Commentary on Psalm 85:8-13
An interpretation of Psalm 85:8-13 needs first to find a context in the whole of Psalm 85.
The psalm is a prayer in the midst of crisis for the ancient faith community. They prayed for joy, joy that can come from God’s presence in the midst of the community. It is divided into three parts:
- God’s previous restoration of the community (verses 1-3)
- A plea for God to bring restoration in a new crisis (verses 4-7)
- A message of assurance (verses 8-13)
Most commentators understand the first three verses in terms of liberation from exile. Accordingly, they place the psalm in a post-exilic setting in which the community is struggling after the return. We could think of the era of Ezra and Nehemiah and understand that the psalm looks back to the return from exile.
The phrase “restored the fortunes” in verse 1 is at times used to describe ancient Israel’s return from exile (for example, cf. Jeremiah 30-33), but the phrase is not limited to that context. Rather, it can be adapted, so both this phrase and the psalm are applicable to a variety of settings of trouble and woe. The plea is for God to restore the worshiping community in the way verses 1-3 remember. Our focus is the concluding verses of the psalm that offer hope in the midst of the current trouble.
The opening section of the psalm brings to mind a fond memory of a time when God restored the fortunes of Jacob/Israel and forgave them. God turned from wrath to forgiveness. In verses 4-7, the praying community pleads that this same God with whom they have a salvation history will again act to restore so that the community can praise and thank God. “Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation” (verse 7).
The third section of the psalm begins with a reference to the speaker who is revealing a word from God, a word of peace to the faithful. This word is not in the form of direct divine speech, but is in a style characteristic of the psalms and of announcements of salvation in the Old Testament.
Imagine the scene as the worship leader rises to proclaim a word of hope. The verses are filled with terms central to Old Testament faith. Verses 8-9 characterize the word as peace (wholeness or health) and salvation (wellness) for the community. God’s glory will again come to the land. In other words, God will again be present to bless the community and nurture it to fullness of life. And this gift is for the faithful, those whose lives are centered in relationship with God.
The images of God’s salvation delightfully pile up in verses 10-13. In verse 10, God’s unchanging love and trustworthiness come together to bring the community into right relationship with God and each other (i.e. righteousness). God’s righteousness brings peace. The personifications in verse 10 are worth quoting: “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.”
In addition, faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will come down from the heavens. This exuberant poetic picture is clearly in excess of any possible human achievement, and so is focused on God’s presence and activity for the faithful.
This proclamation of salvation is a strong word of encouragement and assurance in a community crisis. It is a word of hope, and the worship setting seeks to call the community to trust and faithfulness in the God who will bring about this salvation.
The conclusion of the psalm proclaims that God will bring increase to the land, alluding to the beginning of the psalm that remembers a time when God was “favorable to the land.” Even more, God acts to bring the community into righteousness (right relationship), in turn making a path for God to walk with this community of faith.
Our attempts to interpret Psalm 85 and appropriate its faith for proclamation need to attend to the text’s poetic sequence.
The psalm begins by remembering a past when God restored the community. Now the community is struggling again and prays that God will once more bring renewal. The pivot comes in verses 6-7 with the plea for renewal and a demonstration of God’s unchanging love.
The remarkable poetic images in verses 8-13 promise just such a renewal. The terms used in those verses (peace, salvation, glory, steadfast love, faithfulness, and righteousness) are terms central to ancient Israel’s faith tradition. They characterize God’s involvement in the world to bring this faith community to wholeness in life.
The picture of life in these verses far exceeds what today would be a clinical definition of life as avoiding death. Here, life is portrayed as a full, complete, and healthy life lived to the fullest in relationship with God as part of a community of faith. It is another way of describing peace — the Hebrew word is shalom.
Shalom is much more than the absence of war or conflict. It is a sense of well being. That kind of wholeness is centered on a life in the presence of God with which the psalm concludes.
Psalm 85 thus models for the community the act of prayer in a time of crisis and the celebration of salvation articulated in the promises of verses 8-13. Such salvation can only come from the God who is present to bless and who comes to deliver.