"Will you be angry with us forever?"
A dear friend, Juergen Von Hagen, preached on Psalm 85 recently, and here's a part of his sermon translated into English. Juergen is a member and elder of the Free Evangelical Church of Bonn, Germany.
(For the choir director: a Psalm of the sons of Korah.) O LORD, You showed favor to Your land; You restored the captivity of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of Your people; You covered all their sin. Selah. You withdrew all Your fury; You turned away from Your burning anger. Restore us, O God of our salvation, And cause Your indignation toward us to cease. Will You be angry with us forever? Will You prolong Your anger to all generations? Will You not Yourself revive us again, That Your people may rejoice in You? Show us Your lovingkindness, O LORD, And grant us Your salvation.
I will hear what God the LORD will say; For He will speak peace to His people, to His godly ones; But let them not turn back to folly. Surely His salvation is near to those who fear Him, That glory may dwell in our land. Lovingkindness and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth springs from the earth, And righteousness looks down from heaven. Indeed, the LORD will give what is good, And our land will yield its produce. Righteousness will go before Him And will make His footsteps into a way.
The psalmist has understood and acknowledged that the suffering and chaos of his life are the result of God’s wrath... He teaches us to do the same. Everything that is not right, every problem we cannot solve, every suffering in our lives is a result of the wrath of God. Not in the sense of retribution, because we are not doing enough for God (“You are sick because you do not pray enough”). Rather in the sense of understanding the reality of our lives: The reality is that we are sinful and we constantly put our desire to control our lives and to determine what is good and bad above God’s desire for our love and trust in him. God is angry because we love and worship ourselves rather than Him who has made us His people because he loves us.
It is important to understand and acknowledge that reality, because otherwise we have nothing to say about the suffering and chaos in our lives. If we negate the wrath of God, there are only two ways to explain chaos and suffering: Either God is malicious and wants to harm us, or he is not powerful enough to protect us against some other, evil power. Either way, there would be no reason to make such a God our Lord.
It is important to understand and acknowledge that reality so that we come to the right conclusions. What can we do, if we understand that all suffering and chaos in our lives is ultimately caused by our lack of love and trust in God? The psalmist tells us what to do: Cry out to God “Restore us, revive us, show us your mercy and grant us your salvation. His prayer confesses that God’s wrath is the root of his suffering. To acknowledge that is to acknowledge his own sin. If we acknowledge the wrath of God in our lives we acknowledge that we have sinned.
But that is not all. The Hebrew word “anger” has the meaning of excessive anger. The psalmist is saying “God, you are exaggerating! It is not right that your wrath continues, because you are still our God.” This does not mean that we have a right to be treated nicely by God. Not a right in the sense of a legal claim that God is bound to respect; after all, the psalmist knows that God’s people have broken the covenant by their sin. But there is a sense in these words that God is not right in his wrath, because its consequences are too hard to bear for his people. The words “to all generations” (v 5) express hopelessness, a sense of suffering from which there is no escape. The wrath of God leads us into a life in which all hope and meaning are lost. The psalmist is crying out to God: “It is enough! I cannot bear it any more. Lord, let your mercy become active in my life again, for you have promised to do so.” This is not to accuse God of not being righteous. It is an acknowledgement of his power: If You do not remember your promise, who will be faithful? If You do not help, where should we go? Restore us! His cry shows that God must become active again and restore the relationship of love and trust which man has destroyed.
The point is: If we acknowledge the wrath of God as the ultimate cause of all suffering and chaos in our lives, we do not have to resign and give up. We have one hope left: The hope that God will return and intervene. To acknowledge the wrath of God is to trust in his love. So, when the suffering and the chaos become overwhelming, you can cry out to God: “It is enough! Return!” This cry can restore your trust in God.
The psalm expresses this by saying “I will hear” and God will speak. “To speak” and “to do” are the same words in Hebrew. “He will speak peace” is the same as “he will do peace.”
The desperate cry to God makes us free! Free from the thought that it all depends on us. Free from the fascination of chaos and suffering. Free to turn back to God. Free to remember our experiences with God in the past: God has been favorable, he has brought back the people from the captivity in Egypt, he has forgiven their iniquity and covered their sin. He has turned away his wrath in the past! The historical experience of his people is that God’s love is greater than his wrath. If his people cry out to him, he will save them. For us, this historical experience is summarized in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The psalm ends with a look into the future life in the kingdom of the Lord. God’s faithfulness springs out of the earth like flowers. His righteousness shines from heaven like the sun. God is with his people and gives them all that is good for their lives. There will be no chaos and suffering but peace with God. Righteousness will go before God: God is with his people and leads them. Righteousness makes His footsteps our path. His people walk in the footsteps of their Lord and follow in his righteousness. Nothing can disturb the relationship between God and his people. That is the ultimate goal of our lives.
Psalm 85 is the prayer of a man who has decided to wait for the Lord intervening in his life and saving him. Looking at the chaos and suffering in his life, he does not try to negate the ultimate cause: The wrath of God which is the answer to his sin and the sin of his people. He cries out: “Restore us!” And that is precisely the right thing to do. We are not called to be stoics who suffer silently whatever happens to them. We are called to cry out to God: “It is enough.” Because God is the only hope we have.