It’s been a stupefying few months, hasn’t it? And I’m not even thinking politically. To even to try and recall the many tragedies that have occurred since August of this year, I had to rely on Google rather than my memory. For since August of this year alone, we as a nation have experienced:
Hurricane Harvey in August which devastated parts of Texas and neighboring states;
Hurricane Irma in September whose devastation is still being felt by those living in Puerto Rico;
A horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas in October;
A smaller yet equally horrific mass shooting at a church in a rural Texas town in November;
And most recently with the death of Charles Manson, we were reminded of evils done in the past for which he and his followers were imprisoned—the brutal Tate and LaBianca murders, among others, intended to instigate a racial war in our country.
Whether evils occurring in the world of nature such as hurricanes or evils perpetrated by humans upon fellow humans like these mass shootings, these tragedies can leave us reeling. And for those of us who are Christians, such instances of suffering and loss can also leave us wondering whether God is there for us; and if he is there, whether he hears us; and if he hears us, whether he is responsive to our prayers.
Well one of the many encouraging things about Scripture, God’s Word, is how very real it is. Though we rightly view the Scriptures as the Holy Bible, its holy nature is due to God being its source. The Bible isn’t a book like any other book but rather contains the words recorded by God’s prophets and apostles as he moved them to communicate to his people on his behalf. But the Bible isn’t holy in the sense that it only contains accounts of people who lived perfectly moral and upright lives. Far from it. Though to be holy as he is holy is what God desires for us, his Holy Bible contains accounts of his people undergoing the full brunt of experiences that is the lot of all of us who live in a fallen world. As we know, though those living in biblical times sometimes dealt with their experiences in an upright manner sometimes their responses fell far short of being upright. And Scripture additionally records for us the genuine doubts and wondering and questions and longing of those who know and love God. And in hearing their stories, we are often able to connect them with our own stories and questions and doubts.
As we noted earlier in the service, today is the first Sunday in Advent in the Church calendar, a time of our reminding ourselves of Christ’s coming to earth in human form in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies concerning him. Advent is a season of longing as we await and look forward to Messiah Jesus’ coming and arrival as a babe in a manger. And our passage this morning, appropriately enough, expresses deep feelings of looking and longing for God that can be so very common even in, or perhaps especially, in the lives of those who seek to love and serve him.
Interesting as well in our passage is that these longings are expressed in the form of a psalm. I know we don’t always think about it—at least I don’t—but in terms of genre or type of literature, a “psalm” is a sacred song or hymn. And even in the portions of the psalm we’ll be considering, you can almost feel the musical connections even by simply looking at the words of the psalmist.
As far as this particular psalm is concerned, one commentator notes that Psalm 80 is part of a grouping of five Psalms—Psalms 79–83—“when the nation [of Israel] has been invaded by powerful enemies.” So this overtaking by hostile forces is part of the reason for the anguish expressed in it. Now our psalm begins by addressing God as “Shepherd of Israel.” So from the get-go we’re provided with a sense of the relationship between the psalmist and God, namely that between sheep and their Shepherd. And we know from Psalm 23 and elsewhere in Scripture that one of the ways God discloses himself to his people is as a divine Shepherd. So the psalmist is drawing upon this relationship and begins by establishing that like sheep, God’s people are in need of the care and protection of their Shepherd. For without a shepherd, sheep tend to go astray and get lost; without a shepherd, sheep are in danger of attack; without a shepherd, sheep can starve to death.
And specifically the psalmist makes a petition to God, the Shepherd of Israel, to “Hear us.” When you think about it, isn’t this a curious thing to request of God? For don’t we know, as Scripture teaches, that God by nature is omniscient—all-knowing? And omnipresent—present in all places? And omnipotent—all-powerful? So wouldn’t it follow that it’s impossible for him not to hear and see and know everything over which he rules in this world and beyond? But though this is no doubt true, we understand, of course, that in calling out for God to “hear us,” the psalmist is saying something more specific. He’s asking God to listen or even more to the point, to pay attention to his sheep for, as will become evident as the psalm progresses, these sheep feel abandoned by their Shepherd. So with this initial petition, a dramatic tension has been established.
But the psalmist doesn’t merely call upon God to hear his people, he rehearses back to him his ability to do so. The “Shepherd of Israel” is the one who leads “Joseph like a flock,” Joseph being, of course, Jacob’s, that is Israel’s, favorite son. This divine Shepherd is the one who sits “enthroned between the cherubim.” This royal image comes from the place of the ark in the temple in which the mercy seat of God was at the top and on either side was a golden representation of a cherub or angel (cherubim being the plural of cherub). So not only is Israel’s God their Shepherd, but he is also their powerful King seated upon his royal throne, surrounded by his angelic servants, his messengers. God the Shepherd of Israel not only cares for his sheep, but also rules the world as King. And he is the one who “shine[s] forth before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.” As the psalmist is speaking on behalf of the people—as indicated by the initial plea to hear us—so, too, Israel is being represented here by Joseph and Benjamin, Jacob’s two favorite sons, sons of his favorite wife, Rachel—and the psalmist also lists Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph’s two children.
