient days, and they cried, “Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord.”
(3.) They pray that God would manifest His favour to them and so save them. “Cause Thy face to shine” is a poetical expression of, Show Thy favour. They felt that in His favour was their salvation. At the rebuke of His countenance they perished; in the shining of His countenance they lived and rejoiced. The idea is poetical and beautiful, and profoundly true. “In His favour is life.” Only as our being is illumined and warmed by the beams of His love do we live. His favour is the life-giving breath of souls.
In conclusion, Is this favour ours? Are we living in the smile of God? Then, let us never cause Him to avert His face from us. Let us yield to the mighty attraction of His love, and be transformed into His ineffable beauty. But if any have no consciousness of His favour, no saving acquaintance with Him, let them at once pray, “Lord, lift Thou up the light of Thy countenance upon us.” “Turn us again, O God, and cause Thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.” “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Rise through faith in Him into the conscious realisation of the favour of God, and so into the possession of a life spiritual, everlasting, blessed, and Divine.
THE SHEPHERD OF ISRAEL
Psalms 80:1. “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, Thou that leadest,” &c. To the great majority of devout souls, next to the revelation of God in Christ Jesus, the revelation of Him in His various offices and relationships is the most precious. Here He is set forth as the Shepherd of His people.
I. The relation which He sustains to His people. “Shepherd.” Certain relationships He sustains to all men. Creator, Sustainer, Sovereign, Judge. Certain other relationships He sustains only to those who confide in Him, relationships which involve trust and sympathy. Such is that of Shepherd. “Shepherd of Israel,” not of Philistia or Assyria. He is the Shepherd now of those who know Him, trust Him, follow Him. Very intimate and tender is the relation between Eastern shepherds and their flocks.
1. Each sheep is individually known. “He calleth His own sheep by name.”
2. Each sheep it individually cared for. “He shall gather the lambs with his arm,” &c.
3. Each sheep is individually protected. “The good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep.”
4. Each sheep is individually provisioned. “The Lord will give grace and glory: no good will He withhold,” &c. And, in conjunction with this personal knowledge and care of the Shepherd for each individual member of His flock, there is unity of the whole. They constitute a flock.
II. The service which He renders to His people. “Leadest Joseph like a flock.” This is only a development of the previous clause The Eastern shepherd goes before his flock, and the sheep follow him. The Lord leads His people. By the exercise of their reason and conscience; by the openings and closings of His providence; by the teachings of His holy Word; and by the action of His holy Spirit upon the heart, He now leads all who trust in Him. Ponder what is involved in this.
1. That man is not competent to arrange his own course of life. “It is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.” “Thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.”
2. That man is not compelled to yield to the Divine direction. The good Shepherd does not drive men before Him as unwilling disciples, but He goes before them, leads them, leaving them to follow Him or forsake Him as they choose.
3. That the Divine direction of human life is exercised in the most gracious manner. “I will go before thee and make the crooked places straight.” The Shepherd first encounters every difficulty or danger, then the sheep follow Him. This Divine guidance is a fact to-day, a blessed reality which we may each prove by committing our way unto the Lord.
III. The manifestation of Himself to His people. “Thou that dwellest between the cherubim.” “Thou who sittest enthroned upon the cherubim.” It has been thought that the prayer for help in the first part of the verse rests upon the shepherd care of God, and in this part on the omnipotence of Him who is enthroned upon the cherubim, and rulest over all. What the symbol of the Divine presence was to the Jews, the Lord Jesus Christ is to us. He is the Divine Representative, the Revealer of God. In Him we meet with God, and read His character, and see His mercy, and learn His grace. “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father.” Through Him God dispenses His favours. “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in My name He will give it you.”
IV. The great Desire of His people from Him. “Shine forth.” “Turn us again, O God, and cause Thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.” “Their own arm did not save them, but Thy right hand, and Thine arm, and the light of Thy countenance.” “Who will show us any good? Lord, lift Thou up the light of Thy countenance upon us.” The idea is that in the manifestation of God’s favour, salvation and blessing are to be found.
So is it now and for us. Our great need is that God in Christ would shine forth unto us. To see God in Christ Jesus is a saving, spiritually transforming sight.
