Commentary on Psalm 27
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” the psalmist declares. “The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
I remember the first time I took notice of this psalm. The choir director had chosen a setting for Psalm 27 that was deep and rich in tone. The music was slow and penetrating and full of conviction. It was beautiful and captured the gravity of the psalmist’s words. In a world full of troubles and hardships, we need not be afraid because God is with us. God is for us. And God will protect us.
But while the first half of this psalm exudes confidence and trust in God’s providential care (verses 1-6), the second half (verses 7-12) carries a very different tone. Here we encounter lament, the psalmist’s pleading with God to turn his face toward him. “Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! … Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me” (verses 7, 8b-9a). In fact, the tone is so unlike the previous verses that scholars have wondered whether these verses comprise a different psalm, that what we have in Psalm 27 was originally two separate psalms that were later put together.
Whether or not this was the case, these two parts of the psalm clearly belong together. Repetition of words like “seek,” “heart,” “adversaries,” and “salvation” provide linguistic unity while the confession of trust at the beginning and end hold it all together. The theological significance of this lament in the context of trust ought not to be missed.
Trust does not preclude lament. Confidence in God’s ability to overcome the darkest of evils does not require holding back our tears, our disappointments, our deep longing for more of God. Faith does not rule out doubt. Both trust and lament are proper expressions of faith in the context of hardship and suffering and often they go hand in hand. What they share in common is an unwavering conviction in the reality, the goodness, and the power of God, who is both worthy of our confidence but also attentive to our cries for help.
It is not clear what hardship the psalmist is experiencing though trouble runs through the entire psalm. At the beginning, the psalmist mentions evildoers who assail and devour the flesh and an army encamped against the psalmist, suggesting the psalmist is under military threat (verses 2-3). Later, the psalmist references false witnesses who are “breathing out violence” against him (verse 12). The metaphorical and poetic nature of the language makes it difficult to identify with certainty the nature of the trouble that has overcome the psalmist but there is little doubt that it is all-consuming, attacking the psalmist physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Against this backdrop, the psalmist begins with a confession of trust. Because the Lord is on his side, because the Lord is his light and his salvation, he need not worry. For the Lord will hide him from his enemies in the shelter of his tent (verse 5).
The temple in ancient Israel was not only a place of worship, but it was a place of political refuge. So, the psalmist longs for the Lord’s house knowing that there the psalmist will experience, in very tangible ways, God’s protection from physical but also mental and spiritual assault. In God’s house, in God’s presence, is the promise of beauty and the recovery of joy. The contrast here between the world outside and the world within God’s presence is stark. Here we see vividly that for the psalmist, God alone is the source and sustainer of life.
It is precisely for this reason that the psalmist, in verse 7, cries out to the Lord in lament. “Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, … do not cast me off, do not forsake me” (verse 9). The psalmist doesn’t ignore his suffering or minimize it. He does not check it at the door so to speak as he comes before God.
Rather, he tells his story. He speaks of his pain. He calls out to God with all the rawness and honesty of someone who has been pushed to the limit. He doesn’t hold back. He pours out his complaint to God, not to push God away but rather, to plead for more, more of God’s presence, more of God’s instruction, more of God’s protection. “Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path.”
He tells his story in the confidence that though parents may forsake their children, the Lord will never abandon him. The Hebrew root here is ’asaph, conjuring up the image of the Lord gathering or receiving the psalmist into his presence. It is a tender image portraying the Lord not just in terms of strength but also gentleness, as a God of compassion and comfort. Certainly, this is the image of God that Jesus projects in Luke 13 when he says, “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings …” (Luke 13:34b)
The psalm closes with a return to the conviction and confidence voiced at the beginning — that the Lord will indeed turn his face toward the psalmist such that he will see the goodness of the Lord. It is difficult to know at this point to whom the psalmist is speaking. It may be helpful, however, to imagine that the psalmist is addressing his audience, exhorting them to hang in there, to stand firm in their faith (Philippians 4:1), to be strong and take courage, to wait for the Lord. Because at the end of the day, the Lord is our light and our salvation, the one in whom we can trust.
This season of Lent is typically a time of soul-searching, reflection, penitence, and drawing close to God. This makes it an especially good time for those raw, honest conversations with God that the psalmist models, conversations grounded in the conviction that God is real and powerful and good and has sent his son into the world that world may be saved through him.
March 17, 2019