Psalm 85, which we have just heard, is a joyful song that is full of hope in the future of salvation. It reflects the exciting moment when the people of Israel returned to the land of their fathers from exile in Babylon. They are beginning once again their life as a nation in their beloved homeland, which was destroyed during the conquest of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar's armies in 586 B.C.
Indeed, in the original Hebrew version of the psalm, the verb shûb is repeated several times — a word that denotes the return of those who have been in exile but that also has the meaning of a spiritual “return” or “conversion.” The psalm, therefore, refers not only to the rebirth of a nation but also to the community of the faithful, who experienced their exile as punishment for the sins they had committed and who now see their return home and their new freedom as God's blessing for their conversion.
A Spiritual Return
We can follow the development of the psalm in its two fundamental stages. An initial reading reveals the theme of “return” and everything it entails, as we have pointed out. First of all, it celebrates Israel's physical return: “You … Lord … restored the good fortune of Jacob” (verse 2); “Restore us once more, God our savior. … Please give us life again” (verses 5 and 7). This is a precious gift from God, who is anxious to set his children free from oppression and who is committed to their prosperity: “For you love all things that are. … But you spare all things because they are yours, O Lord and lover of souls” (see Wisdom 11:24, 26).
However, besides the “return” that concretely unites those who have been in exile, there is another, more interior and spiritual “return.” The psalmist devotes ample space to this theme, which he highlights. The theme is valid not only for ancient Israel but for the faithful throughout the ages.
The Lord is actively at work to bring about this “return” and reveals his love by forgiving the iniquities of his people, wiping away their sins, setting aside his wrath and turning back his anger (see Psalm 85:3-4).
It is this deliverance from evil, forgiveness of guilt and purification from sin that makes God's people new. This is expressed in an invocation that has also become part of our Christian liturgy: “Lord, show us your mercy and love, and grant us your salvation” (verse 8).
But God's “return” to us through forgiveness must be answered by man's “return” or “conversion” to God through repentance. Indeed, the psalm states that peace and salvation are offered to “to those who trust in him” (verse 9). Those who make the decision to follow the path of holiness will receive the gifts of joy, freedom and peace.
It is worth noting that often the biblical terms that are used when referring to sin talk about taking the wrong road, missing the mark or straying from the straight path. Conversion is simply a “return” to the straight path that leads to the Father's house, who is there waiting to embrace us, forgive us and make us happy (see Luke 15:11-32).
A New World of Peace
At this point, we come to the second part of the psalm (see Psalm 85:10-14), which our Christian tradition cherishes so highly. It describes a new world where God's love and faithfulness “meet” as though they were two people; likewise, justice and peace “kiss” when they meet. Truth springs forth in a new springtime, and justice, which also means salvation and holiness in the Bible, looks down from heaven and begins its journey amid humanity. All the virtues, which were banished at first from the earth because of sin, enter history anew, and, as their paths cross, plot out the map for a world of peace. Mercy, truth, justice and peace are sort of the four cardinal points for this geography of the spirit. As Isaiah sings: “Let justice descend, O heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the skies drop it down. Let the earth open and salvation bud forth; let justice also spring up! I, the Lord, have created this” (Isaiah 45:8).
As early as the second century, the psalmist's words were interpreted as the proclamation of “Christ, begotten of the Virgin,” as St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote (Adversus haereses, III, 5, 1). Indeed, when Christ came, mercy flowed, truth blossomed, justice bloomed and peace shone forth in splendor.
For this reason, our Christian tradition interprets this psalm, especially its second part, in the context of the Nativity. This is how St. Augustine interprets it in one of his sermons for Christmas. We will conclude our reflection with his words: “‘Truth sprang forth from the earth’: Christ, who said, ‘I am the truth,’ (John 14:6) was born of a Virgin. ‘Justice looked down from heaven’: whoever believes in him who was born does not justify himself but is justified by God. ‘Truth sprang from the earth’: because ‘the Word became flesh’ (John 1:14). ‘Justice looked down from heaven’: because ‘all good giving and every perfect gift is from above’ (James 1:17). ‘Truth sprang from the earth’: for it took on a body through Mary. ‘Justice looked down from heaven’: because ‘no one can receive anything except what has been given him from heaven’ (John 3:27)” (Discorsi, IV/1, Rome, 1984, p. 11).
Pope John Paul II met with pilgrims from around the world in St. Peter's Square for his general audience on Sept. 25 after a short helicopter flight from his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. He continued his teachings on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours with a meditation on Psalm 85.
“Psalm 85 is a joyful song that is full of hope in the future of salvation,” the Holy Father noted. The psalm celebrates Israel's return from exile in Babylon. “The psalm refers not only to the rebirth of a nation but also to the community of the faithful.”
The Pope pointed out that the first part of the psalm celebrates not only Israel's return from exile but also its turning back to the Lord in faith and obedience to his covenant, which are valid themes not only for ancient Israel but for the faithful throughout the ages. “God's ‘return’ to us through forgiveness must be answered by man's ‘return’ or ‘conversion’ through repentance,” he stressed.
The second part of the psalm, the Holy Father said, “describes a new world where God's love and faithfulness ‘meet’ as though they were two people; likewise, justice and peace ‘kiss’ when they meet.” The psalm plots out the map for a world of peace. “Mercy, truth, justice and peace are sort of the four cardinal points for this geography of the spirit,” he said.
John Paul concluded his reflections by quoting St. Irenaeus of Lyons and St. Augustine, who found the highest expression of this “new world” in the coming of Christ.