Bible Commentaries
Psalms 85

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

Verses 1-13


Superscription.—“To the chief Musician.” See Introduction to Psalms 57:0. “A Psalm for the sons of Korah. “See Introduction to Psalms 42:0.

“There seems,” says Perowne, “every reason to conclude that this Psalm was written after the return of the exiles from the Babylonish captivity. It opens with an acknowledgment of God’s goodness and mercy in the national restoration, in terms which could hardly apply to any other event. But it passes immediately to earnest entreaty for deliverance from the pressure of existing evils, in language which almost contradicts the previous acknowledgment. First, we hear the grateful confession, ‘Thou hast turned the captivity of Jacob;’ and then we have the prayer, ‘Turn us, O God of our salvation.’ If the third verse contains the joyful announcement, ‘Thou hast withdrawn all Thy wrath,’ &c., the fifth pleads as if no such assurance had been given: ‘Wilt Thou for ever be angry with us?’ &c. The most probable way of explaining this conflict of opposing feelings is by referring the Psalm to the circumstances mentioned by Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:8).… The 126th Psalm is conceived in a some-what similar strain.”


(Psalms 85:1-3.)

I. Of national deliverance. “Lord, Thou hast been favourable unto Thy land; Thou hast brought back the captivity of Jacob.” Thus the Psalmist acknowledges the goodness of God in the restoration of His people from the Babylonish captivity. At the very beginning of the Psalm the poet expresses the identity of God’s interest and theirs. “Thy land.” God had chosen this land to be the dwelling-place of His people. He had driven out the heathen from it, and established His worship in it. This intimacy of relation to it is named evidently with a view of obtaining further manifestations of His favour towards it. It is well when we can realise and plead in our prayers the identity of God’s interest and ours. When we are devoted to His work, and seek the accomplishment of His purposes, and aim at His glory, when we live for Him, we may plead with Him in our distresses that His favour shown to us will promote His own cause. The Psalmist traces their deliverance to the favour of God. All their happiness and prosperity flowed to them from His goodness. We may regard their distress as illustrating the troubles into which we are brought by reason of our unfaithfulness to God. Our backslidings of heart have been many, and our consequent spiritual darkness and distress great, yet God in His favour has restored to us the light and help of His countenance. It was a happy and helpful thing for the Jews in their present troubles, that they were so wealthy in recollections of great blessings from God in past times. Such recollections would—

1. Inspire them with hope.

2. Encourage them in prayer.

3. Incite them to effort.

II. Of the removal of the Divine anger. “Thou hast taken away all Thy wrath; Thou hast turned Thyself from the fierceness of Thine anger.” The captivity was regarded as a sign of the Divine wrath; and their restoration as a sign that that wrath no longer burned against them. God is angry with His people when they sin against Him. His wrath ever burns against sin. He longs to save sinners from their sin. Sin is the “abominable thing which He hates.” The Psalmist gratefully recollects past seasons in which God had turned away His anger from them. The recollection of those seasons would encourage the Hebrews in pleading with Him to remove His displeasure from them. What He had formerly done He would probably do again.

III. Of the bestowal of forgiveness. “Thou hast forgiven the iniquity of Thy people; Thou hast covered all their sin.” Not only had He removed His anger from them, but had forgiven the sin which caused His anger, and restored unto them His favour. The forgiven soul has the assurance that God will not charge his sins against him. The Bible is rich in declarations of the readiness of God to pardon all who penitently seek Him. (See Psalms 130:4; Isaiah 55:7; Jeremiah 33:8; 1 John 1:9.) The expressions used by the Psalmist indicate the completeness of God’s forgiveness. “Thou hast forgiven,” borne away, “the sins of Thy people.” There is doubtless a reference to the scape-goat which was sent out into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people, and never more returned. “Thou hast covered all their sin.” It is all hidden away. It is all completely hidden away. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” “Thou hast cast all my sins behind Thy back.” “I, even I, am He that blotteth out thy transgressions for Mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.” “Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.” The recollection of God’s former forgivenesses encouraged the Psalmist to pray for His forgiving mercy at this time. He is unchangeable. What He has done for His penitent people in times past, He will do for them again if they approach Him in penitence.

