He the Vine, We the Branches

As we meditate on this psalm, we pray as the Church with all its struggles and challenges, its tensions and oppositions, both within and without.

Sep 04, 2021

By Msgr James Gnanapiragasa
Some have wondered how to pray the psalms when the situation of the psalmist does not apply to them. This is a common question. Since we are dealing with the psalms of supplication or lament, it is timely that we try to see what is the best way of praying a psalm where the psalmist requests a healing, a forgiveness for sin or even redress from being falsely accused. The Christian who prays may not be in a similar impasse at that particular time.

Psalms of Lament can be either individual or collective. When a psalm uses the subject ‘I’ we take it as an individual’s supplication, and when words like ‘we’ or ‘us’ are used we say that it is a collective or communal psalm. However, we realise that psalms are recited or sung within the liturgy which, by definition, means public work or worship. Therefore, even the first person ‘I’ or ‘me’ only places a leper or an innocent person unjustly accused to dramatize the supplication of Israel. This means that when we pray a psalm we are praying in the name of a community. We pray for and with persons or a society that may be facing the situation as described in the psalm.

Psalms of Supplication (3) Psalm 79 (80) Week 2 Thursday Morning Prayer.

Historically this psalm may be situated after the fall of the northern kingdom (Samaria) in 721 BCE, since Ephraim and Manasseh, the two strongest tribes in the north, are mentioned. Some would rather situate it after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE when the destruction was total. It is a collective lament by a community crying out, “bring us back” or as we may say, “renew the covenant with us”.

The psalm begins with an appeal to the Lord, who is called the shepherd of Israel, the one who leads Joseph’s flock. Joseph was the father of Manasseh and Ephraim. In ancient times, kings or leaders were also called shepherds. The Bible uses the term shepherds to designate the leaders who should have guided the people in integrity. In Ezekiel 34:11ff., Yahweh declares that He Himself will be the shepherd and will lead His flock, His people. He is the God who will be concerned for His sheep. He sits on the Ark, winged by the Cherubim on the mercy seat. The second image in the psalm is the vine (Verses 8-16). The prophet Isaiah uses it as a symbol for Israel, Isaiah 5:1-7. This symbol was used on the coin of the Maccabees. The psalmist now uses this image as a motive for his plea to God who had done so much for this vine and now has allowed it to be trampled and destroyed by man and beast alike. He appeals to Yahweh’s honour not to allow this vine to be ravaged by enemies. Show your hand on Israel (= ‘man you have chosen”) once again and we will repent and never sin against you again (Verses. 17-18).

Finally, the refrain (Verses 3,7,19) appeals to God to let his face shine, an expression which recalls the Aaronic blessing in Numbers 6:24-26. This expression stands in brutal contrast to the ‘frown of your face’ by which the enemies should perish (Verse 16).

After all, God is the God of Hosts, God of the heavenly armies. He is powerful enough to overcome their adversaries.

Jesus said, “I am the true vine”. He was ready to take up the community of Israel unto himself. He begins to complete in himself the mystery of Israel’s suffering. He was willing to undergo suffering for the sake of the new Israel, the Church. When Christ prayed this psalm, he identified himself with suffering humanity. The Church which he established was to be his sacrament, the sign of his kingdom in the world.

As we meditate on this psalm, we pray as the Church with all its struggles and challenges, its tensions and oppositions, both within and without. The struggle for independence and justice goes on unceasingly in the world which has seen more and more bloodshed and devastation in recent years. Our prayer has to be in solidarity with the rest of suffering mankind, whether far out in foreign lands or close within our own walls. We may also pray for our shepherds, civil and religious leaders, who should guide the flock so that the kingdom of God will become more present in our communities.

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