Commentary on Psalm 85:8-13
Reflecting on Psalm 85:8-13 without the first 13 verses is akin to a liturgy that omits the call and prayer of confession, moving instead straight to the assurance of pardon.
The words are applicable alone, yet are designed as part of a whole. The psalm is a communal prayer for help and can be divided into three sections or stanzas, verses 1-3, 4-7, and 8-13. Verses 1-3 serve as a reminder of God’s forgiving acts in the past, followed by pleas by the people for God’s forgiveness in the present, ending with a section expressing hope for restored relationship between the people and God.
Verses 1-3 function as the call to confession reminding the people and God of God’s past saving acts. God’s active grace is clear in the verbs used “favor,” “return,” “lift,” and “cover.” These acts are God’s alone given to an undeserving people (verse 3). The people have angered God repeatedly and in response God has relented and turned back all anger.
We like to think of God as always loving and forgiving and that is the case. However, there are real consequences to our actions that hurt the humans we love and God. It is a sobering thought to think of God’s “fury” and “fierce anger” against us. It is easier to imagine God’s wrath poured on the heads of our enemies. The actions of the people in the past and the actions of the people at present have angered God and the only way back is for God to relent and forgive. Without God, there is no future for this people.
The second section, verses 4-7, is a cry to God for restoration now. The sinful acts of the people are not named specifically, allowing for use of this psalm in many times and places. Yet, the sins are clearly present as the people ask God if God will be angry forever (verse 5). The people clearly stand in need of God’s grace and ask if God will show God’s steadfast love (hesed) and give the people (again) salvation. Indeed, the whole section is bracketed by “salvation” calling on “the God of our salvation” in verse 4 and ending the stanza with “Give us your salvation” as its last imperative plea.
Many scholars see this psalm in light of the exile and this as a prayer for restoration after the exile was over. This is a possible context, but certainly not the only situation to which this prayer can apply. The pleas in this stanza are universal and, as we all know, from Genesis 3 forward, the story is a long one of sin and redemption. Over and over, the people found ways to turn from God either out of fear, lack of faith, greed, or in a search for other gods. These verses are then not about one event, but they reflect all of the times that God has restored “the fortunes” of Jacob. “Fortunes” (NRSV, NIV) is best understood not in terms of monetary gain, but as a restoration of the community to full communion with God. Tate suggests a meaning of “well-being” instead of “fortunes” (Psalms 51-100, 364).
A new voice enters at verse 8. The voice could be a prophet or a worship leader. Ultimately, it is not the person speaking the words that matter, but the message being delivered. The imperative form of the last section, give way here to the cohortative, meaning a wish for the future. The wish is a view of the world ordered by God’s kingdom. The last line of this verse is a source of debate and the NRSV reads the LXX here as “to those who turn to him with their hearts.” Most scholars, however, read the MT, “but do not let them return to stupidity (or “folly” NIV).”
A warning within a wish for the future is not uncommon (Psalm 95:8-10). The warning serves as a reminder that the people and God have been in this place before, and the people will probably put them there again. The response to God’s great forgiveness should be more than words, it involves a change in behavior. It involves remembering the warning.
The remainder of the psalm gives us a glimpse of God’s kingdom. The foundations of that kingdom hesed and faithfulness meet righteousness and shalom kiss. The vision is one of a long awaited reunion as God again sets the world right. It is a powerful way to declare an end to the impasse between God and the people. The images continue and this restoration involves the whole creation, reuniting heaven and earth (verse 11), and God will give what is “good,” also understood as what is beneficial, pleasant, and for the welfare of all. The land responds with its own gift of bounty in response to God. All of this is in preparation for God’s arrival in verse 13.
The image is of a world transformed by God’s forgiveness. What if for just one Sunday, we could see and believe the power of God’s forgiveness? Could we imagine the world as it should be when God sets it back in place? What if as we hear the words of assurance, the heavens open and we see the glory of God? Would we listen the warning and change our world?
Since I began participation in the weekly liturgy, the assurance of pardon has always been the most sacred to me. All worship rituals are weighty and important, but to speak God’s forgiveness to the people is a powerful priestly function. Like me, the ones who spoke these words in the temple were mere humans and the pronouncement was as much for them as it was for the people.
To announce God’s grace and restoration is to call a new beginning into the world. Psalm 85 celebrates God’s grace and offers all of us a glimpse of God’s kingdom.