Psalm 85 is a psalm of community lament. Other psalms of lament are 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, and 90. The community lamented when faced with military defeat, famine, pestilence, drought, or other problems. Laments asked the questions:
Was God with them?
Was God angry over sin?
Was God just in His treatment of His people?
Philip Yancey writes that lament is not whining or complaining. We whine when we have little control; we lament things that should be changed. “The psalmists clung to a belief in God’s ultimate goodness, no matter how things appeared at the present. They lamented that God’s will was not being done on earth as it was in Heaven; the resulting poetry helped realign their eternal beliefs with their daily experience.” Psalms of lament will resonate with us at various seasons in our lives. We may even find ourselves asking the same three questions listed above.
The heading for this psalm informs us that this is a psalm or song of the descendants of Korah. Don Williams and Lloyd John Ogilvie give it the title: Recovery. They explain: “Many of us live between memory and hope. We recall what God has done in the past with gratitude, and we hope that He will do it again.”
The movement of the psalm is clear and easy to follow. It begins in verses 1-3 with God’s past mercies. Verses 4-7 bring us to the present where we see God’s wrath. We also see God’s present peace in verses 8 and 9. The psalm ends with a view to the future of confidence in God’s righteousness (vv. 10-13). James Limburg parses the psalm into three sections: It consists of an affirmation of trust, recalling what God has done (vv. 1-3); an extended call for help or request (vv. 4-7); and then a promise of salvation (vv. 8-13).”
Do not miss the importance of the Promised Land. It is mentioned at the beginning (v. 1), near middle (v. 9), and at the end of the psalm (v. 12). The Promised Land always marked God’s provision for his people. It was where they entered his rest in this world.
Four times in Psalm 85, the writer refers to God by using his personal name, Yahweh. This is the “I am Who I am.” Our God is intimately involved in the well-being of his chosen people. God simply “Am!” (Feel free to read “Is!” for “Am!”) Our Yahweh is a Trinity, who existed in our past, even before time began. Who exists in our present and will exist in our future. Therefore, we confess: “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be!” In the past, God “Is.” In the present, God “Is.” And in the future, God “Is” as well. God stands outside and inside time as the Uncreated Being who “Is”!
The first three verses open with past tense verbs. The psalmist is reflecting on a time past when God returned Israel to the land and, at the same time, poured out blessing on the land itself (verse 2, NLT). Verse 3 notes that God restrained from unleashing his wrath and anger as the people might have deserved. We all deserve the wrath of God until we accept the benefits of the cross as we seek God’s forgiveness. James Montgomery Boise observes, “Some of the strongest salvation language in Scripture is present in these verses [2 and 3]. Verse 2 speaks to both atonement and propitiation. ‘Covered their sins’ describes what is meant by atonement. ‘Set aside your wrath’ is what is meant by the word propitiation.”
Derek Kidner notes that, “Israel is not pining for past glories,…but remembering past mercies. This…leads to prayers (4–7) rather than dreams.” The psalmist provides a fine example of a practice that fosters spiritual health. We all need to take time to recall moments in our past, when God has been merciful to us. Such memories will automatically issue in grateful prayer.
Kidner sees the verb ‘to turn’ coloring much of the psalm. In verses 1 and 7 it underlies the word ‘restore.’ It appears as ‘turn’ in verses 3 and 8. It is implied in the word ‘again’ in verse 6. When people turn from disobeying and ignoring God, God then will turn away from his wrath. Marvin E. Tate proposes that the key verse in this psalm is verse 7, which he translates: Will you not turn (and) give us life / that your people may rejoice in you? According to Tate, this verse looks in two directions: it “looks back to Yahweh’s life-giving actions in the past and it looks forward to the great message of the future shalom in vv 9-14.” Shalom “is the capacity for healthy action and well-being.”
A side bar from Marvin Tate on Life in the Old Testament: “Life in the OT is especially characteristic of Yahweh. He ‘lives’ (Ps 18:46) and never dies (Psalm 121:4). He is the God of life (Pss 36:9; 42:8), the ‘Living God’ (Josh 3:10; Pss 42:3; 84:3; Hos 2:1 [1:10]; 2 Kgs 19:4, 16 = Isa 37:4, 17; Deut 5:23 ; 1 Sam 17:26, 36; Jer 10:10; 23:36) and the power of life flows from him (Ps 145:16; 36:8-10; 80:18; 1 Sam 2:6; Deut 32:39; cf. Jer 2:13; 17:13). Those who are far from him will perish (Ps 73:27). He provides the ‘Way (or Path) of Life’: Ps 16:11; Prov 5:6; 6:23; 15:24; Jer 21:8 cf. Prov 2:19; 10:17. Thus all of life is a gift and a trust from Yahweh, just as the land is (Ps 16:5-6; 17:14). Finally, Williams notes that “there are only two options: either God’s wrath or God’s life.” Our work is prayer. God’s work then becomes our salvation and mercy.
