What does it mean for God’s face to shine upon you?
The 80th Psalm has a refrain. You find it in verses 3, 7, and 19, all of which say:
“Turn us again, O God.
Cause your face to shine,
That we may be saved.”
Actually the address of God intensifies each time. “O God” says verse 3. “O God of armies” says verse 7. “O LORD, God of armies” says verse 19.
The 80th Psalm’s refrain reflects the Aaronic benediction, which includes a prayer that God‘s face may shine upon you. Many people love this benediction of Aaron from Numbers 6:24-25. Morgan Freeman used it in his speech before the comet hits in Deep Impact.
In the movie, the part about God’s face shining on you was edited out.
In 1979 a tiny silver scroll was found in Israel with the blessing of Aaron inscribed on it. The scroll has been dated to the 7th century BCE. This makes it the oldest written piece of the Bible that we have. We have copies of older material, but this is something that was actually inscribed in the 7th century.
What does it mean for God’s face to shine upon you? It is not a statement about God’s anatomy. When God’s face turns toward you, he pays attention, looks with favor, and may help you. He is not turned away, ignoring you. Since the psalmist prays to the God of armies, and since he leads the congregation to ask God to stir up his might (v. 2), the prayer clearly seeks God’s intervention against enemies. One thinks of the old poem in Deuteronomy 33, where verse 2 says that when God came from Sinai, he dawned from Seir, and shone forth from Mount Paran. When God shines upon his people, help is on the way. Psalm 50, the first Asaph psalm says in verse 2 that God shines forth from his mountain.
Here in Psalm 80 the prayer rises to the God who is enthroned upon the cherubim (v. 1). This recalls the days when Israel sometimes marched into battle with the ark of the covenant. (See 1 Samuel 4:4)
Nowadays we think we have helped people when we have sympathized with them, when we have felt their pain. But the prayers of Israel were always to a God of action. Sometimes God didn’t act. But it wasn’t because he couldn’t.
Even many scholars who don’t see an 8th century Assyrian crisis setting for the other psalms of Asaph see it here. The listing of just 3 tribes in verse 2 points to the reign of King Hoshea, when Assyria had reduced Israel to just those tribes. This was a time of despair and foreboding for Israel, and makes a fitting setting for this Psalm.