Psalms 85 and 86: Communal Faith   Leave a comment




Psalms 85 and 86


Psalm 85 flows from a deep spring of communal ennui from either the Babylonian Exile or the period immediately following it.  Either timeframe of origin is plausible.  The text assumes that divine forgiveness of collective sins (understood as the main cause of the Babylonian Exile in Deuteronomistic theology) is requisite for the divine restoration of the Jewish people and their ancestral homeland.

Truth must precede reconciliation.  Remorse for sins must precede amendment of life.  These statements apply in both communal and individual cases.

Psalm 86 follows a familiar formula for a personal lament, which may reflect communal, postexilic concerns.  An observant reader of the Book of Psalms may identify certain motifs readily,  These include a plea for deliverance, an expression of confidence in divine mercy, an assertion of divine sovereignty, and a sense that God is not listening.  Why else would the psalmists try to attract divine attention?

Walter Brueggemann notes the “unusual nature of uses of the second person pronouns” in Psalm 86.  The scholar concludes:

This repeated use makes an appeal that presents the situation of trouble as squarely Yahweh’s problem…. This psalm is concerned for God’s will or intentionality, and so it engages in persuasion.

The Message of the Psalms:  A Theological Commentary (1984), 62

The interpretation of Psalm 86 as reflecting communal concerns in the wake of the Babylonian Exile makes sense to me, given the content of Third Isaiah (Isaiah 24-27 and 56-66), as well as the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah.  This is hardly a unanimous scholarly opinion.  For example, Father Mitchell J. Dahood, S.J.’s notes indicate that he thought Psalm 86 was a prayer for an Israelite king.  And other exegetes interpret the text as an individual lament, but not a lament of a monarch.  The citing of Exodus 32-34 (in which God forgave a disobedient people) in Psalm 86 bolsters the communal interpretation.

Imagine the situation, O reader; try a thought experiment.  Imagine being a Jewish exile at the end of the Babylonian Exile.  Perhaps you are elderly and recall your homeland from half a century prior.  Or maybe you, born in the Chaldean Empire, have no memories of the ancestral homeland.  Imagine feeling excited about the prospect of ceasing to live in exile.  You have high hopes of what that land will be like.  Imagine the disappointment you felt upon settling in that homeland and not finding the verdant paradise prophets had predicted.  Imagine the frustration over having to struggle with politics over issues as basic as rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem as well as the Temple.  Imagine the communal ennui.

Individual faith is an appropriate focus much of the time.  Indeed, this is a prominent topic in the Bible.  So is communal faith, a topic to which my individualistic culture gives short shrift.  The faith of a people or of a congregation is a matter entire books of the Bible address.

Imagine the collective malaise in the wake of the Babylonian Exile.  Then notice that, despite concerns that God may not be listening, Psalm 86 indicates hope that God will listen then act consistent with hesed–steadfast love.

The longer I live, the less confident I become regarding alleged certainties I learned in childhood.  This is fine; an adult should have a mature faith, not an immature one.  The longer I live, the more comfortable I become with uncertainty.  Trusting in God can be difficult, even when God does not seem to be remote.  Yet this move is essential; the quest for certainty is idolatrous when God requires faith.

Now, O reader, apply these themes to communal faith.  Perhaps a congregation has been struggling faithfully for years or decades.  Maybe hardships have been a group’s reality for decades or centuries.  God may have seemed remote for a long time.  Why has God not delivered these groups?  And to whom can these groups turn for help?

Faithfulness to God–communal or individual–does not guarantee success as “the world” measures it.  Consider the case of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (213-268) and his flock, O reader.

St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, whom Origen had converted to Christianity, was a lawyer in Neocaesarea, Pontus, Asia Minor, Roman Empire (now Turkey).  The church in Neocaesarea consisted of seventeen people when it elected him Bishop of Neocaesarea.  St. Gregory served dutifully for decades, during which he shephereded his flock through plagues, natural disasters, the Gothic invasion, and the Decian Persecution.  When St. Gregory died, his flock still numbered seventeen.

May we, as groups, live into our best possible character in God.  May we discern what God calls us to do and to be.  May we disregard prejudices which we may have learned yet which violate the Golden Rule.  And may we always trust in God, even when doing so is difficult.






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