Dr. Timothy Tennent: Seeing Jesus in Psalm 80
When we think of great passages in the Psalms which find their climax and fulfillment in Jesus Christ, our minds quickly go to Psalm 22 (My God, My God, why have your forsaken me?) or to Psalm 118 (The Stone the builders rejected has become the Cornerstone). Psalm 2 and Psalm 110 might also come to mind because of their extensive quotation in the New Testament. But Psalm 80 deserves its place as one of the great messianic psalms in the Old Testament, even though you may never have preached on it. If you need a sermon to have in your back pocket for one of those weeks when you have two funerals and a wedding, then this article is ready to jump into your back pocket!
There are four key images which are used in this Psalm to describe God’s redemptive provision for his people: Shepherd, Vine, Son of Man at your Right Hand, and the “Face” of God.
The Psalm opens with the beautiful picture of God as the “shepherd of Israel” who leads His people “like a flock.” This is an amazing image which is unusual since much of the imagery of God in the Old Testament pictures God enthroned or His voice thundering over Mount Sinai. Here, we see a tenderness and intimacy which finds its greatest fulfillment in Jesus Christ who declares, “I am the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). There is no greater sign of God as shepherd than Jesus laying down his life for us and leading us from the barrenness of our sinful wilderness to the green pastures of new life in Him.
Psalm 80 also invokes the imagery of the vine. In the Psalm, the vine represents Israel which has been nourished by God. He brought the vine out of Egypt (vs. 8), and he planted it in a land where it could grow and flourish. Yet, the vine has been cut down and ravaged and burned through Israel’s disobedience. The Old Testament first embraces the idea that although Israel has sinned, there was a remnant who followed the Lord. However, gradually, the remnant became smaller until no one was left. There was none who were found faithful. It is another picture of the predicament we are in apart from God’s intervention. Finally, Jesus came into the world. He fully embodied Israel. He alone is the true and only Israelite who kept the covenant and loved God with all His heart and mind. It is as the true Israelite that He declares, “I am the true vine” (John 15:1). There is no hope for fruitfulness unless we, the branches, abide in Him. He alone is the source of our nourishment and life.
Psalm 80 goes on to hint at this great messianic hope when it declares that in the face of Israel’s tragic, lamentable state, their hope is that God would “rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself” (Psalm 80:17). Even the great kings of Israel who represented God’s “right hand” in the world, failed. It would be great David’s greater Son, Jesus Christ, who would stand as God’s man at his right hand, the “son of man” who would represent all of humanity in the incarnation. He becomes God’s great victor who exercises God’s kingly rule in the world.
Finally, Psalm 80 has a beautiful, reoccurring refrain which comes with slight variations in verses 3, 7 and 19. The one common thread in these refrains is the phrase “make your face to shine upon us.” You will immediately recall that this is drawn from that famous Aaronic prayer of blessing found in Numbers 6:24-26: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” The incarnation is that great knot which ties heaven and earth together. It is in Jesus Christ, the Incarnate One, that we truly and definitively see the “face of God” shining upon us.
Psalm 80 is filled with images which roll upon the reader, one after the other. Each one is rich in imagery and symbolism. Each one draws on dozens of texts in the Old Testament which would have been familiar to those early singers of this Psalm. But, we know that they could only see in part, what has now been made fully known in Jesus Christ. He is our Good Shepherd. He is the True Vine. He is the Son of Man who sits at the Father’s right hand. He is the Face of God which turns to us in the gospel and gives us the light of the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:4).