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Reflections During Advent Week IV

A Psalm of Lament

Psalm 80:3 (repeated in verses 7 & 19): Restore us, O Lord God of Hosts; show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.

One of the things I love about the Psalms is their expression of a range of human emotions. Whether you’re mad, sad, glad, or afraid, there’s something in them for you. Sometimes people joke about our Virginia weather, saying that if you don’t like it, wait ten minutes and it will change. The same could be said of the Psalms. If you are not attuned to the feelings in any given psalm, keep reading. It won’t be too long before you find a match.

This week’s psalm flips the exultant, grateful mood of last week’s psalm on its head. Whereas Psalm 145 reveled in God’s giving of food to the hungry and lifting up of those who are bowed down, Psalm 80 laments the fact that it is the people of God themselves who have been brought low, fed with the bread of tears, scorned by their neighbors, mocked by their enemies. Again and again, the psalmist repeats a plea: “Restore us, O Lord God of Hosts; show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.”

Typically, the psalms of lament found in the Hebrew Bible fall into two categories, individual and communal. Probably most of us have individual grievances regarding things we wish God could, or would, restore—health, a job or relationship, the special glow of a Christmas past. We may feel all the more aggrieved if we have consumed too many carefully curated Facebook posts or overdosed on festive scenes in glossy magazines or taken certain advertisements too seriously. Of course, it is entirely appropriate to admit our private sadness and sense of loss to the God who created and understands us, and to ask for comfort and strength. Many psalms do just that. Our individual grievances, however, are not what Psalm 80 is about.

Psalm 80 is rather a communal lament that grieves the community’s loss—particularly the community’s loss of God’s favor and protection. “How long will you be angry with your peoples’ prayers?” it asks God. Three times it begs, “Restore us, O Lord God of Hosts; show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” Like Psalm 72, Psalm 80 invites us to consider biblical civics for, as the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, the function of a communal lament is to “permit us to remember that we are indeed public citizens and creatures [who] have an immediate, direct, and personal stake in public events.” Brueggemann argues that in order to understand and pray these psalms, we must “think through the public sense of loss and hurt and rage that we all have in common.”[1]

To think through our common loss, hurt, and rage may seem an odd project for the Advent journey. Wouldn’t we rather focus on love, peace, good will? But to lament the threats to the things we most value as a community is the project to which Psalm 80 calls us.

In these few remaining days before Christmas, spend a few minutes with Psalm 80:1–7, 17-19 ( What are the precious things in your community that are under threat? If you are keeping an Advent journal, make a list, and then write your own psalm of lament. Brueggemann again: “It is stunning to think that prayer of this kind might indeed be the point of entry into the larger world of faith, where the Lord of the nations governs.”1 How might your lament be such a point of entry for you?

[1] From “The Message of the Psalms” by W. Brueggemann, 1984, p. 68.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Männerstimmen Basel (Men’s Voices, Basel)

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