Commentary on Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Psalm 85 is a perfect psalm for this second Sunday of Advent.
The psalm is filled with promise in the midst of a time of waiting and uncertainty. The first two verses encourage us to remember what God has done for Israel and for us — looking favorably on the land, restoring fortunes, and centering, most particularly, on the forgiveness of sins. What better way to point forward to the beginning of Mark with its picture of John the Baptist “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4).
Significantly, the emphasis of the psalm is not so much on personal sin as on corporate and national sin. Both ancient traditions and scholarly consensus invite us to think of this psalm as being sung in response to the return from the Babylonian exile when land indeed had been restored, national forgiveness had been experienced, and the people waited for God’s promises to be fulfilled. This being said, the proclamation of the psalm is not limited to that time alone as each new generation brings to this psalm its own deep sense of the sins of their own community or nation and the experience of forgiveness.
Verse 8 turns to a personal plea that God hear the prayer of the psalmist to speak peace (shalom) to his people, those who are faithful in their turning to God. Peace is the expected fruit of forgiveness. The response to this plea in verse 9 is a proclamation of salvation to those who “fear” the Lord, which echoes in parallel those in verse 8 who are faithful and turn to God in their hearts. That is, those who “fear” God are, ironically, not afraid. They are faithful and believe the promises of God.
One indication that Psalm 85 is post-exilic is that the promise is fulfilled when God’s “glory,” rather than God himself, dwells in the land. The new temple will now be the dwelling place of the “name” or the “glory” lest anyone imagine that its potential physical destruction could ever actually touch the living God dwelling in and rules from the heavens.
Verses 10-13 are filled with rich images which bring to life the promised salvation of verse 9. The principle image of this indwelling promise is God’s “path,” what William Brown calls the Via Dei.1 Once again the resonance with the other texts of the day is marked. Psalm 85’s path of God links us to the path proclaimed in the lesson from Isaiah 40 and then picked up by Mark. The “way of the Lord” is being prepared in the wilderness, the path is being made straight. Psalm 85 invites us metaphorically to walk along that path and to experience the realities which accompany God on the way. All along this path we find that love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace meet, kiss, spring up from below and look down from above.
Some years ago at a youth gathering in New Orleans, a group of us dedicated to biblical renewal in the church created a physical space where the young people could literally walk the “Road to Shalom.” The path was filled with road signs and stopping places where the reality of God’s “shalom” was illustrated by various passages of Scripture. At one point, the travelers arrived at “Promise Alley” where they were asked to hold up signs imprinted with the words: STEADFAST LOVE (hesed), FAITHFULNESS (‘emet), RIGHTEOUSNESS (sedeq), and PEACE (shalom).
We then read verse 10 of Psalm 85. We talked about how the promised shalom of verse 8 is, in verse 10, intimately linked to three big ideas: Shalom is first linked to God’s steadfast love. This is a love which, like agape, is rooted in God’s promise. Shalom is linked secondly to God’s faithfulness, God’s dependable presence and commitment. And shalom is linked finally and most intimately to righteousness.
After some discussion, we asked the participants holding their respective signs to have STEADFAST LOVE physically meet FAITHFULNESS and then have RIGHTEOUSNESS and PEACE actually kiss one another. Amid the handshakes, hugs, kisses, and giggles, the physical connections embodied the psalm and the pathway.
We might well have continued with verse 11 and 12 with their strong images of faithfulness and righteousness springing up from the ground and looking down from the sky. These images are also amazingly physical. Clearly part of what constitutes the promise, the “good” that the LORD gives, is actual increased produce, real food abundantly available for all. But more than this, or perhaps better, making this possible is the increased faithfulness and righteousness of both God and God’s people.
All of this leads us resolutely to the final verse in which we see the footprints of God’s path. God is walking on this path with righteousness leading the way. It is an incarnational moment inviting us to continue on our journey of Advent.
1. William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 42.