Psalm 85 has long been linked to Advent. Saint Augustine makes clear why. Commenting on verse 7—“Show us thy steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us thy salvation”—the African bishop explains that the word “salvation” simply means “Christ”: “Grant us your Christ, let us know your Christ, let us see your Christ.” It’s a bold and direct identification: When the psalmist desires salvation, he is longing for Christ.
Let’s take Augustine’s interpretive move—salvation equals Christ—as our starting point. How do we make sense of the rest of the psalm if Christ is the salvation for which we long?
The psalm’s context is national calamity, namely, exile to Babylon. The return in 539 b.c. yielded a new set of difficulties—enemies at the gate and harvests that failed. The Promised Land wasn’t the paradisal salvation that people had longed for.
Two things stand out. First, the psalmist links these perduring troubles with sin (and their end with forgiveness of sin). Second, he links Judah’s return to the return of God himself. The result is a poem that pines for salvation’s advent in Christ.
The first point is obnoxious to us. The psalmist views exile as the result of sin. The first three verses depict the returns from captivity as forgiveness of sin:
Lord, thou wast favorable to thy land;
thou didst restore (shuv) the fortunes of Jacob.
Thou didst forgive the iniquity of thy people;
thou didst pardon all their sin.
Thou didst withdraw all thy wrath;
thou didst turn (shuv) from thy hot anger.
We could translate the first verse slightly more literally as “thou didst return (shuv) the captivity of Jacob.” In other words, God has returned his people from exile—something directly tied to divine pardon. The implication is clear: Exile itself resulted from divine anger.
Back in the Promised Land, the psalmist asks God to relieve the difficult new situation and turn around his people’s plight. He makes this plea in the next section (85:4–7): “Restore (shuv) us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.” God’s people may have returned from Babylon, but the new disasters are evidence of sin, while forgiveness would lead to a greater and deeper (re)turning to him.
The psalmist’s quid pro quo theology—the result, likely, of extended reflection upon books such as Deuteronomy and Jeremiah—is disturbing to us. We don’t typically share the poet’s confident attribution of calamity to sin. We tend to prefer Voltaire’s mockery of those who linked the 1755 Lisbon earthquake to divine judgment. “Lisbon is in ruins, while in Paris they dance,” exclaimed Voltaire. Surely, the Parisians weren’t any godlier than the inhabitants of Lisbon, were they?
The reflexive Voltairean response, also among Christians, is a curious one. Why are we loath to acknowledge a link between sin and disaster? Deuteronomic covenant theology is painfully direct in its application of covenant promises and curses to the turning (shuv) of God’s people. “If you return (shuv),” announces Jeremiah, “I will restore (shuv) you” (Jer. 15:19). Return from exile is predicated upon return from sin.
The same theology is at work in Psalm 85. The return from Babylon had signaled God turning (shuv) from his hot anger (Ps. 85:3), and the psalmist pleads for God to do so again: “Wilt thou not revive us again (shuv), that thy people may rejoice in thee? (85:6).” God will turn only if—this last word signaling the dreaded Deuteronomic condition—God’s people, too, will turn.
Admittedly, we should avoid simplistic one-to-one connections between sin and calamity. In John 9, the disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus’s response plainly rejects his disciples’ assumption of a link between sin and blindness: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.” Jesus’s disciples wrongly absolutize Deuteronomic theology. Disaster is not always the direct outcome of divine judgment; and especially where it concerns the suffering of others, we do well to keep watch over the door of our lips (cf. Ps. 141:3).
Still, Psalm 85 (and its Deuteronomic background) teach us at least this: There would be no calamity without sin. There would be no Lisbon earthquake, no Hurricane Katrina, and no coronavirus without sin. Whatever we may say about the connection between natural and moral evil in each of these cases, we cannot negate the link. Whenever the chattering classes get their dander up because of someone linking calamity and sin, this is a sure sign of a societal lapse into hedonism.
The beauty of Psalm 85—as a psalm of Advent—is that it not only makes God’s turning to us conditional upon our turning to him, but it also makes our turning to God conditional upon his turning to us. Turning as a purely natural human accomplishment would be an impossibility. The psalm, therefore, explains that our turning to God and God’s turning to us coincide. They are one and the same, for they occur in salvation—which is to say with Augustine: They occur in the God-man, in Christ himself.
We see God’s turning in Christ nowhere more clearly than in the psalm’s last stanza:
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 (85:10–11).
Goodness comes from above as well as below. It is as if heaven itself turns down to the earth, while simultaneously, the earth turns up to the sky. The kiss of righteousness and peace is the Advent kiss of the hypostatic union of God and man.
Displacements and disasters cannot be rationally explained. But the psalmist does link our hardships to our moral failings and demands that we reflect upon them in view of the hardships we face.
Our response to calamities should mirror that of the psalmist: He centers it on turning, both human (repentance) and divine (forgiveness). He assures us that the two are one in the mystery of Advent—in the divine-human Savior himself. In Advent we reignite our longing for God and man to turn to each other and so to obtain salvation.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.