Saturday, October 12, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 85

Psalm 85 incorporates remembrance, prayerful pleas, and confident hopes into one beautiful song that reminds us of God's great love and mercy.

The psalmist begins by remembering God's past favors to Israel. "Lord, You were favorable to Your land;" the psalmist prays, "You restored the fortunes of Jacob" (verse 1). God once accepted Israel, the land and people of Jacob (Hebrew râtsâh – also to delight in or take pleasure in). Israel was His special possession. He brought them out of captivity in Egypt and led them into the Promised Land, restoring them to their place of freedom as His children rather than slaves of the Egyptians. 

Further, as the psalmist reminds God, "You forgave the inquiry of Your people; You pardoned all their sin" (verse 2). God certainly had plenty of opportunity to forgive Israel. The people complained at every step of the way on their journey through the desert. They whined and sniveled and carried on, and worse yet, they made an idol for themselves and worshiped it shamelessly. But again and again God forgave them. The Hebrew word used here for "forgave" is nâśâ', which literally means to lift, carry, or take. God took away Israel's sin, lifting its burden off the people and carrying it away. The psalmist reiterates his point with a different twist by using the word "pardoned," which in Hebrew is kâsâh, to cover, engulf, hide, and overwhelm. Sin is engulfed by God's love and hidden far away, covered up, overwhelmed by God's mercy. It will never again be uncovered and brought out in the open unless people choose to embrace it and bring it to light.

The psalmist continues in verse 3, "You withdrew all Your wrath; You turned from Your hot anger." Yes, God had been mad at His people just like a father gets angry when his children do stupid, dangerous things that threaten their well-being and the well-being of the people around them. The Hebrew suggests how upset God really was. The word translated here as "wrath" is ‛ebrâh. It literally means fury, rage, and an outburst of passion. God's anger was burning hot, fierce, but He turned it away and withdrew it. We live in a culture that likes to focus on God's great love and mercy, and this is a good thing unless such an emphasis ignores God's justice. God cannot and will not tolerate sin. He is quick to forgive the repentant sinner, but He also punishes sinners who stubbornly remain in their sin.

Apparently, Israel was once again mired in sin when this psalm was written, and God is once again angry with his people. On behalf of his people, the repentant psalmist asks for God's mercy: "Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away Your indignation toward us" (verse 4). Notice that the psalmist is asking God to repeat what He has done in the past, namely, to restore Israel and to avert His anger. The psalmist chooses the same word for "restore" as he used in verse 1, suggesting that Israel may be in some kind of captivity, perhaps not literally but certainly figuratively, a captivity to sin. The people need God to free them from the slavery to sin and lead them out of their destructive vices. The word used for "indignation" is ka‛as, which suggests vexation or anger. When applied to God, the word often refers to anger caused by people's worship of other gods, so we have a hint about what Israel's sin actually was...idolatry. 

The psalmist continues with pleading questions in the next two verses: “Will You be angry with us forever? Will You prolong Your anger to all generations? Will You not revive us again, so that Your people may rejoice in You?” (verses 5-6). He sounds like a child pleading with an angry parent. Please don't be mad forever, Daddy! Notice, though, what he wants God to do for the people. He desires God to revive them. The word for “revive” is châyâh, which literally means to restore to life. The Israelites are dead in their sin. Only God can revive them and restore them to life. Only God can remove them from their current state of spiritual death and bring them to life in Him. The psalmist then says what the people will do after they have been revived. They will rejoice in God. This is the whole purpose of their new life, praising God, worshiping God, taking pleasure in God, and loving God. He revives them so that they may live in relationship with Him. This is the psalmist's plea.

He adds another plea in verse 7: “Show us Your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us Your salvation.” This is what Israel needs most. God's love. His mercy. His kindness. His faithfulness. God's salvation. His deliverance of His people to safety. 

In the last section of the psalm, the psalmist expresses his confident hope that God will hear and answer his prayers. The section is filled with future tense verbs. God will “speak peace to His people,” to those who are faithful and who turn to Him with their whole selves (verse 8). Salvation will come. It is “at hand for those who fear Him” so that “His glory may dwell in our land” (verse 9). God will rescue His people. The time is near. His will abide with Israel, settling His glorious presence in the Promised Land, dwelling close to His family. 

When this occurs, when God comes to settle with His people, wonderful things will happen, things that the psalmist depicts in vivid, beautiful language. “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky” (verses 10-11). Everything will be right with the world. Love and truth and righteousness will reign because God, Who is the perfect Source of all these things, Who is Love, Truth, and Righteousness in person, will reign. 

The psalm ends on another confident note: “The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before Him, and will make a path for His steps” (verses 12-13). God will provide everything we need, spiritual and material. He always gives us what is good for us, even if it doesn't seem so good at the time. As Romans 8:28 assures, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.” But we must also make an effort. We must prepare our hearts. We cannot be truly righteous without God, certainly, but we can open ourselves to righteousness. We can learn the moral law and form our consciences rightly. We can behave virtuously with justice, temperance, prudence, and courage, even on a human level. That kind of behavior opens the door to God and lets Him take what is there by nature and raise it up by grace. We must prepare a path for Him in our hearts. 

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