Having asked God to hear—to pay attention—the psalmist continues addressing God, this caring Shepherd and powerful King, beseeching him at the end of verse 2: “Awaken your might.” Knowing full well God’s strength, the psalmist, on behalf of God’s people, is asking him to act in his people, his subjects’ interest; to use his omnipotence, his all powerfulness, on his people’s behalf. Specifically he asks God to “come and save us.” Later in the psalm, in a section we’re not focusing on, we’re provided glimpses of the destruction that had been wrought upon Israel by their enemies as their walls were broken down (verse 12) and they were uprooted, cut down, and burned with fire (verses 15–16). The point then is that God’s sheep are in dire need of their Shepherd’s care and of their King’s using his power on their behalf to save them.
And not only are they in need of God’s salvation but they are also in need of God’s restoration, as the psalmist cries out in verse 3: “Restore us, O God.” In other words, something has changed in the relationship between the people and God. So the psalmist is asking God to return them to their former condition or position of favor as when he led Joseph like a flock (verse 1) and caused his people to flourish (verses 8–11). For now it seems as though God was being experienced by his people as absent therefore the psalmist is seeking and beseeching him to restore them to his good graces. The psalmist goes on to ask, “[M]ake your face shine on us, that we may be saved.” The use of this phrase, “make your face shine on us,” hearkens back to and is reminiscent of the beautiful blessing the LORD spoke to Moses when he had him tell Aaron and his sons how they ought to bless the Israelites: “24 The Lord bless you and keep you; 25 the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; 26 the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” In asking God to make his face to shine on his people that they may be saved we can feel the longing and yearning in the psalmist’s voice. Again their experience indicates that God has turned his face away from them and so they seek to be restored to him. But what we also have here in verse 3 is the first occurrence of a refrain. Musically I think that this first appearance of the refrain would be in the “piano” dynamic—spoken audibly, but softly: “Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.”
Then beginning with verse 4 the tension builds as we are clued into the depth of God’s absence being experienced by these, his sheep. “How long, LORD God Almighty, will your anger smolder against the prayers of your people?” And with this, we sense that God’s absence, his turning away, has occurred for far too long. It’s been so long that it’s likened to smoldering anger, a slow-burning anger. But what is important for us to realize in all of this is that if God is angry and his anger is the reason for his turning away, then there is certainly a cause or reason for his anger for God isn’t irrational or erratic. In fact Scripture teaches that even though—and when—we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself—and we have seen time and again how much he loves and identifies with those who are his. Yet faithless we too often are and Scripture isn’t shy about noting the many, many, many, many times God’s people were unfaithful to him, turning away from him to other gods, discounting him, refusing to follow him, ignoring and turning a blind eye and deaf ear to his loving laws. So though God’s anger may be the cause of his silence and seeming abandonment of his people and the consequent distress his people are experiencing, there is a reason for God’s withdrawal and pulling back.
And in verse 5 we see, on this communion Sunday, that rather than feeding his people with bread and wine, the LORD God Almighty has instead “fed them with the bread of tears” and has “made them drink tears by the bowlful.” So the psalmist continues expressing his heartache over his perception of God’s absence and anger. And he even uses the personal name for God, Yahweh, translated as “LORD” in all caps. For though the people have prayed to God; though they have cried out to him, metaphorically speaking God has allowed the tears of their crying suffice for their food. And these tears have been falling for so long, that God has allowed them to suffice for their drink as well for the people have cried enough tears to fill even bowls.
But the tension in this psalm, in this song of lament, builds yet further. For not only has God, their Shepherd, not paid heed or listened to his people; not only has his anger smoldered, been burning for a long time; not only has God allowed the people’s tears suffice for their bread and drink; but, verse 6, God has made his people, “an object of derision to [their] neighbors” for word has gotten out about his silence and lack of responsiveness to them. And the second half of verse 6 heightens this tension further for it isn’t only their neighbors who are aware of their desperate condition but even their “enemies mock” them.
And it is at the point of this heightened tension that we not only have the initial refrain repeated but the psalmist has added to it. If this song started out softly, it has surely built up to a mezzo forte as the tension has mounted and the psalmist has rehearsed the many reasons why these sheep of the Shepherd, why these subjects of the King, feel so wounded. So there’s a crescendo that has led up to a repetition of verse 3’s refrain in verse 7 as the psalmist repeats his cry: “Restore us[!]” Return us to a right relationship with yourself. But this time the psalmist addresses his plea not simply to “God” as he did the first time, but to “God Almighty,” God who is not only the caring Shepherd but the all-powerful King. And the psalmist repeats his initial plea as he again beseeches Almighty God, “make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.” Bring us back into your presence that we may be saved; that we may be healed; that we may be made whole. For only God is able to bring about such salvation—and healing—and restoration to wholeness—and restoration to holiness.
