Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
On the phrase in the title, "To the chief Musician," see the notes on the title to Psa 4:1-8. On the expression, "for the sons of Korah," see the notes at the title to Psa 42:1-11. Neither of these expressions determines anything in regard to the authorship of the psalm, or the occasion on which it was composed, and conjecture on these points would be useless. There were in the Jewish history, as there have been in the Christian church, numerous occasions to which the sentiments of the psalm would be appropriate. It was evidently composed in view of the fact that God had, on some former occasion, interposed when his people were in trouble, but that now for similar causes he was again angry with them, and they were suffering similar calamities. The psalm contains a fervent prayer that God would again appear for them, and it implies a confident expectation that he would do this, so that the calamities which had come upon them would be removed - even as by a miraculous interposition. There is nothing to make it absolutely certain that it pertains to the Babylonian captivity, as DeWette supposes, but the language is so general that it might refer to any captivity.
The psalm consists essentially of three parts:
I. An allusion to God's gracious interposition in former times, as the ground of the present appeal to him, Psa 85:1-3. In those times, when his people had been conquered, he had restored to them the possession of their own land; he had forgiven their iniquity; he had turned himself from the fierceness of his anger. These acts of mercy were now remembered; and this was the ground of confident hope in the present trouble.
II. A description of the state of the people at the time when the psalm was composed, as demanding help from God, Psa 85:4-7. It is clear that the nation was suffering from some calamity; that the anger of God seemed to be upon them; that it appeared as if his wrath would never be turned away; and that unless he should interpose the nation must perish.
III. The expression of a confident hope that God would deliver his people, Psa 85:8-13.
(a) The psalmist represents himself as willing to hear what God would say, with the hope that he would speak peace to his people; Psa 85:8.
(b) He declares his belief that God is near to them who fear him Psa 85:9, and that in the present case - in the manner in which he would meet the present emergency - there would be a mingling of mercy and truth - of righteousness and peace: that each of these, in proper proportions, and without collision, would meet and mingle in the divine dealings; that is, it would be seen, in his dealings with his people, that God was merciful and just - righteous and disposed to peace Psa 85:10.
(c) He expresses his assurance that, dark as things now appeared, there would be a divine interposition as if truth (or, a just solution of these difficulties) should spring out of the very earth - as if it would come from some unknown quarter and in some unexpected manner, as mysterious, and as incomprehensible, and as far removed from human agency as if it came up suddenly from the ground - or as if the heavens opened themselves, and it looked down from the sky Psa 85:11; and
(d) he, in conclusion, expresses his confident belief that the Lord would give that which was truly good; that the land would again yield its increase; that righteousness would attend his march through the land, going as it were before him, and causing all the people to walk in his steps, Psa 85:12-13.
There does not appear to have been in this psalm any original reference to the Messiah, or to his work: that is, all that there is in the psalm can be explained on the supposition that it has no such reference. But it must be obvious to every one that the language is such as is suited most beautifully and appropriately to describe many things in the plan of redemption, and especially to express the fact that in that work the attributes of God, some of which seem not easy to be reconciled, have been most perfectly and beautifully manifested and blended.
Lord, thou hast been favorable unto thy land - Margin, "well pleased with." The idea is that he had been kind or propitious to the nation; to wit, on some former occasion. So Luther, (vormals) "formerly." The reference is to some previous period in their history, when he had exercised his power in their behalf.
Thou hast brought back the captivity of Jacob - That is, at the time referred to. It is not necessary to suppose that the allusion is to the period immediately preceding the time when the psalm was composed, but it may have been any period in their history. Nor is it necessary to suppose that the people had been removed from their land at the time, for all that would be necessary to suppose in interpreting the language would be that the land had been invaded, even though the inhabitants still remained in it.