SALVATION IN GOD’S SMILE
The thrice-uttered prayer, “Turn us again, O God,” seems to show that the Hebrews were sensible of departure from God, and desirous of being turned penitently to Him as a means of regaining His favour. There is, we fear, much backsliding of heart in the Church at this time. What we mean by backsliding. The loss of the intense consciousness of peace and joy which followed conversion, and of the burning enthusiasm and zeal, which things were then irregular and spasmodic, is not always to be regretted. If our consciousness of peace and joy have grown profounder and calmer, though less intense; if our enthusiasm and zeal have grown into a habit of regular, steady, and self-denying work for God, there is no matter for regret. We do not mourn the loss of the sapling in the oak, or of the little child in the man or woman. Such loss is really development and gain. But there are many signs of real spiritual decline in many persons in the great Church of Christ. Absorption in business has benumbed the zeal of many. Marriage and the cares of domestic life have taken the lofty aspiration out of many others, and ended their usefulness. Worldly prosperity has injured others. There are thousands in the Church the promise of whose early discipleship remains unfulfilled. They are members of the Church; but the zeal, enthusiasm, usefulness, consecration, and joy of their early Christian life—where are they? Ah, where? To such persons God very often sends trouble, in some form or other, as His messenger to recall them from their backslidings. Is He so sending to any of you? Or has He so sent to you? Then, be thankful that He is still seeking you; and make the prayer of the text your own. “Turn us again, O God, and cause Thy face to shine,” &c.
The Poet’s idea of salvation and its attainment is, that it is a something which springs out of the shining of God’s countenance, and which is to be sought by prayer. “Cause Thy face to shine, and we shall be saved.… They perish at the rebuke of Thy countenance.” “In His favour is life.” Probably he was thinking of the shining of the sun. It gives life, light, warmth, exhilaration. Its absence means death; its presence, life and gladness. Taking this analogy, the view of salvation here set forth is that it consists in the life and growth of the soul under the favour of God. It is not mere deliverance from wrath or hell, as commonly understood. The poet’s idea of hell is given here—“The rebuke of Thy countenance.” He seeks salvation by seeking the blessing which is exactly antithetic to that evil, “The light of Thy countenance.” All spirits must sustain some relation to God. Spiritual existence in total separation from Him is an impossibility. But spirits are found in various and different relations to Him. Some are avowedly hostile to Him. Devils are of this class. They are sustained by Him, but they are bitterly antagonistic to Him. Many men too are “alienated and enemies in their mind by wicked works.” Hostile to Him actually, though not avowedly. In this state all true spiritual growth is impossible. Others are indifferent to Him, practically “without God in the world,” and have no desire to be otherwise. Such indifference involves indifference to their own spirit. There can be no true spiritual growth in such a state. Others have some sort of belief in His existence, but despair of obtaining His favour. They cannot grow spiritually, for hope is essential to growth. Others are trusting and loving Him. They regard Him as merciful and gracious, wise and beneficent, strong and kind; and so they trust Him and enjoy His favour. The position of the Psalmist I take to be this, that all in this state, or sustaining this attitude towards God, are being saved, and that by the growth of their souls under the influence of God’s favour. Under this influence, in what would souls grow?
1. In thoughtfulness. God is infinitely thoughtful. He frequently calls upon men to “consider,” “reason,” be “wise,” &c. Every soul that is fully open to His influence He quickens into holy thoughtfulness.
2. In holy principles. Living in the light of God’s countenance, the principles of the Divine administration and conduct become ours.
3. In spiritual strength to will and do and suffer. The sense of His loving presence makes the will imperial in the right, the hands strong for holy doing, and the heart calm and patient in suffering.
4. In reverence. “I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth Thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (See also Isaiah 6:1-5.)
5. In spiritual beauty. “The beauty of the Lord our God upon us.” In one word, under God’s smile the soul grows into His image. According to our interpretation of the text, that is salvation. How philosophic! How true! How exalted! We may secure His favour by earnest, persistent prayer (see Psalms 80:3; Psalms 80:7; Psalms 80:19). Mark the cumulation of names. Such prayer is the approach of the soul to God. Apply the subject—
1. To backsliders.
2. To the unconverted.
“The Lord bless thee and keep thee: the Lord make His face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: the Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”
PASSAGES FROM THE HISTORY OF THE ANCIENT CHURCH, WITH THEIR LESSONS TO THE MODERN CHURCH
Israel is here compared to a vine, and under this figure some experiences of her history are referred to. A devout and thoughtful study of these verses will not fail in discovering teachings which are applicable to us to-day, without resorting to any fanciful or irreverent handling of the Book of God. The verses bring before us—
I. The Divine planting of the ancient Church. In respect to the ancient Jewish Church the Lord is represented here as—
1. Bringing them out of Egypt. “Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt.” Israel in Egypt was like a vine in an unfavourable situation, with an unsuitable soil and an ungenial clime. If it grew and bore fruit there, it was not by the aid of its circumstances, but in despite of them. So the Lord God of hosts brought forth His people from their uncongenial circumstances and surroundings, like a vine from an unfriendly soil and an inclement air.
