I’ve prefaced my notes on this psalm with a brief introduction by Father Patrick Boylan.
ISRAEL’S COMFORT IN SORROW
THIS psalm is a liturgical composition dating from the post-Exilic period. It reflects the griefs and hopes of the post-Exilic community in Israel. The decree of their liberation from Babylon had filled the Exiles with joy, but their homecoming had been full of disappointment. Instead of joy and peace, unsettlement and sadness prevailed throughout the land, and men were wondering why the Lord had brought them back from Babylon only to the disillusionment of Juda. We find in the psalm the same spirit which breathes in the beginning of the books of Aggaeus (Haggai) and Zachary (Zechariah). If the Lord had great designs for Israel when He used Cyrus to set the Exiles free, why does He not begin to accomplish them? Has the divine anger which handed over Jerusalem and its people to the Chaldeans (Babylonians) not been appeased by the sufferings of the Exile? Is that anger about to burst forth against His unhappy people once more? Is there no hope that the old greatness of Israel will be restored? Surely the wonders of the past, and, above all, the grace of liberation from captivity will not end in the destruction of Israel!
The poem falls easily into three parts. In the first (Ps 85:2-4) the graces and mercies of the liberation from the Exile are recalled. We can imagine this part of the psalm as sung by a portion of the people gathered together for worship, by a choir, or by the priests.
The second part of the psalm is (Ps 85:5-8). Here another choir implores the Lord to complete the mercies which the Liberation had begun. Surely He will not be again angry with His people as He had been before the Exile. Surely His wrath will not blaze forth unto the destruction of Israel again! It is time for the Lord to show His gracious favour again, that Israel may live and praise Him.
In the third section (Ps 85:9-14) a soloist sings a prophetic message of comfort for Israel. As if listening to the words of Yahweh the prophet sings. His song is an oracle of hope. Help from the Lord is at hand. The words of Yahweh are words of peace—of rest and of security. The Peace and the Glory of the Lord will soon be seen again in Israel. A wonderful picture of the Lord’s benignant rule is drawn in familiar Messianic colours. Justice, Truth, Graciousness, Peace, as Yahweh’s ministering Angels, will rule everywhere in the land. The earth will be fruitful beyond all hope. Wherever the Lord walks abroad in the land Justice goes before Him and Peace follows in His train. The hope that painted a picture like this at a time of deepest political depression could spring only from the unshakeable conviction that God was on the side of Israel.
The structure of this poem should be compared with that of Ps 124—where the prophetic portion is wanting, and also with that of 93 and 79.
(85:2) Lord, thou hast blessed thy land: thou hast turned away the captivity of Jacob.
Exile, which consists of both the loss of one’s land and captivity in a foreign nation befell the people as a result of their sins; this in accord with the covenant they entered into with God. If you shall beget sons and grandsons, and abide in the land, and being deceived, make to yourselves any similitude (idol), committing evil before the Lord your God, to provoke him to wrath: I call this day heaven and earth to witness, that you shall quickly perish out of the land, which, when you have passed over the Jordan, you shall possess. You shall not dwell therein long, but the Lord will destroy you, And scatter you among all nations, and you shall remain a few among the nations, to which the Lord shall lead you. And there you shall serve gods, that were framed with men’s hands: wood and stone, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell (Deut 4:25-28). The purpose of this punishment was medicinal, oriented towards moving the people to repent and once again enjoy God’s blessings: And when thou shalt seek there the Lord thy God, thou shalt find him: yet so, if thou seek him with all thy heart, and all the affliction of thy soul. After all the things aforesaid shall find thee, in the latter time thou shalt return to the Lord thy God, and shalt hear his voice. Because the Lord thy God is a merciful God: he will not leave thee, nor altogether destroy thee, nor forget the covenant, by which he swore to thy fathers (Deut 4:29-31).
