Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 14, 2024

Psalm 85:8-13 Commentary

It could be pretty easy, one supposes, to glide over the concluding verses of Psalm 85 and not take much notice of what they are actually conveying.  This is just how the psalms go, we might think.  The kind of language being employed at the end is nothing terribly unusual.  This is poetry and poetry says things by way of metaphor and simile that other more literal forms of speech or writing generally do not do.  “My love is a red, red rose” a poem may assert, and we can read that without for one second concluding that the poet is in love with an actual flower.  So also the language at the end of Psalm 85: this is just typical poetic speech so nothing to see here.  Yet we should not blow past the striking fact of the personification of what we otherwise would deem to be disembodied ideas, concepts, or traits.

That is, we may associate things like faithfulness and righteousness and justice as things a person may display or possess.  You might have a friend whom you regard as so very faithful.  He is steadfast in keeping promises, standing with friends and family in need, showing up when and where he is supposed to show up, etc.  Or we might know of people who pursue justice for their communities and maybe we have a sense of what justice looks like in action thanks to this person and their work.  Or a person might be a very righteous person, full of virtue and always managing to do and say the proper thing in life’s varying circumstances.  They display righteousness but righteousness proper does not have an independent existence apart from the people who embody it and pursue it and sometimes manage to help a society achieve.

Yet Psalm 85 does personify these things.  “Righteousness” is not the sum total of who God is and what God accomplishes.  “Righteousness” is not just the concept of someone’s being in full alignment with the moral order of the universe.  No, instead it is said to have almost an independent existence.  It is a something.   It is said not to be part of God but something that actively goes ahead of God and determines God’s steps.  (That alone is curious as well: surely God does not need something outside of God’s own Self to show God the way!  That is not how we typically picture things going with God!  More on that below.)

Faithfulness springs from the earth like a tree or something.  And then we are told these various entities—shorn of being embodied by a person or being—get together with each other to embrace, to kiss, to meet and confer and to look down from heaven as though they were something that exists in addition to God and the angels.   It is all rather arresting and remarkable to hear this kind of language.

Now, of course, the fact is we are dealing with poetry in Psalm 85.  If we do not keep that in mind, we can get into swift theological hot water in case we would want to suggest God needs outside help from something that is not God in to help God be God.  Traditional orthodox theology says that God, by definition, can never be beholden to outside causality.  God can never be directed in ways that obligate God to do something.  God needs no external compulsion to do anything.  Indeed, God cannot be compelled by anything other than God’s own nature or else one might find oneself traveling down a road that could lead to the heretical conclusion that something exists that is somehow not only other than God, but superior to God in case God has to do the bidding of that other entity or thing or being.  And really, it is best not to go anywhere near such an idea!  At most maybe one could go beyond the poetic expression of Psalm 85 and say that if Righteousness has a quasi-existence unto itself, then that is only because it is a creation of God to help this world stay on track morally and thus as a creation of God Righteousness (or Justice or Faithfulness or Peace or Love) is inferior to God same as angels or humans.

Still, while it is true God cannot be beholden to or compelled by Righteousness or Faithfulness in case we entertain the idea that these things almost qualify as being a “thing” or a power or a force in the moral universe, the same cannot be said of us.  We can, of course, be compelled by things external to our own selves and maybe in this fallen and broken world we actually need to consider that these things exist as goads and guides for us.  Perhaps that may be true.  Perhaps we could view our own lives through the lens of Psalm 85 and conclude that we need Righteousness as a kind of independent entity to go ahead of us and prepare our steps for us.  Maybe Righteousness and Faithfulness and Justice so considered are extensions of the Holy Spirit to rein us in when needed and shine a light on our paths to help us forward.

Maybe there is also something encouraging about entertaining the thought that Righteousness and Faithfulness and Justice and Love and Peace are such a vital part of the warp and woof of the universe’s moral tapestry that they really can and so shape our lives and our world.  “The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice” Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said.  But maybe the “Justice” in question is not a set of goals or concepts but a reality that is actively working to bring justice about for all.

The writer of Psalm 85 was employing metaphor and probably on the level of the psalm proper that is the primary extent of it.  But under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, biblical authors often said more than they knew and in this case, perhaps this inspired writer was in touch with an idea in which we may be able to take profound comfort and encouragement as to the moral nature of God’s good creation and what forces exist to make the world in alignment with God’s original good purposes.

Illustration Idea

In Psalm 85 and as noted in this sermon commentary, Righteousness and Faithfulness and Justice and Love and Peace are all almost personified as having an independent existence beyond being characteristics or works of a given human being (or even of God).  Probably no literary work in history did this kind of thing more or better than John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.  The pilgrim in question is named simply Christian and along the way of Christian’s journey he meets other beings with names like Hopeful, Faithful, Charity, Grace, and Mercy.  And there are lots of vices that are also personified like the virtues above as Christian meets characters with names like Ignorance, Envy, Wanton, and others.  Such a work of allegory may or may not have close ties to the poetry of Psalm 85 but it is a reminder that at times, we can consider certain virtues or vices best if we can see them as almost characters in their own right.

Note: The CEP website also has commentaries on Psalm 24:

from Stan Mast in 2018:

from Doug Bratt in 2015:


Preaching Connections: , , , , ,
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