Commentary on Psalms (42 - 89)
© by Francis Foulkes
& Cyril Okorocha



"1. Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
2. before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might, and come to save us!

3. Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

4. O LORD God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people's prayers?
5. You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
6. You make us the scorn of our neighbours;
our enemies laugh among themselves.

7. Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

8. You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
9. You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
10. The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
11. it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
12. Why then have you broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
13. The boar from the forest ravages it,
and all that move in the field feed on it.

14. Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
15. the stock that your right hand planted.
16. They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down;
may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.
17. But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
the one whom you made strong for yourself.
18. Then we will never turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call on your name.

19. Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved."

The story of Israel in the Old Testament is a story that often involved the unfaithfulness of the people, but it told constantly of God's saving love and help. Psalm 78 has recalled a good many parts of that story. This psalm tells another part. At the death of Solomon, the kingdom of Israel was divided (as we read in 1 Kings chapters 11 and 12). The northern tribes were no longer ruled by the Davidic line of kings, and under kings like Ahab they turned away from God. Those tribes became weaker and weaker and finally fell to the Assyrians in 721 B.C. This may be the time of the writing of this psalm, when Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh (verse 2) were in trouble. At least the time when the psalm was written was a time when the people had turned from God, and it seemed that God had turned away from them. A helpful method of studying this psalm is to see three ways in which God is described in relation to Israel.


Earlier in the Psalms God has been spoken of as Shepherd (23:1), and Israel has been called God's flock. The psalmist in 77:20 has said, "you led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron" (see also 78:52). They could feel grateful that God had led them, provided for them, brought them back when they strayed, as a shepherd would do for his sheep. So this psalm begins with a prayer to the "Shepherd of Israel".


The main way of speaking of Israel in this psalm, however, is as God's vine, and the Lord is responsible for the vine as the gardener or vineyard-keeper. Israel was as a vine that God brought out of Egypt. Land was prepared for them, and they were planted in it. The vine put down roots and grew to fill the land. Verse 11 says that it spread from "the sea" (the Mediterranean Sea) to "the River" (the River Euphrates). But now what had happened was like the walls of the vineyard being broken down. Anyone from round about could pluck its fruit. Verse 13 speaks of wild pigs destroying it ("the boar from the forest"), a vivid picture of what foreign invaders did to Israel's land. So the people prayed, "Turn to us, Almighty God! Look down from heaven at us; come and save your people! Come and save this grapevine that you planted, this young vine you made grow so strong!" (verses 14-15, Good News Bible).

Holy God

In the wilderness and in the early period of Israel's occupation of Palestine, the people had the tabernacle or tent of witness, and then in Solomon's time the temple was built. In the most holy place where the ark of the covenant was kept, God's presence was specially felt, and there the winged cherubim were represented as upholding the unseen throne of God. So verse 1 speaks of God as the one "enthroned upon the cherubim". The presence of God was as light. It was like the shining of God's face. The prayer of the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:25 was, "The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you". This was the prayer of the people in this psalm, but they felt that God's face was no longer shining towards them. Instead he was angry with his people's prayers (verse 4). They were suffering because they had turned from his ways. They felt that tears were their food and drink (verse 5), and their enemies had been allowed to overpower them and despise them (verse 6). So they had one prayer above all others, "Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved" (verses 3, 7 and 19). That refrain sums up the psalm. With it went an urgent prayer, "give us life", and the promise, "then we will never turn back from you" (verse 18), a promise that is easier to make than to keep.

Meditation God's word is always, "Return to me --- and I will return to you" (Zechariah 1:3). "Draw near to God and he will draw near to you" (James 4:8). How do we respond to such invitations?

For further thought and study

a. What similar lessons to those of this psalm are there in the parables of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7 and Mark 12:1-12?

b. What do the words of verse 17 mean, "the one whom you made strong for yourself"? as applied to Israel, and to Christian people today, See also Isaiah 43:21. Notes

1. The heading speaks of this as another psalm of the Asaph collection. "Lilies" is probably a tune name as we have seen in Note 1 on Psalm 45. "Covenant" may be mentioned in the heading because what is said in the psalm relates to Israel as the covenant people of God.

2. In the Old Testament Benjamin is sometimes linked with the southern tribe of Judah, sometimes with the northern tribes. Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh may be mentioned together because of the way that they stood together in the arrangement of the tribes according to Numbers 2:18-24.

3. In some parts of the world, where grapes are not grown and there are no fruiting vines, it is difficult for people to understand the full force of Israel being spoken of as God's vine. The grape vine has deep roots, spreads out widely, and if it is a good vine, it has fruit that is beautiful to eat and valued for making wine.

4. "The one at your right hand" (verse 17) could refer to Israel as a people who were given their special relationship with God, or it could refer to the king as the Lord's anointed. It is also possible that it refers to Benjamin as the name Benjamin means "son of the right hand" (Genesis 35:18); this would give the whole psalm a special connection with what happened to the tribe of Benjamin.