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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 85

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



This psalm was evidently written shortly after the miraculous ending of the Babylonian captivity, as affirmed by a number of able scholars.

“It evidently belongs to the time soon after the return from the Babylonian exile - either the days of discouragement before the building of the second temple (Ezra 4:5-24; Haggai 1; Zechariah 1:12-21) or the period of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:3).(F1) - The situation into which the psalm could fit with more than average propriety is the time shortly after the return from the Babylonian captivity.(F2) - The condition of the exiles returned from Babylon best corresponds to the conflicting emotions; the book of Nehemiah supplies precisely such a background as fits this psalm.(F3) - There are not allusions in the psalm to tie it down to a particular date; but it would seem to fit best into the times of Zerubbabel (Ezra 3:4), or that of Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezra 9:10; Nehemiah 2-6).”(F4)

McCullough did not fully agree with such comments on the date, citing the fact that, “The psalmist’s words are rather vague, and that unlike many laments, there is no allusion to the machinations of outside enemies.”(F5)

Verses 1-3


“Jehovah, thou hast been favorable to thy land; Thou hast brought back the captivity of Jacob. Thou hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people; Thou hast covered all their sin. (Selah) Thou hast taken away all thy wrath; Thou hast turned thyself from the fierceness of thy anger.”

“Thou hast brought back the captivity of Jacob” It is true, of course, that these words can mean merely that “God has restored the prosperity of Israel”; but that possibility cannot take away the plain meaning of the passage, namely, that God has returned Israel from their literal captivity. There is just one situation which that fits, i.e., the ending of the captivity in Babylon.

“Thou hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people” When Cyrus not only permitted the return of Israel to Palestine, but also financed the return and ordered the rebuilding of the temple on a scale even larger than that of the temple of Solomon, such unheard-of developments, such a unique example of a defeated and deported nation being repatriated in their own land, fully justified the psalmist’s conclusion that God indeed had forgiven the iniquity of the Chosen People which had led to their captivity.

Forgiveness in the ultimate sense, of course, was contingent upon the atonement provided by the Christ on Calvary, but a practical “passing over” of Israel’s wickedness on God’s part was surely evidenced by the return of the remnant to Palestine.

“Thou hast taken away all thy wrath” The feeling of security that came to the returnees was the result of the backing and encouragement of Cyrus, head of the most powerful nation on earth; and this might account for the fact that the enemies of Israel received no attention in this psalm. With the cessation of God’s wrath, enemies made no difference at all.

Verses 4-7


“Turn us, O God of our salvation, And cause thine indignation toward us to cease. Wilt thou be angry with us forever? Wilt thou draw out thine anger to all generations? Show us thy loving kindness, O Jehovah, And grant us thy salvation.”

The tone of these verses is radically different from that in the first three; and they can be explained only by understanding them to refer to a period subsequent to the glorious return of the Chosen People from Babylon. Such an explanation is easily provided by the prophets Haggai and Malachi. What had gone wrong?

(1) First, the vast majority of Israel, having accommodated to their situation in Babylon, many of them amassing wealth, simply refused to return to Jerusalem. (2) Those who did return had no enthusiasm whatever for rebuilding the temple, their chief concern being the building of their own houses. (3) They grossly neglected the requirements of God’s worship. (4) Even after the second temple had finally been constructed, Malachi flatly declared that the people were “robbing God”! Things in Israel had gone from bad to worse during that first generation of returnees. As the situation deteriorated, there is no wonder that the psalmist included this earnest, even urgent, plea for God to save them.

“Turn us, O God of our salvation” This means, “Turn us from our sins.” God could not bless Israel as long as they preferred iniquity to the righteousness God required of them. “This is always the proper spirit in prayer. The first thing is not that God should take away his wrath, but that he would dispose us to forsake our sins.”(F6)

This paragraph (Psalms 85:4-7) carries three petitions. The first of these is “Turn us” (Psalms 85:4).

“Wilt thou be angry forever?… unto all generations” “Such plaintive questions frequently accompany supplications for forgiveness and restoration. They do not reveal impatience or mistrust but speak, rather, of the earnestness of the petitioner.”(F7)

“Wilt thou not quicken us again?” This is the second of the three petitions, It means, “rejuvenate us”; “give us a new spirit”; “make us alive again.” There is an overtone here of the ultimate achievement of such a thing in the New Birth revealed in the New Testament.