Thou hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people - That is, These calamities came upon them in consequence of their sins, and thou hast dealt with them as if those sins were forgiven. The fact that the tokens of his anger bad passed away, and that his judgments were withdrawn, seemed to prove that their sins had been forgiven. The same form of expression used here - with the same words in Hebrew - occurs in Psa 32:5. See the notes at that passage. The language suggests the idea of an atonement. Literally, "Thou hast lifted up - or borne - the iniquity of thy people."
Thou hast covered all their sin - So that it is hidden; and therefore thou dost treat them as if they were righteous, or as if there were no sin. The idea of covering is that expressed in the Hebrew word, which is commonly rendered "atonement" - כפר kâphar - to cover; to cover over; then, to cover over sin; to forgive. The idea suggested in this verse is, that when God withdraws the tokens of his displeasure, we may hope that he has pardoned the sin which was the cause of his anger.
Thou hast taken away all thy wrath - That is, formerly; on the occasion referred to. Thou didst so deal with thy people as to make it evident that thou didst cherish no anger or displeasure against them.
Thou hast turned thyself ... - Margin, "thine anger from waxing hot." Literally, Thou didst turn from the heat of thine anger. His indignation was withdrawn, and he was again at peace with them. It is this fact, drawn from the former history of the people, which constitutes the basis of the appeal which follows.
Turn us, O God of our salvation - The God from whom salvation must come, and on whom we are dependent for it. The prayer here is, "turn us;" turn us from our sins; bring us to repentance; make us willing to forsake every evil way; and enable us to do it. This is the proper spirit always in prayer. The first thing is not that he would take away his wrath, but that he would dispose us to forsake our sins, and to turn to himself; that we may be led to abandon that which has brought his displeasure upon us, and then that he will cause his anger toward us to cease. We have no authority for asking God to turn away his judgments unless we are willing to forsake our sins; and in all cases we can hope for the divine interposition and mercy, when the judgments of God are upon us, only as we are willing to turn from our iniquities.
And cause thine anger toward us to cease - The word used here, and rendered "cause to cease" - פרר pârar - means properly to break; then, to violate; and then, to annul, or to bring to an end. The idea here is, that if they were turned from sin, the cause of his anger would be removed, and would cease of course. Compare Psa 80:3.
Wilt thou be angry with us for ever? - Thine anger is so long continued that it seems as if it would never cease.
Wilt thou draw out thine anger - Wilt thou protract or prolong it? The idea is that of a determined purpose, in retaining his anger, as if his wrath would cease of necessity unless there were such a direct exercise of will.
To all generations - literally, "from generation to generation." That is, - so that not merely the generation which has sinned, and which has brought down these tokens of displeasure, shall suffer, but the next, and the next, and the next, forever. The plea is that the judgment might terminate, and not reach coming generations.
Wilt thou not revive us again - literally, "Wilt thou not turn, or return, cause us to live;" that is, and cause us to live. The expression is equivalent to "again" as in our translation. The Septuagint and Vulgate render it, "Returning, wilt thou not give us life?" The word rendered revive means to live; to cause to live; and the idea is that of recovering them from their condition as a state of death; that is, restoring them as if they were dead. The image is that of returning spring after the death of winter, or the young grass when the rain descends after a long drought, and when everything seemed to be dead. So of the people referred to in the psalm; everything among them was like such a winter, when there is neither leaf, nor flower, nor grass, nor fruit; or like such a drought, when desolation is seen everywhere; or like the grave, where the dead repose. The image of spring, after a long and dreary winter, is one also which will properly describe the condition of the church when the influences of the Spirit have been long withheld, and when, under the visitations of grace, religion seems to live again among the people of God.
That thy people may rejoice in thee - In thy favor; in thy presence; in thee as their God.
(a) There is always joy in a revival of religion. Nothing is so much suited to make a people happy; nothing diffuses so much joy. Compare Act 8:8.
(b) This is particularly joy in God. It is because he comes near; because he manifests his mercy; because he shows his power and his grace.
Shew us thy mercy, O Lord - That is, Manifest thy mercy in returning to us; in forgiving our sins; in taking from us the tokens of thy displeasure.
