“Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand, upon the son of man whom thou madest strong for thyself” (Psalm 80:17).
Psalm 80 is written by Asaph. This is one of 12 Psalms written by this musical and liturgical leader appointed by David. Asaph’s identity is described in First Chronicles chapter 6 verses 31 through 48. In this place, we see that Asaph stood with his brother Heman. Asaph was part of the lineage of Levi, one of the 12 sons of Jacob, who was named “Israel,” by God. These were the sons of Isaac, the son of Abraham.
These genealogical distinctions are important because the Bible says it is so. After Israel returned from 70 years of Babylonian captivity, the author of First Chronicles, likely Ezra, reestablished the covenantal line so that the nation of Israel could go forward in confident continuity. Central to the self-identity of the nation of Israel was the right worship of Almighty God. And it is here where the Levites and the sons of Aaron are identified: the Levites concerned with the liturgical, musical, and physical care of the tabernacle, and later the temple. The sons of Aaron are concerned with the priestly activity between Israel and God.
So, Psalm 80 is what the German scholar Herman Gunkel called “a communal lament.” Charles Haddon Spurgeon would call these laments the “howling Psalms.” He drew this created phrase from the words of Asaph and his laments. Specifically, “How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?” That is Psalm 79, verse five. In our Psalm, Asaph, once again, demonstrates that this is a “howling Psalm,” as, in verse four, he writes, “O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers” In Psalm 82, Asaph again employs this unique petition, “how long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?”
I cite these “howling Psalms” because they indicate the unique ministry of Asaph in the Psalter. He represents the cry of those who feel left behind by God, oppressed, a victim of injustice — even in non-justice that is attributed to God himself by Asaph. So, these are very honest human petitions. There is no hiding the consternation, the exacerbation, or the frustration of the author on behalf of the people. Let us see how this works out in this particular Psalm: Psalm 80.
The title of this Psalm is of particular interest. The Psalm is given to the choirmaster according to, in the Hebrew, Shoshannim—”Lilies.” Then follows that it is “a testimony of Asaph, a Psalm. “Shoshannim” means lilies and could refer to either a particular tune, a particular musical instrument, or something else. It may even be connected with the word for testimony that is here, “eduth.” Several translations have connected the word for Lilies in the word for testimony so that the title reads, “the lilies of the covenant;” or “the lilies of the testament.” If this were so, the Psalm has, even more, meaning for this season of the year. But it was not for this reason only that Protestants and Roman Catholics begin to see the importance of Psalm 80 for inclusion in Psalms that anticipate the coming of Jesus and thus belong in a proper lectionary for the Advent season of the Church Year. This Psalm is a testimony of a leader in Israel who is crying out to Israel on behalf of gone to people.
Psalm 80 may be divided in this way:
There is a claim made to God and verses one and two. There is a cry – made three times — in verses three, seven, and verse 19. There is a complaint in verses four through six. Verse seven, again provides the refrain, which is a cry unto God for restoration and his blessing (“let your face shine”), so that Israel might be saved. The salvation could be the salvation during the Babylonian captivity or a deeper existential and spiritual sense of the word. It is, no doubt, both of the sentiments bound up into one very emotional cry. Then, their proceeds the contention. Asaph contends that the God who brought a “vine out of Egypt” and “drove out the nations and planted it.” It is a vine that has now become plucked up by evildoers, trodden over by “the bore from the forest,” ravaged, and in great need of replanting. The contention continues with the God himself must reestablish this vine that has been “burned… with fire.”
The redress is summed up in verses 17 and 18 as a correction to what the Psalmist feels is an injustice to Israel. Referring again to the possibility of the “Lily of the Covenant” title, or, if you prefer, merely, the “Testimony of Asaph,” the divinely-inspired composer believes that God is bound by his own word to address this inequality by divine interposition.
“But let your hand be on the man of your right hand, the Son of Man whom you have made strong for yourself! Then we shall not turn back from you; give us life, and we will call upon your name!”
This reparation—this correction — along with the very claim the people of God have upon God and his Word, that is the very covenant or testimony, is also connected by calling God “the Shepherd of Israel.”
The force of all of this, when taken against the further revelation of God and his Word, is to see that the “good Shepherd” of Israel, this “man on your right-hand,” and this “Son of Man” is the One who will come to restore His People; to save us, to give us life. The correction to the physical and spiritual captivity, the Mediator of the promise, the covenant, or if you prefer, the testimony, forms the climactic resolution of this “communal lament.”
I have only to say to you today that Asaph’s prayer, Israel’s Psalm, is fulfilled. And is being fulfilled. And shall be fulfilled in a more comprehensive cosmic fashion. The Babylonian captivity ended, and Israel was reestablished. However, the Theocratic nation-state was lost. By the time of the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, Israel was still in captivity, and the world itself was in darkness.
My claim this morning is to extend the “testimony of Asaph” in Psalm 80 to declare that Jesus of Nazareth is the “Son of Man” who has come. Indeed, God has revealed to the works through the preaching of His Word:
Jesus, our Lord, is the fulfillment of Psalm 80. Jesus is the divine response to the cry, “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts! Let your face shine, that we may be saved!” Christ is our salvation.
The Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ carries with it incalculable blessings that we may exposit from this remarkable portion of sacred text.
Let us attend to these blessings of salvation this morning with our praise and thanksgiving.
The first blessing of Psalm 80’s fulfillment is this:
- We are saved through Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd.