“Show us thy lovingkindness… grant us thy salvation” This is the third of the petitions. “It is a request that Israel might experience fulfilment of the covenant-promises of God’s steadfast love and their own salvation.”(F8)

Verses 8-13


“I will hear what God Jehovah 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 near 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 springeth out of the earth; And righteousness hath looked down from heaven. Yea, Jehovah will give that which is good; And our land shall yield its increase. Righteousness shall go before him, And shall make his footsteps a way to walk in.”

As McCullough noted, “This section has been thought to be eschatological by Kittel and Oesterley; and it must be admitted that the words here have an absolute character and even an eschatological coloring, justifying the choice in the Book of Common Prayer of this psalm as a `proper psalm’ for Christmas Day.”(F9)

“Let them not turn again to folly” This was a warning to Israel, and also to all men, that returning to folly could result only in God’s disapproval and condemnation.

Alas, Israel did not heed this. Instead of clinging faithfully to God and constructing that magnificent temple envisioned in the last few chapters of Ezekiel, which God intended to be a vast center for the evangelization of the whole world, Israel returned with all their hearts (as a people) to their former transgressions, with only one variation. They never again worshipped pagan gods; but otherwise, their unrighteous conduct was an outrage against God and mankind.

The judicial hardening of the nation as a whole, which had been prophesied by Isaiah, came to its dreadful climax. They recognized Jesus Christ as the Messiah, but, because he was not the kind of Messiah they wanted, they maneuvered his crucifixion by means of suborned testimony, political intimidation, and mob violence.

As a result of this “return to folly” on Israel’s part, God finally rejected the Old Israel, replaced it with the New Israel “in Christ,” and ordered the total destruction of Jerusalem, the temple, and the whole religious apparatus of the Hebrews. This occurred in 70 A.D.

“That glory may dwell in our land” The reference here is to the “glory of the presence of the Lord in our land,” This surely implies a time when the Lord was not dwelling in the Jerusalem temple. A legitimate deduction from this is that, “The date might be somewhere between 587 and 516 B.C.”(F10)

“Mercy and truth are met together… righteousness and peace have kissed each other” The RSV here changes the tenses to future, indicating the prophetic nature of the verses. Thus we have, “will speak” (Psalms 85:8), “will meet,” and “will kiss” in Psalms 85:10, etc. This supports the view that the thought here looks to the coming of the Son of God.

The picture here of universal harmony between heaven and earth and the Lord’s giving of that which is “good” (Psalms 85:12), the earth yielding its increase, and all of the glorious conditions described here as having come to pass - all of this seems to speak of the New Heaven and the New Earth spoken of by the apostle Peter (2 Peter 3:13).

Such an inspired vision as this must surely have come as a great encouragement to the little band of discouraged Israelites who were struggling with the problems of rebuilding the ravaged city of Jerusalem and constructing the Second Temple. It was God’s pledge that the “glory” longed for in Psalms 85:9 would indeed come to pass.

God’s promise, “I will fill this house (the Second Temple) with glory… and in this place will I give peace (Haggai 2:7; Haggai 2:9) illuminates what is written here… The glory that had departed would return; God would be resident again.(F11)

Yes indeed, God Himself in the person of The Only Begotten Son would appear in that temple which seemed so small and insignificant to those who built it. Little children would sing Hosanna’s in the Highest to Jesus Christ within its precincts (Matthew 21:9).

“Righteousness shall go before Him, and shall make his footsteps a way to walk in” This says that righteousness shall go before God; and the only time that ever happened on earth was the instance in which Jesus Christ lived his life during the incarnation before God during his earthly ministry. All of the absolute righteousness this earth ever saw was that of Jesus Christ our Lord. He is truly “The Righteousness of God.”

“And shall make his footsteps a way to walk in” If there had been any doubt of our interpretation of the preceding clause, this would have removed it. Who, besides Jesus Christ, ever established footsteps as a way for men to walk in? “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye should follow his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).”

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalms 85". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/psalms-85.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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