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February 24, 2013
Psalm 27

The beginning of Psalm 27 with mention of fear and the Lord as the ‘stronghold’ of the psalmist’s life, makes this a good accompaniment to the story of Abraham in Genesis 15. However, the psalm shifts in its course from one of trust in vv. 1-6 to a lament or complaint in vv. 7-12. The two parts are nevertheless held together by several unifying elements: the words ‘salvation’, vv. 1, 9; ‘adversaries’, vv. 2, 12; ‘heart’, vv. 3, 8, 14; ‘seek’, vv. 4, 8; ‘hide’, vv. 5, 9; ‘rise’, vv. 3, 12; and ‘life’, vv. 4, 13; and vv. 1 and 14 also form a frame around the psalm with the word ‘Lord’ used twice in each verse.

Verse 1 is a general statement of trust proclaiming that there are no potential sources of fear because of the psalmist’s relationship to the Lord. The implicit assumption is that there is no challenge to the Lord, no adversary who is stronger than the Lord. That is the basis of the psalmist’s trust. Vv. 2-3 spell this out further in terms of the assaults of enemies, using metaphors of ravenous beasts in v. 2a and siege and warfare in v. 3. In spite of the threats, the psalmist repeats the confidence of v. 1, dismissing any fear as in v. 1 and concluding that the enemies are the ones who will stumble and fall. They conclude with the clear statement in Hebrew at the end of v. 3: “yet I will trust.”

Verses 4-6 form the central statement about the psalmist’s attitude toward the Lord. The psalmist wishes only to dwell in the house of Lord all their days, to gaze on the Lord’s beauty and to inquire of the Lord, that is to seek out the Lord’s will. There is refuge in the Lord’s house which leads to rescue (v. 6). The elevation of the psalmist over their enemies recalls the earlier image of the enemies falling (v. 2b). This is not a form of boasting. While these are words of confidence, they are also words of humility undermining any sense self-confidence. This will lead to the psalmist offering sacrifice and rejoicing in the place of the Lord. The psalmist’s trust in founded in their desire to worship and be in the presence of the Lord where there is protection. Worship is both the foundation of trust as well as an expression of it. This is the heart of the psalm and concludes the general statement of trust before the lament which relates that trust to a specific occasion for fear. It is a statement which echoes both the words and sentiment of the end of Psalm 23.

The psalmist recalls the basis of the trust of faith seen in the Abraham story – communion or relationship with and worship of God. Such trust is also seen in the lament at the very point where they need to rekindle that trust again. Worship gives the opportunity to enter the place of communion, and to reorient oneself in the world. It allows the possibility of recognising what gives life and peace, and of voicing that desire.

Verses 7-12 then form an extended plea to the Lord to be faithful to this relationship. The psalmist’s trust in the previous verses does not dispel the difficulties in life which now face the psalmist. They seek, even demand, an answer to their plea (v. 7). Eight imperatives addressed to the Lord come from the mouth of the psalmist in these verses. Like Abraham, the psalmist does not shy away from confronting God with their problem. The basis for these demands includes the general statement of trust in vv. 1-6, as well as the psalmist’s reliance upon the Lord, the Lord’s past action, and the present danger. The psalmist proclaims faithfulness on their part. The statement of general trust becomes the bargaining point with God over the issue of faithfulness. For the psalmist, arguing with God and making cogent and strong arguments are not beyond the bounds of prayer or faith.

The psalmist asks that the Lord not hide his face. The use of the word ‘hide’ in v. 9 picks up on what the Lord would do for the psalmist in the Lord’s house (v. 5). Now, however, it is the Lord’s face which seems to be hidden in anger. The psalmist wishes to turn this ‘hiding’ around so that it is no longer the Lord who hides but the psalmist who is hidden in the Lord. The words ‘O God of my salvation!’ in v. 9 recall the phrases of v. 1 and remind the Lord again of the past relationship. The reference in v. 10 to the potential for a father or mother to abandon the psalmist, does not necessarily speak literally of the psalmist’s present plight. Rather it seeks to reveal what the psalmist believes is the depth of the Lord’s concern. It is greater than the natural concern of parents for a child.

Finally, the psalm ends in vv. 13-14 with a final strong statement of trust and hope. The psalmist makes a firm statement of trust in v. 13. However, the speaker in v. 14 is not clear. One might presume the psalmist now reflects and speaks words of encouragement to him or herself. But this seems unlikely in the Hebrew. The suggestion that another person, possibly a priest, now addresses the psalmist and urges hope in the Lord seems most reasonable. The word translated ‘wait’ in the NRSV literally means ‘hope’. This is not just an urging of patience. It focuses the hope of the psalmist in the Lord, even as they trust in the Lord entirely. It urges the very thing that the psalmist states confidently in v. 13 and which is implied in the Abraham story.

The scholar James L. Mays makes a number of points about trust in this psalm. First, there is a close relation between trust and need as the combination of the statement of trust in vv. 1-6 with the lament in vv. 7-14 indicates. Trust is most active when need is apparent. On the other hand, words of need and pleas for help arise from trust. Secondly, in v. 4 we see that trust is strengthened by worship. Worship is the foundation of trust and the place where it grows. Finally, in the psalm the opposite of trust in God is fear of humans. The place of worship is where truth is spoken. And worship is the occasion when it is declared over against the falsehood of the ‘enemies’ of truth. Worship enables one to contemplate this and assert it in one’s life.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:

Several verses of the psalm are suitable for a call to worship (e.g. vv. 1-2) but especially v. 4. It could be combined with v. 14 in a responsive manner as follows:

Wait for the LORD;
    be strong, and let your heart take courage;
    wait for the LORD!
One thing I asked of the LORD,
    that will I seek after:
    to live in the house of the LORD
    all the days of my life,
    to behold the beauty of the LORD,
    and to inquire in his temple.
Verse 7 could be used as a refrain in either the prayer of confession or the intercessory prayers:
Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
Finally the beginning and end of the psalm can be adapted in the benediction:
The LORD is your light and your salvation;
    whom shall you fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of your life;
    of whom shall you be afraid?
Wait for the LORD;
    be strong, and let your heart take courage;
    wait for the LORD!
And the blessing of God,
    Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
    Be with you now and forever.
Old Testament Reading: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

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