And grant us thy salvation - Salvation or deliverance from our present trouble and calamities.
I will hear what God the Lord will speak - I, the psalmist; I, representing the people as looking to God. The state of mind here is that of patient listening; of a willingness to hear God, whatever God should say; of confidence in him that what he would say would be favorable to his people - would be words of mercy and of peace. Whatever God should command, the speaker was willing to yield to it; whatever God should say, he would believe; whatever God should enjoin, he would do; whatever God should ask him to surrender, he would resign. There was no other resource but God, and there was entire confidence in him that whatever he should say, require, or do, would be right.
For he will speak peace unto his people - Whatever he shall say will tend to their peace, their blessedness, their prosperity. He loves his people, and there may be a confident assurance that all he will say will tend to promote their welfare.
And to his saints - His holy ones; his people.
But let them not turn again to folly - The Septuagint and the Vulgate render this, "To his saints and to those who turn the heart unto him." Our common version, however, has expressed the sense of the Hebrew; and it contains very important truths and admonitions.
(a) The way which they had formerly pursued was folly. It was not mere sin, but there was in it the element of foolishness as well as wickedness. All sin may be contemplated in this twofold aspect: as wickedness, and as foolishness. Compare Psa 14:1; Psa 73:3.
(b) There was great danger that they would turn again to their former course; that they would forget alike the punishment which had come upon them; their own resolutions; and their promises made to God. Compare Psa 78:10-11, Psa 78:17-18, Psa 78:31-32. Nothing is more common than for a people who have been afflicted with heavy judgments to forget all that they promised to do if those judgments should be withdrawn; or for an individual who has been raised up from a bed of sickness - from the borders of the grave - to forget the solemn resolutions which he formed on what seemed to be a dying bed - perhaps becoming more thoughtless and wicked than he was before, as if to make reprisals for the wrong done him by his Maker, or as if to recover the time that was lost by sickness.
(c) This passage, therefore, is a solemn admonition to all who have been afflicted, and who have been restored, that they return not to their former course of life. To this they should feel themselves exhorted
(1) by their obligations to their benefactor;
(2) by the remembrance of their own solemn vows made in a time of sincerity and honesty, and when they saw things as they really are; and
(3) by the assurance that if they do return to their sin and folly, heavier judgments will come upon them; that the patience of God will be exhausted; and that he will bear with them no longer.
Compare Joh 5:14, "Sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee."
Surely his salvation - His help; his aid. The word here does not mean salvation in the restricted use of the term as applied to the future life, but it means deliverance of all kinds - rescue from trouble, danger, calamity.
Is nigh them that fear him - All who truly reverence him, and look to him in a proper manner. They may expect his aid; they may be sure that he will soon come to help them. This expresses the confident assurance of the author of the psalm that God would interpose in the troubles of the nation, and would deliver them.
That glory may dwell in our land -
(a) The glory or honor of having such a God to dwell among them; and
(b) the peace, the prosperity, the happiness, which will be the consequence - of his interposition.
The idea is, that this would be a permanent thing; that this honor or glory would then make the land its dwelling-place.
Mercy and truth are met together - That is, in the divine dealings referred to in the psalm. There has been a blending of mercy and truth in those dealings; or, both have been manifested; truth, in the divine statements, threatenings, and promises; and mercy, in forgiving sin, and in sparing the people. There is no necessary contradiction between truth and mercy; that is, the one does not necessarily conflict with the other, though the one seems to conflict with the other when punishment is threatened for crime, and yet mercy is shown to the offender - that is, where the punishment is not inflicted, and the offender is treated as if he had not sinned. In this respect, the great difficulty in all human governments has been to maintain both; to be true to the threatening of the law, and at the same time to pardon the guilty. Human governments have never been able to reconcile the two.