CONCLUSION.—We have grateful memories like these of the Psalmist. Let them have their due and proper effect upon us. They should inspire us with—

1. Humility. “He hath not dealt with us after our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.” What if He had? What, but utter ruin?

2. Gratitude. “What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits towards me?”

3. Confidence. “This God is our God for ever and ever: He will be our guide unto death.”


(Psalms 85:4-7.)

The prayer presented to God in these verses is for His deliverance of His people from the affliction or distress from which they were suffering at this time. The deliverance which is implored is represented in several aspects; but let us notice—

I. That with a view to their salvation the people pray for repentance. “Turn us, O God of our salvation.” This petition indicates a right understanding of the state of the case, and augurs well for the success of their prayer. They had turned themselves to folly and sin, and now they pray that God would turn them from their sin, and grant them true repentance. The first and chief thing for the erring tribes of Israel was that they might be turned from sin unto God. It would have been in vain if they had prayed for the removal of the Divine anger apart from this change in themselves. The beginning of their distresses was in themselves, and in order to their complete restoration there must be a change in themselves. This is true as regards the salvation of the soul. If there is no conversion, no turning of the soul from sin unto God, there is no salvation. The Psalmist, speaking for the people, asks God to turn them. It needs the power of Divine grace to convert a soul. Salvation both in its origin and completion is the work of God. Yet when a soul turns to God in prayer, and prays for repentance, it is a sign that its salvation has already begun.

The deliverance which is implored is represented—

II. As a cessation of God’s anger. “Cause Thine anger toward us to cease. Wilt Thou be angry with us for ever!” &c. They rightly regarded their distresses as a sign of the Divine anger because of their sins. And they plead with God that He would remove that anger from them. Mark with what force they plead. “Wilt Thou be angry with us for ever?”. Is there no boundary to Thy wrath? Is the flame of Thy fury unquenchable? His anger had continued so long that it almost seemed to them as though it would never cease. “Wilt Thou be angry with us for ever?” It is true that we have sinned against Thee, and merited Thy displeasure; yet we are Thy people, and the sheep of Thy pasture. Thus they appeal to His compassion towards His own, as an argument for the removal of His wrath. “Wilt Thou be angry with us for ever?” God had made Himself known to them as “The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin;” and could He be angry with them for ever? The idea seems opposed to His own revelation of Himself. And, blessed be His name! His anger ceases as soon as any person or any people turn from their evil ways in penitence to Him. “I will not execute the fierceness of Mine anger, I will not return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God, and not man; the Holy One of Israel in the midst of thee.”

III. As a manifestation of His mercy. “Show us Thy mercy, O Lord.” They sought salvation from their troubles or calamities as a favour from the hand of God. They felt that they did not deserve it, could not ask for it on any ground of merit, so they seek it as a mercy from God. Mercy is the disposition whereby God is inclined to succour those who are in misery, and to pardon those who have offended. It is to the mercy of our God that we look for salvation. It is to His mercy that we are indebted for the countless blessings of life. Archbishop Tillotson has well said: “Consider how many evils and miseries that every day we are exposed to, by His preventing mercy are hindered, or, when they were coming upon us, stopped or turned another way. How oft our punishment has He deferred by His forbearing mercy; or, when it was necessary for our chastisement, mitigated and made light! How oft we have been supported in our afflictions by His comforting mercy, and visited with the light of His countenance, in the exigencies of our soul and the gloominess of despair! How oft we have been supplied by His relieving mercy in our wants; and, when there was no hand to succour, and no soul to pity us, His arm has been stretched out to lift us from the mire and clay, and, by a providential train of events, brought about our sustenance and support! And, above all, how daily, how hourly, how minutely we offend against Him; and yet, by the power of His pardoning mercy, we are still alive! For, considering the multitude and heinousness of our provocation, ‘it is of His mercy alone that we are not consumed, and because His compassions fail not. Whoso is wise will ponder these things, and he will understand the loving kindness of the Lord.’ ”