In verse 8 a single voice is heard, “I will listen carefully to what God the LORD is saying.” (NLT, italics added) This individual may be a prophet, a priest, or the psalmist himself who is listening carefully. The listener anticipates that God will speak “peace to his faithful people.” While the phrase sounds simple enough, there is raw power here. The same God who spoke the entire cosmos into existence now speaks peace to the faithful. This peace means more than the absence of war and conflict. It is a well-being and wholeness that pervades our entire being. In Christ’s time, it was used as a common greeting and implied a wholesome wish for the other. As a boy, I remember singing Down in My Heart. The last phrase was a tongue twister:
I’ve got that peace, that passeth understanding,
Down in my heart, down in my heart…(repeat)
At the time, my focus was on the “church talk” language of Elizabethan English’s verb form of ‘to pass.’ Then, in 2011, my wife suddenly went to God. That funny phrase became a concrete reality as God spoke his peace into my life. It came to me in all of its raw power; something quite unexplainable.
In verse 9, the psalmist is confident that the glory of the LORD, which was evident in the Shekinah glow above the ark, would now fill the land. That glory departed during the Babylonian exile. In this return of God’s glory, his Presence will be evident in the land. The root of the word Shekinah is the verb dwell. In the church, God’s Presence is now evident in individual believers and is spiritually aggregated when believers join in worship. God dwells in us both individually and corporately.
One word reverberates in the last four verses. That word is righteousness. It is mentioned in verses 10, 11, and 13. Righteousness simply means ‘right relationship.’ God is always in ‘right relationship’ with his universe, his people and himself. We are the ones who need him to make us righteous through his forgiveness and grace. When we are righteous, we are in ‘right relationship’ with God, with others and with ourselves. Isaiah 32:17 tells us that
The fruit of that righteousness will be peace; its effect will be quietness and confidence forever.
How powerful our lives can be when we live in ‘right relationship’ with others. Our lives and theirs become peaceful. We find that we can live our life quietly and in confidence. This causes us to respond: “Thanks be to God!”
Righteousness and peace kiss (v. 10). This is not a romantic kiss; rather it is a kiss of greeting when friends meet. The next verse describes righteousness smiling down from heaven while truth/faithfulness springs up from the earth. In the last verse of the psalm, righteousness becomes the herald preparing the way for Lord.
In the final verses, 9b through 13, Tate sees “the great qualities of Yahweh’s presence and power: Glory, Loyal-Love, Faithfulness, Righteousness, and Well-Being (Peace); all are ready to go forth to participate with Yahweh as he bestows his goodness on the land and its people.” Tate views these qualities as personifying God and his actions. They are “living agents” of God, who gift the land with goodness and fruitfulness. 
Listen to how Boise describes these qualities of God: “The devil is the great disrupter. He has brought disharmony to the universe. God brings harmony. In these verses four great attributes of God meet together – love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace – and then, like conquering generals, they march side by side to a victory that is the sure and certain hope of God’s people.”
We can confidently walk into God’s future knowing that God’s “living agents” will gift us with goodness and fruitfulness. When faced with the disruptions and temptations of the devil, expect God to reestablish harmony in your life through the work of his four conquering generals, who will lead us into spiritual victory. The bottom line never changes: God wins!
Boice, James Montgomery. Psalms. Baker Books, 2005.
Kidner, Derek. Psalms: 73-150: A Commentary on Books III-V of the Psalms. Inter-Varsity Press, 1975.
Limburg, James. Psalms. Westminster John Known Press, 2000.
Tate, Marvin E. Psalms 51 – 100. Nelson Reference & Electronic, 2005.
Williams, Don, and Lloyd John. Ogilvie. The Preacher’s Commentary: Psalms 73-150. Vol. 14, Thomas Nelson, 1987.
Yancey, Philip. The Bible Jesus Read. Thorndike Press, 2002.
 Yancey, 128.
 Williams, 108.
 Ibid., 110.
 Limburg, 288.
 Boise, 697.
 Kidner, 308.
 Ibid., 308.
 Tate, 372.
 Ibid., 373.
 Williams, 110.
 Tate, 367.
 Ibid., 371.