A famous hymn, often sung to a Welsh or Irish tune, celebrates God as our Shepherd: “The King of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never. I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever. Where streams of living water flow, my ransomed soul he leadeth; and where the verdant pastures grow, with food celestial feedeth.”
In today’s psalm, the entire prayer is framed by the comparison of God as Shepherd: “Hear us, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock.” In neighboring psalms, the title “Shepherd” refers particularly to God’s past guidance of His people through the wilderness to the promised land (see Ps. 77:20; 78:52).
Notice the contrast in verse one. God is described as a shepherd and then, in the second half of verse 1, as“You who sit enthroned between the cherubim.” This may seem puzzling, but in Ancient Near Eastern culture “shepherd” was also a metaphor for “king.” God is portrayed as both our loving and faithful shepherd and our just, powerful, sovereign, and glorious King.
God’s character provides many reasons for praise and petition. In Psalm 80, the main request is “restore us,” alongside the priestly blessing, “make your face shine on us” (repeated in vv. 3, 7, 19). To put this in historical context, Assyria had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. Even though the nation was now divided and Judah remained free, part of God’s people were enduring great suffering.
The psalmist prays that the entire nation will return to the Lord and receive His favor and blessing (v. 18). While at the time they were drinking “tears by the bowlful” (v. 5), they remembered how God had liberated them from slavery, provided for them in the wilderness, and prospered them in their new home (vv. 8–10).
>> Today’s psalm is one of a cluster that includes lots of sheep and shepherd imagery. If you have a bit of extra time this week, also read Psalms 74, 77, 78, and 79.