Thou hast blessed thy land. By the return of the exiles. Devastation of the land by an invading army and the removal of peoples into exile was another result of covenant infidelity: Thou shalt cast much seed into the ground, and gather little: because the locusts shall consume all. Thou shalt plant a vineyard, and dig it, and shalt not drink the wine, nor gather any thing thereof: because it shall be wasted with worms. Thou shalt have olive trees in all thy borders, and shalt not be anointed with the oil: for the olives shall fall off and perish. Thou shalt beget sons and daughters, and shalt not enjoy them: because they shall be led into captivity. The blast shall consume all the trees and the fruits of thy ground…The Lord will bring upon thee a nation from afar, and from the uttermost ends of the earth, like an eagle that flyeth swiftly, whose tongue thou canst not understand, A most insolent nation, that will shew no regard to the ancients, nor have pity on the infant, And will devour the fruit of thy cattle, and the fruits of thy land: until thou be destroyed, and will leave thee no wheat, nor wine, nor oil, nor herds of oxen, nor flocks of sheep: until he destroy thee. And consume thee in all thy cities, and thy strong and high wall be brought down, wherein thou trustedst in all thy land. Thou shalt be besieged within thy gates in all thy land which the Lord thy God will give thee (Deut 28:38-42, 49-52. See also Isa 1:7-8; 5:8-10, 17; 6:11-13 24:1-13; Jer 5:4-8). This situation of exile and devastation of the land will be ended when the people return to their God in repentance (Deut 30:1-13). In the context of this psalm these things (sin, invasion, exile, return, bestowal of God’s blessings) have already happened.
Thou hast turned away the captivity of Jacob. Turned away (Heb. שׁבת, Gr. απεστρεψας) is a sort of leitmotif in this psalm as will become clear. This is the same word used in Deut 30:1-3 to express repentance which will lead God to turn around the fortunes of his people: Now when all these things shall be come upon thee, the blessing or the curse, which I have set forth before thee, and thou shalt be touched with repentance of thy heart among all the nations, into which the Lord thy God shall have scattered thee, And shalt return to him, and obey his commandments, as I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul: The Lord thy God will bring back again thy captivity, and will have mercy on thee, and gather thee again out of all the nations, into which he scattered thee before. (see also Ps 14:7; 53:7; 126:4; Jer 30:18; where the NAB translates as “restore”. Also see Jer 29:14; 30:3; 33:26 where the NAB translates as “change your lot”).
(85:3) Thou hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people: thou hast covered all their sins.
Thou hast forgiven is literally “Thou hast turned away”, using the same word as in the previous verse (Heb. שׁבת, Gr. απεστρεψας). Father Stuhlmueller rightly notes that although the blessings in this psalm begin by mentioning the land, it is the forgiveness of sins which is the requisite of the return and the other gifts.
(85:4) Thou hast mitigated all thy anger: thou hast turned away from the wrath of thy indignation.
Thou hast Mitigated all thy anger. The Hebrew reads Thou hast taken away, employing the word אספת, “to gather for any purpose”. God has gathered up his anger in order to remove it. The Greek text has κατεπαυσας, “to colonize,” “to settle down, desist”). God has settled down his anger and allowed his people to once again settle down in the land.
Thou hast turned away from the wrath. Once again the leitmotif turned away appears.
Of thy indignation. Indignation translates the Greek θυμου, meaning “hard breath.” The Hebrew word is אפך׃, “nose, nostril.” A man’s breathing becomes heavy and his nostrils flare when he is angry. These words are often used to express God’s anger.
(85:5) Convert us, O God our saviour: and turn off thy anger from us.
Convert us. The Hebrew is שׁובנו, a cognate of שׁבת used in verse 2. The Greek is επιστρεψον, which is formed by the root στρέφω; the Greek απεστρεψας in verse 2 is likewise taken from this root. Once again we have the leitmotif of turning back. This leitmotif occurs again in the second part of the verse, at least in the Greek version: Turn (αποστρεψον) off thy anger from us.
