Psalm 80 contains an extended metaphor that I want to explore. Beginning in verse 8 God’s people are a grape-vine. God dug them up in Egypt, carried them to Canaan and transplanted them. To do this God drove out the nations. (The modern term for this is ethnic cleansing. But note that God does the same thing to his own people in the eighth century. He reversed himself, uprooted the northern tribes, and replaced them with the nations. This psalm laments this impending reverse ethnic cleansing.)
Like the image in verse 1 of God as a shepherd leading his flock, this image of Israel as a vine presents God as a gentle caretaker. Like a nurseryman who carefully handles a plant to make sure that the transplant takes root, so is God with Israel. When the plant gets established it grows to great size. Verse 11 speaks of the expansion under kings David, Solomon and, probably Omri. Their territory extended from the Mediterranean in the west to the Euphrates River in the east. It was like a prolific vine that took over its own space and more.
But now the days of growth have ended. The days of the great kings lie in the past. Now Israel is like a vineyard lying in ruins. Trespassing strangers pick its fruit. Unclean wild pigs crash around smashing the vines. Crawly things infest it. (Verses 12-13)
The psalmist asks why God has allowed this. After all the care God took to establish the vine, why has God now allowed enemies to come and even set the vineyard on fire?
The psalm composer doesn’t understand, but he prays. Just as he has prayed that God will “let his face shine” on Israel, now he prays that the enemies will perish because of “the rebuke of your face” (verse 17–literal Hebrew). He seems to have reached the bargaining stage of grief. He promises God that if God will support Israel, then Israel will stop turning away and pray to God (verses 17-18).
God did not accept this bargain. To find out what happened, read 2 Kings 17. Isaiah, writing a little later in the south, picked up the word-picture of Israel as a vineyard. In Isaiah 5:1-7 he speaks of God’s decision to let his vineyard get trampled down and ruined. But Isaiah defends the justice of what God did to Israel and will do to Judah.
“For the vineyard of the LORD of armies is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah the plant of his delight: and he looked for justice, and behold, murder; for righteousness, and behold, a cry for help.” Isaiah 5:7
According to Isaiah, it was not enough to cry for help, as the Asaph psalmists did, and surely also the false, persecuting priests at the official shrines. God wanted to see a different harvest from his vineyard. When it produced mostly toxic fruit, he let it go, even though it was his heart’s delight.