IV. As a quickening. “Wilt Thou not revive us again?” Their condition was like that of our world in winter The earth is cold, the winds are bleak, the trees are bare and show no signs of life, the flowers are all withered and gone, the fruits of field and garden are all gathered; death seems to reign on all hands. But how the scene changes with the advent of spring. All things seem to burst into a new life of wondrous wealth and beauty. The people pray that they in like manner may be quickened from their state of desolation into a state of life and prosperity. “Revive us with comforts spoken to us, revive us with deliverances wrought for us.” This prayer for revival is one which we, both as individuals and as churches, need to present frequently to God. The petition implies—

1. The presence of life. Where there is utter death it is folly to talk of revival.

2. The decline of life. The healthfulness and vigour have departed. Life’s pulse beats feebly.

3. The desire for the renewal of the freshness and power of life. Where this desire is strong, decline will soon be superseded by growth, and barrenness be changed to fruitfulness.

4. The conviction that God only can impart such renewal. A true revival cannot be “got up” by any man, or any number of men. “O Lord, revive Thy work.”

V. As a means to their joy in God. “That Thy people may rejoice in Thee.”

1. Their revival would be a joy to them. The removal of their distress and the return of prosperity would make glad their hearts.

2. Their joy would be in God. “When God changeth the cheer of His people, their joy should not be in the gift, but in the Giver.” “If God be the fountain of all our mercies, He must be the centre of all our joys.”

3. God willed their joy. Of this they were persuaded, or they would not have pleaded for deliverance on this ground, that it would give them joy. God takes pleasure in the joy of His people. “Let the Lord be magnified, which hath pleasure in the prosperity of His servant.” He is eternally and infinitely blessed, and He delights in the blessedness of His people. Our songs of gladness are more pleasing to His ear than any sighs of sadness can possibly be. (a) “There is always joy in a revival of religion. Nothing is so much fitted to make a people happy; nothing diffuses so much joy (comp. Acts 8:8). (ß) 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.”—Barnes

Such, then, are the aspects in which their salvation is viewed in this prayer to God.
CONCLUSION.—Our subject addresses itself to individuals and churches in which vitality has declined, and depression exists.

1. Here is encouragement for you. Our God is the “God of our salvation.” His mercy is infinite. His salvation is “unto the uttermost.” He is both able and willing to raise you from your low estate into health and prosperity.

2. Here is example for you. In earnest supplication take your case unto Him. First seek to be made right yourselves, and then to be made happy. First pray, “Turn us, O God of our salvation,” and then, “Wilt Thou not revive us again, that Thy people may rejoice in Thee?” And His salvation will not tarry, and His joy will not be withheld.


(Psalms 85:6.)

Many Christians have come to have a distaste for the word “revival” when used with reference to religious work. There has been so much exaggeration, so much fanatical excitement, and so much transient profession, that I cannot wonder at the revulsion which many sober-minded Christians feel when they hear the very word “revival.” All “got-up” revivals are bad. You cannot organise a true revival; you cannot treat spiritual influences as fixed quantities. As a matter of fact, there have been extraordinary visitations of Divine influence; there have been seasons when the Holy Ghost has made the earthquake, the fire, the rending wind, and the stormy tempest His ministers, and when men have been shaken with a wholesome fear, not knowing the way, yet feeling the nearness of the Lord. There have been great birthdays in the Church, when prodigals have come back to sonship, when shepherds have returned with recovered flocks, and the dead have risen to immortal life. There have, too, been times when the people have realised with special vividness the personality and life-giving power of the Holy Ghost; when they have had the keys of interpretation wherewith to unlock the boundless treasures of the Divine Word; when prayer was as the speech of love that never wearies; when the Sabbath shed its sacred glory over all the days of the week; when God’s house shone with heavenly lustre, and all life throbbed in joyful harmony with the purposes of God. Cannot such delights be more permanently secured? At the same time, we are not constituted for constant rapture; we have to contend with the deceitfulness of the flesh; we have to fight and suffer upon the earth, &c. Still there is danger that we may be content with low attainments. There is a steady and penetrating glow of piety, there is a fervour of love, there is an animated intelligence, a zealous affection, a godly yearning for personal progress and social evangelisation, which, when found together, make up a life of delight in God, and blessed service for men. To promote this realisation I ask your attention to a few suggestions.

