This psalm is a community lament in which the psalmist recounts blessings conferred on the people by the Lord (vv. 1-3), pleas for salvation (vv. 4-7), and expresses faith that God will save them (vv. 8-13).
While we can’t be sure when this psalm was written, it was probably after the return of the exiles from Babylonia. That exile was God’s judgment for their sins.
After a regime change, the Persian King Cyrus had allowed a remnant to return to Jerusalem in 538 B.C. The return of the exiles could account for the account of blessings in verses 1-3.
However, when the exiles returned to Jerusalem, they found the city and temple in ruins. Their neighbors were hostile, so that their first order of business had to be building walls for protection. It was anything but the grand homecoming for which they had hoped, and they were severely disappointed. That would account for the plea for mercy in verses 4-7.
But while their faith had been dealt a severe blow by diminished circumstances, they nevertheless lived in faith that God would redeem them. That would account for the expressions of faith in verses 8-13.
For the Chief Musician. A Psalm by the sons of Korah.
“For the Chief Musician” (Hebrew: menasseah––leader). Nasah, the verb form of menasseah, means to lead, and is used for leaders in various fields. In 1 Chronicles 15:21, that word is used for musicians using lyres (a stringed instrument, somewhat like a harp) to lead a considerable gathering of singers and musicians. In Habakkuk 3:19, it is used for the leader of stringed instruments. In the psalms, menasseah is used often to mean the music leader.
“A Psalm by the sons of Korah.” Korah was a Levite who led a minor rebellion against Moses over a theological dispute (Numbers 16:3). Moses told Korah and his followers to allow God to settle the dispute, so they assembled before the Tent of Meeting for that purpose. God decided the issue by having the ground open up and swallow Korah and his followers. Fire consumed another 250 men (Numbers 16:31-35). That makes Korah the unlikely father of descendants who would lead music in temple worship––but that’s what happened.
“But the sons of Korah didn’t die” (Numbers 26:11). Some became warriors (1 Chronicles 12:6). Others became gatekeepers (1 Chronicles 26:1, 19). Some contributed to victory in battle by standing and praising the Lord (2 Chronicles 20:19).
But the Korahites are best known for the frequent appearance of their name in the superscriptions to two groups of Psalms (Psalms 42, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 84, 85, 87, 88).
PSALM 85:1-3. YAHWEH, YOU HAVE FORGIVEN INIQUITY
1 Yahweh, you have been favorable to your land.
You have restored the fortunes of Jacob.
2 You have forgiven the iniquity of your people.
You have covered all their sin.
3 You have taken away all your wrath.
You have turned from the fierceness of your anger.
“Yahweh, you have been favorable to your land” (v. 1a). There was a close connection between the people of Israel and their land. When Yahweh first called Abram, he said, “Get out of your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12:1-2). Then Yahweh promised, “I will give this land to your seed” (Genesis 12:1-3, 7)––so we call it The Promised Land. Israel’s relationship to the land was bound up in its relationship to Yahweh. The two could not be separated.
But Israel’s hold on the land and their prosperity waxed and waned with their faithfulness or lack thereof to their responsibilities under the covenant––to honor Yahweh and to obey his commandments.
In this verse, the psalmist says that Yahweh has been favorable to his (Yahweh’s) land––the land that he had given to Israel. However, he doesn’t specify whether he is thinking about Yahweh’s earlier history with Israel or of more recent times.
“You have restored the fortunes of Jacob” (v. 1b). Note the similarity of thought between verses 1a and 1b––an example of parallelism, a common feature of Hebrew poetry.
Jacob was the younger son of Isaac and Rebekah, the son through which the promise originally given to Abram would be channeled. Later in Jacob’s life, God said to him, “Your name shall not be Jacob any more, but your name will be Israel…. The land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I will give it to you, and to your seed after you will I give the land” (Genesis 35:10, 12).
So in this verse, the name Jacob is a proxy for Israel and its people.
“You have forgiven the iniquity of your people. You have covered all their sin” (v. 2a). This is another example of parallelism, where the second part of the verse repeats the idea of the first part.
