Psalm 80

The psalm for the day in our worship service this morning was Psalm 80. The version we read from in our church bulletin seems to be an earlier edition of the NRSV, one with capitalized letters beginning names, pronouns, and relative pronouns referring to deity. As we read the psalm this morning I noted several wordings in the translation which struck my ears (yours may not be so struck) as odd, different from what I think is normally considered contemporary English, which is read and spoken by a majority of native English speakers today. In the text which follows I italicize the wordings which seemed odd to my ears. I insert my reactions to the italicized wordings between verses. I boldface the text of the psalm so it contrasts with my own comments:

1. Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth

I only know what “give ear” means because I grew up on the KJV. I doubt that our children (all college graduates who read well), who did not grow up on any version in KJV tradition, would know what “give ear” means. I don’t think any native speaker of English today would say “give ear” when they intend to express the meaning of “listen.”

2. before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!

I don’t know what “stir up your might” means.

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

I know what it means when we say that someone’s face is shining. But I don’t know if that is what the psalmist is asking God to do with his face. And I surely don’t know what connection a shining face would have with salvation.

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.

I’m sure the “the bread of tears” was a vivid metaphor in Hebrew, but it conveys little meaning to me, as an English speaker, other than that it has something to do with crying.

6. You make us the scorn of our neighbors; 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.

I think that someone’s countenance has to do with what their face looks like. I don’t understand how someone’s facial appearance can be a rebuke to anyone.

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.

12 thoughts on “Psalm 80

  1. Bob MacDonald says:

    Try my latest translation here – I’d copy it inline but too many columns. I of course don’t go for natural English as you know.

    I did translate face as presence everywhere in this psalm because I think the recurrence is important and that we should hear such recurrence in translation. Five new recurring words occur here in the Hebrew text of the psalter for the first time. One of them is tears, another shine – so whatever you want to do with them they should be clear in their newness. They are all apt for this difficult trouble for the psalmist.

    It is in the place of the lilies – that is a love motif – and the presence/face/countenance is the salvation issue in a word. Where God is there is salvation.

    Bread of tears is powerful in English. I was pretty colloquial in my parallel for this – stylistically out of place.

  2. John Hobbins says:

    Hi Wayne,

    You forgot to identify the boar in the Psalm. That’s a trivia question for church history buffs. We’ll see if anyone gets it in the comment thread.

    Why doesn’t anyone smile in the Bible? That’s because of the tradition of translating word-for-word. It is not the smile per se, but the beaming face of someone who is (also, often) smiling, that is highlighted in the diction of many if not all ANE languages. I wonder how many people get the concrete reference when they read, “May his face shine upon you.”

    I discuss the matter a bit here:

  3. Theophrastus says:

    Wayne: how would you preserve parallelism in verse 5 if you removed the metaphor “bread of tears”?

    My goodness, this is Hebrew poetry — can we at least preserve some poetic forms such as parallelism?

    Is this English Psalm 80 really less clear than what we read for poetry today? Consider, for example, T. S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men”? (Because it is short, one of his most famous poems, and deals in part with Biblical themes. You’ll recall that Eliot won the Nobel Prize for Literature.)

    As you’ll see, it takes some work to read Eliot. Can it also take some work to read Psalm 80?


    Mistah Kurtz — he dead.

    A penny for the Old Guy


    We are the hollow men
    We are the stuffed men
    Leaning together
    Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
    Our dried voices, when
    We whisper together
    Are quiet and meaningless
    As wind in dry grass
    Or rats’ feet over broken glass
    In our dry cellar

    Shape without form, shade without colour,
    Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

    Those who have crossed
    With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
    Remember us — if at all — not as lost
    Violent souls, but only
    As the hollow men
    The stuffed men.


    Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
    In death’s dream kingdom
    These do not appear:
    There, the eyes are
    Sunlight on a broken column
    There, is a tree swinging
    And voices are
    In the wind’s singing
    More distant and more solemn
    Than a fading star.

    Let me be no nearer
    In death’s dream kingdom
    Let me also wear
    Such deliberate disguises
    Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
    In a field
    Behaving as the wind behaves
    No nearer —

    Not that final meeting
    In the twilight kingdom


    This is the dead land
    This is cactus land
    Here the stone images
    Are raised, here they receive
    The supplication of a dead man’s hand
    Under the twinkle of a fading star.

    Is it like this
    In death’s other kingdom
    Waking alone
    At the hour when we are
    Trembling with tenderness
    Lips that would kiss
    Form prayers to broken stone.


    The eyes are not here
    There are no eyes here
    In this valley of dying stars
    In this hollow valley
    This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

    In this last of meeting places
    We grope together
    And avoid speech
    Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

    Sightless, unless
    The eyes reappear
    As the perpetual star
    Multifoliate rose
    Of death’s twilight kingdom
    The hope only
    Of empty men.


