Commentary on Psalm 85:8-13
Sometimes we just want to grab the hatchet out of the Lectionary Committee’s hands!
In some cases they have to chop away. No one could preach from the whole of John 6 and do it justice. For this Sunday, they have done a disservice with their sharp blade. They have given us half a psalm. They have given us beauty, creativity, and wondrous expression of divine love. They have left off the complex, interesting, and honest wrestling with God’s mystery. They have given us a triumphant oracle of salvation, but deleted the part of the psalm that explores why we need salvation.
A wise preacher will make some use of the poignant verses that come before the assigned reading. The first part of the poem contains both confession and lamentation. Although some scholars disagree about which experience — guilt or grief — dominates the mood of the first part of the psalm, the movement of the feeling seems straightforward. The psalmist acknowledges the sin and guilt of the people, but pleads that God already has forgiven them. They had felt estranged from God, but had later felt forgiven and restored (verse 3). Now, the people feel as though they have crashed right back into the situation of estrangement and guilt. The psalmist seems to say to God, “Yes, you were justifiably angry at us, then you forgave us and we thought all was well, but now you obviously feel angry again. Can’t we get back to where we were in the middle, between your first anger and this current anger?” That represents the reading of the NRSV. Hebrew verb tenses are imprecise enough that one can read the psalm as simply arising from an initial feeling of guilt and estrangement, but affirming that God will act in grace, love and forgiveness. The movement suggested by the NRSV indicates an experience of having felt estranged, then restored, and now estranged again.
The open-ended nature of the first part of the psalm gives the preacher some freedom to use the text for a number of experiences. If the preacher wants to explore how guilt alienates us from God, the text gives ample material for that use of the poem (see verse 2). The psalm might help especially in situations where the preacher perceives in a congregation some residual pain from a childhood marked by excessive religious guilt. For those who grew up either in a household, or a congregation, that bludgeoned a vulnerable soul with guilt, this psalm speaks to the experience of having to overcome the impression of a wrathful God more than once in a lifetime. So, a person who grows up with an image of God as wrathful comes to a better understanding of a loving God as an adult, but then eventually finds that the old childhood guilt trips have not completely evaporated.
The poem gives the preacher material for exploring the sense of estrangement from God arising from trouble, grief, and hardship as well. Part of that experience often involves the cry, “What does God have against me?” The psalmist does not say why the people feel as though God has once again displayed wrath toward the people. Scholars disagree about the setting of the psalm. Does the psalmist express the frustration of the people when trouble has appeared? Once again, this uncertainty opens for the preacher opportunities to explore different experiences of hardship that cause estrangement from God, and awakens feelings of guilt.
The lectionary committee does give us the most imaginative part of the psalm. Although scholars disagree about the exact translation and implication of some of the terms and verb tenses in this second half, the NRSV captures well the playful images of the poet.
The psalmist takes abstract concepts, fundamental affirmations about God’s nature and personifies them, creating dynamic, evocative and even romantic scenes. Verse 8 invites the reader to perk up ears to listen for God’s tender words. God will speak peace, a sense of completeness and rightness. Something has gone wrong between God and the people. God’s peace will restore things to what they should be. God’s salvation — rescue, deliverance — is at hand, close by. God’s glory — gravitas, majesty — will dwell in the land, reminding the people of God’s presence with them. Steadfast love — freely offered grace and dependable kindness — will “meet” with faithfulness, reliability, trustworthiness. As do most poets, the psalmist speaks not with precision, but with imagination. Kindness and trustworthiness will meet, come together, and perhaps even form a relationship, so that the people can count on God’s love. In a remarkable word picture, righteousness — what is right and just — will kiss peace, wholeness and soundness. Although this part of verse 10 has generated some controversy about translation, the image fits so well with the rest of the poem that one can believe the psalmist expected a romantic embrace between these two abstractions.
Verse 11 creates an image of the people “caught in the middle,” in a good way. Up above them they can find righteousness, with the same implications as verse 10. Now, instead of romance, the image becomes protection, as righteousness watches over the people. Faithfulness grows like grass under their feet. The people will experience prosperity (verse 12), as a sign of God’s favor. Righteousness will lead the way as God comes back to them. Although the verse presents translation difficulties, the image of righteousness preceding God on the way back stands clearly enough. The NRSV suggests that righteousness will clear God’s path. The image might imply that righteousness will guide God’s steps.
All in all, the second half of the poem gives the preacher much to use to fill a verbal canvas with images that reach beyond the intellect to stir hearts to expect the return of God’s love, restoration, favor, forgiveness and salvation.