“You have forgiven” (Hebrew: nasa). The word nasa can mean to bear a burden. It can also mean to take away something. It is therefore a fitting word for God’s forgiveness of Israel, where God bears the burden of Israel’s guilt or takes it away.
“the iniquity” (Hebrew: ‘awon). The word ‘awon refers to a particularly evil sin.
“You have covered” (Hebrew: kasah). Kasah can be used for clothing a person to conceal his/her nakedness. That’s what the psalmist is describing here, but metaphorically. He is saying that God has covered the sins of his people so that they are no longer spiritually naked.
“their sin” (Hebrew: hatta’t). Sin (hatta’t) and iniquity (‘awon) are used in parallel here, reinforcing each other. Iniquity is the stronger of the two words.
“Selah” (v. 2b). The meaning of this word is uncertain, but it seems to be some sort of musical notation, perhaps signaling a pause or a change of volume or intensity.
“You have taken away all your wrath. You have turned from the fierceness of your anger” (v. 3). Another example of parallelism.
Verse 2 speaks of Yahweh forgiving Israel’s iniquity and sin. This verse explains the effect of that forgiveness. Because Yahweh has forgiven Israel’s sin, it is as if they had never sinned. Yahweh no longer has cause to be angry with them.
PSALM 85:4-7. SHOW US YOUR LOVING KINDNESS
4 Turn us, God of our salvation,
and cause your indignation toward us to cease.
5 Will you be angry with us forever?
Will you draw out your anger to all generations?
6 Won’t you revive us again,
that your people may rejoice in you?
7 Show us your loving kindness, Yahweh.
Grant us your salvation.
In verses 1-3, the psalmist spoke of God having been favorable to Israel (v. 1)––and covering all her sin (v. 2)––and taking away all his wrath (v. 3). Why then would the psalmist, in verses 4-7, plea for Yahweh to do these things again?
The reason is that, in verses 1-3, the psalmist was talking about forgiveness dispensed by God in the past, probably in the return of a remnant from their Babylonian Exile. But, as noted in the context above, Israel still needs forgiveness and restoration.
“Turn (Hebrew: sub) us, God (Hebrew: elohim) of our salvation” (v. 4a). The word sub has a number of meanings. This could be a plea that:
- God would turn (change) Israel so he could justify saving them, or
- That God would restore Israel to an earlier state, where she was in a right relationship with Yahweh, and thus fit for salvation.
“God” (Hebrew: elohim). By far the most common name for God in the Old Testament is Yahweh, which means “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14)––but elohim is the next most common. El means god (note the small g), and can be used for any god. Elohim is plural, so it can apply to many gods. However, when used to refer to Yahweh, as in this verse, the usage is called “the intensive plural” or “the majestic plural,” acknowledging that all deity is summed in Yahweh.
“and cause your indignation (Hebrew: ka’as) toward us to cease” (v. 4b). The word ka’as means anger––anger as response to provocation. Israel provoked Yahweh’s anger by her unfaithfulness to her covenant responsibilities.
“Will you be angry (Hebrew: ‘anap) with us forever? Will you draw out your anger (Hebrew: ‘ap) to all generations?” (v. 5).
This verse has two related words for anger:
- ‘ap means nose, nostril, or anger.
- ‘anap means angry or to breathe through the nose.
That seems peculiar. What do noses have to do with anger? Two common phrases come to mind that might provide a clue. The first is “flared nostrils,” which can be a sign of intense anger––the kind of anger that could lead to violence. The second is “his nose is out of joint,” which means that he is disturbed or angry or holding a grudge.
“Will you draw out your anger (Hebrew: ‘ap) to all generations?” (v. 5b). The question isn’t whether God is angry with Israel––the psalmist is certain that he is. His question is whether there is any hope that God will forgive––will allow his anger to dissipate. The psalmist’s fear is that God’s anger will go on forever––to all generations.
