1Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a flock; thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth. 2Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh stir up thy strength, and come and save us. 3Turn us again, O God, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.
This Psalm is so rich theologically. Asaph begins by calling to God, using the metaphor of "giv[ing] ear." God, of course, has no ears; it is just an anthropomorphism asking God to listen.
Notice that Asaph identifies the Shepherd with God by stating that the Shepherd dwells between the cherubim (or cherubims, if you prefer the KJV spelling). The invisible God, dwelling in a cloud, unseeable and not represented with imagery: he is the Shepherd of Israel. The New Testament makes it clear that this same Shepherd is Jesus.
What is interesting is that Asaph appeals to the strength of Shepherd. He asks him to "stir up" his strength. The image is that the Shepherd will make use of the strength at his disposal. Asaph's request is simple: "Save us."
To this simple request, Asaph appends an explanatory refrain "Turn us again, O God, and cause thy face to shine, and we shall be saved." It's an almost syllogistic refrain:
1) If God turns us to Him; and
2) If God shines on us, then
3) We will be saved.
Notice how Christocentric Asaph's prayer is: it is not "offer us salvation and we will gladly take it." No, Asaph begs for salvation, even begging to be turned. This simple segment of the prayer is the (1) in the syllogism.
4O LORD God of hosts, how long wilt thou be angry against the prayer of thy people? 5Thou feedest them with the bread of tears; and givest them tears to drink in great measure. 6Thou makest us a strife unto our neighbours: and our enemies laugh among themselves. 7Turn us again, O God of hosts, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.
Now, Asaph turns to (2), the shining of God upon them. Here they have turned, they are praying, but God has not yet showed mercy to them. Instead, they are still suffering under discipline/punishment. Asaph's appeal here is one of begging for pity. Asaph does not demand that God stop punishing immediately. Instead, Asaph humble asks how long this punishment will last, and points out that the punishment is continuing.
8Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt: thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it. 9Thou preparedst room before it, and didst cause it to take deep root, and it filled the land. 10The hills were covered with the shadow of it, and the boughs thereof were like the goodly cedars. 11She sent out her boughs unto the sea, and her branches unto the river. 12Why hast thou then broken down her hedges, so that all they which pass by the way do pluck her? 13The boar out of the wood doth waste it, and the wild beast of the field doth devour it. 14Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts: look down from heaven, and behold, and visit this vine; 15And the vineyard which thy right hand hath planted, and the branch that thou madest strong for thyself. 16It is burned with fire, it is cut down: they perish at the rebuke of thy countenance. 17Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand, upon the son of man whom thou madest strong for thyself. 18So will not we go back from thee: quicken us, and we will call upon thy name. 19Turn us again, O LORD God of hosts, cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.
Finally Asaph puts 1 and 2 together begging for 3. Asaph asks God, in essence, to have mercy appealling not to any right of the people of God, but to God's own purpose. Asaph reminds God that he brought the vine up out of Egypt. The immediate reference here is the nation of Israel, which was brought up from Egypt and planted in Canaan (the Canaanites being ejected by genocide). Asaph reminds God of how Israel flourished, but is now in ruins. Asaph asks God to "look down," not as though God has not seen (for Asaph acknowledges that the people are perishing at the "countenance" of God), but to have pity.
But the vine is also Christ, who was brought up from Egypt and raised in Canaan, but then persecuted to death. Yet, God shone his countenance and raised Christ ("the son of man") from the dead.
And of course, we are united with Christ, as the branches of the vine. We died with him (as Baptism reminds us) and will be raised with Him.
Notice the language that Asaph uses: "Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand, upon the son of man whom thou madest strong for thyself." For Asaph it is all about the activity ("hand ... madest") of God for his own glory ("for thyself").
So to, Asaph ascribes the whole accomplishment to God: "So will not we go back from thee: quicken us, and we will call upon thy name." That is to say: Regenerate us, and we will call on you. It is the message of Scripture and the message of Calvinism: God regenerates and we worship Him. It is God who turns us to Him - it is God who regenerates us for His own glory. It is God who does the work of salvation from beginning to end. If we are saved, so that we will not perish, it is from Him from start to finish.
It is the prayer not only of the nation in distress, but it should be your prayer, dear reader, if you fear judgment for sin.
"Turn us again, be merciful to us, and we will be saved." Christ is sufficient. Praise be to the Shepherd!