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The Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Getting Justice and Peace to Kiss—Psalm 85:8-13 (Richard Davis)

Psalm 85 speaks of the meeting of justice and peace in a kiss in God’s new order. While we often futilely pursue such a goal through our politics, in Scripture we see its fulfilment through the cross.

8 Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people,
to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
9 Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.

10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
12 The Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
13 Righteousness will go before him,
and will make a path for his steps.

Considered an exilic or post-exilic psalm, Psalm 85 is a petition from Israel for the restoration of its right relationship to its land and its God. However, this prayer is not simply for them to relocate to their land, but to occupy it as a just, peaceful, and prosperous society enjoying the bounty of God’s good creation. It is a psalm full of eschatological hopes and expectations, which, if realized, would transform Israel’s current plight.

This week’s reading focuses on the second half of Psalm 85 and includes, in verse 10, the famous image of righteousness and peace kissing. Verses 10-11 are sometimes used as a closing quote in some theology books, with its vision of what is to come as our Christian hope and inheritance. This text can be an end to some journey, but it can also be a point around which we turn in discovering how we get to this new future, and what role human politics can play in this.

Psalm 85 begins with Israel recalling a time of plenty when the land was under God’s favor; Jacob’s fortunes had been restored, and Israel’s sins forgiven. It appears that the time had come again when the people were suffering under God’s anger. Yet, even in such a moment, Israel can listen for, and perhaps even hear, a word from God. Even though the people were once again suffering, the hope is that God “will speak peace to his people.” Even in their iniquity, the people recall the memory of God’s grace and words of peace. They know in their hearts that God will speak peace to them and that his salvation is at hand.

Like these Israelites, we know something of justice and peace. We too can recall better days, but we know that justice and peace are not in harmony yet. As the title of Nicholas Wolterstoff’s book Until Justice and Peace Embrace suggests, we are in a time where they might be friends, but have not yet united. Does human politics have a part to play here in bringing them together in harmony? Some in the history of theology have said yes.

Jean Gerson, in his 1417 treatise “Concerning Ecclesiastical Power” (De potestate ecclesiastica), read to the Council of Constance, develops a subtle argument for human involvement in getting to our end of justice and peace kissing. For Gerson, political and social order equates to justice, because justice means giving everyone his or her due and that is also what brings order. Order is “the arrangement of like and unlike elements which accords each to his due. And so order is thoroughly in accord with justice, which gives to each his own.”[1] Gerson then concludes, “peace is nothing other than the tranquility which comes from order.” Here Gerson cites Isaiah 32:17: “The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.” Gerson’s argument for a righteous political order that makes for peace feeds a political imagination where order, justice, and peace come from good human rule under God. Today the role of human politics in generating peace, order and justice is often severed from God’s guidance, but Christians still expect rulers to create justice and peace.

Early in the eighteenth century, non-conformist theologian and pastor Matthew Henry composed his famous Complete Commentary on the Bible, offering one of the more comprehensive explanations of the political nature of this text. In discussing Psalm 85 he wrote of several ways to interpret verses 10-11, including this:

The rulers and ruled shall all be merciful and true, righteous and peaceable. When there is no truth nor mercy all goes to ruin (Hosea 4:1; Isaiah 59:14, 15) but when these meet in the management of all affairs, when these give aim, when these give law, when there is such plenty of truth that it sprouts up like the grass of the earth, and of righteousness that it is showered down like rain from heaven, then things go well.[2]

This view of the possibility of the reformation of humans and their earthly rulers is a hopeful one. Some might say a naïve one that does not take account of the power of sinfulness among the rulers or the ruled. But again, such a view gives the impression that peace and harmony can be the outcomes of human capacity and will.

More recently, Stanley Hauerwas, in a sermon on this text, provides a different perspective. Like Gerson, Hauerwas emphasizes order, but this is order determined by the politics of the cross. Linking the Psalmist’s vision of justice and peace kissing with St Paul’s advice to lets one’s gentleness show (Philippians 4:4-9), Hauerwas writes that “gentleness abstracted from the truth of the cross becomes but sentimentality, ready to compromise with the worst injustice in the name of a peace that too often only names an order built on violence.”[3]

We might say the same about the pursuit for political and social order abstracted from the cross. In the cross, we see the conflict of the false order and false justice of the Roman Empire defeated by the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is God’s new order, one of gentleness and sacrifice. While for Gerson earthly order was divine justice, in the cross we see human justice and order exposed and shamed by Jesus’s political execution.

In the cross we also see the meeting of the vertical—stretching from Earth’s faithfulness to heaven’s righteousness—and the horizontal—where righteousness and peace meet on earth in the harmony of humanity and the land. The overall effect is the perfect harmony of heaven and earth, where human faithfulness connects with the earth’s yield. This is also an ecological vision that connects the return of the people’s faithfulness with the favorable yield of the land. We find the opposite vision in Isaiah 24:3-6, where the earth’s despoliation links to its inhabitants’ transgressing laws, violating statutes, and breaking the everlasting covenant.

We find peace and order coming from God elsewhere in the text. It is significant here that God “will speak peace to his people.” We should not forget that God’s speech is a creative act. For God to speak peace is for God to create peace. And from God’s original creation itself comes faithfulness springing up from the ground, nurtured by the righteousness coming down from the sky—perhaps like the rain kissing the ground, as in Deuteronomy 32:2—and the land yielding food.

God’s peace is different to a peace built on the world’s justice and order. Recall the words of Jesus in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” In our sinfulness we might try to build peace and justice ourselves, but without God they will never kiss.

[1] Jean Gerson, ‘Concerning Ecclesiastical Power’ translated by Catherine Brown in Jill Kraye, ed. Cambridge Translations of Renaissance Philosophical Texts: Volume 2, Political Philosophy (Cambridge New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997) 9.
[2] Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible, Psalms 85. Online at http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/view.cgi?bk=18&ch=85.
[3] Stanley Hauerwas, A Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2010) 105-110.

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