When a person expresses concern that suffering might go on forever, it often indicates that he/she has endured suffering for what seems like forever. The question then arises, “Will this continue forever? Will I ever experience relief? Is there any hope?” These are the concerns that the psalmist is expressing.
The idea that punishment might continue to future generations has a Biblical foundation. Moses quoted God as saying that God would visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and on the fourth generation” (Numbers 14:18; see also Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 5:9). Indeed, children do suffer for the sins of their parents. Children of drug addicts or felons or abusers will usually have difficult childhoods, and in many cases will carry emotional and/or physical scars for the rest of their lives.
“Won’t you revive (Hebrew: hayah) us again” (v. 6a). The word hayah means to live––to be alive. The psalmist is asking God to restore them to life once again––to make them whole––to end their marginality and suffering.
“that your people may rejoice in you?” (v. 6b). When God brings life to the people once again, they will rejoice––but in a particular way. They will rejoice at the new life coursing through their veins, naturally, but they will most especially rejoice that they are once again within the bounds of God’s grace.
It is no small matter to be outside God’s circle, and Israel know how that feels. It will be no small matter when they are once again drawn inside God’s circle, where they desperately want to be.
“Show us your loving kindness (hesed), Yahweh” (v. 7a). The word hesed has a variety of meanings, to include mercy and love. Loving kindness is a good translation. If God will offer Israel loving kindness, Israel can expect readmission into the arena of God’s grace.
“Grant us your salvation” (Hebrew: yesa) (v. 7). Salvation (yesa) can have many expressions. It can mean eternal life, but it can also mean readmittance to God’s grace––or deliverance from one’s enemies.
PSALM 85:8-13. YAHWEH WILL GIVE THAT WHICH IS GOOD
8 I will hear what God, Yahweh, will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people, his saints;
but let them not turn again to folly.
9 Surely his salvation is near those who fear him,
that glory may dwell in our land.
10 Mercy and truth meet together.
Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
11 Truth springs out of the earth.
Righteousness has looked down from heaven.
12 Yes, Yahweh will give that which is good.
Our land will yield its increase.
13 Righteousness goes before him,
And prepares the way for his steps.
“I will hear what God, Yahweh, will speak, for he will speak peace (shalom) to his people” (v. 8a).
Shalom was used as a greeting (Judges 19:20). It could confer a blessing (1 Samuel 1:17). It was a product of trust in God (Isaiah 26:3). It can mean God-given prosperity (Isaiah 66:12) or a God-given covenant (Ezekiel 34:25). It could mean the absence of warfare (Judges 4:17). The messiah would be the Prince of Peace (shalom) (Isaiah 9:6).
Peace (Shalom) involves the kind of tranquility that comes from knowing who you are and where you come from. It involves the kind of prosperity that arises, not from an accumulation of material possessions, but from a thankful spirit. It involves the kind of security that comes from the faith that God loves you and will provide for your needs.
“his saints” (Hebrew: hasid) (v. 8b). The word hasid has several meanings, such as kind and merciful and pious.
Elsewhere, the psalmist uses hasid to mean faithful people whom the Lord has set apart for himself (Psalm 4:3; 86:2). Micah uses hasid to mean Godly people (Micah 7:2). In the light of those verses, “his saints” seems like a good translation here.
“but let them not turn again to folly” (v. 8c). The problem with peace and prosperity is that they can dull our sense of the need for God and the salvation that he offers. We are always tempted to think that we are responsible for whatever goodness has befallen us. We are likely to thank God for his providence only on special occasions, such as Thanksgiving Day. Distancing ourselves from God in this way is the height of folly, for we depend on God for eternity as well as for today’s needs.
The psalmist has been praying for relief for the Israelites. Now he is sufficiently insightful to show concern for the kinds of backsliding to which Israelites will be tempted.
“Surely his salvation (Hebrew: yesa) is near those who fear (Hebrew: yare) him” (v. 9a). For the meaning of yesa (salvation), see the comments on verse 7 above.
