The Hebrews who returned to Jerusalem after two generations of forced exile in Babylon faced many unknowns. In what condition would they find their city? Who would be living there? Could they somehow recreate the fabric of a society? And, perhaps most urgent, would there be food to eat and water to drink? This was not a question of whether or not the Wal-Mart would be open. The grain and produce the people grew was all the food they had. Period!
As they entered Jerusalem, the exiles found its walls breached and its gates broken. In those days, the condition of the wall was critically linked to a city’s well-being, so this was a significant problem. From the outset, their community was riddled with challenges related to safety, transportation, and public services. The exiles discovered that the Temple was little more than a pile of rubble. Given that there was no communal place to gather, religious devotion and practice became more private and personal, lacking the benefits and vitality derived from worshipping and praying together. Their situation has some striking similarities to our own time, doesn’t it.
But of the most urgent issue – food to eat – there was good news. Land for planting was available and crops grew up. The initial harvest, and that of subsequent years, was sufficient enough to sustain the community.
It was in this setting and at this time that a poet/musician set out to write what we now know as the 85th Psalm, which we read moments ago. It is a psalm of both gratitude and expectation; gratitude for what is, while at the same time articulating a hopeful yearning for something even better.
It is a prayer embedded in the poem’s very structure. Look at the first verse:
You have been gracious to your land, O Lord.
“Have been” – it has already happened. There was a harvest.
You have restored the good fortune of Jacob.
Do you remember last week’s psalm reading with its petition, “restore our fortunes, O Lord”? Notice how the 85th Psalm says that this has happened. The shift from plea to praise serves as the strongest clue that the psalm was written early in the post-exile period.
In the second verse, the poem makes a quick shift from the tangible, physical material concern for food to the spiritual:
You have forgiven the iniquity of your people,
and blotted out all their sins.
Again the author writes as if this has already happened, but why the jump from harvest to forgiveness? Well, the prevailing theology of the time held that God blessed the people when they were obedient and punished them when they were not. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem early in the 6th century BC and forced its people into exile, it was understood to be a divine judgment meted out for profound unfaithfulness. We still see this kind of thinking in operation today when people claim that a natural disaster, such as the Haiti earthquake, is God’s punishment. As a theological perspective, subsequent generations after the exile challenged it in many different ways – most convincingly in the Book of Job, whose lead character never offends God, yet suffers mightily – far beyond anything he could have deserved.
Still, given his or her theological position, you can understand why the poem’s author shifts from harvest to forgiveness. The return from exile was understood to be a sign that God’s wrath and punishment had abated. The harvest added further confirmation. God had indeed forgiven the people. The proof was in the grain of the field, the figs on the tree, and the grapes on the vine. The poet expresses it beautifully,
Mercy and truth have met together,
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Mercy and truth – the idea that we always fall short of who God calls us to be linked with God’s deep desire to remain in relationship with us. Righteousness and peace – the notion that a holy God cannot look upon sin joined with the ongoing work of God to draw us to God’s self. The poet states that we are who we are, and yet God loves us still.
It is at this point that the psalm turns from gratitude to expectation.
Truth shall spring up from the earth
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
The Lord will indeed grant prosperity,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness shall go before him,
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.
It is a subtle, but interesting twist. The poet is longing for something that he or she says has already happened. It is easy to see why if you remember the setting. Yes, the first harvest has come in and it will suffice, but there is a huge difference between surviving and thriving. And yes, the community has come together, and while this is an occasion for thanksgiving there is so much more that needs to happen to create a vital society. And while God has reached out to restore the fortunes of the people, the people are just now beginning to respond to God’s gracious offer of relationship.
For the psalmist, ‘good’ is good a start, but it is not good enough. We might say that this is a psalm for those who won’t stand pat. It is for those of us who are grateful for God’s blessings, while at the same time yearn for more. The psalmist knows that people need to eat and is truly grateful for the basic necessities of life. But the poet yearns for something more, something he or she describes as God’s “glory dwelling in our land.” “Salvation is very near,” the poet says. “We are closer now than at anytime for a generation or more. But we cannot be satisfied just with having our needs met. Life – real life – involves something more, something higher.”
Every Sunday we pray together the Lord’s Prayer. Every week we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is a yearning, isn’t it. It is our deep desire that the world will be a better place than it already is. Most of us have all that we need. We are not praying for more abundance. We are praying for those who do not have enough even to survive. We are praying for peace, for truth, for mercy, and for righteousness to be lived out in concrete ways in our lives and around our planet. We are praying for a world we know by faith can and will exist.
William Law, the 18th century English priest expressed in beautifully in his book, The Spirit of Love:
“Nothing wills or works with God but the spirit of love, because nothing else works in God himself. The almighty brought forth all nature for this end only, that boundless love might have its affinity of height and depth to dwell and work in, and all striving and working properties of nature are only to give essence and substance, life and strength, to the invisible hidden spirit of love, that it may come forth into outward activity and manifest its blessed powers, that creatures born in strength, and out of powers of nature, might communicate the spirit of love and goodness, give and receive mutual delight and joy to and from one another. All below this state of love is a fall from the one life of God and the only life in which the God of love can dwell.”
We live below this lofty state of love, don’t we, but our prayer and our hope is that we will live more fully into the life for which we were created.
Advent is a season of gratitude for what is and of yearning for what will be. We sense that God is near, that salvation is closer now than ever before. We await our Messiah who will come down from heaven only to be crucified and then rise up from the earth that the whole world might be drawn to him. We await his coming and we pray for the reign of his Kingdom. We give thanks for the good in our lives, but know that good is not good enough. We will not stop praying or working until the glory of God fills the land.