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Psalm  85:1-2, 8-13

The lectionary reading of Psalm 85 omits the central section of the psalm, vv. 3-7. We are left with vv. 1-2, which look back on a past time of deliverance and forgiveness, and vv. 8-13 with their magnificent expression of hope for the future. One ought always to keep a healthy lookout for what the lectionary omits. While the matter of the length of reading needs to be considered in longer psalms (not really the case here), the sections omitted can influence the reading of the text which remains, giving it a different nuance or altering our interpretation entirely sometimes. What remains in the lectionary reading of Psalm 85 this week is a sense of waiting and expectancy in the psalm. Salvation is at hand (v. 9). That seems applicable for the Advent season. What is missing, however, is the context within which that waiting and expectancy take shape. That surely is as important for Advent as hope itself.

Psalm 85 breaks into three sections: vv. 1-3; vv. 4-7 (the section omitted in the lectionary); and vv. 8-13. The beginning of the psalm, vv. 1-3 is about the past. The psalmist recalls how Yahweh was favourable to the land, restored its fortunes and forgave his people. This is the basis of the action in v. 3: Yahweh withdrew his anger and turned from his wrath. This part of the Psalm sounds like the psalms of thanksgiving but there is none of the language of thanks here. It is simply a statement of past action, without elaboration or response.

Verses 4-7 are concerned with the present. No longer is the past tense used. Verses 4 and 7, which open and close the section, are full of imperatives (‘restore us again’, ‘put away your indignation’; ‘show us your steadfast love’, ‘grant us your salvation’). They are separated by questions about the immediate future (‘will you … will you …will you?’). There is no hiding the seriousness of the people’s sin in these verses. Thoughts of divine anger fill them. Their hope is that God’s anger with his people may be put aside. The outcome of this, which remains only fleeting at this point, is that ‘your people may rejoice in you’ (v. 6). There are echoes here of the Isaiah 40 passage set for this week.

In the concluding section, vv. 8-13, the mood and the tenses change again. The verbs are now in the future tense. The mood is not only optimistic, but overflows into hyperbole with delightful expressions and turns of phrase which come close to Isaiah 40-55. They comprise some of the most exquisite language in the Old Testament. Verses 8-11 reiterate the salvation prophecy of Isaiah 40-55. The words of the psalm speak of God’s peace for his people.

The abstract qualities of Yahweh (‘steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace or shalom’) are personified in vv. 10-11. They are brought to life in an act of embrace, harmony and joy. Faithfulness springs up from the ground; righteousness looks down from the sky reminding us of the two parts of the created universe in Genesis 1 – the dome of the sky above, and the earth below. It is as if creation no longer simply brings forth plants, rain and warmth for fertility as we are used to. It now veritably flourishes with the qualities of God. There is a tone to the language which suggests a return to Eden, but an Eden as it was intended to be. Salvation is understood here in the terms of the tangible and pervasive presence of the qualities and attributes of God present in the community of his people.

These three sections sit together rather awkwardly in the eyes of some. There is a level of conflict between past, present and future tenses. There is conflict between words of past deliverance, present pleas, and future hopes. There is conflict between Yahweh’s anger and his salvation. The lectionary writers deal with this with a pair of scissors, cutting away the offending material, that which makes us flinch, words about Yahweh’s wrath. But I think the psalmist knows all too well the connections between these sections. We ought only consider the psalm from last week (Advent 1). The psalmist in today’s reading opts for a holistic sense of hope, and not just words that will soothe and delight. I will make three points in relation to the psalm as a whole.

First, the three sections concerned respectively with the past, present, and future (immediate and ideal), are inextricably linked. Hopes for the future are not to be divorced from human experience, neither of the past deliverance of God nor of present anxieties. Hope for future peace is not divorced from present sin nor the expectation of turning from that. The steadfast love and faithfulness of God for which God’s people long are to be seen in light of God’s judgment on human iniquity. Salvation and judgment indeed meet and embrace (to adapt the words of the psalm). Advent is a period as much connected to the past (both ours and God’s) as it is a time of waiting for the future. It is as much concerned with Christian discipline – examination and repentance – as it is with new beginnings. It embraces the hope enveloped within the ongoing work of God with God’s people. It awaits a future that has been and is already with us as much as it does a past which awaits us.

Secondly, this psalm is not simply one which seeks to lift us from present despair into a future that bears no relation to present experience or reality. The psalm begins with a statement that Yahweh had been favourable to the land (v. 1). It hopes that Yahweh’s glory will again dwell in the land (v. 9). And it finishes with the confidence that Yahweh will give what is good and the land will yield its increase (v. 12). There is the suggestion that this psalm may well be one that comes out of a harvest context. Even the language of faithfulness springing from the ground echoes an agricultural tone (v. 11). Hope in the coming nearness of the Lord’s salvation embraces the physical reality of life and its earthy elements. This is a psalm that speaks to those who struggle with the realities of the land in the Australian context, be it in terms of drought, flood, fire or climate change in general.

Finally, the psalm is dominated by the word ‘return’, Heb. shub, which can also mean ‘repent, restore’. Yahweh ‘restored’ Jacob’s fortunes (v. 1); he ‘turned back’ from his hot anger (v. 3); the people ask Yahweh to ‘restore’ them again (v. 4); they ask him whether he will not ‘revive’ them again (v. 6); and his people are to ‘turn’ to him again (v. 8). The order here is important. It is the ‘turning, repentance’ of Yahweh that enables the future to become the present. That is what drives the psalmist. The word ‘salvation’ is also frequent in the psalm. It is only described as ‘our salvation’ (v. 4) in as much as it is God’s salvation (vv. 7, 9). It is only as ‘Yahweh’s salvation’ comes near that the people know in any way their own salvation. Moreover, that salvation is not something that is solely of the future, it is also of the past. It is the task of the worshipping community to proclaim their salvation had come even as they await its consummation. It is its task to name where they see time and life shaped by the character of God and to proclaim its coming fullness.

Suggestions for the use of the Psalm in worship.

Either verses 4 and 7 could be used as a congregational refrain in the prayers of confession:

Restore us again, O God of our salvation,
and put away your indignation toward us.
Show us your steadfast love,
O LORD, and grant us your salvation.

Verse 8 could also function as an introduction to the declaration of forgiveness:

Let us hear what God the LORD will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people,
to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Hear then Christ’s word of grace to us:
‘Your sins are forgiven!’
    Thanks be to God.
Finally, the psalm can become the basis for prayers of intercession with respect to our relation to the land in our continent. References to the land in vv. 1, 9, 12 encourage this. The prayer could follow the pattern of the psalm with memories of past blessings, a word of present struggles and uncertainties, and finally hopes for the future. The composer of the prayer would have to be careful not to imply that the bounty of the land is not simply a response to our past actions. That notion within the psalm can be challenged. On the other hand, there is place for admission that we have ignored the giftedness of the land in the past in how we have used it, that we have come to expect the land’s bounty without due thought to its wellbeing and its future, and that we have often looked upon the land through self-centered spectacles.

Old Testament reading: Isaiah 40:1-11

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