To fear (yare) God can mean to be frightened, as Moses was at the burning bush (Exodus 3:6) and the Israelites were at Mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 5:5). It is appropriate to be afraid in the presence of Godly power. Knowing that people would be afraid, God often said, “Do not be afraid” (Genesis 15:1; 26:24)––words also spoken by Jesus (Matthew 14:27; 17:7) and angels (Matthew 28:10; Luke 1:13).
But fear of God can also mean awe or reverence. In Deuteronomy 6, Moses commanded the Israelites to fear the Lord (6:2), but then added a commandment to love the Lord with all their hearts, souls, and might (6:5). While we can easily imagine a person experiencing awe and love at the same time, it is difficult to imagine a person experiencing terror and love simultaneously.
“that glory (kabod) may dwell in our land” (v. 9b). The word glory (kabod) is used in the Bible to speak of various things––but especially God’s glory––an aura associated with God’s appearance that reveals God’s majesty to humans. Biblical writers, attempting to describe God’s glory using human words, portrayed it as “devouring fire” (Exodus 24:17).
If God will redeem Israel, then Israel can hope to see glory restored to their land.
“Mercy (Hebrew: hesed) and truth (’emet) meet together” (pagas). Righteousness (sedeq) and peace (shalom) have kissed each other” (nasaq) (v. 10).
This verse mentions four great Old Testament virtues as if they were four people, meeting together (pagas) and embracing each other (nasaq) as Godly agents of one mind––in one accord:
- Mercy (hesed). Lovingkindness, mercy, faithfulness, love.
- Truth (’emet). That which is real or dependable––the opposite of false.
- Righteousness (sedeq). Life lived in accord with God’s will.
- Peace (shalom). For shalom, see the comments on verse 8a above.
“Truth (Hebrew: ’emet) springs out of the earth. Righteousness (Hebrew: sedeq) has looked down from heaven” (v. 11).
God makes generous provision for truth and righteousness––essential components of civil and religious harmony.
- Truth springs from the earth, a phrase that brings to mind the Garden of Eden, where “a mist went up from the earth, and watered the whole surface of the ground” (Genesis 2:6).
- Righteousness comes from the other direction––from the heavens. Wherever we look, up or down, we find evidence of the virtues that God prizes.
“Yes, Yahweh will give that which is good” (Hebrew: tob) (v. 12a). The first time we encountered this word tob was in the creation account. “God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (tob) (Genesis 1:31). We won’t stray far from the mark if we say that “good” in that account meant pleasing, proper, and as it should be. Everything fit together with perfect precision. There was enough sun and enough rain. There was light for the day and darkness for sleeping. Humans and animals lived together in harmony, although it was clear that humans were the superior beings, created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). No sin had yet spoiled things.
When the psalmist says that Yahweh will give that which is good, it would seem that he is anticipating a revisiting of that harmonious and fruitful time.
“Our land will yield its increase” (Hebrew: yebul) (v. 12b). Yebul means crops or produce. Israel was an agricultural economy, and poverty or prosperity was determined by the harvest. The psalmist is envisioning a time when the harvest would be plentiful––a gift from Yahweh who gives what is good.
“Righteousness (Hebrew: sedeq) goes before him, And prepares the way for his steps” (v. 13). This verse personifies righteousness, presenting it as a person who goes before God, preparing the way for God’s steps.
This brings to mind John the Baptist, who proclaimed: “‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!’ For this is he who was spoken of by Isaiah the prophet, saying,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make ready the way of the Lord.
Make his paths straight'” (Matthew 3:2-3; see Isaiah 40:3-5).
We are accustomed to preparing the way for important people. We send people ahead of the president to make sure that everything will go according to plan. Groundskeepers prepare athletic fields to insure that no athlete steps in a hole and breaks his leg. Bridesmaids go ahead of the bride to prepare people for her coming.
If we prepare so meticulously for the coming of people, both great and small, isn’t it appropriate that righteousness personified should prepare the way for a righteous God!
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150, Vol. 14b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 42-89, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2013)
Tate, Marvin E., Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
Copyright 2017, Richard Niell Donovan