Ps. 27: Entering the Text

Andrew R. Davis is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.  He holds a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University and an MTS from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology.

 

Psalm 27 is a unique combination of trust and lament. The first six verses declare confidence in God’s salvation. After opening with two rhetorical questions, the speaker describes three attacks from which God will rescue him (vv. 2-3) and then expresses her desire for close relationship with the God (vv. 4-6). 

When we come to verse 7, however, the psalm takes a hard turn. Confidence gives way to lament as the speaker pleads for God’s deliverance from threats that still beset her. The change in outlook coincides with shift in audience. Whereas the expressions of trust in verses 1-6 refer to God in the third-person and seem to be addressed to the congregation gathered around the speaker, the lament is addressed directly to God. 

The tension between the two halves of Psalm 27 has led some scholars to question the psalm’s unity; maybe, they represent two distinct psalms and were not meant to be read together.  Although this possibility cannot be ruled out, the prevalence and impact of Psalm 27 within Jewish and Christian traditions suggest the tension at its core is, in fact, what makes the psalm relatable and powerful. In Jewish tradition Psalm 27 figures most prominently during the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. These holidays embody the trust found in the first part of the psalm as well as the need for God’s help expressed in the second. 

In Christian liturgy, too, Psalm 27 occurs in contexts that combine trust and lament.  For example, Christians may be most familiar with its regular use in funeral liturgies, which are opportunities to affirm in faith that our loved one will be welcomed into God’s kingdom but also to express feelings of grief and loss. Psalm 27 gives voice to both feelings. 

We are left with one last challenge, however. The ending of Psalm 27 is highly ambiguous.  Some translations take verses 13-14 as a straightforward declaration of faith, as if the speaker is returning to the confidence that began the psalm. Other translations hedge on this certainty. The NJPS, for example, renders verse 13 with a conditional clause (“Had I…) and an ellipsis. At issue is a single Hebrew word—lûlē’—which could support either translation (see below). The word is challenging, but we should not rush to choose one translation over the other. Instead, in the spirit of the rest of Psalm 27, we may see the ambiguous ending as another invitation to acknowledge the trust and doubt that comprise a life of faith.

Key Term:

  • Hebrew lûlē’ is the word at the root of verse 13’s ambiguity. The word usually introduces a counterfactual conditional clause. If I said, for example, “If I didn’t have my glasses, I couldn’t read that sign,” the first clause is counterfactual because I do have my glasses and I can read the sign. Thus, the NRSV is probably right to assume that the word is beginning a positive statement. But the statement is never completed so the NJPS translation is right to question the strength of the affirmation. The dilemma is further complicated by the six dots that surround the word in the Hebrew text. According to one Jewish tradition, these dots highlight the doubt expressed in the verse and may explain the ellipsis in the NJPS translation. Alternatively, it’s possible that an ancient scribe added the dots to mark the word for erasure. Of course, if we erase the word, the NRSV and NAB translations look much more attractive. 

Questions for Reflection:

  • Is this psalm familiar to you?  In what setting(s) have you previously encountered it?
  • Which words or images in Psalm 27 are most striking to you?
  • What does the “House of the Lord” mean to you as a contemporary seeker?
  • How does the psalm’s tension between trust and lament resonate with you now?

 

Texts and Translations Psalm 27

 

׃

בִּקְרֹ֤ב עָלַ֨י ׀ מְרֵעִים֮ לֶאֱכֹ֪ל אֶת־בְּשָׂ֫רִ֥י צָרַ֣י וְאֹיְבַ֣י לִ֑י הֵ֖מָּה כָשְׁל֣וּ וְנָפָֽלוּ׃

אִם־תַּחֲנֶ֬ה עָלַ֨י ׀ מַחֲנֶה֮ לֹֽא־יִירָ֪א לִ֫בִּ֥י אִם־תָּק֣וּם עָ֭לַי מִלְחָמָ֑ה בְּ֝זֹ֗את אֲנִ֣י בוֹטֵֽחַ׃

אַחַ֤ת ׀ שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְהוָה֮ אוֹתָ֪הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵית־יְ֭הוָה כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י לַחֲז֥וֹת בְּנֹֽעַם־יְ֝הוָ֗ה וּלְבַקֵּ֥ר בְּהֵיכָלֽוֹ׃

כִּ֤י יִצְפְּנֵ֨נִי ׀ בְּסֻכֹּה֮ בְּי֪וֹם רָ֫עָ֥ה יַ֭סְתִּרֵנִי בְּסֵ֣תֶר אָהֳל֑וֹ בְּ֝צ֗וּר יְרוֹמְמֵֽנִי׃

וְעַתָּ֨ה יָר֪וּם רֹאשִׁ֡י עַ֤ל אֹֽיְבַ֬י סְֽבִיבוֹתַ֗י וְאֶזְבְּחָ֣ה בְ֭אָהֳלוֹ זִבְחֵ֣י תְרוּעָ֑ה אָשִׁ֥ירָה וַ֝אֲזַמְּרָ֗ה לַיהוָֽה׃

