Where Are You, God? Bible Study on Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
November 26, 2020, 11:03 AM

Dear Members & Friends:

I invite you to read the following passage from Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 (Common English Bible).

Shepherd of Israel, listen!
    You, the one who leads Joseph as if he were a sheep.
    You, who are enthroned upon the winged heavenly creatures.
Show yourself before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh!
    Wake up your power!
    Come to save us!
Restore us, God!
    Make your face shine so that we can be saved!

Lord God of heavenly forces,
    how long will you fume against your people’s prayer?
You’ve fed them bread made of tears;
    you’ve given them tears to drink three times over!
You’ve put us at odds with our neighbors;
    our enemies make fun of us.
Restore us, God of heavenly forces!
    Make your face shine so that we can be saved!

17 Let your hand be with the one on your right side—
    with the one whom you secured as your own—
18     then we will not turn away from you!
Revive us so that we can call on your name.
19     Restore us, Lord God of heavenly forces!
    Make your face shine so that we can be saved!

Upon first reading this psalm, we might think, "Well, not much hope in this scripture," that is, until we consider its historical context.

After Kings Solomon’s death, Israel divided into two nations. The ten northern tribes were known as Israel (the Northern Kingdom). The southern two tribes (Judah and Benjamin) were known as Judah (the Southern Kingdom). In 722-721 B.C.E, 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.  Remember the Samaritan of Jesus' day.  Well, they were the "mixed" remnants of the Assyrian deporation.  

That is why Psalm 80 is a plea, a cry for Israel’s restoration.  We know that Israel's hymnbook was and is the Book of Psalms.  And so, Psalm 80 is a lament song, a song of sadness, a communal complaint against God that mourns Israel's deportation into Assyria.  Psalm 80 is among seven other communal lament songs or psalms: 44; 60; 74; 79; 80; 83; 89.  As Claus Westermann notes:  ". . . The basic tone of these sturdy songs is first heard in the cry to God from most desperate need.  God is attested as the one who, enthoned above the cherubim, came to aid the people, causing the very earth to shake.  'Stir up thy might . . .' the hard-pressed people pleaded, because they recalled God's great deeds in the past.  Verses 8-11, which unfold these deeds of yore, can be linked directly to an invocation, "Were you not the one who . . .?"

Our lectionary Psalm lesson leaves out verses 8-16, which reveal God's faithful actions toward Israel in the past.  That's why it's important to include them now.

You brought a vine out of Egypt.
    You drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
    then it planted its roots deep, filling the land.
10 The mountains were covered by its shade;
    the mighty cedars were covered by its branches.
11 It sent its branches all the way to the sea;
    its shoots went all the way to the Euphrates River.[a]
12 So why have you now torn down its walls
    so that all who come along can pluck its fruit,
13     so that any boar from the forest can tear it up,
    so that the bugs can feed on it?

14 Please come back, God of heavenly forces!
    Look down from heaven and perceive it!
Attend to this vine,
15     this root that you planted with your strong hand,
    this son whom you secured as your very own.
16 It is burned with fire. It is chopped down.
    They die at the rebuke coming from you.

The superscription (the subtitle above Psalm 80) reads as follows:  For the Chief Musician. To the tune of “The Lilies of the Covenant.” 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).  

So how do we interpret Psalm 80 so that it has meaning in our lives today?  The prayer song of ancient exiled Israel is our prayer today: 3 "Restore us, God!  Make your face shine so that we can be saved!"  And their question/complaint to God is our communal lament: 4 "Lord God of heavenly forces, how long will you fume against your people’s prayer? You’ve fed them bread made of tears; you’ve given them tears to drink three times over!  You’ve put us at odds with our neighbors; our enemies make fun of us."

This Sunday, Nov. 29th, we enter the season of Advent.  Advent is more than just counting down the days until we get to sing, "Silent Night, Holy Night," and remember a sweet baby in the manger.  Advent is about a deep longing for God's presence in the world, one that extends beyond ourselves into all the world.  Advent ushers us into a season of communal prayer and petition along with the Asaphites, those ancient worship leaders, and God's people throughout the years who have hoped and called out for God to come into our lives yet again.  We do this by offering our earnest cries of "How Long?"

How long will it be before things feel "normal" again after we have lost a loved one?  How long will I be out of work?  How long until I am able to do the things I love after surgery or a series of treatments?  How long until a memory is no longer painful?  How long until I am taken seriously and respected?  How long will my prayers go unaswered?

And, as many "how longs" as we have in our own lives, there are just as many if not more in our nation and world.  How long before our small businesses can get back on their feet?  How long before we are no longer laden with debt?  How long until we see more than 25 or 30 people sitting in our pews?  How long until the need is gone for something as basic as food?  How long until our elected leaders can work together without letting political bias set the tone?  How long until people are no longer coerced into sex trafficing?  How long until violence and shootings are absent from our daily news cycles?  How long will it be before people are no longer discrimated against because of the age, gender, sexual orientation, race, marriage, education or economic status?  The endless "how longs" echo into the eternity of God's presence.

I have interpreted the psalmist's "how long" question as "Where are you, God?"  But the more I think of it, perhaps the questions of How long? and Where are you, God?" should really be turned into the question, "How are you with us, O God?"

I watched a recent, hopeful news report.  A wealthy family in Virginia called their local police department and asked if it could identify families in need of food during the Thanksgiving holiday.  That blessed family then provided food for all those needy families.  They did so anonymous.  They asked their police department to distribute the food and said that if people needed more food, they would provide it.  How long, O God?  Where is God?  How is God with us?  There, in that news story, is God in action.

Where are you, God?  How are you with us?  Our Sunday School and Youth filled shoes boxes with gifts and supplies that have now been shipped to needy children around the world as part of Operation Christmas Child.  Thank of the joy on the faces of those children as they play with their new toys and much needed items.  How long, O God?  Where are you, God?  How is God with us?  There, in the gifts sent to the often forgotten children of the world, is God.

We know God's presence coming to us is within God's ability and the way God has engaged with the world by becoming one with us in the gift of Jesus' birth.  And, at the same time, it is a hopeful orientation to the world of what is possible, of trusting that God can through our kind words and generous gifts and actions, at any moment, break into our difficult and heavy experiences of longing with a fresh vision and presence of God being with us and for us.

Advent is about being bold enough to ask God to do just that.  It is an expression of hope, based on a deep seated belief that what God has done before, God can and will do again.

Restore us, God!  Make your face shine so that we can be saved!

Yours in the Hope of the Babe of Bethlehem,

Pastor Greg Rupright



11-26-2020 at 10:24 PM
Pat May
God IS ALWAYS with us, but sometimes it’s hard to hear, see and remember...
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