Psalm 85 While the whole of the Book provides God’s people with language for praise and mourning and prayer, I think Psalm 85 is especially tailored to the work of corporate worship. So imagine with me the congregation of Israel all standing and looking to a priest or some other leader in the Temple who will guide them through several “movements” of the service.
To begin, verse 1 remembers a time when God was “favorable” to His land, when He “restored” the fortunes of Jacob (NRSV). And though the first singers of this psalm were certainly referring to a specific event in their history (perhaps the return from Babylonian exile), it is impossible now to know for sure what they were talking about. Granted, one of the greatest tasks of the preacher is to discern an original context in order to make faithful applications of a text today, but the poetic genre of the psalms lends itself to be adapted to many situations and many times and many places.
Picking up at v2, the people continue to recall that God forgave and pardoned and withdrew His wrath and turned from anger. Note that these are all actions God completed in the past. This is important because Yahweh is a god who interacts with history. The only way God’s people have experienced Him or come to know about Him and His character is by witnessing God’s in-breaking of time itself. “What has God done,” right? Testimonies, therefore, are a crucial aspect of our worshiping life together. And in these first three verses, the whole congregation stands as a witness to God’s goodness.
Just as an aside, you might notice that word “Selah” in the margin of v2. It occurs seventy-one times in Psalms but its meaning is uncertain. Maybe it comes from the Hebrew “to lift up,” and so it is a direction for the community, at this point, to raise their eyes or their voice in song. Or maybe it means “to bend,” and so the people are supposed to either bow or kneel as an expression of humility. Or maybe it was just a cue to pause; maybe there was a musical interlude and the people were supposed to reflect and silently meditate. Whatever the case may be, a preacher might point out the fact that at least this psalm (and many others, of course) was intended for a corporate worship setting. It is something to be read/prayed/sung with other people, and so we need some direction to worship God well.
Getting back to where we left off, remember that the people have just borne witness to the past goodness of God. But while we do believe that God has already enacted His mercies toward us, there is still a sense in which…we’d really like Him to do it again! And this could be considered movement #2: looking for God’s future restoration. Because the truth of the matter is that our world is still marred by Sin and Death. We make mistakes. Other people make bad decisions which affect us. The created order of things is not as it should be. And so we still require healing.
Interestingly, the singers understand their lack of restoration as evidence of God’s “anger” against them. I would read this as merely a personification of whatever negative circumstances the people are going through; they are blaming the cause of their misfortune on God’s distaste for them. It could be helpful to approach the issue of God’s anger and wrath from a more canonical angle, like with Romans. There, it sounds like people are experiencing the effects of what is called God’s wrath, really, because of poor choices they are making; “God gave them up” to the consequences for which they were already voting (Rom. 1:24).
Now, if remembering God’s past goodness were movement #1 and asking for restoration again were movement #2, then v8 marks the transition into movement #3: assurance of future salvation. Even though God may be angry, He has covenanted to enter into relationship with a people, and He will never abandon that promise. So the worship leader cries out, “Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him…” (9).
At this point a preacher could do extensive word studies on the constellation of terms in v10. “Salvation” here is further qualified by “steadfast love,” “faithfulness,” “righteousness,” and “peace.” With all of these words together, salvation expands to mean so much more than cultural Christianity’s typical definition: “I get to go to heaven when I die.” Instead, salvation and these four attributes work together in a dynamic way to impact all realms of existence. Note especially the way that God’s salvation will influence even the earth itself (v1, 9, 11, 12)!
Perhaps the most striking image offered by this psalm is that of righteousness and peace “kissing” each other in v10. Of course, there are kisses which parents give their children, and the church is encouraged to offer each other a kiss of peace. But another kind of kiss in mind here could be that of a bride and groom on their wedding day, the long-awaited kiss of an intimate union.
When I think about the people’s yearning for restoration, I am also mindful of the reunion for which God’s people are currently waiting. Of course, Jesus interrupted history and displayed the righteousness of God in the past (Rom. 1:17). He was raised and is currently reigning as Lord. But “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now,” and it, as well as ourselves, are still waiting for the final redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:22-23). We still need healing. And so we join that original congregation and add our own voices to this psalm which anticipates the Day when restoration will come again, when heaven and earth will “kiss” (picturing Rev. 21:1-4 here), and salvation in its fullness will be completely realized. God Himself, at some point in history, will tread paths among us again. May He come quickly!