In the verses that follow, the psalmist rehearses the many things this God Almighty had done in the past in establishing his people Israel, his vine (vv. 8–11). Yet, again, having allowed them to prosper, he had now removed his protection, allowing his vine to be cut down (vv. 12–16).
And so we find the psalmist’s final plea starting in verse 17 as he pleads with God, “Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself.” Now having just last week seen how “Son of Man” was Jesus’ favorite self-designation, it may be tempting for us to read this back into the psalm. But in all likelihood this use of “son of man” refers to Israel, not Jesus. It’s yet another instance of the psalmist requesting of God that Israel, his people, be restored to his favor. Recall that the psalm began by mentioning Benjamin—whose name literally means “son of the right hand.” So to speak of God’s hand resting on “the man at your right hand,” is a way of indicating God’s favor. Similarly, “the son of man you have raised up for yourself” is probably a reference to Israel, the son, God raised up for himself from one man, Abraham. Though I have to add that one commentator did parenthetically observe, “One reason NT [sic] writers call Jesus God’s Son, and the Son of Man, is to show that he embodies all that Israel was called to be, which makes him the ideal heir of David.”
After presenting petition after petition to God, in verse 18 we have a promise of repentance, of turning to God. If God will restore his people; if God will show them his favor, “Then [his people, his sheep] will not turn away from [him].” They’ll have learned their lesson. And again, if God revives them, if he gives life back to them, his people will call on his name; they will continue to turn to and depend upon him as he ever intended. With this expression of fealty—rather than petition—on the part of the people, the tension that this psalm, this song, began with is released and brought to a resolution.
And then the psalm closes by repeating its song’s refrain—the very same refrain we saw in verse 3—and then again in verse 7. And once again this refrain has been added to. It has gone from “Restore us, O God” in verse 3; to “Restore us, God Almighty” in verse 7; to, finally, “Restore us, LORD God Almighty” in the closing verse. Having stated that God’s people will call on his name, the psalmist again uses the personal name of God, LORD, Yahweh, who is also God Almighty. And again asks, “make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.”
Sisters and brothers, though you and I live in a time of fulfillment rather than promise; though we live in a time after God’s precious Messiah and Son, Jesus Christ, has come, we also live in a time of waiting and longing for God’s restoration and redemption of this world isn’t yet complete. So we, too, await and long for his return; we, too, await and long for his final restoration.
Yet this communion Sunday, we are so fortunate because God in Christ has fed us not with the bread of tears but with the bread of his body broken for us; and he has quenched our thirst not with tears by the bowlful but by shedding his blood that we might not ever have to experience separation from him. Our loving Savior and Lord has given us life and by his Holy Spirit he has joined his life with our own that we might not ever be alone for not even death can separate us from the eternal life he has provided in himself.
So rather than cry out to God to hear us—to pay attention to us—we have the confidence that he has heard us for Christ Jesus, our loving Shepherd and gracious King does shine his face upon us for he has given us salvation by his body and blood.
So this first Sunday in Advent, let us, as the voice ensemble sang earlier this morning:
Behold our God, seated on His throne; come let us adore Him!
Behold our King, nothing can compare; come, let us adore Him!….
O come, let us adore Him;—Who has felt the nails upon His hands,
O come, let us adore Him!—Bearing all the guilt of sinful man?
Let us pray.
 E.g., Leviticus 11:44–45: 44 I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves along the ground. 45 I am the Lord, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.; Leviticus 19:1–2: 1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.; Leviticus 20:7: Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the Lord your God.; I Peter 1:14–16: 14 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
 Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Psalms 79–83. Too, this psalm is linked to Psalm 79 by means of the shared shepherd–sheep metaphor: Psalm 79:13: Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will praise you forever; from generation to generation we will proclaim your praise.
 E.g., Genesis 48:15: Then [Israel] blessed Joseph and said, “May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked faithfully, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day,; Genesis 49:24: But [Joseph’s] bow remained steady, his strong arms stayed limber, because of the hand of the Mighty One of Jacob, because of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel,; Psalm 28:9: Save your people and bless your inheritance; be their shepherd and carry them forever.; Psalm 74:1: O God, why have you rejected us forever? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture? Psalm 95:7: for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.; Revelation 7:17: For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”
 E.g., I Samuel 4:4a: So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the ark of the covenant of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim.; 2 Samuel 6:2: [David] and all his men went to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim on the ark.
 Numbers 6:24–26.
 2 Timothy 2:13.
 See Genesis 35:18: As [Rachel] breathed her last—for she was dying—she named her son Ben-Oni.[Ben-Oni means son of my trouble.] But his father named him Benjamin.[Benjamin means son of my right hand.]
 Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Psalm 80:16–19.
 Behold Our God, arr. by Mary McDonald; Words & Music by Jonathan Baird, Meghan Baird, Ryan Baird, and Stephen Altrogge.