< January 23, 2011 >

Commentary on Psalm 27:1, 4-9

 

Psalm 27 is classified as an Individual Lament.

Like Psalm 40, the lectionary psalm for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, Psalm 27 seems to be made up of two originally separate psalms: an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving in verses 1-6 and an Individual Lament in verses 7-14. The lectionary reading traverses the two sections, however (vv. 1 and 4-9), and thus calls for us to read Psalm 27 as an integral whole rather than as a juxtaposition of two distinct psalms. Two factors suggest that we read Psalm 27 in such a manner. 

First, a considerable shared vocabulary links the two portions of the psalm:  "my salvation" in verses 1 and 9; "foes/enemies" (Hebrew 'oyeb) in verses 2 and 6; "adversaries" in verses 2 and 12; "heart" in verses 3, 8, and 14; and "seek" in verses 4 and 8. 

Second, as in the case of Psalm 40 (see the commentary for Psalm 40 at this website), we may be permitted to read the Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving in verses 1-6 as part of the "Expression of Trust," one of the five elements of a Lament Psalm, which consists of the following: (1) an Invocation, in which the psalmist cries out to God to listen (27:7, 8, 9, 11); (2) a Complaint, in which the psalmist tells God what is wrong (27:12); (3) a Petition, in which the psalmist tells God what the psalmist wants God to do (27:7-9, 11-12); (4) an Expression of Trust, in which the psalmist recounts what God has done in the past so that the psalmist has hope that God will help again (27:1-6, 10, 13); and (5) an Expression of Praise, in which the psalmist celebrates the goodness and sovereignty of God (27:14).

Thus, in this study, Psalm 27 will be examined as a consistent whole, a statement by a psalm singer of the nearness of God's deliverance (verses 1-6) and the confidence that God will again come to the singer's aid (verses 7-14). So let us begin, as they say, at the beginning.

Verse 1 of Psalm 27 is replete with words and themes echoed in many psalms in the Psalter. The psalm singer declares that God is "my light" ('or); "my salvation" (yeshah); and "the stronghold (refuge) (ma'oz). And because of this, the psalmist need not fear (yara'), need not be afraid (pachad). The word "light" appears some thirty-four times in the book of Psalms, linked in most instances to God's good provision to humanity (13:3; 31:16; 36:9; 89:15; 136:7). In the creation story in Genesis 1, the first creative act of God was to separate the light from the darkness. In the biblical text, light conveys life and hope; darkness suggests death and gloom. 

According to the singer of Psalm 27, God is also "salvation." Various forms of the root yasha' occur over seventy times in the Psalter, mostly in connection with God's presence and help to the psalmists (3:7; 18:27; 44:7; 76:9; 85:4; 132:16). God is also a "stronghold (refuge)." Though occurring less often than 'or and yasha' (only nine times in the Psalter) and far less than the more commonly-used word for "refuge" (from the root chasah), ma'oz conveys a strong confidence in God: see Psalms 28:8 and 31:4.  

Because of God's "light" and "salvation" and "stronghold," the singer of Psalm 27 can confidently not "fear" or "be afraid." This confidence then is the lens through which the reader enters the remainder of the psalm. Verses 2 and 3 recount God's goodness when "evildoers, adversaries, an army, and war" rise up against the psalmist.

In verse 4, we hear the psalmist's confession of the desire of the heart: "to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire of the Lord." Such words remind this reader of Tevya's song in "Fiddler on the Roof":
  
If I were rich, I'd have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray. And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall. And I'd discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day. That would be the sweetest thing of all. 

Few people in the twenty-first century have the time or the inclination to "live in the house of the Lord" or to "discuss the holy books every day," but for the psalm singer, and for Tevya, such "living" and "discussing" were seen as ways of understanding and coming to grips with the exigencies of the often-confusing life we have been given to live. 

Verse 5 continues the psalmist's words of trust in God. "He will hide me; he will conceal me; he will set me high." The words "shelter" (Sukkoth) and "tent" ('ohel) in verse 5, part of further words of desire by the psalmist to be near God, recall not the "house of the Lord," that is, the temple in Jerusalem, but the Tabernacle in which God dwelt among the people during the period of the wilderness wandering (see Exodus 40). In every situation in life, not just in "church on Sunday morning," the psalm singer is confident of the light-filled salvation of God.

The petition proper of Psalm 27's Individual Lament begins with verse 7. Verbs abound in verses 7-11:  "hear, be gracious, answer, do not hide, do not turn away in anger, do not cast off, do not forsake, teach, lead." The psalm singer petitions God to be present, to listen, to act with kindness, and to instruct. The petition is a heartfelt cry to God to act, and, based on verses 1-6, the psalmist can be fully confident that God will act and provide, even if, according to verse 10, "my father and mother forsake me." 

In the psalm's remaining verses, the psalm singer petitions God to "teach, lead, do not give me up," states that "I believe," and finally admonishes others to "wait, be strong, and take courage."

Psalm 27 contains words of complaint, words of petition, and words of trust. All are heartfelt words offered by an ancient singer to the God who is "light," "salvation," and "refuge" (verse 1). May each of us desire, along with the ancient psalmists, to know God to the extent that our only desire is "to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life."