Commentary on Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
The opening line of this psalm is indicative of its tangible vision of salvation that includes all of creation. The psalmist remembers a time when the ground on which he stood was fecund. This likely included a predictable turning of the seasons and ideal weather for new life to “spring up from the ground” (verse 11) at the appropriate time, for what comes from above directly impacts what is below. Standing between the rich earth and the lifegiving sky, the psalmist witnessed the dwelling of God’s glory, which is God’s salvation.
God’s salvific presence was also felt through forgiveness. (This is a noteworthy reminder for Christians that God did not begin forgiving people when Jesus walked the earth; God has been gracious and merciful from the beginning.) God’s forgiveness was not a fact separate from the psalmist that he intellectually knew had taken place without it touching him. Instead, God’s forgiveness was an experience both inside the psalmist at the level of the heart and outside of him in a way that permeated the entire life of the community. God is a God of relationship whose very presence invites healing and restoration.
Forgiveness was not an idea suggesting that actions didn’t matter because there would be no punishment. It was an experience of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness reaching through humanity’s hardness of heart to soften and turn their hearts toward God, with inevitable consequences for reconciling past actions and making a path toward a more humane future. Forgiveness was palpable. This is why it was recognizable to the psalmist and his community when God’s glory was no longer dwelling in their land, which they interpreted as God’s anger. The verses included in the lectionary do not include mention of God’s anger. The preacher may wish to follow the lectionary’s lead if exploring this theme would not be fruitful at this time in the congregation’s life.
On the other hand, including the excised verses (verses 3–7) may allow the preacher to present a more complex picture of God, who is often presented in sermons as passively (not biblically) peaceful in a way that isn’t strong enough to hold the depth of suffering and destruction in this world. Anger is often treated as an unacceptable emotion ideally suppressed in mainstream American culture, perhaps especially in churches. This is understandable. Anger can quickly lead to sin if acted upon impulsively and left unchecked. It often demands that we face an uncomfortable issue we would rather go on ignoring because the required change feels too vulnerable.
However, in its demand, anger provides vital information; it reveals what matters to us. Anger arises when something we value is threatened, when something important to us is at stake. This is not a sin; it is an alarm, a warning. Someone who never felt anger would have to be numb, indifferent, and devoid of sympathy and empathy. While human beings’ values are often not holy, with the result that their anger is expressed in unholy ways, it is not so with God. Therefore, for God to feel anger is very good news for humanity. It means that God cares when the values of the kingdom of God are not being embodied, when the good creation and creatures God called upon humans to care for are harmed. God’s anger need not remain unnamable from the pulpit.
Including the excised verses may also give the concluding verses (verses 8–13) more weight. It is easy to shrug our shoulders at God’s salvation if there is nothing from which we need saving, or at least nothing beyond the power of human beings to solve. As Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17). In verses 3–7, the psalmist expresses his dismay and confusion in questions and demands. His community needs restoration that only God can provide, but God is not acting like the “God of our salvation” (verse 4). He dares to suggest that God has been angry too long and that it is becoming difficult to rejoice in God (verses 5–6).
This honest speech grounds the concluding verses that are full of hope for God’s salvation within the experience of real life in a sinful world. Without recognizing despair, heavenly visions of righteousness and peace kissing one another may seem too fanciful or abstract to be meaningful. Poetic language is needed at times of heightened emotion, not when everything is fine.
Even if the preacher and her congregation would not interpret their own struggles as a consequence of God’s anger, the psalmist’s language in verses 3–7 may give them permission to acknowledge and name their experiences of struggle in the presence of God rather than remaining silent about them, and skipping to the promise of salvation that then seems unnecessary. In a culture that often interprets strong emotion as immaturity, Psalms can liberate our congregations to feel what they feel, trusting that their emotions are a gift from God, who is big enough to receive them. Honest expression before God can also open the door to deeper relationship with God, who can respond to and transform the cries of our hearts.
Finally, Psalm 85 invites us to see the ways in which salvation has broken into our communities and is doing so even now. In congregations that tend to relegate salvation to something that may or may not happen when we die, or that tend to see salvation as happening on an individual rather than a creation-wide basis, this could be a gift. As we prepare for the birth of Jesus, we prepare for one whose presence left nothing untouched, from the stars in the sky (see also Matthew 2:2) to “the wind and the sea” (Mark 4:41). We prepare for one whose glory came to “dwell in our land” (Psalm 85:9b). This is not a metaphor. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, this glory continues even today.