To be honest, Psalm 85 is a little all over the place. The first four verses reflect a time when God forgave Israel for some transgressions and restored them. But then the next set of verses seems to indicate Israel went backwards, sinned again, and so found itself under the wrath of God again. And then we get to the last sections that are the actual Lectionary selection for this Year A Sunday after Pentecost that may or may not flow smoothly from verse 7. The psalmist pledges to listen to God and seems more upbeat again about the promises of God and about God’s glory dwelling in the land.
Then we get to the very last verses which are the most well-known parts of this poem with its lyric language about love and faithfulness meeting up and righteousness and justice sharing a kiss. But honestly, these verses seem to come from out of nowhere. Where does the psalmist see this happening? Where is faithfulness springing up from the earth or where is righteousness both looking down from heaven and also going before God as a preparation for God’s very steps? Is this related to needing to be delivered from God’s wrath? Is it a hoped-for future?
Truth is, this psalm feels like a loosely stitched together pastiche of sentiments. A lyric thanksgiving for deliverance is followed by a plea for restoration followed by some pledge of faithfulness followed by an almost eschatological vision of an earth filled with shalom. So were one to preach on this whole psalm or even just the last portion as assigned by the Lectionary, how should the preacher proceed? The whole thing reminds me of the anecdote that claims that Winston Churchill once sent a pudding back to the kitchen complaining that the pudding lacked a theme.
Or might there be a way to view this psalm that brings it closer to home after all? What if we thought of this psalm’s mish-mash of thanksgiving, repentance, pledges of faithfulness, and wistful hopes to see a renewed creation as a reflection of just how many of our lives go sometimes? Sometimes we all feel like what is now referred to as “a hot mess.” We ricochet from being so grateful to God for his forgiving grace back into some failure that necessitates our receiving more grace. This in turn is sometimes followed by a fierce determination to clean up our acts and maybe this in turn leads us to long for a day when we won’t have to keep repeating this same old sad cycle because God will be all in all. Love, faithfulness, righteousness, justice: they will all dance around one another in the sheer delight that just is God’s shalom when we ourselves but also the whole of creation will at long last be what God intended for the whole shebang in the beginning.
But we can take our cues as to what to long for from the vocabulary in especially verses 10 and 11. Clustered here are some of the most theologically rich words in the Hebrew language. The “love and faithfulness” that meet are chesed and emet, the latter being that #1 trait of God’s for which Israel gave praise again and again. It’s not just “love” but God’s overflowing lovingkindness, all that is within God that makes God inclined to be forgiving and gracious. And the second word is the word from which we also derive “Amen” and its other meanings include “truth” or that which is flat out right in the world. In the New Testament these would be “grace and truth” and how can one hear those words without thinking of John 1’s description of that which the Word of God made flesh abounded in: he was full of grace and truth.
Next up is righteousness and peace and here again are the loaded Hebrew words zedek and shalom. The righteousness here is the very core of who God is, it is every straight moral line in the universe, the standard against which crookedness is determined. And of course shalom is so rich a Hebrew word it is now a part of many languages in its untranslated form. It’s “peace” all right but not peace in the sense of an absence of conflict or the opposite of war. No, it’s shalom in the sense of everything in the world contributing to the wholeness and the flourishing of everything and everyone else in the world. It’s a creation in which every last thing that exists is webbed together to everything else in one vast network of flourishing and delight.
This is the world we long for: a world where grace leads the way, where truth is what most makes people enthusiastic, where everything that was ever meant to be right is all that there is and is linked together to everything and to everyone else in a world that adds up to just one constant reality: Shalom.
We all have our ups and downs. Psalm 85 maybe really does reflect our too-typical experiences in a world that is not yet perfect and nor are any of us. Not by a long shot. But God’s Word assures us we are on course for that better, lyric world sketched in the final verses of this poem. And as Christians we know this more certainly because the things longed for in this psalm’s final vision really did all come together in the person of Jesus the Christ. He is the one full of grace and truth, he is the one in whom righteousness and shalom co-exist in perfect harmony. And he is the one who died and rose again so that faithfulness really did spring forth from the earth on Easter morning and the righteousness of God’s One and Only is now paving the way for his every footstep as he leads us all to the better day that just is the Kingdom of God.
The seeming pastiche of ideas that Psalm 85 seems to contain—the perhaps spiritual ups and downs reflected in the experience of this psalmist—reminds me of a couple things. First, it reminds me of what the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship has identified as the “Vertical Habits” that are at the core of Christian worship. When it comes right down to it, worship consists of really just a few basic elements including simple, almost child-like language that says “Thank You” and “I’m Sorry” and “I Promise.”
But something of the spiritual ups and downs reflected here also reminds me of writer Anne Lamott who once said that once you strip away all the specifics, her prayers to God come down to basically just two prayers: “Help me, help me, help me!” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 9, 2020
Psalm 85:8-13 Commentary