The beauty of Psalm 85—as a psalm of Advent—is that it not only makes God’s turning to us conditional upon our turning to him, but it also makes our turning to God conditional upon his turning to us. Turning as a purely natural human accomplishment would be an impossibility. The psalm, therefore, explains that our turning to God and God’s turning to us coincide. They are one and the same, for they occur in salvation—which is to say with Augustine: They occur in the God-man, in Christ himself.
Psalm 85 has long been linked to Advent. Saint Augustine makes clear why. Commenting on verse 7—“Show us thy steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us thy salvation”—the African bishop explains that the word “salvation” simply means “Christ”: “Grant us your Christ, let us know your Christ, let us see your Christ.” It’s a bold and direct identification: When the psalmist desires salvation, he is longing for Christ.
Let’s take Augustine’s interpretive move—salvation equals Christ—as our starting point. How do we make sense of the rest of the psalm if Christ is the salvation for which we long?
The psalm’s context is national calamity, namely, exile to Babylon. The return in 539 b.c. yielded a new set of difficulties—enemies at the gate and harvests that failed. The Promised Land wasn’t the paradisal salvation that people had longed for.
Two things stand out. First, the psalmist links these perduring troubles with sin (and their end with forgiveness of sin). Second, he links Judah’s return to the return of God himself. The result is a poem that pines for salvation’s advent in Christ.
The first point is obnoxious to us. The psalmist views exile as the result of sin. The first three verses depict the returns from captivity as forgiveness of sin:
Lord, thou wast favorable to thy land;
thou didst restore (shuv) the fortunes of Jacob.
Thou didst forgive the iniquity of thy people;
thou didst pardon all their sin.
Thou didst withdraw all thy wrath;
thou didst turn (shuv) from thy hot anger.
We could translate the first verse slightly more literally as “thou didst return (shuv) the captivity of Jacob.” In other words, God has returned his people from exile—something directly tied to divine pardon. The implication is clear: Exile itself resulted from divine anger.
Back in the Promised Land, the psalmist asks God to relieve the difficult new situation and turn around his people’s plight. He makes this plea in the next section (85:4–7): “Restore (shuv) us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.” God’s people may have returned from Babylon, but the new disasters are evidence of sin, while forgiveness would lead to a greater and deeper (re)turning to him.
The psalmist’s quid pro quo theology—the result, likely, of extended reflection upon books such as Deuteronomy and Jeremiah—is disturbing to us. We don’t typically share the poet’s confident attribution of calamity to sin.