I. As individual Christians, and as churches of Jesus Christ, we need to be very clear in our doctrinal foundations. Let us get a distinct idea of the principal points in the Christian faith. Beginning with the doctrine of sin, let us strive after God’s view of it. To Him sin is infinitely hateful; He cannot tolerate it with the least degree of allowance; it troubles His otherwise perfect and happy universe; it despoils human nature; it is the cause of death and the source of hell. To under-estimate the heinousness of sin is to put ourselves out of the line of God’s view; to understand sin is to understand redemption. Sin interprets the cross; sin shows what is meant by God’s love. Have we, as individuals and churches, lost the true notion of sin? Is it no longer infinitely abominable to us? Is it toned down to something almost indistinguishable? We cannot be right in our relation to Jesus Christ until we regard sin with unutterable repugnance.

Out of a true knowledge of sin will come a true appreciation of Jesus Christ as the Saviour. I could sum up my creed in a sentence, yet that sentence contains more than all the libraries in the world: I BELIEVE IN JESUS CHRIST, THE SON OF GOD! My heart hungers for Him, my sin cries out for His mercy, my sorrow yearns for His coming; and when He does come He speaks just the word that my soul needs; He understands me; He knows me altogether; He can get down into the low, dark pit into which sin has thrown me; He draws me to His cross; He hides my sins in His sacrifice; He shows me how God can be honoured, yet the sinner forgiven; He destroys the devil, and puts within me the Holy Ghost; He so fills me with life that death has no longer any terror with which to affright me.

If we lay firmly hold of these two points, viz., the sinfulness of sin and the work of Jesus Christ, we shall come to know what is meant by what I have ventured to call the glow of piety. Only the liberated slave can know the joy of freedom—only the recovered leper can appreciate fully the blessing of health.… Do we know sin in its essential, unchangeable loathsomeness? Do we love Jesus Christ as the only, the Almighty, and the ever-blessed Saviour? Then, out of this should come an intense fervour of piety. We should have strength here.

II. We must have a public ministry which it faithful to the spirit and demands of Jesus Christ. All Christian ministers are called to be faithful to Jesus Christ in seeking the salvation of men.… We must not throw off the old words—Repentance, Faith, Salvation—and the things that they signify must be the very life-blood of our ministry. In any genuine revival of interest in Christianity there must be a revived interest in a preached Gospel. The sanctuary will be thronged, and the thronging listeners will be justly impatient of everything that does not bear immediately and intensely upon the salvation of men.… Then must we be made to feel that the doctrines of the Gospel are humbling doctrines; that they smite down our natural pride and self-trustfulness; that they kill before they make alive; that out of our utter impoverishment and nothingness they bring all that is distinctive and enduring in Christian manhood.… I am confirmed in the opinion that we should devote ourselves with increasing earnestness to seeking the salvation of men when I look at the character of our general congregations. We address the public, not a select few; we speak to men whose whole time is engrossed in worldly engagements; we speak to the poor, the unlearned, the sorrowing; we address the young, the careless, the worldly; and to such there is nothing that can be preached that will so instantly touch the heart as the glorious Gospel of the blessed God.… Whilst there will be this full and bold proclamation of evangelical doctrine in the pulpit, there will be a system of teaching proceeding more privately. Some men have a peculiar gift in biblical teaching, and those men should be encouraged to pursue their laborious but most necessary vocation. The preacher and teacher should be fellow-labourers. The preacher should collect men into great companies, arrest their attention by earnest and convincing statements of Christian truth, and then pass them on, so to speak, to the critical and patient teacher. Thus the man of God will become thoroughly furnished; having received deep instruction, he will be able to give a reason for the faith and hope that are in him, and he will be strong to resist the importunities of those who are driven about by every wind of doctrine.

III. There is one feature in our public Christian life which I should like to see more fully brought out—I mean the bearing of individual testimony on behalf of Jesus Christ. By no means seek to supplant what is known as the regular ministry, but supplement it; and at all costs destroy the impression that nobody has a good word to say for Christianity except its paid teachers.… Why should not the banker, the great merchant, and the eminent lawyer say publicly what God has done for their souls?—Dr. Parker. Abridged from The City Temple.


