Singing The Eightieth, Pleading For Reform

For more than a decade I have owned a blueberry field and nursery as the tentmaking part of bi-vocational ministry. Beginning with tender youngstock, meticulously kept and established, the planting has spread into a thriving fruit forest. The plants started with a small propagation cutting and a piece of ground, cleared, leveled, amended, planted and irrigated. The established bushes have been crushed under five feet of snow and were withered by 120-degree heat during a record Pacific “Heat Dome” in 2021. The real violence that is visited upon the plants though, happens when I as nurseryman visit each branch with a razor-sharp pair of pruning shears. It is in pruning season that the biblical themes of “vine” and “vinedresser” are tangibly illustrative for me; shears in my right hand, God’s word of graphic agricultural illustration in my mind’s eye. This biblical metaphor has interpreted to me something of the meanings and purposes of difficult realities that accompany life in the covenant community—the most difficult things, the blighting, the devouring, when things, or even people, are painfully cut off. The metaphor has informed the painful mysteries surrounding seasons of pleading that what was destroyed might mercifully be restored. It reveals the hand of God masterfully reforming his vine.

Christians have long cherished Christ’s teachings in John 15 where he called the church his “vine.” It stands out for many of us as just as vivid a metaphor as the church being his “body.” Perhaps less known though are the poetical references to the vine in the Old Testament. The pre- and post-exilic prophets propagated the theme of God’s people as his vine several centuries before Jesus of Nazareth employed it as self-identity. Specifically, Psalm 80 was given to the church seven centuries prior as part of the inspired song book. This is a song about the vine, about hard pruning, even reform.

Text Summary

The inspired prescript of the Eightieth informs us it is for “The Choirmaster” and is to be sung in public worship. It bears the “Asaph” attribution, that mysterious author or guild of temple singers and composers. The Septuagint rendering includes the uninspired commentary, “A Psalm Concerning Assyria,” a nod to the historical context—the depopulating judgment of the LORD upon the Northern Kingdom in the 730s and 720s BC.

Immediately, the petitioner invokes the Almighty by one of his great names: “Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock” (1). With this, the astute chorus is pointed back to Genesis chapters 48 and 49 when, in Jacob’s deathbed pronouncements of blessing upon his sons, God is for the first time referred to as “Shepherd.” There, Jacob calls his son Joseph “a fruitful bough.” Genesis 49 and Psalm 80 both mix the profound agricultural metaphors of shepherd and vine.

The second clause of verse 1 hallows the presence of God in the imagery of his enthronement “upon the cherubim.” The singer recalls the Book of the Exodus and the elaborate tabernacle blueprints, the ark of the covenant, the ornate cherubim wings hemming in the golden box which contained the decalogue, topped by the mercy seat, that sacred presence of the LORD where some of the propitiating blood was splashed. The throne, the tabernacle, the mercy seat—these all stir up thoughts of the holy presence of God Most High for the ancient worshipper and typologically shadow Jesus for the new covenant chorale. Asaph, writing from Jerusalem, perhaps occupying a music office just down the hall from the Holy of Holies, appeals to the God who dwells in Zion.

The plea is to God: “Stir up your might and come to save us!” (2). The psalmist puts on our singing lips the plea to be saved. In his context, he pled that this salvation would be demonstrated before the watching eyes of Joseph’s nearest and dearest. Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons of Joseph who shared his tribal inheritance, should bear witness; but also the tribe of his baby brother, Benjamin. These are all the descendants born to Jacob by his first love, Rachel. Ephraim and Manasseh were Northern tribes, but the Benjamites had clung to Judah when the sad division of Israel occurred after Solomon’s death. This is then a plea for the saving of Joseph’s lineage in the North of Israel, and that Benjamin of Judah in the South must see it too. Naming the sons of Rachel is a shorthand way of reminding the choir of the unity of the visible church. Even though there is a wretched division and the North is mostly apostate, Asaph appeals to the unity of the visible covenant community.

In verse 3 we sing the first recitation of the tri-part refrain that will echo into verses 7 and 19, forming the heart-cry of the song: restoration connected to God’s presence—his shining countenance beaming upon Israel, the assembled church, ushering in their salvation. Again, the psalmist points the choir member back to the Pentateuch, this time to the Book of Numbers. The prayer images Aaron the High Priest with his arms raised, pronouncing the ancient blessing to the assembly, upon those who humbly live before the face of God (3).

