YEAR C: SEASON OF PENTECOST
(Sunday between July 24 and July 30)
Psalm 85 combines a sense of expectancy and waiting for the Lord to deliver the people with reflection on a past time of deliverance and forgiveness. The psalm breaks into three sections: vv. 1-3; vv. 4-7; 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 about 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).
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. They comprise some of the most exquisite language in the Old Testament. Verses 8-11 reiterate the salvation prophecy of Hos 2:14-23. 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 it 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 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 in setting the whole psalm for this week have not flinched at what might seem to us offending material, namely the words about Yahweh’s wrath in vv. 4-7. The psalmist knows all too well the connections between the sections of the psalm and 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, both 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). Christian faith is as much concerned with 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.
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 a hint that this psalm may well be one that comes out of a harvest context. Even the language of faithfulness springing from the ground has an agricultural ring (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 the experience of drought and water shortages experienced from time to time in the Australian context.
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 has 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,or:
and put away your indignation toward us.
Show us your steadfast love,Verse 8 could also function as an introduction to the declaration of forgiveness:
O LORD, and grant us your salvation.
Let us hear what God the LORD will speak,Old Testament reading: Hosea 1:2-10
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 peace to us:
‘Your sins are forgiven!’
Thanks be to God.
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