This and the following verses may appear to contradict the state of things indicated in verses 2-4, but the historical context of the psalm is important. The people have indeed returned from captivity and are once again in the promised land (vs 2). Their sins have been forgiven and God’s anger abated, however, they are again in danger of breaking the covenant. The devastated land, the task of rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple weighed heavy upon them, and some were losing heart. They began to put themselves first and God second. The time period here is the age of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. They are once again experiencing punishment for lack of fidelity to the covenant (see Haggai 1:2-11). By recalling the past favors of God (vss 2-4) they establish a basis for their appeal.
(85:6) Wilt thou be angry with us for ever: or wilt thou extend thy wrath from generation to generation?
Father Boylan: “Surely the wrath which had brought on the Exile, and which for a little time had seemed to be ended, will not be maintained for ever”. (see Ps 77:8-11; Isa The thought of God’s perpetual wrath towards his people is unthinkable as his past actions in their favor (vss 2-4) indicate, thus the psalm continues:
(85:7) Thou wilt turn, O God, and bring us to life: and thy people shall rejoice in thee.
Again note the reference to turning.
(85:8) Shew us, O Lord, thy mercy; and grant us thy salvation.
The Psalmists confidence in God (vs 7) based as it is on His way of acting (vss 2-4) forms the basis for this petition.
Thy mercy. Hebrew, חסדך; Greek, ελεος. See The Concept of “Mercy” In The Old Testament, an excerpt from Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical (Rich In Mercy).
(85:9) I will hear what the Lord God will speak in me: for he will speak peace unto his people: And unto his saints: and unto them that are converted to the heart.
I will hear what the Lord God will speak in (to) me is a pledge of fidelity. See Habakkuk 2:1-2.
For he will speak peace. In biblical usage peace is a total state of well being and can be used as synonymous with life (2 Sam 18:29). This peace will manifest itself in salvation and glory (vs 10); mercy and truth, justice and peace (vs 11);
Unto them that are converted to (in) the heart. This reflects the Greek Septuagint; the Hebrew reads: But let them not turn again to folly. The RSV follows the Greek. Note once again the leitmotif of turning (the basic meaning of convert).
(85:10) Surely his salvation is near to them that fear him: that glory may dwell in our land.
The Greek word translated as near would perhaps be better translated as near at hand, for the basic meaning of εγγυς is “to squeeze with the hand”. (See mark 1:15; Matt 3:2).
(85:11) Mercy and truth have met each other: justice and peace have kissed.
Mercy, truth, justice, peace are gifts of God’s peace and are here personified as divine agents .
The absence of these things were declared crimes in Israel by the Prophet Hosea (Hos 4:1-2), and their absence had been detrimental to the land in accord with the covenant punishments mentioned at the beginning of my notes (Hos 4:3). See also Isaiah 59:1-15.
(85:12) Truth is sprung out of the earth: and justice hath looked down from heaven.
Truth is sprung out of the earth. The earth or land upon which the psalmist was certain God’s glory would dwell (vs 10). The land which was once ravaged by God and then blessed (see vs 2 and the notes on it).
Justice hath looked down from heaven. The gifts of God, manifestations of peace between him and his people, encompass both heaven and earth which had themselves been personified as witnesses to the covenant (Deut 32:1; see also Deut 4:25-26).
Human sin causes ruptures both human and cosmic (Adam and Eve~Gen 3; The generation of Noah~Gen 7:11; the generation of Hosea~Hos 4:1-3; the crucifixion of Christ Matt 27:45-54). But the disharmony introduced by sin is not irreversible (Hos 2:21-23; Isa 32:15-18).
(85:13) For the Lord will give goodness: and our earth shall yield her fruit.
Goodness could here mean blessings both temporal and spiritual. Our earth shall yield her fruit could be taken solely as a reference to agricultural blessings, however, given the close connection in the OT between faithfulness/unfaithfulness and fertility/lack of fertility the words can be taken as a metaphor for spiritual blessing.
(85:14) Justice shall walk before him: and ,shall set his steps in the way.
As a herald goes before a king so will justice go before the Lord, guiding his steps in the way (I.e., God will follow the way [path, road] of justice (righteousness).