Commentary on Psalm 27
Psalm 27 fits well with the Gospel reading in Luke 13.
In Luke, Jesus laments over Jerusalem, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing (v. 34)!” The psalm is from one who desires that very place, “[For] he will hide me in his shelter in the days of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent (27:5).” Indeed, the complete psalm expresses hope in the midst of darkness that makes it especially appropriate for the season of Lent.
Is Psalm 27 a psalm of trust or a prayer for help? The short answer is it depends on who you ask. Some scholars (Gunkel and Weiser) argue this is two psalms combined at some point. This may be the case, but the psalm as it appears today in the Bible begins with praise (vv. 1-6), moves to lament and uncertainty (vv.7-12), and then returns to praise (vv. 13-14). It is cyclic, just as our lives are. We praise, we cry, we praise. It is the stuff of our existence.
The first three verses are ones of confidence in the LORD. Beginning with familiar questions, if God is my light and my salvation and my stronghold, what or who is there to fear? The third verse gives a possible circumstance for the fear, an enemy in war. This does not mean it is the exact circumstance; it could simply be what it feels like to the one praying. With all of the violence in our world, Christians are faced almost daily with a decision to live in fear, or despite their fear, to trust in God and God’s promises. To choose to remain true to God’s principles of hospitality feels frightening as well. Terrorists and Refugees come from the same places. Gun violence comes out of nowhere and even those places we considered safe are safe no longer. Fear threatens to defeat the gifts of trust and hospitality. The feeling of the psalm is the same. It was a time to choose which fear would win the heart of this one. The psalm reminds us there is only one path to pick. We can succumb to fear of the other or embrace God’s path for us and the world.
The next section (vv. 4-6) comes as a cool breeze on a hot day. The scene changes from the encampment of an enemy to “the house of the Lord.” As Christians, we should long for the LORD and the chance to stand in God’s presence. It may mean the person praying has gone up to the sanctuary for prayer or protection, but it is much more than this. It is this one’s destiny; it is home. The church today is often a hive of activities and responsibilities. Many can suffer from burnout and stress. What can we do to make the church feel as the Temple does in this psalm, as a resting place, an oasis to refresh the mind and heart? Part of Lenten discipline is contemplation, and this is a possible topic. What can we do to make us long for the house of the LORD? Can we become a place that “lifts up the head” of the broken above those things that caused their heads to drop in shame and hurt? Can our priority be one of shelter under the wings of our Lord? Could we contemplate less business and more refreshment?
The world intrudes on this peaceful interlude as it always does (vv. 7-10). Something has upset the peace and tranquility of the last stanza and the one who was at home is now lost. God seems distant; the connection is broken. We know the feeling. What this prayer does is encourages us to keep praying when the way is dark. The confident center is that God will not abandon us even if those closest to us do. The psalms teach us that it is not only God’s responsibility to find us, sometimes we must also fight to stay in this relationship with God. We must go forward confident that God’s seeming absence does not equal abandonment. It is the fear talking. Instead this prayer invites us to contemplate, not the evil of the world but to believe in “the goodness of the LORD” and in the goodness I can wait and hope and be courageous until this storm too passes by.
In the days after 9/11, I like many others in the area, stood on a train platform headed into New York City. We were still unsure what the future held or what would happen. Every cell in my body was afraid, and it seemed crazy to be heading into the city that everyone was trying to escape. There in those moments was the same decision seen in this psalm. “The LORD is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?’ rang in my head. Was my belief stronger than my fear? We all have these moments and those moments are the essence of our faith. God is reaching out to us, will we be brave enough to lift our arms in response? Lent is a time to ask the deep questions of our faith. We can repeat the fears of the past, or trust a new ending to God. It is never easy, but it is the call of God on our lives. This psalm invites us to believe again that our faith in God will never desert us, no matter what happens. Life without fear is not possible, but faith can call us to live into God’s will for our life instead of reducing our lives because of our fears and insecurities.