The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father Boylan’s Introduction to Psalm 80

Posted by Dim Bulb on July 8, 2012

Note: Father Boylan is of the opinion that this psalm was composed sometime between the Babylonian Exile and the Restoration at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah; one of several theories. For myself, I think either of the two following theories are more likely:

  1. The psalm was composed sometime between Assyria’s annexation of much of the northern kingdom of Israel in 733/32 BC (2 Kings 15:29), and the destruction of that kingdom by Assyria in 722/21 BC (2 Kings 17). The reader should remember that after the death of Solomon, circa 922 BC, the Kingdom of David was split in two, with ten of the twelve tribes forming a new kingdom which retained the name “Israel,” while the kingdom under the davidic line became known as “Judah.” 
  2. The psalm was composed during the reform of the davidic King Josiah of Jerusalem (circa 628 BC). Josiah was able to incorporate some of the people of the kingdom of Israel-those who had not been exiled-and some of its territory into the kingdom of Judah (2 Chron 34:1-7).

I’ve changed the verse numbering employed by Fr. Boylan (which was employed by the Douay-Rheims and the NAB) and have followed that of the RSV for the purpose of establishing links to scriptural references. Those consulting the DR, the NAB, or other versions which follow the Hebrew numbering, should be aware that the verses in these translation are one ahead of other versions which follow the LXX numbering (e.g., the second strophe of Ps 80 in the NAB is verses 5-8; in the RSV it is 4-7).

THIS psalm was evidently composed in a time of great national trouble (1), probably during the period that intervened between the return from the Exile and the Restoration. There is no strong reason for assigning it, with many modern critics, to the Maccabean period. The comparison of the Lord with a shepherd may have led to the placing of this poem immediately after Ps 79 (2). The poem begins with a prayer that the Shepherd, and Warrior-God of Israel may place Himself again, as in the olden days, at the head of the Josephite tribes and of Benjamin. God is asked to turn again in friendship towards His people, to rouse again His warrior-strength, and to rescue Judah (if it is Judah that speaks) from its troubles.

In the second strophe (Ps 80:4-7) God is besought not to be angry, at all events, when His people pray to Him. Hitherto their prayers have not mitigated His wrath, and His people have eaten and drunk of tears. The neighbouring nations mock at the helpless Israelites, and quarrel among each other as to who shall have the easily looted belongings of Judah (a situation resembling that which arose after the Fall of Jerusalem in 586). In the third strophe (Ps 80:8-13) the poet continues his complaint over the lot of his people. Israel, the Vine of Yahweh, was lovingly tended by Him in the past. It spread in luxurious growth over all the land of Canaan, reaching even to the desert hills of the distant south, and entwining itself round the cedars of God on Lebanon, and stretching its tendrils to the Mediterranean on the west, and to the great river, the Euphrates, on the east. But Yahweh has pulled down the fence of His vineyard, and has given it over to the wild beasts of the forest. In the last strophe (Ps 80:14-19) the poet insists on the thought that the vine of Israel is God’s own special planting. Yet that vine has been uprooted, and must surely perish if the Lord does not intervene. It cannot live without the support of the right hand which has planted it.

Passing from the symbol of the vine to the people whom it symbolises the psalmist begs the care and protection of the Lord for the “Man of his right hand”—Israel whom the Lord has raised up as His own child. The customary vow of loyalty and praise, and another repetition of the refrain bring the psalm to a close.

Psalm 80 shows points of close resemblance with Ps 78. The imagery of the ravaged vineyard appears again in Ps 89:41-41. It is not necessary, however, to suppose that the writer of Ps 89 borrowed from Ps 80. The comparison of Israel with a vine, or vineyard, was a commonplace of Hebrew literature Cf. Isa 3:14; Isa 5:1-7; Gen 49:22; Hosea 10:1; Jer 2:21. Some modem commentators have found in the “Man of the right hand” a Messianic reference, and see in the enumeration of the ideal borders of Israel another Messianic feature. The refrain, too, has been regarded by these writers as distinctly Messianic in its form. It would not be unreasonable to expect that a prayer for the restoration of the glory of Judah should contain features suggestive of the Messianic restoration of all things—particularly when we remember that the Messianic glory was itself imagined, to a large extent, as a restoration of the glories of the Hebrew Empire of David’s day.

NOTES:

1.  Modern scholars categorize this psalm as a national (or communal) lament (see here,page 2).

2. Shepherd imagery applied to God is found in the three psalms immediately preceding Ps 80. Implied in Ps 77:20 (21 in NAB); Ps 78:52; Ps 79:13.

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2 Responses to “Father Boylan’s Introduction to Psalm 80”

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