The Scripture for today is a challenging trio of passages. Psalm 80 raises a plaintive cry, charging that God has abandoned his people and calling for God to bring restoration. With the boldness typical of psalms of lament, the psalmist reminds God of His previous acts of providential care for Israel: God translated the vine Israel from Egypt into Canaan so that it would flourish where God had planted it. Now, God has rejected the vine, broken down its protection, and left it for the wild animals to plunder. In response to this unbearable situation, the psalmist calls on God to reconsider His actions and return to His posture of protection and care.
It is not hard to hear Jeremiah 6 as a negative response to this request. The vineyard imagery is repeated with a divine command to glean the remnant of Israel thoroughly (additionally, the village of Beth Hakkerem mentioned in 6:1 means “the house of the vineyard”). The time of judgment is not yet complete. In fact, the verse after the lectionary reading leaves off actually describes the prophet as “full of the wrath of God” and “weary of holding it in.”
Could the order be reversed? That is, could Jeremiah 6 provide the backstory to the plea for divine mercy in Psalm 80 rather than seem to serve as a negative answer to its plea? The narrative portions of the book of Jeremiah place his ministry during and after the Babylonian campaigns against Jerusalem. The psalms are often less clear as to the time of their composition, but Psalm 80:1–2 seems to speak to the northern kingdom (Israel—Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh), which were conquered by the Assyrians years before Judah fell to the Babylonians. It would seem that a sense of chronological order works against seeing Jeremiah 6 as the backstory to Psalm 80’s cry for grace.
Having said this, our own experience with the broad sweep of the Christian story prompts us to expect a positive divine response to such cries for mercy. We expect to hear Psalm 80 answered by God saying, “Yes, I will come to save you!” In this kind of reading, the lectionary should move from Psalm 80 to something like Isaiah 62 instead of Jeremiah 6. There, in Isaiah 62, ravagers no longer claim the fruit of the vineyard, and the savior comes. In addition, the lectionary should move toward John 15, where Jesus is the true vine and those who belong to him will bear fruit, or perhaps toward John 2, where Jesus turns water into wine. Instead, it lands on John 7:40–52, another challenging text. The savior has come, but people are still stuck on the idea that prophets do not come from Galilee. Thus, the lectionary (not-so-hopefully) makes the connection between the closed ears of rebellious Jerusalem in Jeremiah 6:10 and those who scorn Jesus as an illegitimate prophet in John 7:52, instead of drawing some more hopeful connection between a plea for grace and God’s gracious response. Today’s lectionary readings prevent us from moving quickly toward grace in the trials of life, even though the Messiah is right among us.
This is not the only way that any of these biblical texts could be put in conversation with other Scripture (this is the third pairing of Psalm 80 in three days). We might question the success of this pairing—I have already suggested alternatives. But, perhaps this stubborn intrabiblical conversation serves to keep us from cheapening the grace of God. It reminds us that God is not bound to offer grace to the disbelieving rebels, although He has done so time after time. It reminds us that God may also speak judgment to those who close their ears to His grace.
This is a troubling subtheme within the broad sweep of the Christian story—it prompts Paul’s reflections on the apparent failure of Israel to see its Messiah in Romans 9-11—but it serves to highlight the sovereignty of God. In grasping this truth, we ultimately trust that our sovereign God responds with grace to His people, not because He must, but because He chooses to do so.