Psalm 85

February 11, 2001


Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

I remember the days when I was in college, a new Christian, and with a hunger to know what God was saying in the Bible. I had enrolled in a Scofield Bible correspondence course. I’m not a dispensationalist, but that course helped me to understand that there was a structure to what the Bible says. And then I discovered a church down near Rittenhouse Square, some 18 blocks from where I lived on Drexel University’s campus. So Sunday mornings I would walk down there. The pastor was a great Bible expositor named Donald Grey Barnhouse. And I sat enthralled as he would preach from the Bible and display the themes of redemption and forgiveness of sins. It was finally beginning to make sense. I don’t remember that Barnhouse ever preached on the Psalms. It was mostly Romans and the New Testament epistles, but there was often an Old Testament reading from a Psalm in the worship time.

In Hebrew worship the Psalms were used regularly because they seemed to capture in their poetry something of the longing for God that was imbedded in the history of the nation. So a Hebrew would come to worship on a day on which Psalm 85 was chanted, or read. The Psalm gave a structure to worship. In it, as in so many Psalms, the Psalmist reflects on the past and on what God had done in Israel’s past. That regular reflection on your past can be a stabilizing act in your life. It shows where you’ve come from. We need to reflect on our past more often. This is the lesson of verses 1-3.

Then, in verses 4-7 the Psalmist prays that God would help them now. Notice the requests. There are seven of them in these four verses. The Psalmist is feeling dead spiritually. He wants to be restored, verse 4. He wants to be revived, verse 6. That’s why he comes to worship.

Then, in verses 8-13, having prayed, he listens for the Lord’s answer. “I will listen to what God the Lord will say.” But what God says is far more magnificent, far larger than anything the Psalmist or the people of Israel imagined when they prayed for God to revive them.

So they came to worship with little expectations, but if they paid attention during their worship, they were met with the big expectations God has. Let us study more closely this part of God’s Word so that it may help us to come to worship with big expectations. What people discover is that God is good. He is more good than we can imagine. He has a big plan and it includes us.

1. The Psalm reflects on the past. We’ve seen this in several Psalms recently. God is good, but somehow his goodness is swallowed up by the drudgery and the problems of everyday life. Joseph Gelineau is a French Catholic who has written a metrical version of the Psalms. He makes verse 1, “O Lord, you once favored your land. You once restored the fortunes of Jacob.” Where we may feel this is in remembering the vigor and the excitement of that time when we first became Christians, when everything seemed possible. We need to be careful we don’t confuse the newness of youth with the different vigor of age, which is the Psalmist’s situation.

What did God once do for the Israelites? Notice verses 2 and 3, you forgave our iniquity, you covered our sins, you set aside your wrath and you turned away from your anger because of our sins. But does God not continue to do that? And that is the Psalmist’s point. God does continue to deal with our sins, provided we meet the condition of verse 8, “let them not return to folly!” But the Israelites had acted foolishly. They knew better, but they acted foolishly. That was part of what you saw when you reflect on their past. Time and again they had compromised with the world.

Are you expecting God to be fresh for you in your life? Does your spiritual life feel stale? Maybe the problem is not in God but in you. When the people looked at their past story, it was a story of how they had been restored, forgiven and pardoned. But, according to verse 4, in the present they still need to be restored.

2. So let’s look at the Psalmist’s prayer. The past tells him what he might expect from God. In the present he sees that he and the people need to be restored, verse 4, and revived, verse 6.

There was a man named William Paton Mackay who wrote a hymn in 1863, nearly 140 years ago, based upon Psalm 85:6, “Revive us again, Fill each heart with Thy love, may each soul be rekindled with fire from above.” (It’s No. 60 in our hymn book.) That’s what we need.

The question in the series of seven requests in the Psalmist’s prayer is, will God rekindle the faith of his people as they go through crisis now?

For many years I kept a prayer journal. When I look back on the things I prayed about what I notice is the genuine uncertainty about the specific things I was asking about regarding specific steps in my life and my ministry and at the same time there was a deep confidence in God the Lord, whom I trusted. So if I have learned anything from my own history of praying it is that God may continue to be trusted, though we cannot always see the specific way to go.

So, every time you pray, God, should I go to this college or that one, God asks, do you trust me? And when you pray, God is this the woman for me, or this man for me, God asks, do you trust me? And those are two different questions, but they are related. God knows what he’s doing, we don’t always. The problem is that what we are doing consumes far more of our time in prayer than whether we trust God or not. When the Psalmist prays, revive us again, he is praying for his trust in God to catch up with the questions of his life.

