To the choirmaster: according to Lilies. A Testimony. Of Asaph, a Psalm.
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!
Would You Pray With Us Today?
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 an object of contention for our neighbors,
and 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,
and for the son whom you made strong for yourself.
16 They have burned it with fire; they have cut it down;
may they perish at the rebuke of your face!
17 But let your hand be on the man of your right hand,
the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself!
18 Then we shall not turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call upon your name!
19 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts!
Let your face shine, that we may be saved!
Reformed churches emphasize grace alone and faith alone, and criticize moralism and legalism. Yet in real life, Christians sometimes misuse these doctrines. As soon as they meet an ethical demand they dislike, they immediately protest that the demand is legalistic.
The heavenly pilgrimage is like a journey on a moving train. The law is the tracks, and grace is the spiritual power source. Without grace, those who run on the track of the law rely on external help. Eventually, we burn out and die. Without law, we abuse grace and become headless and directionless. We cause the train to leave its tracks and destroy both the train and those within it.
The Vine in the Vineyard
A pilgrim life is like a vine, and the vineyard is God’s church. The law is a fence around the vineyard, protecting the vine from wild animals. Grace nourishes the vine, keeping it lush and growing.
In Psalm 80, the psalmist, Asaph, uses the vine as a metaphor for God’s people. The vine was uprooted from Egypt (v. 8), then took “deep root and filled the land.” (v. 9) The territory of the vine grew larger and more prosperous than that of surrounding nations – but soon, the vine’s fate took a turn for the worse. God became angry with his people, because they did not obey his law, so he no longer listened to their prayers. “O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?” (v. 4)
God had saved his people from Egypt, and then gave them the law to preserve the purity of their faith. Instead, they repeatedly disobeyed him, worshiped idols, intermarried with Gentiles, and practiced spiritual adultery. Now God’s wrath was upon them, and the Gentiles were allowed to attack them. In sorrow, they cried out: “Why then have you broken downs its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?” (v. 12)
Sin is like wildfire, roaring and growing in the depths of the human heart. Who on earth can protect themselves forever and receive God’s eternal redemption? Humanity continues on in the same vein: Adam had to leave the garden, then later, Israel’s funeral was held in a vineyard.
Many commentators believe Psalm 80 was written in the context of Israel’s northern kingdom. The ten tribes of the north were captured by Assyria, eventually breaking up and completely disappearing from history. The atmosphere of this psalm is bleak and gloomy, full of tears and despair. Three times the psalmist cries out to God: “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts! Let your face shine, that we may be saved!” (vv. 3, 7, 19) He cries out, yet he finds no glimmer of hope. Let us give thanks, for this hope was realized in Jesus Christ.
In the New Testament, Jesus became man. He himself became the vine: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”
Jesus suffered and bore the weight of sin on our behalf. On our behalf, he also received the eternal preservation of God. The psalmist prayed: “But let your hand be on the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself!” (v. 17) Jesus is this Son of Man.
The Fence of the Law
The law is like a fence God put around his vineyard, symbolizing his all-encompassing keeping and care. Jesus did not abandon the law. He said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus is the true vine, and we are the branches. How dare we branches try to leave the shelter of the fence, when the vine itself is still planted within its protection?
To turn another metaphor, grace is union with Christ. As branches on the vine, we need to be always united to the vine of Christ. We must cling to the vine and be spiritually shepherded by Christ, freely riding in his heavenly carriage, taking full advantage of his eternal goodness.
Both grace and the law are good. We are not legalistic, because we are not saved by keeping the law, and because the fence itself – that is, the law – is a dead thing. It cannot give us the nutrition we need for growth. Still, we agree with the law, because as God’s children, we are considerate of his heart. We do not want to run outside his limits and thus grieve his Spirit.
Dear brothers and sisters, may Christ’s grace be precious in your sight. May you enjoy your days living within his limits, being united with Christ, and taking up your proper responsibilities in grace. Each saint ought to play their role well: as a husband, as a wife, as a child, as an employee or a worker. The angels, the world, and God himself are watching.
May we obey the director of this drama and cooperate with the main character of the show. May our obedience manifest the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ in this universe created by our God.
Liu Xifeng is a pseudonym for a preacher from an urban church in southwest China.