In "A Poem on Hope's Wendell Berry writes: "It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old for hope must not depend on feeling good…" Though Berry writes in regard to the environment, his observation rings true: it is hard to have hope. It is even harder when life and years provide nothing but evidence to the contrary. It is to this reality and context that many psalms are placed and Psalm 85 is no exception.
The first half of this psalm is the litany of reasons for hope to die: the author notes God's anger towards the people of Israel and the subsequent reality of exile. It is an acknowledgement and recognition that life for these exiles is, in simplistic terms, difficult and unpleasant. The psalmist asks: "Will you be angry with us forever?" (v. 5, NRSV) While many psalms stay with this theme of lament, Psalm 85 does not.
Starting in verse 7, the tone of the psalm swings toward optimism: "Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation." The psalmist does not question the love of God, nor God's desire for reconciliation and salvation: it is an accepted reality. Verses 8-9 continue to demonstrate a strong faith in the idea of God's absolute love being a key component of the nature of God. God will speak peace to God's people (v. 8), and salvation is waiting for those who fear and stand in awe before God (v. 9). The wailing and wondering where God is or if God cares that is seen in other psalms is absent.
The metaphoric language of verses 10-13 creates a beautiful vision of the relational intimacy God desires. Love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace take on a somewhat personified nature. Love and faithfulness meet, while righteousness and peace kiss. This language calls to mind trust and intimacy, and this theme is carried through into verse 11 as faithfulness
"springs up.” This metaphor calls to mind an agricultural understanding of crops breaking through the earth, but it also encourages a picture of human fertility and birth: from the kiss of righteousness and peace comes faithfulness. Verse 12 continues to speak of growth and goodness as the psalmist envisions the Lord giving what is good and "the land yielding its increase."
Hope, prosperity, goodness—these are all portrayed in a relational context that mirrors the relationship between God and creation. Hope cannot be understood outside of the connections of relationships whether those relationships are between persons, between ideas, or between actions.
The use of these sort of metaphors says something about the nature of hope. Just as a baby or a crop is brought forth with hard work, sweat, blood, and tears… so is hope. Hope does not just happen. It is not necessarily a naturally occurring phenomenon. It is the fruit of labor.
The psalmist is aware of the covenantal nature of the visions of goodness: God desires nothing more than to shower God's love and blessing upon the people but its conditional upon the people's faithfulness and righteousness. It takes work. It isn't easy. And there are consequences to breaking covenant—as Israel was all too aware.
In the face of extended bleakness, it is easy to allow years and age to rob us of our optimism, hope, and faith in God's love and promises. Many of us slip into an unbearable pessimism where it does not seem like life will ever be better. These dark times are a part of life—to ignore the reality of these experiences is to live an unexamined and dishonest life. But, as God’s people, we cannot dwell in these times forever. We have to have hope.
Psalm 85: 8-13 is an encouragement to keep hope alive. It is a message of assurance that, in spite of the years of hardship an exile, there is still hope. God is faithful. God is eager and waiting for the reconciliation between God and creation to take place. And it will happen, even when it seems far away.
Postgraduate student at Nazarene Theological College in Manchester, UK