Let me try to give an example. There was an article in the paper this week. It began, “New observations of subatomic particles do not appear to fit into the standard theories explaining the matter and forces that shape the universe.” The article went on to describe what may be a first glimpse of a previously unseen kind of matter. The rare particle seems to effect the wobble frequency of a sub-atomic particle known as a muon. These unseen particles have been forcing scientists to create a new model instead of what has been for 30 years the Standard Model to explain the forces in the universe. The new model is called supersymmetry.

Now here we are in our lives going along trying to see life in terms of our agenda and our desires and we are frustrated because the rest of the universe does not act as if I am the center of the universe. So then the Bible describes what it sees and suddenly we see that we are being offered a new model to explain the forces which operate around our lives. Supersymmetry accurately describes what is happening when we trust God first and then fit the other parts of our lives into that.

3. Well, after praying, in verse 8 the Psalmist listens for God’s answer. And here is where the model of God’s Word runs far ahead of the ability to measure reality that the Psalmist had available. God’s answer to the Psalmist’s prayer comes in the incarnation of God’s Son. In Jesus Christ almost every word of verses 8 -13 is fulfilled.

Let us look at this. Verse 8, He promises peace to His people. And we hear from Luke 2:14 the angels’ words to the shepherds, “on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” And God’s favor rests on those who trust Jesus.

Verse 9, his salvation is near to those who fear him. And we read in Matthew 1:21, the angel’s words to Joseph, “give him the name Jesus for he will give his people forgiveness of sins.” And there are Simeon’s words in the temple when Jesus is brought to be dedicated, “my eyes have seen your salvation.”

In the second part of Psalm 85:9, “that his glory may dwell in our land.” And we read in Luke 2:32, again in Simeon’s words as he held Jesus in his arms, “my eyes have seen...a light for the glory of your people.” And in John 1:14 when in the beginning of his Gospel, John describes Jesus coming and says, “we have seen his glory.”

And then in verses 10 and 11 we read about this combination of love and faithfulness, righteousness and peace coming together like one of Edward Hicks Peaceable Kingdom paintings, in which Indians and Pilgrims are meeting together in peace, and lions and sheep are mingling together. And we might think of John’s words in John 1:17, “the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Or Paul’s words in Romans 5:1, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

What happens in God’s answer to the Psalmist’s prayer is that he hints at this larger vision for salvation that involves God’s son, Jesus Christ. Now the Psalmist can’t understand that fully, but he is starting in the right direction. He is bringing into view the character traits that will become a reality in Jesus Christ. Unloving people will learn to love because Jesus makes them new. Unfaithful people will learn to be faithful by observing that Jesus was faithful and learning he can empower them to be faithful. Unrighteous people will become righteous through faith in Jesus. People who do not know peace are given peace by Jesus who says, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.”

So from the time the Psalm was written until the time of Jesus people knew the words of the Psalm, but they lived with an old model of the world, and it was a model filled with uncertainty, lack of love and lack of faithfulness because in human beings there is not the material to generate these characteristics. But they knew about them; they longed for them; at times they believed they possessed them - like the Pharisees did, by keeping the laws they knew. And the laws defined an old picture of a world that no longer demonstrated reality.

When people see the Old Testament as a viable world view, they need to face the fact that there is data which it doesn’t explain. Jews have been angry about a new theme park in Orlando, a temple and its environs used by Christians to tell the Christian story. But of course that is what Christians must do. We preach the Gospel in every circumstance, which is not the same thing the Jews teach. Christians are not pluralistic. Nor are Jews. There are those Messianic groups which spend a lot of time celebrating Jewish rites because they foreshadow Christ; but that is surely a wrong approach since Jewish rites could not picture the whole of the new reality which God brought in Jesus Christ. Jews who lived in Jesus’ day didn’t understand him, nor did Jesus’ own disciples. They needed something new which the Holy Spirit would bring and none of the old Jewish rituals ever prepared the way to clearly understand what Jesus finally brought.

What we need in the church is to stop remaining in the manger, like in C. S. Lewis’ story, The Last Battle, but we need to heed the cry of the unicorn, “Further Up and Further In!” God has a new model for life and it is revealed in Jesus Christ. It is revealed as an answer to the kind of prayer the Psalmist prays, revive us again, God. And God does because He is good.