After the first refrain, the second stanza makes exceedingly clear that the song is intended for lament. The author invokes the covenant name of the LORD, paired to “God of hosts.” “Yahweh God of hosts”—Covenant God, Commander of the LORD’s armies—“how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?” (4). The author and the choir acknowledge what lies behind the peril of the visible church among the Northern tribes. Through their weeping lamentation at having become a mockery to their neighbors, the Assyrians, the Northern Kingdom is reaping the due penalty for their idolatrous worship and vacuous prayers. In the days that the North was being raided, hauled off, and diluted by the Assyrians as judgment for their secularism and idolatry (well documented in the Books of the Kings), The LORD looked on Judah in the South and declared that their worship was fast becoming just as polluted. The word of the LORD through Isaiah to Judah uses almost identical language as this Asaph: You trample my courts with vain offerings. . . . I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assemblies. . . . Your appointed feasts my soul hates. . . . Even though you make many prayers I will not listen (Isa 1:12–15). The imagery of tears as food and drink from Psalms 22 and 102 are invoked for what the LORD of hosts has given his people in full measure—starvation and grief. He has emboldened and enabled the enemies of Israel to invade, scoff, and deride. This bitter pill of suffering is from the LORDbecause they have ignored his Torah and his presence, for he himself inhabits the praises of Israel, his church, when they obey the ordinances of worship prescribed in his law. It does not matter that they now weep in prayer; he has stopped up his ears to their prayers, for his anger smokes hot against them.

In the second chorus which begins at verse 7, Asaph intones admiration of sovereign power by calling on the “God of hosts.” He repeats the fervent and essential plea, “let your face shine, that we may be saved” (7). Then, in the third and final stanza the author shifts to the other agricultural metaphor, one that reverberates through both Old and New Testaments, the vine. Imagery of the Divine as a vine dresser who carefully kept a cultivar alive out of Egypt—this is very much nurseryman language. How truly difficult it would be to preserve bare rootstock in a desert! What is more, it is God who meticulously prepared the ground in which to plant this precious and peculiar varietal. Such care was it given that “it took deep root and filled the land” (9). It stretched out on the mountains, it intwined the limbs of the high cedars, and, euphemistic of Palestine, it spread “from the sea to the river.” God of hosts, the vine dresser, had carefully stewarded his precious vine such that it would fill the earth and be fruitful for him, that it would bring him glory and that he would enjoy its fruits. The psalm gives voice to the faithful who ask in grief, Why then have you taken down its hedges? (12). If you had a precious vineyard, you would want it protected and you would establish a hedge, or a wall. Yet, the Assyrians, who are called “the boar that ravages” the vineyard (13), have entered and begun devouring it after Yahweh took down his protective hedge. Again, here is a prophetic parallel for the Southern Kingdom, for Isaiah foretold this very thing upon Judah also. In chapter 5, he prophesies, “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge,   and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste” (Isa 5:5–6). God’s covenant people would experience, en masse, a devastating suffering and destruction for breaking covenant with the LORD, having succumbed to the idolatrous worship of the cultures around them.

Verse 14 offers a rich prayer for God’s covenant people, a personal plea for the church: Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see, visit this vine. Verse 16 calls down imprecations upon those who have cut down and burned a portion of the vine, that they be rebuked by the face of God. Amidst this imprecation, in verses 15 and 17, the previous mention of Benjamin becomes startlingly more significant. For the name Benjamin literally means, “son of the right hand.” The Holy Spirit through Asaph declares that Israel, God’s church, was planted by “the man of [his] right hand . . . the son of man . . . the son whom [he] made strong.” Psalm 80 suddenly bursts forth with messianic language! In the light of this revelation, Asaph, who is observing the destruction of the Northern Kingdom from his place in the South which has yet some semblance of fidelity, emboldened by the messianic vision says, “we shall not turn back from you; give us life, and we will call upon your name” (18; emphasis added). Asaph equips the choir of the remnant of the people of God to cry out on behalf of the whole visible covenant community and pledge that the remnant who is given life will indeed worship and not turn away.

The chorus is repeated a final time. The chorus calls on the covenant name of Yahweh, beseeching him once more, “Restore us, O LORD God of hosts! Let your face shine, that we may be saved!” (19). It closes with a cry for restoration, according to God’s covenant, a return to his blessed countenance, even his long-awaited salvation.

Meditation

Seven-and-a-half centuries before Christ, Asaph observed what befell the visible covenant community in Northern Israel, knowing full well that centuries of idolatry and infidelity had led to the judgment of God, the tearing down of the protective hedge around the vine. His heart broke for the remnant of godly ones there. A century prior, Elijah had despaired of life itself because of the state of the church, but the LORD had assured him there was yet a remnant of seven thousand who had not bent a knee to Baal. Throughout the late 800s BC, Elisha ministered among a little remnant in the North, around little “schools of the prophets.” A tiny remnant was preserved by peculiar miracles and remarkable providences. Raiders from Moab and Syria were deterred. The word of the LORD had its course in little pockets at Beth-el, Jericho, Shunem, Dothan, and Car-mel. A lineage of preachers were trained and preserved, the children of the prophets saw miracles, women received back their dead. Yet, the majority in Israel were wickedly idolatrous and given over to the culture.

When Asaph prayed this prayer and composed it for the covenant people in all ages to sing, he was furnished with words of intercession that must be pled for the restoration of God’s people. We sing the Eightieth in the same spirit of wisdom that Asaph prayed for both the remnant and his countrymen. It is a prayer for the reformation of the people of God. What is it to “restore” but to reestablish and reform, to return to the pattern, the blueprint, to renewed reverent worship in the presence of our covenant God? For ancient Israel it was the need to return to the law, to the sacrifices, to the prayers, and to the Psalms, and to look ahead to the promise of the man of God’s right hand, to the Son of man whom he made strong for himself.