He is the one to whom the Psalmist cries. He appeals to God as “the Shepherd of Israel.” Our Lord Jesus identifies himself with this rich pastoral metaphor in John chapter 10.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11 ESV).
We are like Israel, in that, we, too, when we are honest enough to even speak to the Lord, might present our own “complaints.” No doubt, someone reading these words has her own have “contentions” with God about “the way things are.” But we must recognize that the injustices that we experience—that we feel—, the persecution of God’s people throughout the world today, the seeming ascendancy of wickedness, has now been redressed by God in the Person of Jesus the Good Shepherd. He shepherds us through such difficult times. Jesus shepherds us through the portal of death itself.
He tells us that he will never leave us nor forsake us. “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me’” (Hebrews 13:5,6)?
When I was a little boy, I used to go out into the woods and pretend that I was an explorer or a pioneer. One day, I walked so far out into the thick woods that I was lost. I wasn’t concerned until the shadows began to close-in upon me. The nocturnal creatures of the unknown forest began to move. They made sounds. “Is it a fox or is it . . . ?”. I felt like Hansel and Gretel, lost and unable to find my way home. The farther I ran, the deeper I went into the wood. Little did I know that my Aunt Eva had telephoned neighbors to begin a search for me. They apparently called out to me, but in my fear, and, perhaps, in my anxious, aimless movements, I did not hear them. Yet, at the darkest hour, as fear began to choke off hope, I heard the voice of the one that I loved and who loved me. I heard the voice of my Aunt Eva. In my mind I could see her, very much like “Auntie Em” in The Wizard of Oz, standing in the backyard, wringing her hands upon her apron, a portrait in worry, with our faithful old dog, Snooper, a mixed-breed collie, alert to danger. Snooper stood next to her, confused, concerned, and perhaps yelping a mournful sound in answer to Aunt Eva’s cries. But I heard. And I begin to make my way toward that voice and the howling. In what seemed to be only a few moments, her voice led me to an opening, a familiar meadow, that led to the well-traversed pathway to our rustic antebellum home. Her voice shepherded the lost boy back home.
I know of another voice, a voice sent from heaven, to lead us home. God, the “Shepherd of Israel,” has now appeared to his people. He is the Good Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ, whose voice signals our salvation: “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”
How many lost little boys and girls do we have gathered here today? The Lord Jesus Christ is presented to us in Psalm 80, in the ceremonial shadows of divine revelation, but fully in the Gospel narrative; of his birth and his appearing to us. The good news of the Gospel is that the Good Shepherd of Psalm 80 and John 10 is not only the one who came, is not only the one who is coming once more, but he is also the Good Shepherd who calls you now. Do you hear his voice? “I am too far into the woods!” You sigh. “No,” I content. “The Savior’s voice can be heard no matter how far away you have wandered.”
“And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps” (Revelation 14:2 NASB).
Then come to him by faith for your healing, your restoration, to find your way home.
Ah, but there is another Advent blessing concerning the One who will restore Israel and let his face shine upon them. For in Psalm 80 we see:
- We are saved through Jesus Christ, the Son of Man and the Son of God.
The One who is to be at the right hand of God in the One who is called the Son of Man is the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, Jesus identified himself as the Son of Man. He confessed that he came from the Father and that he would return to the Father. He told us that he would come again from heaven.
The “Son of Man” is a biblical phrase most often associated with the book of Daniel, as well as with the sayings of Jesus.
“I saw in the night visions and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him” Daniel 7:13).
The “Son of Man,” rather than being, as it might appear to some, a reference to his humanity, is, rather, a special designation given to his divinity as the Messiah. Within this designation comes also something that Asaph was very concerned about: the promises of God made to Israel. Jesus, as the Son of Man, represents the mediator of this new covenant. He is the One who brings to bear all of the promises of God to God’s covenant people. How did the Apostle Paul put it? He is the “yes” of God. He is the “amen of God” and all of his promises.
“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 1:20 NIV).
What this means to us is that our Good Shepherd is also the very God who made the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He has not only made the promise, He literally became the promise fulfilled. That is the meaning of this passage. And that is the meaning of Advent.
Jesus, our Lord, is the anticipated Good Shepherd and the Son of Man who will bring correction to the injustices — the complaints. He is also the one who will bring comfort to his people. But is Jesus Christ your Shepherd and the Mediator of the Covenant of Grace whom you have trusted in for your own life?
This morning, on this first Sunday in Advent, we are also approaching the Table of our Lord. The Son of Man, the great and Good Shepherd, bids us to come and look back to Mount Calvary and the great sacrifice that he made for us. We are called to remember that God answered the complaint of Asaph with his own person, his own blood, his own flesh at the hands of his own people. And thus, the conclusion of the study of this Psalm is the answer to the refrain, “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts! Let your face shine, that we may be saved! The answer is, “I will. I have. And I will do so in a fuller and more glorious way.”
On this First Sunday in Advent, it may be the time for you to receive Good Shepherd as your Lord and Savior. For others of us, it is it time to rededicate our lives to him. And yet, for others among us, it may be the beginning of the new season of hope: for we now see the truth of Advent, The Shepherd of Israel always keeps his promise. Trust. Listen to his voice. And you will find your way home.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Dr. Milton is the Provost and James Ragsdale Chair of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine Theological Seminary where he also serves as the Director of Chaplain Ministries, and President of the D. James Kennedy Institute of Reformed Leadership.
Milton’s life verse is from Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it unto the day of Jesus Christ.” Or, as Milton puts it in the title of his autobiography, “What God starts, God Completes.”