Psalm 80 was written during a period when God was angry with His people (v4). He was not answering their prayers and they had become an object of ridicule amongst their enemies (v6). Three times in the psalm the refrain, ‘Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!’ occurs (verses 3, 7, 19). The psalmist is desperate for God to listen and act. In fact, as his cry repeats you can feel the escalation in his language as he addresses God firstly as ‘O God’ (v3), then ‘O God of hosts’ (v7), and finally as ‘O Lord God of hosts’ (v19).
This is clearly a heartfelt and desperate cry for God to intervene and restore Israel from its troubles. In articulating his plea to God for help, the psalmist employs the powerful image of a vine (v8ff). He delves back into Israel’s history and explores this theme in order to touch the heart of God.
The picture he paints is of a vine being plucked out of Egypt. This is a clear reference to the redemption from slavery in Egypt which the nation experienced under the guidance of Moses. The vine, having been selected, was then planted into a new land, the Promised Land of Canaan. This land was cleared (v9) and other nations removed (v8) in order to make room for the chosen vine of Israel. The vine then took root and flourished, spreading out and filling the land (vv9-11). But things then changed. Instead of Israel continuing to flourish it seems that God broke down the walls surrounding the vineyard and allowed the nation to be overrun (vv12,13).
Israel being portrayed as a vine or vineyard is found in other Old Testament passages. For example, Isaiah 5:1-7 describes the tender care God pours out on His vineyard and His expectations of a crop of great fruit (vv1,2). However, this chosen and special vine produced only rotten fruit (v4). They failed to produce the fruit of justice and righteousness (v7) and so God judged His failed vine (vv5,6).
And this is the pattern through the Old Testament: Israel was God’s chosen vine but she failed to produce any good fruit and so was judged. The vine image spoke of the potential the nation had and the failure they achieved.
Back in Psalm 80 the psalmist pleads for his nation, God’s chosen vine. He urges God to ‘look down from heaven and see, and take care of this vine’ (v14b). He calls on God not to abandon His chosen vine forever but instead to restore the vine and tend it once more. And yet he knows, deep down, that the chosen vine of Israel has become the failed vine of Israel. He is aware that the careful, loving tending of the vine by God simply highlighted the pervasive corruption of the nation. Time and again God reached out with care and love, and time and again He was rejected and rebuffed. The potential fruit never transpired. All the vine produced was damaged, rotten, worthless fruit.
But, as always with God, failure does not have to be the end of the story!
The image of the vine is not just one of unfulfilled potential leading to abandonment and destruction. The psalmist knows that God will not abandon His prize. However far His vine has failed, He will provide a way for restoration to happen, and towards the end of the psalm hope appears. This hope is in the form of the ‘man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself’ (v17). Salvation IS coming. Restoration of the vine IS possible. Despite the failings of this treasured vine, despite the lack of fruit, despite the corruption and rebellion, there is coming a son of man who will make restoration possible.
The son of man who will appear will follow the same pattern as the chosen vine. He will be taken out of Egypt and planted in a promised land and will produce the fruit of justice and righteousness that God’s wants to see.
The psalmist prophetically sees that a day is coming when the failed vine will find restoration. He sees that there will be a day when God’s face will again shine on the nation. There will be a time when salvation will come to the people. There will come a time when the fruit of the vine will fill the whole earth (see also Isaiah 27:6).
One day, this son of man will come.
And one day the son of man, Jesus, will declare, ‘I am the true vine’ (John 15:1).
One day God’s people will again be planted in good soil and flourish as part of the true vine.
One day failure will be overcome.
I was drawn to look at the vine imagery in Psalm 80 as I prepared to preach on Jesus’ statement ‘I am the true vine’. If you are interested, the talk can be accessed here.