(Psalms 85:8-13.)

The Psalmist, as the representative of the people, having reviewed God’s former mercies to them, and urged their prayer for salvation from their present distresses, resolves to listen for the Divine response to their supplication. “I will hear what God the Lord will speak.” He becomes silent, that he may hear the voice of God. His anxiety and fervour of prayer are stilled, and he seeks to attain that state of spiritual attention that shall catch the first whisper of the Divine voice, and of spiritual receptiveness that shall secure the first instalment of the Divine blessing. Having spoken to God, it becomes us to listen for His reply. The Psalmist expected an answer from God, and therefore he waited and listened for it. In this he is at once a rebuke and an example to us. A rebuke, inasmuch as we have so frequently offered our prayer without any real thought of its being answered. We have not waited God’s reply, because we did not expect Him to reply. An example. When we pray let our prayer be real; let us honour God by our confidence, and then, like the Psalmist, we shall expect and listen for His voice in reply to us.

The Psalmist is confident that God will grant a favourable answer to their prayer. “He will speak peace unto His people.” Thus, in general, does he speak of the response which he expected from God. God’s reply would be such as would impart to them outward peace in deliverance from their troubles, and inward peace in the communications of His grace. And now the Psalmist, with some particularity, sets forth his anticipations as to God’s answer to their prayers. Consider—

I. The blessing anticipated. Several particulars are mentioned by the poet.

1. Deliverance from their distresses. “His salvation is nigh them that fear Him.” His hand was “nigh” to help them; and their deliverance would be effected speedily. Such was the confident anticipation of the distressed people. And surely every tried and oppressed child of God now may feel equally confident that, in answer to prayer, He will speedily appear bringing salvation with Him.

2. Exaltation to honour. “That glory may dwell in our land.” The glory of the Divine presence and worship. God’s presence would be manifested in their salvation; and, being delivered from the evils under which they groaned, they would render to Him a more hearty and more constant worship. The glory of national prosperity. “Our land shall yield her increase.” Husbandry should be diligently prosecuted, and God’s blessing would come down upon the land in sun and shower; and fruitful seasons and abundant harvests would be the result. There should be an increase of worship and of spiritual prosperity, and an increase of work and of material prosperity. And in their spiritual peace and temporal happiness, their glory as the people of God would be manifest, and His glory as the God of His people would be manifest also.

3. Prevalence of moral excellence. “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed. Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.” “This may be understood,” says Matthew Henry, and we think correctly, “of the reformation of the people and of the government, in the administration of which all those graces should be conspicuous and commanding. The rulers and ruled shall all be merciful and true, righteous and peaceable. When there is no truth or mercy all goes to ruin (Isaiah 59:14-15; Hosea 4:1); but when these meet in the management of all affairs, when these give aim, when these give law, when there is such plenty of truth that it sprouts up like the grass of the earth, and of righteousness that it is showered down like rain from heaven, then things go well. When in every congress mercy and truth meet, in every embrace righteousness and peace kiss, and common honesty is indeed common, then glory dwells in a land, as the sin of reigning dishonesty is a reproach to any people.” In support of this interpretation of these verses we remark—

(1.) The absence of these moral qualities had often led to disastrous results in the history of Israel.

(2.) The prevalence of these moral qualities would follow the fulfilment of their petition, “Turn us, O God of our salvation.”

(3.) The prevalence of these moral qualities is conducive in a great degree to social and commercial prosperity.

(4.) The prevalence of these moral qualities is the securest bulwark and the brightest glory of any nation. This was indeed a bright and cheering anticipation of the poet and the people.

II. The character of those for whom the blessing is anticipated. Certain marked features in the character of the people who should receive this blessing are indicated.

1. Consecration to God. “His people, His saints.” They were a people called of God, and consecrated to God. They were subject to His will, and sanctified by His grace.

2. Veneration of God. “Them that fear Him.” “Salvation is far from the wicked,” but it is “nigh them that” regard God with sincere and becoming reverence.

