Psalm 80

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 80 and its interpreters.  I have three items.

1.  Psalm 80:1-2 says (in the King James Version): “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a flock; thou that dwellest [between] the cherubims, shine forth. Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh stir up thy strength, and come [and] save us.”

Why do these verses focus on Joseph and mention Ephraim and Manasseh, which were Northern tribes?  There have been a variety of explanations.  Some say that Psalm 80 is a Northern Psalm asking God to restore Northern Israel after her fall in 722 B.C.E.  Some say that Psalm 80 is a Judahite Psalm asking God to restore Northern Israel and presumably to unite her with Judah.  The context for such a Psalm, some scholars have argued, was Josiah’s attempt to make Northern Israel a part of his kingdom.

But then there’s the troublesome reference to the tribe of Benjamin alongside Ephraim and Manasseh.  Benjamin was a tribe that joined the Southern Kingdom, so why would it be mentioned in a discussion about the Northern Kingdom?  Again, there have been a variety of explanations.  One is that this part of the Psalm was written when Benjamin was still a part of the Northern Kingdom, which was before it joined the South shortly following the reign of Solomon.  In this scenario, Psalm 80 is a Psalm with different layers, one layer going back to a time way before the North fell in 722 B.C.E., and another layer coming after that time.  Another view is that Benjamin stands for the South, and there is a hope expressed in v 2 that God will restore all of Israel in a state of unity.  And then many have interpreted Psalm 80:2 in light of Numbers 2, where Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh all three camp together to the west of the Tabernacle, and the reason that they were put together was probably that they were all three considered to be sons of Rachel.  The idea in this view may be that Psalm 80 is hoping that God will intervene on Israel’s behalf, as in days of old.

I liked what the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary said on Psalm 80:1: that “Joseph” stands for all of Israel.  Why is this the case?  Rashi said that it was because Joseph preserved all of Israel during a time of famine, and Samson Raphael Hirsch affirms that it was because Joseph exemplified in his own life the loyal Jew, who is in a foreign land yet does not cave into foreign culture.

2.  Psalm 80:5 states: “Thou feedest them with the bread of tears; and givest them tears to drink in great measure.”  The word that the KJV translates as “in great measure” is shalish, which has to do with the number three.  Why is the number three being mentioned in this verse?  One idea is that we’re simply dealing with a unit of measurement.  Keil-Delitzsch state, for example, that a third of an ephah is a large amount for tears, and so the reference to shalish highlights how sad the Israelites really are.  And the Targum affirms that the meaning is that the Israelites have tears in triple measure.

The Midrash on the Psalms has an interesting interpretation of shalish in Psalm 80:5.  It relates it to the tears of Esau, which means that Esau either shed three tears or a third of a tear when he cried after Jacob had stolen his blessing (Genesis 27:38).  Rabbi Abin in the name of Rabbi Simlai says that God acknowledged Esau’s tears by making Esau the ruler of the earth, as the Roman empire is treated as Esau, or Edom.  If God acknowledged Esau’s tears, the argument runs, should not God also give heed to the tears of his people Israel?  I like the concept of God being sensitive to Esau’s tears, even though Esau was not part of God’s line of promise.

3.  Psalm 80:17 states: “Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand, upon the son of man [whom] thou madest strong for thyself.”  Who is the “son of man” in this verse?  Many scholars say that it’s the king, one reason being that Psalm 110 indicates that the king sits at God’s right hand.  Which king?  One view is that it’s a king from the Davidic line, and another view is that it’s Saul, who was from Benjamin (which means “son of right hand”, and notice that Psalm 80:17 mentions the “man of thy right hand”).  Those who believe it was Saul hold that Psalm 80 manifests layers from different time periods.  And then later Jewish interpretation tended to regard the son of man in Psalm 80 as the Messiah.

Marvin Tate, however, maintains that the son of man in Psalm 80 is Israel.  His reason is that Psalm 80:15 appears to equate a son with a vineyard, and the vineyard in Psalm 80 (and also many places in the Hebrew Bible) represents Israel.  The idea here may be that the Psalmist hopes that God will strengthen Israel, which is dependent on God in its humanity (to draw from ideas from Keil-Delitzsch).  Interestingly, even John MacArthur states that the son of man in Psalm 80:15 is Israel in terms of the verse’s primary meaning.  For thoughts on the son of man, see Truthceeker’s comments under my post here.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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