This psalm is a prayer. It is directed to God. But it is also a song. It was given to the choirmaster to sin according to the tune of “Lilies”.
A Plea For God To Hear and to Save
Psalm 79 ended with the psalmist referring to Israel as the “sheep of your (God’s) pasture”. Psalm 80 begins with an address to God as the “Shepherd of Israel”. It refers to Israel as a “flock”. Whoever compiled the psalms did so in a manner that kept the theme going.
Sheep and shepherds were common in Israel. They made for good metaphors in describing God’s care of his people and their need for his care. (Psalm 23 for example) Jesus also used this metaphor, calling himself the “Good Shepherd”. (John 10:11 and 10:14)
The psalmist also referred to God as the one who is enthroned upon the cherubim. We have seen this reference several times in the psalms, referring to God’s presence with Israel between the cherubim on the ark of the covenant. (Exodus 25:17-22) It is also a picture of God enthroned in heaven, ruling over creation.
So the psalmist refers to God’s shepherding relationship to Israel and his presence with them when they still had the ark. He also appeals to God as the one who is sovereign and all powerful to save.
The reference to being before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh is less clear. Some feel it is a reference to the northern kingdom which was defeated and taken into exile by Assyria. That would also explain the context of the psalm. However, the inclusion of Benjamin is a problem, for Benjamin joined Judah in the southern kingdom, not the northern 10 tribes.
A likely explanation takes us back to the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Since the psalmists who wrote from Babylonian captivity wanted a second exodus, a return to Israel, the first Exodus was a good reference for their pleas to God for deliverance.
When Israel left Egypt and journeyed through the wilderness, God instructed them on how to set up their camp by tribes. He also instructed them on the order in which they would march. The tabernacle and the ark remained in the center of the congregation as it marched. Following the tabernacle were the tribes of Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh. (Numbers 2:18-23)
The tribes represent the family of Joseph. Ephraim and Manasseh were his sons. Benjamin was his brother by the same mother, Rachel. (Genesis 35:24) As God led these tribes from captivity, the psalmist wants God to lead Israel from captivity in Babylon.
So the psalmist pleads with God to come and save them in his mighty power from captivity.
This sentence is used three times in the psalm like a chorus in a hymn. The plea is for God to restore them, to bring them back into the blessings of the covenant. He asks for God to let his face shine. To have God’s face shine on you is to have his favor. This brings to mind the blessing the Lord told Aaron, the high priest, to give to Israel in Numbers 6:22-27:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to Aaron and is sons saying, thus you shall bless the people of Israel, you shall say to them:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.
As we have seen in several of the psalms of lament, the psalmist asks God how long he will be angry and punish them. They long to be out from under God’s wrath and back in his favor. The psalmist believes their tears are now in full measure - surely they have suffered as much as God’s wrath requires. He also mentions, as have other psalms, that those around them laugh at them and hold them in contempt.
Here the psalmist refers to God as the God of Hosts. He has all the hosts of heaven at his disposal to rescue Israel from Babylon.
Verse 7 repeats the chorus.
Reciting the Exodus
Using the metaphor of the vine, the psalmist recites God’s delivery of Israel from Egypt. God brought the vine from Egypt to Canaan and planted it. It grew until it went from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates River. This is the land God promised Israel in Exodus 23:31-33:
And I will set your border from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates for I will give the inhabitants of the land into your and and shall drive them out before you You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not dwell in you land, lest they make you sin against me; for it you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.
The Israelites never conquered all of this land and Gentiles did dwell in it.
In verse 12, the psalmist asks why God has let it be destroyed. He broke down the walls that would have protected it. (12) Enemies, represented by the boar (a wild pig), ravaged the vineyard. Babylon certainly ravaged the land of Israel.
So, he asks God to turn again to Israel and have regard for the vine that he planted. (14-15) He wanted God to rebuke those who burned the vine and cut it down. (16)
In verse 17, the writer leaves the metaphor of the vineyard for that of a son. He asked God to put his hand on, or to strengthen, the man of his right hand and the son of man that he had made strong. This is referring to Israel as the son of God, indicating its special relationship to God.
In Exodus 4:22, God instructed Moses to tell Pharaoh that Israelis his firstborn son. Deuteronomy 14:1 says that Israelites are the sons of the Lord your God. Sons, and especially first born sons, had privileges because of their relationship and status in the family. Israel had a unique and special relationship and status with God.
You could easily assert that the language also points forward to Jesus, who is the unique and only real Son of God. He would be the true Israel, accomplishing all that Old Testament did not. He now sits at the right hand of God.
As in Psalm 79, the psalmists ends this stanza by saying that, if God will do these things he asks, Israel will be faithful, calling upon his name.
The psalm closes with a repeat of the chorus, asking for the restoration of God’s favor upon them.
If a Christian, a believer, strays from God, he or she has a promise of restoration. When we confess our sins, God is faithful to forgive us. (1 John 1:9) Christ lives in heaven as our continuing advocate to the Father. (1 John 2:1)