The author of the psalm prays to God for deliverance. In the first two verses, he describes God as the shepherd of his people, who leads them forward. At the same time, he recognises that God is sovereign ruler of his people (his throne was the mercy seat inside the holy of holies in the temple). The psalmist then calls Israel by the names of the sons who came from Rachel: he mentions her children (Joseph and Benjamin) and her grandchildren (Ephraim and Manasseh). Perhaps he mentions them because great promises were made about their descendants in Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33:12-17. Jacob had said that Joseph would become a fruitful vine (Gen. 49:22), and the imagery of Israel as a vine is mentioned in this psalm. In any case, Asaph appeals to the sovereign Shepherd to come and deliver them.
The psalmist states their current spiritual difficulty, which is that the Lord does not seem to be listening to their prayers. Indeed the psalmist suspects that God is angry with them. They have prayed for deliverance and have received the opposite, with the result that their enemies treat them with contempt (vv. 3-7). Nevertheless, all he can do is continue praying to the silent God and keep on asking him to turn his face towards them, because when that happens, they will be delivered.
The psalmist knows how to argue with God, and he mentions four details in the psalm. He begins by reminding the Lord of what he had done for his people in the past when he delivered them from Egypt and brought them into the Promised Land (vv. 8-10). Eventually they had spread, in the days of Solomon, from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Euphrates (v. 11). In making these historical references, the psalmist is giving us an example of an argument we should use when praying for God to deliver us. We should remind him of the great things he has done in the past.
Secondly, the author admits that things are now different, although he does not deduce from what is happening that somehow God has lost his power. Instead the psalmist confesses that the Lord has arranged for their troubles to happen, which can be a perspective that is very difficult to accept. Yet such an outlook is essential when praying for restoration (vv. 12-14).
Thirdly, the psalmist asks God to look closely at what has happened to his cause. He is not suggesting that God is ignorant of what has happened; instead the psalmist knows that there is more than one way to ‘see’ a situation. We can see a situation intellectually or we can see it emotionally; we can see it indifferently or we can see it compassionately. The knowledge we have is the same, yet we ‘see’ the circumstances differently. It is similar with regard to God. The psalmist is asking the Lord to see his people from the perspective of his plans for them, plans that commenced when he delivered them from Egypt. He is asking the Lord to see his people as they have been crushed by their enemies. Such a request, of asking God to ‘see’, is very appropriate when praying for restoration (vv. 14-16).
The fourth detail in his prayer for restoration concerns the king (called here ‘the man of God’s right hand’ and ‘the son of man’). We don’t know which Israelite king is mentioned here, but we can see that he is a picture of the real King. Jesus is the Son of Man who sits at God’s right hand. Our prayer is that his kingdom will be extended (v. 17).
The psalmist knows that when restoration comes, God’s people will be loyal to him. The thought of this prospect causes him to pray intensely for it (vv. 18-19). This is sanctified imagination being used to stimulate spiritual longings. Such an outlook helps us to pray for spiritual restoration.