I have to be honest here, after a first read, it’s hard to know what to do with Psalm 85. I don’t mean I don’t know how it fits into the flow of the Psalter, that seems simple enough.
Israel’s covenant with God cut two ways. The Israelites were to follow God’s commands as closely as they could. Their daily activities were regulated by the laws God gave to Moses many years ago, and when they failed to keep these commands they were to repent and offer sacrifices. On God’s side of the equation, he provided peace and prosperity for them as they lived in the promised land as long as the Israelites kept their side of the covenant. But, as we know, the Israelites couldn’t do that.
Israel’s history shows a people choosing God and then, before long, choosing against God. Eventually, they chose a king who received God’s promise for him and his progeny to rule forever, seemingly settling the hope of the covenant: such a longing is found in Psalm 72. But when Book III opens we see that the kings had rejected God and had begun worshipping whomever and whatever they wanted, so much so that God’s anger grew until he rejected his people, sending them away from the land of promise. (This is what, as I’ve said before, I believe Psalm 73-79 is primarily about). But after these, and a few psalms of prayers for repentance and reconciliation, Psalm 85 stands as their plea for God to reinstate the land of promise. The sons of Korah, understanding the relationship between God’s promises and Israel’s faithfulness, wrote, “for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; 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.” (85:8-9)
That much I understand, but it applies to us today is seemingly less certain. If read one way, it seems to fuel the Health, Wealth, and Prosperity Gospel fire of so many preachers today. For doesn’t it seem to say that if we follow God then he will bless our lives with material abundance? Psalm 85:11-12 says, “Faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from the sky. Yes, the Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.” Are we to believe that the Prosperity Gospel preachers are right that there is a formula attaining prosperity? Is that the message of this Psalm?
Well, it seems obvious that the clear answer is a resounding “no.” But then again, I think it is also possible that it is a resounding “yes.”
Scripture seems clearly tell us that God is not a vending machine: we don’t use formulas to get good things from him. In fact, the opposite is quite often true. Even if we do the right things, pain and suffering often come from him as a way to make us into the sort of people he wants. Remember Job and how God allowed Satan to decimate his prosperous life to show that people follow God because of his nature, not his gifts? Remember the lame man who Christ said was born that way for the express purpose of revealing God’s glory, not because anyone sinned? Remember how Jesus told his disciples that following him would lead to many pains and troubles in life? God seems to demand holy behavior without any promise of earthly pleasures or prosperity. Thus, it seems I can say with resounding clarity that God does not want us to view Psalm 85 as a Prosperity Gospel psalm.
But if we read the psalm with eternal eyes and not temporal eyes, I think our conclusion might be different. We are told the righteous ones are co-heirs with Christ of his eternal kingdom. We are told there will be no more tears, no more pain, and no more death. We are told we will live in God’s holy city where the streets are paved with gold and the walls are made of precious gems. We are told that God will restore the prosperity of the garden to those who have decided to follow God’s ways. And thus, Psalm 85 viewed through the lens of an eternal perspective, resounds with a gospel of eternal prosperity.
But that is the difference, and thus the key to reading Psalm 85. God does not promise us a prosperous restoration of the land in this life and on this planet, though some would tell you otherwise. But when read in its context, Psalm 85 tells us of how God is calling us to see a bigger truth about the plans he has for us. It tells us about the end of time when we are called into his presence. And it tells us of one simple request, though it might be the most difficult request we will ever attempt to fulfill. We are asked to “not turn back to folly.” And if we are able to do that, then God’s prosperity will be poured out on us in a way that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.”