3. Obedience to God. “Righteousness shall go before Him, and shall set us in the way of His steps.” The idea of the last clause appears to be that the effect of the coming of the Lord for their salvation would be to dispose men to tread in His footsteps, to be imitators and followers of Him in respect of righteousness. The blessings of salvation are for the obedient. “The new salvation rests throughout upon the foundation of the new obedience.” Hence the warning, “Let them not turn again to folly;” for if they did, their prosperity would vanish, and their distresses would return again. The same is true of the blessings of the Gospel. Our Lord saves His people “from their sins,” not in their sins. We must walk “in the way of His steps,” if we would share His blessedness.

CONCLUSION.—What is the salvation for which we are looking? Is it deliverance from a hell of material torment, and the enjoyment of a heaven of self-indulgence? Then the ideas of the ancient Jews were more advanced and spiritual than ours. The salvation of a state is not in its great armaments, or its vast wealth; but in the prevalence of “mercy and truth, righteousness and peace.” The salvation of individuals is in their conformity with the will of God, in reverencing Him, in consecration to Him. If these things are realised in us, great will be our blessedness.


(Psalms 85:8.)

Let us meditate on this verse under the following heads:—

I. The listener. “I will hear,” says the writer of this Psalm. He speaks as a listener, as one whose ears are open. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” This is our true attitude into which we come at conversion. God said, “Hear, and your soul shall live;” He “opened our ears to hear as the learned,” i.e., as “one who is under teaching.” So we began to listen; and, in listening, found life. Such is to be our life; a life of listening; not to man, nor self, nor the world, but to God. As creatures, listening is our proper attitude, much more as sinners. Let the willing ear be ours. How much we lose by the closed ear!

II. The Speaker. “God the Lord;” God, even Jehovah. Other speakers may win the ear of the multitude, but it is to God the Lord that the saint listens. His voice is powerful. Its tones are penetrating; its words attractive. God speaks as one entitled to be heard, expecting to be heard. He speaks with authority, waiting for our obedience to the heavenly voice. To less than such a speaker we do not feel constrained to listen, but to Him we must. He speaks, we cannot but hear.

III. The message. “He will speak peace to His people.” He is the God of peace; “He maketh peace in His high places.” Peace is the substance of the message that has all along been carried to us; peace to him that is afar off, and to him that is nigh; peace in heaven; peace on earth; peace between man and God; the peace of pardon, the peace of reconciliation; the peace that passeth all understanding—peace through the blood of the cross, through Him who is our peace. It might have been wrath, nay, ought to have been wrath; but it is not wrath, only peace; for He is long-suffering and slow to wrath; nay, God is love!

IV. The confidence. The Psalmist knows what He is to expect from such a God. Before the peace comes, he knows that it is coming; for he knows the God to whom he is called upon to listen. This is the confidence which he has in Him. He does not listen uncertainly, as not knowing what will come forth. He has heard of this God before—of what He does and speaks—and he opens his ear in happy confidence. He is sure that no wrath will come, only love, only peace. This God is the God of salvation—the God who gave His Son. Shall He not then speak peace?

V. The issue. “Let them not return to folly;” or, and “they shall not return to folly.” He does not say, Let them not turn to folly, and then He will speak peace to them; but He will speak peace first, and then they shall not return to folly. This is God’s order; the true and Divine order; the reverse of man’s. It is not first holiness and then peace, but first peace and then holiness. The root of all holiness is peace with God. Till the clouds are rolled away and the sun shines out, we cannot be warmed and enlightened. Till the frost is gone, and the ice dissolved, the river cannot flow on and water the fields. Christ did not say, Go, and sin no more, and I will not condemn thee; but, “Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more.” … The first step to a holy life is being at peace with God.… This great point between us and God once settled, we are free to devote our undivided energies to the work of progress; not till then.

A saint, then, is one who has listened to God; who has heard the words of peace from His lips; who has believed them; who has been reconciled; and who knows that he is so. Therefore he seeks to be holy. He hates his former folly. He does not return to it. He does not make his free pardon a reason for returning to it.
Brethren, be consistent. Show that the peace you have received is a holy peace.—H. Bonar, D.D. Abridged from Light and Truth.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Psalms 85". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.