    Here we go round the prickly pear
    Prickly pear prickly pear
    Here we go round the prickly pear
    At five o’clock in the morning.

    Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow

    For Thine is the Kingdom

    Between the conception
    And the creation
    Between the emotion
    And the response
    Falls the Shadow

    Life is very long

    Between the desire
    And the spasm
    Between the potency
    And the existence
    Between the essence
    And the descent
    Falls the Shadow

    For Thine is the Kingdom

    For Thine is
    Life is
    For Thine is the

    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang but a whimper.

  4. ruben says:

    In my experience, literal translations have warped the message of scripture so much that I have a natural aversion to God – seeing Him as cruel, detached, “stuck in the past” etc. I could never have guessed that smiling was in Scripture, something so simple and beautiful!

  5. jkgayle says:

    As you’ll see, it takes some work to read Eliot. Can it also take some work to read Psalm 80?

    Eliot is wonderful here; and so are the Psalms. The poetry respectively has political force, whether the initial allusion to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (and what is that, a heart of darkness?) or to (what?) beginning associations with the sons and grandsons of Rachel (to the Rachel who weeps, for her children, whose successes involved bread for all the others?).

    The English reminds us also of the politics of Langston Hughes, poet. Here’s his poem, Pride:

    Let all who will
    Eat quietly the bread of shame.
    I cannot,
    Without complaining loud and long.
    Tasting its bitterness in my throat,
    And feeling to my very soul
    It’s wrong.
    For honest work
    You proffer me poor pay,
    for honest dreams
    Your spit is in my face,
    And so my fist is clenched
    To strike your face.

    What’s “bread of shame”? Striking imagery, no?

    But if we stay with bible themes, there are English poetic connections with Jesus in one of the sonnets of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman:

    Dank fens of cedar, hemlock-branches gray
    With tress and trail of mosses wringing-wet;
    Beds of the black pitch-pine in dead leaves set
    Whose wasted red has wasted to white away;
    Remnants of rain and droppings of decay,–
    Why hold ye so my heart, nor dimly let
    Through your deep leaves the light of yesterday,
    The faded glimmer of a sunshine set?
    Is it that in your darkness, shut from strife,
    The bread of tears becomes the bread of life?
    Far from the roar of day, beneath your boughs
    Fresh griefs beat tranquilly, and loves and vows
    Grow green in your gray shadows, dearer far
    Even than all lovely lights, and roses are?

    Do we also have to get rid of “bread of life” in the Bible? Is that ever easier in Greek or in English or in presumed spoken Hebrew Aramaic?

    Why does the Bible have to sound so funny? Or why does the poetry of the Bible have to sound so funny? This is what David Ker said here once:

    Another funny sounding thing here is the ‘bread of tears.'”

  6. WoundedEgo says:

    By the way, not many people read poetry because it is generally droll, boring stuff. But the world loves rap. Will Smith is a much better poet than most poets. In fact, the genre was invented by “The Last Poets.”

  7. Mike Sangrey says:

    Here’s a few thoughts/suggestions of how to deal with these translation issues.

    Give ear…: I think this one is easy. Listen up… works fine.

    Stir up your might…: I’m not sure what this means either. Is it a catchy phrase much like our “Get psyched!”? Does it mean, “be permeated with strength.”? I wonder if something like “fan the flames of your strength” might accurately convey the meaning.

    let your face shine: Beam your smile upon us.

    bread of tears: I don’t have too much of a problem understanding this one. However, English ‘bread’ doesn’t really capture the full meaning. I’d probably suggest tearful food and follow in verse 5 with a full cup of tears to drink though I might use the expression tearful drink instead since it would be more poetic.

    the rebuke of your countenance: This one is difficult. English doesn’t have words to describe the facial expression–the body language–associated with rebuke. Apparently, the Hebrew did. Given the word picture already introduced with “beam your smile”. Perhaps (poetically) rebuking heat of your frown. Though ‘frown’ doesn’t quite do it.

    I think with the Psalms one has to try to get at the complex meaning of the phrases, and then imitate that meaning in English poetry. It’s difficult since I think we need to package the meaning so that it is more emotive than rational.

  8. Gary Simmons says:

    The central problem is our cultural unfamiliarity with what it means to entreat a king. If a king smiles on you, he will lift your head up. If the king frowns on you, he will lift your head off. A king’s favor (on which your life depends!) is clearly written on his face (or at least spoken of as if it were so, since internal dispositions are referred to by the concrete expressions thereof).

    I think that on this comment thread, I’m probably just stating the obvious, but I want to mention it anyway. How do we deal with the issue of expressing meaning that is inseparably bound to a kingship motif within a world where there are no absolute monarchs?

    My answer, as usual, is footnote or explanation. I follow suit with Theophrastus (did I just say that?!) in saying that the Bible doesn’t always have to be clear and straightforward. Especially since it isn’t always clear and straightforward.

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