Psalms 80 and 81

Dear Reader,

Our family has been singing through the Psalter in family worship (for more on psalm-singing see this post). We recently finished Psalm 81. I really loved the B version so I was looking it up in the Bible.  What I noticed (which is obscured in the Psalter unfortunately) is how well Psalms 80 and 81 complement each other. I remember a professor in grad school telling us that when we read those sections of Proverbs that seem so disjointed that we need also to look at why God placed one proverb next to another.  It is not random but providential (my words, not his).  It is my belief that the inspiration of the Bible took place at many levels–the original authors were inspired, yes, but also the editors and whoever decided the order of the Psalms (not that it was likely one person but the process of centuries).

But I digress–back to Psalms 80 and 81. Psalm 81 begins with a call to praise God, but most of the psalm is God Himself speaking. He recounts how He led Israel out of slavery in Egypt (v. 6). But though He gave His law (v. 9), they rebelled (v. 11). Now He pleads with His people that if they would only turn back to Him, He would meet their needs and restore them (vv. 13-16). The psalter expresses this very poignantly:

“Hear, O My people, I will speak; O Isr’el, listen now!

Let no strange God be in your midst; And to them do not bow.

I am the LORD your God who saved– From Egypt brought you out.

Then open wide your mouth to me; And it I’ll surely fill.

But to My voice they gave no heed; My Isr’el spurned Me still.

I left them to their stubborn heart, To walk by their own will.

O that My people would Me hear, And Isr’el choose My way!

How quickly I would subjugate their every enemy!

Upon their adversaries all My outstretched hand I’d lay.

Then all who hate the LORD would cringe, in fear and dread abide.

But Isr’el with the finest wheat I’d always keep supplied.

Yes, I with honey from the rock would keep you satisfied.”

[The Book of Psalms for Worship (Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 2009) , selection 81B]

What the Psalter does not do it give us the context of the psalm relative to its neighbors. When we look back at Psalm 80, we find not God’s plea to His people but their plea to Him. There is a reference to the exodus (v. 8) but the original setting seems to be later. I would assume it is from the time of the Babylonian exile. But part of the beauty of both these psalms is that they could be spoken at any time (even AD 2012). In Psalm 80, God’s people plead with Him: “Save us . . . restore us  . . . let Your face shine upon us” (vv. 1,3,7). In fact, the cry “restore us” occurs three times (vv. 3,7,19).  As in the book of Isaiah, Israel is compared to a vine which at first flourished but now has had its wall torn down and is being destroyed by enemies. There is little acknowledgement of any fault of the people’s part in this psalm. The only hint of it I see is in verse 18 when the psalmist says, “Then we shall not turn back from you; give us life, and we will call upon your name!” (Psalm 80:18; ESV). But the cry is a heart-breaking one. The psalmist’s pain is palpable.

The juxtaposition of these two psalms is what strikes me so much. In the first, Psalm 80, the people cry to their God for deliverance. There is no consciousness of wrong-doing on their part, but their pain at their rejection by their God is evident. In the second, God calls to His people to return, saying that He longs to heal them and satisfy them if only they would turn from their backsliding ways. The whole thing reminds me of some sappy country song in which a man and woman alternately sing of how they miss the other and long to get back together. And one spends the whole time thinking “if only they would talk and listen to each other, this could all have a happy ending.”

And that’s what I see in Psalms 80 and 81–a conversation between God and His people in which both sides long for restoration but somehow presumably on the people’s side) there is a failure to connect.


2 responses to this post.

  1. […] nicely. Because I believe that even the order of the psalms is divinely ordained (see my post on Psalms 80 and 81), I cannot help but believe that this one is also meant to be one psalm. The parts are not stuck […]


  2. […] yet discerned. [Side note: I love the way Psalms 80 and 81 seem to speak to each other — see this post; this is the sort of intentional placing of texts side by side that I thinking […]


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