Turn, Turn, Turn

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This morning I was reading Psalm 85 in a version derived from the Septuagint text, and was struck by an interesting repetition of theme that was actually captured in the English rendition.

*For the End; a psalm for the sons of Korah.

O Lord, You were pleased with Your land;
You turned back the captivity of Jacob;
You forgave the transgressions of Your people;
You covered all their sins. (Pause)

You ended all Your wrath;
You turned from the wrath of Your anger.
Turn us, O God of our salvation,
And turn away Your anger from us.
Will You be angry with us forever,
Or will You prolong Your anger from
generation to generation?

O God, You will turn and give us life,
And Your people will be glad in You.
Show us Your mercy, O Lord,
And grant us Your salvation.

I will hear what the Lord God will speak in me,
For He will speak peace
To His people and to His holy ones,
And to those who turn their hearts to Him.

His salvation is very close at hand to those who fear Him,
That glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth met together;
Righteousness and peace kissed each other;
Truth arose from the earth,
And righteousness looked down from heaven.

For the Lord will give goodness,
And our land shall yield its fruit.
Righteousness shall go before Him
And establish His footsteps as our pathway.[1. Scripture taken from the St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint. Copyright 2008 by St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. Used by permission. All rights reserved.]

After finishing this beautifully rich psalm, I was meditating upon the repetition in the first half in which the imagery of turning is used to describe not only God’s action, but also the action of his people.

In the first place, God’s action in the drama of salvation takes center stage: the implied situation is that God’s people have been in bondage, but God in his power has broken onto the scene, and that captivity has been turned back. For the Psalmist, this captivity is two-fold; he no doubt recalls to mind the historic memory of the Hebrews in Egypt, but also probably more recent episodes of slavery and exile. However, for the Psalmist there is no such thing as merely physical or political captivity; rather, bondage to men is ultimately a foil for humanity’s bondage to sin. St. Augustine explains it as such:

For how did He turn away the captivity of Jacob? See, how that that setting free is spiritual, see how that it is done inwardly. “You have forgiven,” he says, “the iniquity of Your people: You have covered all their sins” Behold how He has turned away their captivity, in that He has remitted iniquity: iniquity held them captive; your iniquity forgiven, you are freed. Confess therefore that you are in captivity, that you may be worthy to be freed: for he that knows not of his enemy, how can he invoke the liberator?[2. St. Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 85, From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 8. Edited by Philip Schaff. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1801085.htm]

In the Psalmist’s view, captivity of his people (both physical and spiritual) is the result of sin, and leads to estrangement from God. It is, at this point, a hopeless case, for one in captivity is powerless to be made free. Within the idea of ‘captivity’ for the Psalmist is caught up all the history of his people, and all the times they have failed God and have fallen headlong into their own self-inflicted ruin. It is the frustration that we all feel for the myriad times we sin against God despite our best intentions, and we feel the weight of it upon our shoulders and our consciences. We cry like St. Paul for deliverance from the seeming inevitability of it all, as St. Augustine describes:

Hear Paul himself confessing: “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” He asked who it should be, and straightway it occurred to him, “The grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Of this grace of God the Prophet speaks to our Lord Jesus Christ, “You have turned away the captivity of Jacob.” Attend to the captivity of Jacob, attend, and see that it is this: You have turned away our captivity, not by setting us free from the barbarians, with whom we had not met, but by setting us free from bad works, from our sins, by which Satan held sway over us. For if any one has been set free from his sins, the prince of sinners has not whence he may hold sway over him.[3. ibid.]

When all was hopeless, God turned away the captivity, and now God himself is ready to turn. God now takes center stage as the Psalmist’s praises God for turning away from his wrath, for restoring the broken relationship. All that was lost has been recovered, and the fear in which humans have lived for their sins has been turned away, for God is merciful, and God is loving. This incredible truth sets up the Psalmist for the next set of turns. The Psalmist realizes that in and of himself it is a losing battle; of himself he cannot turn to God. Thus, the cry is that God himself will turn the hearts of his people to God. This kind of turning is concomitant with the turning already described: when God turns your heart to him, God is turned towards you. If you look for God, you will find him and see him, face to face. This is not something that occurs through our best exertion or our will; rather, it is the merciful act of God, as St. Augustine states:

Not as if we ourselves of our own accord, without Your mercy, turn unto You, and then You shall make us alive: but so that not only our being made alive is from You, but our very conversion, that we may be made alive.[4. ibid.]

The final act of this drama climaxes with the concluding turn. The question has been asked- will God stay angry forever? Are we a hopeless case? Will God leave us in the pit of our misery without any chance of escape? The answer has been anticipated, and now it is joyfully declared with utter confidence: God will turn and give us life. The culmination of God’s love and our acceptance of his love is the restoration of that which has been torn apart. God is not content to leave us in our hopelessness and sin, but has reached down to bring us into the light of his life. It is in the anticipation of Christ that the Psalmist dedicates Psalm 85 for ‘The End.’ For the early Christians, this was a clear indication that the Psalms were prophetic, for they spoke of the One who would be the fulfillment (or end) of the Law. As Augustine helpfully explains:

Let us understand no other end than that of which the Apostle speaks: for, “Christ is the end of the law.” Therefore when at the head of the title of the Psalm he placed the words, “for the end,” he directed our heart to Christ. If we fix our gaze on Him, we shall not stray: for He is Himself the Truth unto which we are eager to arrive, and He Himself the Way by which we run….[5. ibid.]

The Psalmist has now come full circle, and recapitulates with a final turn. For those who hear Christ, there is peace and salvation, if only their hearts are turned towards him. To be in fellowship with God begins and ends in the heart, and involves the complete orientation of one’s being towards God. This posture of complete towards-ness has Christ as its object, for he is the way, the truth and life. In him, as the Psalm declares,

Mercy and truth met together;
Righteousness and peace kissed each other;
Truth arose from the earth,
And righteousness looked down from heaven.[6. Scripture taken from the St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint. Copyright 2008 by St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. Used by permission. All rights reserved.]

Ultimately, to turn towards Christ necessitates turning away from everything else. After all, if you look into the sun, all else fades into the background within its unapproachable light. Only within this completeness of turning is there life and light. In a wonderfully rich passage St Augustine sums up the drama of the human who desires to turn to God:

For why, my brethren, will you rejoice in silver? Either your silver perishes, or thou: and no one knows which first: yet this is certain, that both shall perish; which first, is uncertain. For neither can man remain here always, nor can silver remain here always: so too gold, so garments, so houses, so money, so broad lands, so, lastly, this light itself. Be not thou willing then to rejoice in these: but rejoice in that light which has no setting: rejoice in that dawn which no yesterday precedes, which no tomorrow follows. What light is that? “I,” says He, “am the Light of the world.” He who says unto you, “I am the Light of the world,” calls you to Himself. When He calls you, He converts you: when He converts you, He heals you: when He has healed you, you shall see your Converter, unto whom it is said, “Show us Your mercy, O Lord, and grant us Your salvation.” Your salvation, that is, Your Christ. Happy is he unto whom God shows His mercy.[7. St. Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 85, From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 8. Edited by Philip Schaff. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1801085.htm]

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