Ligon Duncan ascribes a remarkable observation about prayer to John Calvin. He writes, “God does not answer our prayers as we pray them, but as we would pray them if we were wiser.”1 Perhaps Asaph did not know what person or time the Spirit of Christ was testifying to in advance. But we know. We see the connections. Our Great Shepherd is the same Shepherd in Psalm 23 and in the Book of Hebrews. He is the “true vine” who stood beneath the entrance to the sanctuary of the Jerusalem temple where a golden vine with fruit was sculpted over the beams of the entryway. Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of man declared in John 15:1–2, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”

The times in which the Asaph of Psalm 80 lived—witnessing the blight that the syncretism of Jeroboam, or the outright Baalism that the house of Ahab and Jezebel had brought into the church in the Northern Kingdom, and seeing its encroachment into Judah—brought the remnant to their knees in pleading. They saw vast swaths of the covenant community devoured, ten tribes cut off and burned. They despaired for the future of Judah and Benjamin, having only tears for food and sensing that so much of their suffering prayer went unheard due to the vacuousness of the worship in Israel. They knew that Yahweh’s greatest beatitude, his shining countenance, was being withheld, and that the vine, the once flourishing fruit forest, no longer knew the tender care of the vinedresser. All this prompted the Holy Spirit to interpret the austerity of judgment through a pleading song of lamentation. Israel had disregarded the pattern of worship Yahweh had lovingly prescribed in his Torah. The culture of false religion had trampled the courts of the Most High God. His prescribed blueprint for worship was all but lost. So, “The Choirmaster” was granted a resource.

Today we look out on the vineyard, the visible imprint of God’s people, and it frankly appears defenseless and utterly despoiled. The original apostolical system of doctrine, worship, and government, the pattern laid out in both Old and New Testaments, is scarcely perceived. The mainline and the megachurch are sadly rife with the critical theories and entertainment currents of this age, a veritable analog to the Northern Kingdom. And, the pressing reality is that similar blighting afflictions, ravaging boars, are lurking near to the confessionally Reformed as well.

The LORD sets his frown upon and makes desolate the vineyard which neglects the forms of worship he has prescribed, and the people whose hearts have a cold disaffection for pure Word, worship, and prayers. The remnant senses it all around. The Holy Spirit grants “The Choirmaster” words in response.

After centuries of decline, Asaph pleaded that the LORD would restore the people of God to the original form of the tabernacle and the law that Jesus gave to the church through Moses. After centuries of decline, we plead with the LORD of hosts that the visible church would be restored to the divine form laid out by Jesus in the apostolic pattern of doctrine, worship, and government. This psalm gives us the needed words of lamentation for the state of the church, the visible people of God who have in so many ways given themselves over to the culture and to idolatry. And so the remnant cries out, “[Reform] us, O LORD God of hosts! Let your face shine that we may be saved!” (19; emphasis added).

We sing the Eightieth as a plea for mercy, that we might worship the LORD rightly and that there would be renewal, restoration, and reform in the churches. We echo the urgent plea that the son of man whom God has made strong would look down in mercy and visit the vine by his Spirit. It may very well be that there is need for the violence of a hard pruning. The Eightieth depicts the most violent outcomes to us because it is what we truly deserve and what might be needed to make the vine spread through the earth and bear fruit for our vinedresser.

Israel foreshadows Christ to us in that they were cut off for their sins. Likewise, God the Father took down the protective hedge around his only begotten Son and the “true vine” was cut off for us. The “true vine” is right now spreading throughout the world, threading through the cedars from the sea to the river. He is the vine, and the church is the branches.

Christ has interpreted to us the mysteries of the painful prunings in his vineyard. Thus, the choir has an informed trust when we repeat the pleading refrain for God’s continuing, masterful reforms to the vine, knowing that they are wrought according to the pattern of his Word. “He was cut off . . . yet . . . the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” (Isa 53:8, 10). “Restore us, O LORD God of hosts!”

Notes

  1. Ligon Duncan, “Restore Us, O God,” LigonDuncan.com, November 22, 2005. (Original source unknown)

©Aaron De Boer. All Rights Reserved.


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    Post authored by:

  • Aaron De Boer
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    Rev. Aaron De Boer is the minister at Friend of Sinners Reformed Church (ARP) in rural Washington state. He earned an MA from Calvin Theological Seminary and is a ThM candidate at Erskine Theological Seminary. @DutchPresby on X/Twitter.

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One comment

  1. A great appreciation for this Psalm came from a lifetime of singing the paraphrase in the 1959 CRC Psalter Hymnal (it was originally published in the 1912 Psalter). This old setting is one that the Trinity Psalter Hymnal committee has preserved and included as 80B. It is set to the tune of Caritas, familiar as, “My Jesus, I Love Thee.” Enjoy!

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