Theme: A Psalm for the Discouraged
In this week’s lessons we find encouragement from the knowledge of God’s past faithfulness, and the hope of future blessings because of who he is.
Scripture: Psalm 85:1-13
Have you ever been discouraged? Not just about life—perhaps because things have not gone very well for you recently, which is the case time and again for many of us—but about your spiritual life? Or perhaps I could be even more specific: Have you ever been discouraged because the life you are living now does not seem to be as real or as joyful as your life was after you first became a Christian? John Wesley knew times like this and wrote about them poetically, asking,
Where is the joy I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
It is a good question. In such times we long for the spiritual vitality and fruitfulness of earlier days. And if we are not too discouraged to pray about it, our prayer is often that God might revive us or restore us to what we once knew. Psalm 85 is precisely this kind of prayer.
There is nothing in the title to show what historical setting Psalm 85 might have come out of. It is introduced only as another of the songs of the “Sons of Korah,” which we encountered first at the opening of Book 2 of the Psalter (Psalms 42, 44-49) and are reencountering now (Psalms 84,85, 87, 88). But it is likely, to judge from the contrast between the opening verses, which speak of a recent restoration of the people, and the prayer in verses 4-7, which asks for a new restoration or revival, that the psalm is from the time shortly after the return of the Jews from their seventy-year-long captivity in Babylon.1
However, this may not be the right setting for this psalm. A number of key interpreters doubt it. But even if it is not, the condition of the exiles shortly after their return from Babylon is an illustration of the kind of discouragement out of which the psalm comes. The first Jews to return to Jerusalem did so in response to the decree of Cyrus, the king of Persia, in 538 B.C. The account is in Ezra 16. The foundations of the temple were laid immediately, and the temple itself was completed between 520 and 515 B.C. to judge from the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah.
Somewhere along the way the Jews also tried to rebuild the city’s walls. This was hard and the work was abandoned, probably after their enemies destroyed what little rebuilding work had been done and burned the city’s gates (Neh. 1:3). At first the people must have felt joy at being able to return to their homeland. They would have confessed with gratitude that God had indeed restored their fortunes, forgiven their sin and turned aside his wrath (Ps. 85:1-3). But when these first excellent beginnings broke down and the forward motion to rebuild the city and nation ceased, discouragement and even despair set in. According to the opening chapter of Nehemiah, the people acknowledged frankly that they were “in great trouble and disgrace.”
What do God’s people do in such circumstances? They pray and wait for God to answer. I repeat that I do not know whether this is the proper historical setting for Psalm 85. But I know that Psalm 85 is this kind of prayer. And I also know that if this is the true setting, God answered the prayer by sending Nehemiah to rebuild the walls, reconstitute the nation and lift the people to new levels of spirituality and rejoicing. It is what the book that bears his name is all about.
So let’s look at our psalm that way this week. Let’s look at it for the pointers or steps it gives by which a discouraged Christian—maybe you—can be lifted from spiritual depression to new levels of rejoicing. I suggest that there are four steps, clearly marked by the four stanzas of the New International Version translation.
1The strongest champions of this view are H. C. Leupold (Exposition of the Psalms [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969], pp. 609, 610) and J.J. Stewart Perowne (Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989], vol. 2, pp. 123, 124. Original edition 1878, 1879). Perowne says, “The most probable way of explaining this conflict of opposing feelings is by referring the psalm to the circumstances mentioned by Nehemiah (chap. 1-3).”
What is the likely setting for this psalm?
How did the exiles feel upon returning to their homeland? Why? What happened to them?
Reflection: Take time to evaluate your feelings about your spiritual life. Are you discouraged? Joyful? Content? What have your prayers been like recently?
Application: What do you need to do if you are feeling discouraged? How can you use this period of your life to better minister to others?
For Further Study: Is there someone you would like to encourage this Christmas in their knowledge of God’s Word and in their Christian walk? Consider giving them James Boice’s three-volume paperback set on the Psalms, available from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals for 25% off the regular price.