שְׁמַע־יְהוָ֖ה קוֹלִ֥י אֶקְרָ֗א וְחָנֵּ֥נִי וַעֲנֵֽנִי׃

לְךָ֤ ׀ אָמַ֣ר לִ֭בִּי בַּקְּשׁ֣וּ פָנָ֑י אֶת־פָּנֶ֖יךָ יְהוָ֣ה אֲבַקֵּֽשׁ׃

אַל־תַּסְתֵּ֬ר פָּנֶ֨יךָ ׀ מִמֶּנִּי֮ אַֽל־תַּט־בְּאַ֗ף עַ֫בְדֶּ֥ךָ עֶזְרָתִ֥י הָיִ֑יתָ אַֽל־תִּטְּשֵׁ֥נִי וְאַל־תַּֽ֝עַזְבֵ֗נִי אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׁעִֽי׃

כִּי־אָבִ֣י וְאִמִּ֣י עֲזָב֑וּנִי וַֽיהוָ֣ה יַֽאַסְפֵֽנִי׃

ה֤וֹרֵ֥נִי יְהוָ֗ה דַּ֫רְכֶּ֥ךָ וּ֭נְחֵנִי בְּאֹ֣רַח מִישׁ֑וֹר לְ֝מַ֗עַן שׁוֹרְרָֽי׃

אַֽל־תִּ֭תְּנֵנִי בְּנֶ֣פֶשׁ צָרָ֑י כִּ֥י קָֽמוּ־בִ֥י עֵֽדֵי־שֶׁ֝֗קֶר וִיפֵ֥חַ חָמָֽס׃

לׅׄוּלֵׅׄ֗אׅׄ הֶ֭אֱמַנְתִּי לִרְא֥וֹת בְּֽטוּב־יְהוָ֗ה בְּאֶ֣רֶץ חַיִּֽים

קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְה֫וָ֥ה חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהוָֽה׃ 

 

Psalm 27 New Jewish Publication Society Translation (NJPS)

1 Of David. The LORD is my light and my help; whom should I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life, whom should I dread?

2 When evil men assail me  to devour my flesh— it is they, my foes and my enemies, who stumble and fall.

3 Should an army besiege me, my heart would have no fear; should war beset me, still would I be confident.

4 One thing I ask of the LORD, only that do I seek: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD,  to frequent His temple.

5 He will shelter me in His pavilion on an evil day, grant me the protection of His tent, raise me high upon a rock.

6 Now is my head high over my enemies roundabout; I sacrifice in His tent with shouts of joy, singing and chanting a hymn to the LORD.

7 Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud; have mercy on me, answer me.

8 In Your behalf my heart says: “Seek My face!” O LORD, I seek Your face.

9 Do not hide Your face from me; do not thrust aside Your servant in anger; You have ever been my help. Do not forsake me, do not abandon me, O God, my deliverer.

10 Though my father and mother abandon me, the LORD will take me in.

11 Show me Your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my watchful foes.

12 Do not subject me to the will of my foes, for false witnesses and unjust accusers have appeared against me.

13 Had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living…

14 Look to the LORD; be strong and of good courage! O look to the LORD!

Psalm 27 New International Reader's Version (NIRV)

A psalm of David.

1 The Lord is my light, and he saves me.

    Why should I fear anyone?

The Lord is my place of safety.

    Why should I be afraid?

2 My enemies are evil.

    They will trip and fall

when they attack me

    and try to swallow me up.

3 Even if an army attacks me,

    my heart will not be afraid.

Even if war breaks out against me,

    I will still trust in God.

4 I’m asking the Lord for only one thing.

    Here is what I want.

I want to live in the house of the Lord

    all the days of my life.

I want to look at the beauty of the Lord.

    I want to worship him in his temple.

5 When I’m in trouble,

    he will keep me safe in his house.

He will hide me in the safety of his holy tent.

    He will put me on a rock that is very high.

6 Then I will win the battle

    over my enemies who are all around me.

At his holy tent I will offer my sacrifice with shouts of joy.

    I will sing and make music to the Lord.

7 Lord, hear my voice when I call out to you.

    Treat me with kindness and answer me.

8 My heart says, “Seek him!”

    Lord, I will seek you.

9 Don’t turn your face away from me.

    Don’t turn me away because you are angry.

    You have helped me.

God my Savior, don’t say no to me.

    Don’t desert me.

10 My father and mother may desert me,

    but the Lord will accept me.

11 Lord, teach me your ways.

    Lead me along a straight path.

    There are many people who treat me badly.

12 My enemies want to harm me. So don’t turn me over to them.

    Witnesses who tell lies are rising up against me.

    They say all sorts of evil things about me.

13 Here is something I am still sure of.

    I will see the Lord’s goodness

    while I’m still alive.

14 Wait for the Lord.

    Be strong and don’t lose hope.

    Wait for the Lord.

 

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.