Psalm 80: What Do You Do When There Is No Hope?

Hear us, Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph like a flock.
You who sit enthroned between the cherubim,
    shine forth before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.
Awaken your might;
    come and save us.
Restore us, O God;
    make your face shine on us,
    that we may be saved.
How long, Lord God Almighty,
    will your anger smoulder
    against the prayers of your people?
You have fed them with the bread of tears;
    you have made them drink tears by the bowlful.
You have made us an object of derision to our neighbours,
    and our enemies mock us.

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Psalm 80

Back in the (good old) day of the hymn book, songs were often grouped together thematically even though there may have been many years between their composition. Something similar appears to have happened here. The previous psalm lamented the destruction of Jerusalem in the sixth century BC but a reference to the northern tribes (v. 3) indicates that this psalm dates from a century and a half earlier when the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the invading Assyrians (2 Kings 17).

At the beginning of the psalm God is called ‘the shepherd of Israel’ (v. 1) but it is clear that his flock have been savaged. Verses 8–11 describe God’s care for his people in times gone by – he is no longer the herdsman but the skilled gardener. God has ‘green fingers’: the transported vine had been taken from the hostile environment of Egypt and had thrived in the soil of Canaan (v. 11). But Israel no longer flourished. That was all in the past.

The psalmist puts the responsibility for this at God’s feet (vv. 5, 6). He boldly indicts God and says that it is God himself who has broken down the walls where the vine grew (v. 12) leaving his people at the mercy of others. Such a fate should not have surprised anyone – Isaiah had predicted that a fruitless vine would suffer (Isaiah 5:1–7). The psalmist though doesn’t think that the people’s waywardness explains their seeming abandonment (of course whether God saw it that way is another matter!).

What do you do when there is no hope? The only hope is to turn to God and that is what the psalmist does. Three times he pleads with God to restore them (vv. 3, 7, 19) and his words echo the blessing that the priests conveyed to Israel (Numbers 6:24–26) asking God’s face, seemingly turned away in anger, to shine upon them once more and to save them from all that threatens them.  

Once more the Psalm reminds us that God is big enough to cope with all our questions, our hurt, our confusion, and if we feel that way it is nothing new. It is a raw psalm but not without hope. Reference to ‘the son of man’ (v. 17) would originally have been a reference to Israel but also reminds us of Jesus favoured self-designation (Matthew 8:20, 9:6, 11:19). He is the one who was enthroned between the cherubim (v. 1), who left behind the glories of heaven to come to his suffering and sinful people. It is in his face that the light of God’s glory is displayed (2 Corinthians 4:6). He is the ultimate answer to all our prayers and has come to save us.