Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 13, 2023
Psalm 85:8-13 Commentary
“Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other.”
Here is a lyric and pretty well-known line from Psalm 85. But based on how this psalm begins—in the part the Lectionary would have us leap frog over in the first 7 verses—you would not have predicted this Hebrew poem would end up including that image. Because as the psalm opens, the poet is pleading very earnestly for God to put away his anger and not let that displeasure ricochet from one generation to the next.
We never know the precise circumstances behind any of the psalms. But it is more than an educated guess to surmise that this psalm either came from a period of national decline or calamity or from the historical calamity of the Babylonian exile. In any event, the psalmist is interpreting the events of his time as the result of divine punishment borne of some level of divine anger and wrath. Psalm 85 does not deny that Israel perhaps deserves what it is getting at the hands of God but there is a sense in which especially verses 4-7 boil down to the psalmist’s essentially saying, “Dear Lord, enough already!”
But then comes the sudden shift in verse 8 (and you would not know it was a shift if you actually consider only the RCL selection). The psalmist says he will listen to God and seems to claim that what he hears God saying is he will bring peace to his people (so long as they don’t repeat the folly of whatever must have led to the divine anger of the first portion of this psalm). There is hope that God’s glory may again dwell in their land (and that line alone argues that the setting here is the Exile since we know from Ezekiel 10-11 that ahead of the Babylonian conquest of Israel, God’s glory departed the Temple).
And then comes verse 10 that we quoted at the head of this sermon commentary. It is a great image but confusing too. Whose love and faithful meet up and whose righteousness and peace give each other a kiss? Are these God’s characteristics on display here? Or is this human love and faithfulness, righteousness and peace? Or is it both: these are the traits of God but they can also be transmitted to people who can imitate and seek to pursue those same things?
People who study theology sooner or later—and it’s usually sooner in a theological education—encounter the difference between God’s Incommunicable Attributes and his Communicable Attributes. The Incommunicable ones are things that characterize God but cannot be shared by people. These are mostly the “omni-“ attributes: omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience. The Communicable attributes are traits that no human can ever embody as perfectly as God can but that people nonetheless see in God and then seek to live in those ways themselves. And these include things like holiness, righteousness, love, faithfulness.
In Psalm 85:10, then, you get the sense that this meeting and kissing of these attributes is not something happening in the rarified precincts of heaven but rather that they need to be present among God’s people in the very land in which the psalmist had just said at the end of verse 9 they want to see God’s glory dwell.
And what precisely are these things? In the original Hebrew they are chesed, emet, zadek, and shalom. As noted in many sermon commentaries here on the CEP website and also just recently on a couple commentaries on Psalm 145 (July 9, 2023, and August 6, 2023), chesed is that huge and untranslatable word that encompasses all of God’s grace, mercy, and lovingkindness. And it meets emet that is often translated as faithfulness but most literally means “truth.” Emet is also a cognate for the word “Amen.” The truth of God is indeed how God always stands by what God says. The ring of “faithfulness” here stems from the fact that there is never any daylight between what God says he will do and what he actually does. And when you think of God’s lovingkindness meeting up with God’s truth or faithfulness, what you get is a combination redolent of our hope for salvation. God has said he would save us and he does. By grace alone.
Then with the zadek and the shalom, we see that the utter rectitude and justice of God is what leads to shalom. Shalom is not “peace” in the sense of being the opposite of war or conflict but is a more active word. Shalom is not the absence of something (war) but the presence of something in the form of when all life is webbed together into mutually edifying relationships in which all creatures make it their goal to help all others to flourish. If the image of a kiss seems to carry with it whiffs of affection or even romance, maybe that is because when these things kiss one another, they give birth to a whole new world where all is right, just, orderly, mutually edifying, and good in the Genesis 1 sense of the word: “and God saw that it was good.”
These are all divine traits and realities but they can become realities in our world if we take our cues for living from God as Psalm 85 says Israel must do. God does these activities and brings about these realities naturally as part of the core of God’s very being. For humans living in a fallen world, there is little natural about all of this. To live this way and to create this kind of shalom means we have to actively resist the way a lot of people already live as well as some of the tugs we get from our own sinful hearts. We have precious little hope of achieving this solely from the human side of things. But if we follow the example of God and receive God’s strength to allow this to happen, wonderful and gracious things may follow.
The philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff published his 1981 Kuyper Lectures from the Free University in Amsterdam under a title borrowed from Psalm 85: Until Justice & Peace Embrace. In one part of the book, Wolterstorff ponders and defines shalom thus:
The peace which is shalom is not merely the absence of hostility, not merely being in right relationship. Shalom at its highest is enjoyment in ones relationships . . . Shalom in the first place involves right and harmonious to God and delight in his service. Secondly, shalom incorporates right, harmonious relationships to other human beings and delight in human community. Thirdly, shalom incorporates right, harmonious relationships to nature and delight in our physical surroundings.
(Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Peace and Justice Embrace. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1983, pp. 69-70)
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