2. Expelling the heathen from the promised land. He had chosen that land for His own people, and promised it to their fathers, and He fulfils His promise. He had long purposed to plant His vine in that goodly land. And, in order to the accomplishment of His purpose, He “cast out the heathen.” Seven nations were rooted out to make room for this vine which the Lord had chosen.
3. Firmly planting His people in a goodly situation. Having prepared room for it by the expulsion of the heathen, He “planted it, and caused it to take deep root.” In fertile soil, refreshed by “brooks of water, fountains, and depths that spring out of valleys and hills,” beneath translucent skies and amid genial airs, He planted His vine, and caused it firmly to strike its roots. Thus the ancient Jewish Church was emancipated from the bondage of Egypt, enabled to conquer the Canaanites, and to take secure possession of the land which God had promised to their fathers, entirely by means of His power. So much so that, with the strictest truth, He may be said to have delivered them from Egypt, vanquished their enemies, and planted them in Canaan. So now the Lord calls men out of the moral Egypt, with its bondage of evil habits, its degrading fleshly lusts, its oppressive burdens of guilt, and its cruel task-masters of lordly passions. At His girdle hangs the key which unlocks the doors of the prison in which the captives of sin are immured. He breaks the power of the oppressor. “The Lord looseth the prisoners.” He is the great Emancipator from the guilt and sovereignty of evil. All who listen to His call and accept His deliverance, He makes to rejoice in glad liberty. He not only calls men out of Egypt, but also plants in His own vineyard all those who obey His call. In what favourable circumstances the Lord has planted us! How many culturing agencies He is causing to operate upon us! What innumerable aids to growth and development, strength and maturity, fruitfulness and beauty, He is ever bestowing upon us! The Church of God in Britain to-day is “exalted to heaven” with privileges.
II. The great progress of the ancient Church. “It filled the land. The hills were covered with the shadow of it, and the goodly cedars with its boughs. She sent out her boughs unto the sea, and her branches unto the river.” The hills or mountains which were shadowed by this vine were probably those in the extreme south of Canaan. And as the vine when planted in fertile soil runs up the trees and covers them, so the poet pictures this vine as running up and covering the great cedars of Lebanon. “The sea” is the Mediterranean, which bounded the Promised Land on one side; “the river” is the Euphrates, which bounded the land on the other side. The whole is a beautiful picture of the prosperity of the Hebrews in their best days. During the latter portion of the reign of David, and through almost the whole of that of Solomon, they occupied a proud position amongst neighbouring nations; their power was recognised and respected; their prosperity was great; their wealth also was great. So the Christian Church has spread, and is still spreading. Its institutions and literature are spreading and growing in almost every part of the known world. Rank and fashion, wealth and power, education and genius, are to be found in large proportions within her fold. Her financial resources for carrying on her work are greater than they ever were, and are still increasing. The greatest institutions are overshadowed by her. Her roots seem to be ever striking deeper; and her branches are spreading and growing in every direction.
III. The ruinous failure of the ancient Church. This vine rose to a great height, spread abroad its branches to a great extent, was well covered with foliage, so that it cast a great and deep shadow; but not a word is said of its fruit. It bore no fruit. It failed in its chief end. Of what use is a vine unless it bring forth fruit? If it fail in that it fails in the main thing. And it was in the main thing that the Hebrews failed. Israel was a fruitless vine. As their material prosperity increased, their religious faithfulness and zeal decreased. In the Holy Land idolatry was permitted by Solomon. He even allowed a part of one of the hills overlooking Jerusalem, and almost fronting the temple of God, to be consecrated to obscene and barbarous deities. Can we wonder that “clouds on all sides gathered about his declining day”? Is it surprising that he should “bequeath to his heir an insecure throne, a discontented people, formidable enemies on the frontiers,” and the probability of a contested succession? Let the Church of Christ to-day take warning from the ancient Jewish Church. God demands fruit of us, the fruit of personal holiness and social usefulness. Is the Church meeting that demand? Is she holy in herself? Is she abolishing the dishonesties of trade? Is her face set against human oppression? Is she striving to purify the land of the scandalous social corruptions? Is she waging war against drunkenness and gluttony? Is she leading the lost to the Saviour? O Church of Christ, examine thyself!
