Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
There is more than the statement of its first verse (see Note) to connect this psalm with the post-exile period. Its whole tone belongs to that time. The attitude with regard to national sin explains itself only by this reference. The punishment had fallen, and in the glad return Israel had seen a proof that God had covered her guilt, and taken away her sin. But the bright prospect had quickly been overclouded. The troubles that succeeded the return perplexed those who had come back, as they felt purified and forgiven. Hence many such pathetic cries as those of this psalm. In this particular instance, the cry, as we gather from Psalm 85:12, arose from the dread of famine, which was always regarded as a judgment on national sin. But, even as he utters his lament, the prophet (for the psalm has a true prophetic ring, and is in the highest sense Messianic) sees the clouds break, and hails the promise of abundant harvest, as he watches the sunshine of prosperity and peace once more strike across the land. The rhythm arrangement is uncertain.
Title.—See title, Psalms 4, 42
To the chief Musician, A Psalm for the sons of Korah. LORD, thou hast been favourable unto thy land: thou hast brought back the captivity of Jacob.(1) Thou hast brought back.—See Psalm 14:7; Psalm 68:18. The expression might only imply generally a return to a state of former prosperity, as in Job 42:10, but the context directs us to refer especially to the return from exile. (See Introduction.)
Thou hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people, thou hast covered all their sin. Selah.(2) Forgiven.—Rather, taken away. (See Psalm 32:1.)
Turn us, O God of our salvation, and cause thine anger toward us to cease.(4) Turn us.—Here equivalent to restore us once more. If, the poet felt, the captivity had taught its lesson, why, on the restoration, did not complete freedom from misfortune ensue? It is this which supplies the motive of his song.
I will hear what God the LORD will speak: for he will speak peace unto his people, and to his saints: but let them not turn again to folly.(8) Speak peace . . .—This word “peace” comprehends all that the nation sighed for:
Dear nurse of arts, plenties, and joyful truth.”
To Christians the word has a higher meaning still, which directed the choice of this psalm for Christmas Day.
Surely his salvation is nigh them that fear him; that glory may dwell in our land.(9-11) The exquisite personification of these verses is, it has been truly remarked, exactly in Isaiah’s manner. (See Isaiah 32:16 seq., Isaiah 45:8; Isaiah 59:14.) It is an allegory of completed national happiness, which, though presented in language peculiar to Hebrew thought, is none the less universal in its application. Nor does it stop at material blessings, but lends itself to the expression of the highest truths. The poet sees once more the glory which had so long deserted the land come back—as its symbol, the ark, once came back—and take up its abode there. He sees the covenant favour once more descend and meet the divine faithfulness of which, lately, perplexed minds were doubting, but which the return of prosperity has now proved sure. Righteousness and peace, or prosperity, these inseparable brothers, kiss each other, and fall lovingly into each other’s arms.
Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.(10) Met together.—The word is used of those who should be friends, but whom circumstances have sundered (Proverbs 22:2).
Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.(11) Truth, or “faithfulness,” is here depicted as springing out of the earth, because the renewal of fertility has re-established the conviction of the faithfulness of Jehovah towards His people, which had been shaken.
Look down.—Used of bending forwards as from a window or battlement (Song of Solomon 6:10, Note).
This “righteousness” (here in direct parallelism with faithfulness) had, as it were, been hidden like the sun behind a cloud, but now is seen showing its benign face once more in the skies.
Righteousness shall go before him; and shall set us in the way of his steps.(13) Righteousness shall . . .—Better, Righteousness shall walk in front of Him, and follow in His steps.
Nothing is more instructive than the blending in Psalm 85:12-13 of material and moral blessings. They do go together, as experience, especially national testifies. In the same spirit is Wordsworth’s well-known Ode to Duty:
“Stern Law-giver! Yet thou dost wear
The Godhead’s most benignant grace,
Nor know we anything so fair
As is the smile upon thy face.
Flowers laugh before thee on their beds,
And fragrance in thy footing treads:
Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong,
And the most ancient heavens through Thee are
fresh and strong.”