Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock. You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth!
Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up Your might and come to save us!
Restore us, O God; let Your face shine, that we may be saved!
O Yahweh God of hosts, how long will You be angry with Your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us an object of contention for our neighbours, and our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts; let Your face shine, that we may be saved!
The psalter, Asaph, calls out to God the Shepherd of Israel to “shine forth” and save him and the people of Israel. Twice he beseeches God to “restore us” and “let Your face shine,” that they may be saved. This metaphor of God shining His face on His people could be a reference to the Aaronic Benediction, “Yahweh bless you and keep you; Yahweh make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; Yahweh lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26).
For God to “shine His face” upon His people is a metaphorical way of saying, “God look with favour upon you.” Thus, Asaph is asking God to show His favour—His grace. We can also say His gracious attention, just as a person looks at you when you’re talking to them.
The reason for this petitioning is apparently some kind of suffering he and Israel were undergoing. The people of Israel did something to anger God, so He ignores their prayers (probably some form of apostasy, knowing Israel’s history with false gods and false religions). They are spending much time in mourning and their enemies oppress them and laugh at them. Their laughing is probably derisive, such as, “Where is their God if He is so great?”
So, Asaph does the only thing he can do in such suffering—he turns to God and prays for His favour and restoration. This is unlike anything we do in our own suffering. When we suffer, we ask God “why” and blame Him and grow angry with Him, demanding He justify Himself.
We ought to learn from the example of David and Asaph in their lamenting, who do not demand God’s self-justification. Instead, they recall who God is and trust in His mercy. In Psalm 10, David asks the “why” question, but he remembers who God is and His promise of salvation, and he trusts in this promise of God.
If we were to continue reading the rest of Psalm 80, we would find Asaph doing the same thing, only he asks not “why,” but “how long.” The psalters do this in their questioning because they are wholly cognisant of who their God is from His example in the Scriptures. Such as Deuteronomy 4:30-31:
“When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to Yahweh your God and obey His voice. For Yahweh your God is a merciful God. He will not leave you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers that He swore to them.”
O, that we would have the same faith as these psalters! In our own suffering, too often we say, “Why do You let me suffer? How dare You! You are a good God. If You were good, You would only allow good to happen to me! So, why do You let this bad thing happen to me? Explain Yourself! I demand an answer!”
What place do we, as worms, have to make such demands of the Almighty God? Such questioning and demanding of God is the mark of stupidity. Even Job, in his profound suffering, was not stupid enough to question God’s goodness, for, “‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away; blessed be the name of Yahweh” (Job 1:21). Like the psalter, we should trust in God’s promise; and like the centurion, we should trust the simple utterance of God’s Word (Matthew 8:5-13).
Our turning to God in our suffering, then, should not be in a position of pride, for then we will only find that our suffering will worsen. Rather, we should come to God in a position of humility. Sure, ask God “why” and “how long”—lament to your Father who loves you—but then do as these saints of old have done: Trust in God’s promise. Trust in His Word. God to His Word in the Scriptures and recall His promise and who He is—whom He has promised to be toward you for the sake of Christ.
God’s promise is to deliver you, even if you should suffer for a little while. For what significance is this momentary suffering when you have the promise of eternity with Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:1)?