For the director of music. To the tune of “The Lilies of the Covenant.” Of Asaph. A psalm.
1 Hear us, Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock.
Did you know that in the psalms God is referred to as the shepherd only twice? Seems surprising, doesn’t it? The first time is in the beloved Psalm 23 and we encounter the second occurrence here. The subjects in this psalm are deep in a sea of trouble. Their very lives are endangered, possibly by an Assyrian invasion. At such a time, it is wise to remember that we are but lambs in a world of wolves. All the lamb knows is to bleat and to run to its shepherd who feeds it, protects and defends it, houses it, walks it, plays with it, helps it, raises it, and loves it.
Jesus, our ultimate shepherd, said, “But they [my sheep] will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice… I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” John 10:5, 11, 14, 18.
When the sheep are in distress, they need not focus on their sources of trouble. Their only place of focus needs to be on the shepherd. If their eye is on the shepherd and he is close by, they can abide any enemy, any difficulty, any troubler. Look to your shepherd, beloved. Look not to the wolves, look not to the mountain lions, look not to big bullying sheep. Plant your eyes on Jesus, behold his calm, determined face. Find your rest in him alone. Only then can we say with Jacob, “this is my God who shepherded me all my life,” Gen. 48:15, Hallelujah!
You who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth
We refer not to the fertility gods, not to the weather gods, not to the prosperity gods, not to the moon or sun gods. There is only one shepherd of our souls. He sits. He does not pace frantically. He does not sleep. He sits – confident and able. In the tabernacle and in the reality of heaven he sat/sits between cherubim.
Wikipedia summarizes them well, their “faces peer out from the center of an array of four wings; these wings are joined to each other, two of these are stretched upward, and the other two cover their bodies. Under their wings are human hands; their legs are described as straight, and their feet like those of a calf, shining like polished brass. Between the creatures glowing coals that moved between them could be seen, their fire “went up and down”, and lightning burst forth from it. The cherubs also moved like flashes of lightning.” Their bodies are covered with eyes throughout. No wonder our passage today calls him to “shine forth” from between them.
The mighty cherubim overshadow the Mercy Seat and are not the chubby winged boys that our culture depicts them as. We first meet them guarding the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword. The Ark of the Covenant, a manifestation of God’s physical presence among the Israelites on the way to Canaan, was overshadowed by two of them. The prophet Ezekiel saw four of them bolstering God’s throne. God is described as “riding on the cherubim,” Ps. 18:10 and in our passage today, enthroned between the cherubim.
2 before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh. Awaken your might; come and save us.
These three tribes were stationed on the west side of the tabernacle in the wilderness and were first in line, following the Ark of the Covenant when it was time to break camp and move. They would have had visual proximity to its glory by being the closest to it.
3 Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.
This is repeated three times. It is an invocation from a place of destruction or dismay. In order to be restored, one has to be broken or damaged. It is an invocation to be rebuilt. It is an invocation that he would turn his countenance towards his subjects with favor and that would be all the renewal they would need. A fascinating research project exposes deep distress in a baby when mum still-faces (doesn’t respond) when the baby attempts to engage. Take a look:
As we saw with the shepherd, if he makes eye contact with the sheep, the latter can endure anything. If God’s face shines on us, we will surely be saved, no matter the foe. If he still-faces us, we are doomed. He wired us that way!
4 How long, Lord God Almighty, will your anger smolder against the prayers of your people?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have made them drink tears by the bowlful.
6 You have made us an object of derision to our neighbors, and our enemies mock us.
Restore us, God Almighty;
make your face shine on us,
that we may be saved.Ps. 80:3, 7, & 19
Despite copious tears from internal angst or mockery from the outside, if we keep our eyes on the Shepherd, we will be delivered and restored. He is not short on resources to rebuild what has been destroyed. Do not grieve what you have lost. Your creator God continues to create. He continues to “gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were,” Rom. 4:17. He brings water from a rock and makes a way where there seems to be no way. He can do anything!
8 You transplanted a vine from Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.
9 You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches.
11 Its branches reached as far as the Sea, its shoots as far as the River.
Creator God takes a vine cutting or start from Egypt and transplants it in Canaan after annihilating nations for it. It grows so grand that it overshadows mountains and mighty cedars, much like cherubim overshadow the Ark. If he can do that with a vine, what can he do with you?
12 Why have you broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick its grapes?
13 Boars from the forest ravage it, and insects from the fields feed on it.
14 Return to us, God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine,
15 the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself.
Though it grieves him tremendously because of his love for us, it is no great loss to God to ravage and tear down monumental things he has built. He can just turn around and build new ones. His pain comes from knowing that our disobedience hurts us. It creates a wedge between us and him. It impedes our fellowship with each other and our intercourse with him.
Note how personally Asaph implores God to guard the vine. He entreats based on the fact that God’s own right hand planted and established the vine. You are invested God, he seems to say. You raised this son this whole time, don’t cast him out now. For your own sake and your own glory. Yet we know that God does not need us. How blessed we are that he loves and wants us.
16 Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire; at your rebuke your people perish.
17 Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself.
18 Then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name.
Your vine. Your people. Your right hand. The son you raised up for yourself. It doesn’t get more personal than that. Finally, the wayward son gets his perspective right. In our disobedience, we think that everything is about us. That’s where we’re wrong. It is all about God, beloved. All. Always.
19 Restore us, Lord God Almighty;
make your face shine on us,
that we may be saved.