Every day in the Abbey we sing or say the Psalms. This recitation of the Psalms is at the heart of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, and comes from the monastic life that was lived here for five hundred years. The very furniture of the choir is set out so that the recitation can pass from side to side, following the two halves of the sentence in the Hebrew poetry.
The point of reciting the psalms day in and day out is so that the poetry passes from the head to the heart. Reciting the psalm becomes like breathing: one breathes in the words and breathes out the prayer. It is the Psalms above all that have taught us to see the Christian life as one of intimate relationship with God. In the Psalms there is a continuing conversation between the believer and God, sometimes trusting, sometimes questioning, sometimes fearful, sometimes angry. In the sermons at Morning Prayer this month I want to take the psalm that has just been sung and see what we can learn from it.
In the Middle Ages, the interpretation of Scripture was seen as an elaborate discipline which took place at four levels. I’m not going to follow those four levels precisely, but I can see four levels that we can find today in the interpretation of the Psalms. There is first of all what the psalm meant in the life of Israel. The Psalms are often spoken of as the prayer book of the Second Temple. This is how Jews prayed before the time of Jesus and still pray today. Then, for a Christian, there is the psalm in the life of Jesus. Jesus often quoted from the Psalms, and he must have used them in his own prayer and meditation to understand more of his Father’s will for him. Then there is the psalm in the life of the Church – what the psalm means for the Body of Christ. And finally there is the psalm in our own life as individual Christians. How can we pray this psalm today?
Let’s look a bit more closely at Psalm 85. It divides into three parts. The first three verses look back. The next four verses speak to God in the present. The last verses look forward.
- When the psalm looks back, it looks back to a time when Jacob, (that is the children of Jacob, the Israelites) were in captivity, and to the way God freed them from that captivity. This could be the captivity in Egypt or in Babylon. It looks back to the way God freed them, forgave them what they had done wrong, and restored them to his favour. In the psalm it is clear that now, once more, the Israelites are experiencing a time when it seems that God is angry and displeased with them. The psalmist pleads for God to forgive them: ‘Show us they mercy O Lord: and grant us thy salvation.’ Then, in the last part of the psalm, the psalmist looks forward: God will speak peace to his people, if they don’t turn away again. His salvation will come to them and his glory will once more dwell in their land. Perhaps there is a hint here of the return of God’s presence to the temple. The psalmist foresees how God’s mercy and human truth or trust will come together; the covenant will be renewed. God will show mercy and his people will show trust in him. The very land will flourish and God will move through it, blessing it as he goes. It’s a wonderful vision of the restoration of Israel.
- Could Jesus have prayed this prayer? Undoubtedly. It is clear from the New Testament that he understood his mission as one to set people free from their captivity. When he proclaimed the kingdom of God, he proclaimed the forgiveness of sins and God’s acceptance of his people, especially those who didn’t think too highly of themselves. But he was also acutely aware of the threat of God’s displeasure and the closeness of a day when God would judge Israel. Despite that, his own role was to proclaim God’s peace to God’s people, to tell people like Matthew and Zacchaeus and Mary Magdalene that this day God’s salvation had drawn close to them. Quite possibly, he began to understand that in himself God’s righteousness and human trust had come together, that in him justice and peace (tsetheq and shalom) had kissed each other and become united. Like John the Baptist, Jesus was a herald of God’s righteousness, crying out in a needy land, ‘God’s liberating kingship is here - now – and his forgiveness, his new life, is for you.’
- If it was the mission of Jesus to proclaim that good news, it is also the mission of the Church to do the same – except that the good news is now the good news about Jesus. It is because of Jesus that the church can proclaim, ‘Thou hast forgiven the offence of thy people: and covered all their sins.’ In the same way, the church can pray today for God to ‘quicken us that thy people may rejoice in thee’. God’s church needs God’s new life again and again. Every day we can pray, ‘Show us thy mercy, O Lord: and grant us thy salvation’. It is for the church to look forward with hope. God is going to bring peace; God’s glory is going to dwell in our land. In Christ, mercy and truth are met together; in Christ justice and peace have kissed each other. Whereever the spirit of Christ is at work, truth will flourish on earth, and where truth flourishes on earth, God will be establishing his righteousness. He will show his loving-kindness, and the earth will be blessed. Despite all the threats to our peace and prosperity, the Church can never give up hope of this blessing, because God has not given up hope of humanity. He will act to establish his righteousness. A Karadic will face justice; a Truth and Reconciliation Commission can help to avert civil war in South Africa; there can be peace in Northern Ireland.
- So how do we read this psalm for ourselves, today? It is a psalm for a people and a psalm for an individual. It can be a prayer for a church or a prayer for a Christian who sees herself or himself as being like an unfruitful land. One way we might read this psalm today is as a prayer for the Anglican Communion which many of us love so deeply. For some of us, it is through Anglican churches that we were baptized, that we came to know our captivity was ended and our sins forgiven. For some us, it is through Anglican Christianity that we began to be fruitful Christians and continue to be so today. Surely, we can pray with the bishops, as they come to the end of the Lambeth Conference, ‘Show us thy mercy and grant us thy salvation.’ We can pray for this God-given communion of churches which we love so much that even in its weakness and time of trial it will continue to be a place where mercy and truth, righteousness and peace will go on dwelling together. And we can also hope that through this Anglican Communion truth and trust will flourish in many parts of the earth. Even in, and through, Anglicans the Lord shall show his loving-kindness!
The more I have studied this psalm this week the more moved I have been by it, and the more I have begun to catch its spirit of grateful, chastened hope. It can be read as a word to us from Ancient Israel; a glimpse into the prayer of Christ; a transforming reflection on the faith of the church; or a statement of hope for each one of us to make our own as we pray. So let us read it together and enter into it as our own prayer to God in whatever way suits your situation and mine …
Lord, thou hast been favourable unto thy land: thou hast brought back the captivity of Jacob.
Thou hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people, thou hast covered all their sin.
Thou hast taken away all thy wrath: thou hast turned thyself from the fierceness of thine anger.
Turn us, O God of our salvation, and cause thine anger toward us to cease.
Wilt thou be angry with us for ever? wilt thou draw out thine anger to all generations?
Wilt thou not revive us again: that thy people may rejoice in thee? Shew us thy mercy, O LORD, and grant us thy salvation. I will hear what God the LORD will speak: for he will speak peace unto his people, and to his saints: but let them not turn again to folly.
Surely his salvation is nigh them that fear him; that glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
Yea, the LORD shall give that which is good; and our land shall yield her increase.
Righteousness shall go before him; and shall set us in the way of his steps.