Do me a favor and please read Psalm 80.
Why do bad things then happen when seemingly everything good has just occurred? How is it that God can show so much favor and give so much hope to a people only to have the carpet pulled out from them, his hand removed and his presence pulled back? Why is it that we can see all that is good and right and feel that it is taking place only to be knocked down, run over, and felt abandoned? Those are the questions and feelings that Asaph is working through. Abandonment, destruction, chaos…why did God allow this and where exactly ARE you God? Nothing new on these questions…we’ve seen them a lot and asked them a lot ourselves.
As to the time and place that Asaph wrote this – we aren’t too sure. Pre Babylonian exile? Post exile? Not quite sure and commentators are kind of split – but regardless of where we land on what was happening it’s abundantly clear that as Asaph looks around he sees nothing but destruction – and he’s at a loss. Are they not God’s chosen people? Is Israel not the flock of the living God? Why are we abandoned? Why is our temple destroyed? Where is our Shepherd?
I love the imagery we get in this psalm – and they’re images we see throughout scripture. The vine, being Israel, harkens back to Isaiah (5:1-7), Jeremiah (2:21), and Hosea (10:1-2); the glory of the Lord shining on his people gives us a beautiful reminder of God’s shiningly-glorious presence upon Moses when he came down the mountain after spending time with God (Ex 34:29); the saving work of the Lord…well, that’s throughout the whole book; feeding his people – and this time not with manna (as he did during those 40 years in the desert) but this time with tears are all words and images that we’ve read before and the people knew. All of this that Asaph uses as imagery is written into the DNA of the Hebrew people. Stories of old told to kids of young as to God’s saving grace and love upon his people that is now used as a litmus test (in a way). What was and could be…cradled with what is and hopefully not what will become.
Maybe it’s odd that I love the imagery of the hope that was that is now being used as the pain that is – but I don’t know how else to explain it. Their hope was built on the God who was and is and the promises he gave. He cut them out from all other nations and set them apart. He protected them time and time again from not only the demise of others but from their own hands too. To a people that lived into the past to explain the present now seeing the destruction of their beloved temple and city just didn’t make sense – and so the only way to cry out in lament was to do so with reflections of their past. Words of old, stories of old, understandings of God’s love being used to interweave with their pain today. But let us not forget that they knew why the destruction happened. They had been warned time and time again that they needed to remain God’s people and to follow him with every fiber of their being. They had been warned time and time again how to be in this relationship and that if they didn’t then God would simply pull back his protection and allow them to fully realize the pain that was out there. It’s a destruction that he doesn’t cause…but it’s a protection he gives. The people of Israel had God’s love and favor and took it for granted. Instead of working on that relationship, following those rules, loving in that capacity and way – they stopped. They took for granted God. They took for granted the relationship. They were warned, repeatedly warned, but didn’t heed those warnings. God’s warning was to obey and follow him or else succumb to who you truly are and the ways of the world.
We need to understand the reality of not only their situation but ours as well – that outside of God there simply is no life. Outside of God there is only destruction, evil and all things not good. That when we revert back to our “selves” we push away from love, goodness, and hope – because love, goodness, and hope only come from God and nowhere else. People are inherently evil due to sin running rampant through our lives. We read throughout scripture that due to sin we simply cannot do any good on our own (Gen 6:5; Job 14:4; Isa 53:6; John 3:3-5) and thus left to our own devices we revert back to sin. It is only by God’s work, grace, and love that we can live, love, and be loved. It is only because of God that we can be in a relationship with him and each other.
So what can we learn from this psalm? When I read scripture, and particularly the psalms, I look to learn and grow through experiences of other people in their relationship with God…allowing the authenticity of that relationship to come out. But here, in this psalm, I’m reminded of my true nature and just all God had done for his people and has done through Christ and the Holy Spirit. I’m reminded of truly what could happen when left to my own devices because we would live like the Israelites’s did but due to Christ that hand of protection, that saving work, will not be released. That when I read the hope Asaph had in God doing something so THEY wouldn’t turn away from God the reality, through the Holy Spirit, is that we WILL turn away and DO turn away but God doesn’t – and Christ never did either. That even when we turn God moves with us so that our movements don’t push him aside.