IV. The mournful devastation of the ancient Church. “Why hast Thou then broken down her hedges, so that all they that pass by the way do pluck her! The boar out of the wood doth waste it, and the wild beast of the field doth devour it.… It is burned with fire, it is cut down; they perish at the rebuke of Thy countenance.” We cannot determine what particular calamities are referred to in these verses. But notice—
1. God withdrew His defence from them. He “broke down her hedges.” They had lost their defence by reason of their sin. They had forsaken their Protector, and so exposed themselves to their foes. They had provoked God to anger, and He had left them like a vineyard with its fences demolished, open to the foot of every intruder.
2. Their enemies ravaged them. The picture of the havoc and ruin wrought is striking and powerful. Their enemies are represented as various, fierce, and strong. “They which pass by the way, the boar out of the wood, and the wild beast of the field.” They would waste the vineyard in different ways, and what one failed to destroy would speedily be ruined by the others. The devastation is represented as very great. They are being “plucked, wasted, devoured, burned,” and are “perishing.” Alas, poor vineyard! Desolation itself could scarce be more desolate; or ruin more ruinous. Their misery is represented as the result of the displeasure of God. “They perish at the rebuke of Thy countenance.” Conscience speaks here, and speaks truly. They were powerless and defenceless before their enemies, because they were conscious of having forsaken their Almighty Friend. The consciousness of sin led them to see a frowning God, and emptied their spirit of courage and their arm of strength.
3. They failed to understand fully the reason of their miseries. “Why hast Thou broken?” &c. One would have thought that they would not have needed to ask “why.” Did they think that, having shown so much favour to this vine, and bestowed upon it so much care, it was strange that He should leave it exposed to destroyers? But that very favour and that care only made its worthlessness the more manifest in bearing no fruit. God’s great mercies to the Jews made their sin and rebellion against Him the more heinous and aggravated. Instead of asking God why He had left them defenceless, they would have done well to have looked into their own life and conduct, and turned to Him in sincere penitence. Let the Christian Church heed the warning.
V. The earnest prayer of the ancient Church. The poet prays—
1. For the Divine presence and favour. “Return, we beseech Thee, O God of hosts: look down from heaven, and behold, and visit this vine.” That God would see and consider their sad case, that He would look upon them with favour, that He would visit them in mercy, is their appropriate desire.
2. For the Divine protection. “Guard what Thy right hand hath planted, and the branch that Thou madest strong for Thyself.” This is a prayer for the defence of God that they may not be utterly and entirely destroyed. The petition refers to His ancient kindness in their planting and increase, and pleads their relation to Him. The vine was planted by Him and for Him, and in its misery and desolation the poet commits it to Him.
3. For the Divine blessing on their leaders. “Let Thy hand be upon the man of Thy right hand, upon the son of man whom Thou madest strong for Thyself.” The expositors differ in their interpretations of this verse. Some see with clearness, and assert with confidence, that there is “an outlook to the Messiah here;” while others are unable to see anything of the kind. “The man of Thy right hand” is the man who holds the place of honour. “The son of man,” we regard as a poetical variation from the term “man” in the first clause of the verse. “Whom Thou hast made strong for Thyself,” i.e., whom Thou hast raised to power for the carrying out of Thy purposes. So we regard it as a prayer on behalf of some leader or leaders of the people, that God’s hand may be upon him, or upon them, for good; and that through him, or them, He would bless the afflicted people.
4. For the Divine restoration or revival. “Quicken us.” Restore to us as a people vitality and power; our languishing and dying cause do Thou revive and strengthen. Such is the prayer of the ancient Church in its distress. And if any portion of the Lord’s vineyard today is lying desolate and distressed, Christians will do well to carry the case to God in prayer, and seek His interposition and salvation.
VI. The devout promise of the ancient Church. The poet on behalf of the people engages that if God granted their requests, their conduct towards Him should be marked by—
1. Perseverance. “So will not we go back from Thee.” They had backslidden from His ways many times; but now they vow that, if God will deliver them from their distresses, they will cleave with constancy to Him.
2. Praise. “We will call upon Thy name.” We will worship Thee faithfully. Such is their promise made in affliction. And we know with how deplorable a frequency such promises are forgotten when the affliction is removed. Such was the case repeatedly in the history of the Jews.
1. Let individual Christians and Christian churches take heed to this beacon. As individuals, “have we our fruit unto holiness”? In the ancient Jewish Church, we have a striking analogue of the planting, privileges, and progress of the Christian Church. Let us see to it that the analogy does not become true as regards fruitlessness; for, if it should, our defence will be gone, and we shall be wasted and destroyed by our enemies.
2. If any have backslidden from the ways of the Lord, let them seek Him at once in penitence and by prayer. “Turn us again, O Lord God of hosts, cause Thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.”
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Psalms 80". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30