15 December 2010

Psalm 85

"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." (vv. 10-11)


Today's reading can be roughly divided into three distinct sections - past, present and future.

  • In verses 1 to 3, the psalmist recalls all that God has done for the people, being favourable to the land and forgiving people their sins.
  • Verses 4 to 7 deal with the people's current predicament - things are not going well. They feel that God has withdrawn from them and is angry because of their failings. The psalmist cries out to God to restore the people and to show them God's love once again.
  • Then verses 8 to 12 look to the future with hope, confident that God will once again be near to the people and that their land will yield.

Some scholars think that this psalm was written around 520BC, just after the Jews returned from their exile in Babylon, where they were captives. This forced exile ended around 538BC after the fall of Babylon to the Persian King Cyrus the Great, who then allowed the Jews to return home and rebuild their Temple. This period of exile had a huge impact on Jewish culture and the development of Judaism. 

Verses 1 to 3 might be understood as the psalmist reflecting on God's great mercy in bringing about the release of the Jews from their captivity in Babylon. But life wasn't immediately perfect once the Jews had gained their freedom - they had yet to rebuild the Temple (which was seen as God's home in their community) and their crops were failing. They thought that God must still be angry with them. So, in verses 4 to 7, the psalmist recognises that there is distance between God and God's people, caused by their bad behaviour. He knows that God has forgiven them in the past and pleads for it to be so again. 

But the psalm doesn't end in despair, although the situation hasn't yet improved, the psalmist resolves to hear God's voice, trusting that God will speak peace to the people and rain down blessings upon them. 

As well as reflecting Israel's journey from Babylon, today's reading also seems to map out the cycle of the life of faith. We move from high to low and then back to high again, on and on, wondering if we'll ever get to that place of permanent rest and happiness. It can be frustrating when the good times are followed by the tough ones, but God has promised never to abandon us and it's that fact that kept the psalmist hoping and trusting that God would restore his people again. 


To Ponder

Often when bad things happen to the Jewish people in the Old Testament they are interpreted as God's punishment of the people for their sins. How do you think God responds to our failings today?

When you're having a difficult time, how easy is it for you to trust God to bring you through?

Bible notes author

Anna Drew

Anna Drew is Director of Communications for the Diocese of Canterbury. She is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's Daily Service and Prayer for the Day and a freelance writer on faith issues.