If punishment is inflicted up to the full measure of the threatening, there is no manifestation of mercy; if mercy is shown, there is a departure from justice, or a declaration that the threatenings of the law are not, in all cases, to be inflicted: that is, there is, to that extent, an abandonment of justice. Human governments have always felt the need, in their practical operations, of some device like an atonement, by which the two might be blended, and both secured. Such a method of reconciliation or of securing both objects - truth, in the fulfillment of the threat, and mercy toward the offender - has never been (and could not be) acted on in a human administration. It is only in the divine government that this has been accomplished, where a true and perfect regard has been paid to truth in the threatening, and to mercy toward the guilty by an atonement. It is true, indeed, that this passage does not refer to the atonement made by the Redeemer, but there can scarcely be found a better illustration of that work than occurs in the language used here. Compare the notes at Rom 3:26. See also my work on the "atonement," chapters ii., iii.
Righteousness - In the maintenance of law, or the manifestation of justice. That is, in this case, God had shown his justice in bringing these calamities on the people for their sins. In the work of the Redeemer this was done by his being "wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities;" by the fact that "the chastisement of our peace was upon him," and that "the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all." Isa 53:5-6. "And peace." Pardon; mercy; restoration to favor. In the case of the Hebrew people this was done by his removing the calamities which their sins had brought upon them, and by his returning favor. In the work of redemption, it was done by the pardon of sin, and by reconciliation to God.
Have kissed each other - As friends and lovers do; as they do who have been long separated; as they do who, after having been alienated and estranged, are made friends again. In like manner, there seemed to be an alienation - an estrangement - a state of hostility - between righteousness and mercy, between justice and pardon, but they have been now united as separated and alienated friends are, and have embraced each other as such friends do; that is, they blend together in beautiful harmony.
Truth shall spring out of the earth - As plants do - for this is the meaning of the word. The blessings of truth and righteousness would be like the grass, the shrubs, the flowers, which spring up from the ground - and like the, rain and the sunbeams which come from heaven. Truth would spring up everywhere, and abound in all lands, as plants, and shrubs, and grass spring up all over the earth. There is not an intended contrast between the two clauses of this verse, as if truth came from the earth, and righteousness from heaven; but the idea is that they would come in a manner that might be compared with the way in which God's other abundant blessings are bestowed, as springing, on the one hand, from the fertility of the earth, and on the other, from the rain, the dew, and the sunbeam.
And righteousness shall look down from heaven - Shall descend from heaven; or shall come from above - as if the rain, and the sun looked down from heaven, and saw the needs of man. The original word here rendered "look down" - שׁקף shâqaph - means to lay upon, or over; then, to project, lie over, look forward; then, to overhang; and the idea here is that it bent over, or leaned forward to look at the necessities of than - as one does who is desirous of gazing at an object. There was an anxiety, so to speak, to come to the earth - to meet the human need. As the rain and the sunbeams seem anxious to bestow their blessings on man, so God seems anxious to bestow on man the blessings of salvation.
Yea, the Lord shall give that which is good - All that is truly good: all needful temporal blessings; all blessings connected with salvation.
And our land shall yield her increase - There shall be fruitful seasons, and the earth shall produce abundance. Compare the notes at Psa 67:6.
Righteousness shall go before him - Shall anticipate his coming, and prepare his way. The idea seems to be, that in order to his appearing, there would be a proclamation of righteousness, and a preparation for his advent by the diffusion of righteousness among the people; in other words, the nation, in the prospect of his coming, would turn from sin, and would seek to be prepared for his appearing. Thus John proclaimed the coining of the Redeemer, "Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Mat 3:2. So also "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." Mat 3:3.
And shall set us in the way of his steps - This might be rendered, "and set its steps for a way;" that is, the steps which would be taken by him would indicate the way in which his people should walk. Perhaps, however, the common interpretation best expresses the sense of the passage. According to that, the idea is, that the effect of his coming would be to dispose people to walk in the way of the steps which he took; to be his imitators and followers. The general thought is, that his coming would have the effect of turning the people to the paths of righteousness and truth. This is the designed effect of all the visitations of God to our world.