August 22, 2010

Psalm 27 – The Lord Shall be One

This week’s essay is a revision of an article I previously published on Psalm 27 and its use in liturgy.

“One Thing Do I Seek”

Psalm 27 seems anything but a single, unified psalm. So radically different are its two halves that many modern scholars state categorically that it is a composite. Even traditionalists admit that among all the psalms that might be two independent units, this is the most probable candidate.

The first set of verses projects self-assurance. Despite an approaching enemy, the narrator speaks with a tranquility and confidence reminiscent of Psalm 23. He is above all danger, on the heights, looking down at his enemies, thanking the Lord for his security. There is no doubt, no worry.

However, the second set of verses is very different. The speaker begs God to have pity, not to abandon him. On all sides enemies seek to destroy him, and he seems bereft of any human support, even that of parents. He is desperate―so much so that he ponders on the awful fate that might await him had he not at least the spark of faith to carry him through.

Here I briefly interpret the two sections of the psalm and then proceed to the question of the psalm’s unity, noting some of those indications thereof, citing prior attempts to describe it, and finally offering an alternative explanation.


1. To David.

The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom should I be afraid?
2. When evildoers approach me to devour my flesh, my own foes and enemies, it is they who stumble and fall.
3. Though an army encamp against me, my heart would have no fear; though war arise against me, still would I be confident.
4. One thing I ask of the Lord; that is what I seek: to dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, to frequent His temple.
5. He will hide me in His pavilion on an evil day, conceal me in the concealment of His tent, raise me high upon a rock.
6. Now is my head raised above my enemies round about me; I sacrifice in His tent with shouts of joy; I sing and chant hymns to the LORD.

7. Hear, O LORD, my voice; I call: have mercy on me, and answer me.
8. On Your behalf my heart says: “Seek my face!” Your face, O LORD, I seek.
9. Do not conceal Your face from me; do not turn Your servant away in anger; You are my help. Do not abandon me, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation.
10. Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me in.
11. Show me, O LORD, Your way, and lead me on a level path because of my watchful adversaries.
12. Do not subject me to the will of my foes, for false witnesses have arisen against me, breathing out violence.
13. Were I not to believe that I would see the LORD’s goodness in the land of the living….
14. Hope in the LORD; be strong and of good courage! O hope in the LORD!


A Psalm of Assurance (with One Central Word): Verses 1–6

The first poem is carefully structured. The opening and closing verses reflect calm, but there is an interwoven tale of concern. The two elements coexist: the enemy’s approach and the framework of assurance. This effect is accomplished in two ways.

First, there is a careful choice of verbs. As reassurance, the enemies “stumble and fall.” However, the text also hints at the author’s “fear” and “dread,” even if by denying them. The enemy’s movements are felt almost physically: he “approaches,” then “sets up camp,” and then “arises.” One can virtually see the steady advance!

Second, this approach of increasing of danger is echoed in a most unusual sentence structure. Biblical poetry is typified by parallelism―restatements of an idea through similar terminology (with varying degrees and kinds of repetition). As Bazak points out, in the opening three verses the parallelism is carried out in a growth pattern of words: in the first verse, five words are parallel to five; in the second, six words to six; and in the third, seven to seven. The last implies completion, seven often being a perfect biblical number. The verbs and the number of words, then, together build to a maximum threat. This loud climax is then greeted head-on―by total calm and indifference!

The first word of the next verse (4) is “One,” whereby the text responds definitively to the previous development. Singularity confronts and halts the expansion. “One thing do I ask of the Lord,” and that one thing has nothing to do with being rescued or achieving victory. Rather, it has to do with being “with God”―in His house, in His presence. The enemy is quite simply not relevant―he totally disappears.

This first poem ends with singing praise to the Lord.

A Psalm of Desperation (with an Unfinished Sentence): Verses 7–14

How different is the second poem! Here, each unfortunate circumstance is followed by yet a greater desperation, a painful assault on the heart.

The speaker gains the reader’s sympathy in his first call. He implores God for mercy, thus indicating that this is not a claim on God, but rather the request of a failed man.

Distance dominates. His heart encourages him to keep seeking God, which indeed he does, though the echoed “seek” accentuates his repeated failure. Indeed, few verses are as sad as verse 9 with its quadruple negative request to the Lord: “Do not conceal Your face… do not turn me away… do not abandon me… do not forsake me.” One has difficulty imagining the depths of his despair.

Whatever the exact circumstance of verse 10, “though my father and mother forsake me” (orphan status? abandonment? weakness of parents?), it implies a helplessness, with God as a last resort. Even the very symbols of protection, his parents, are not there “for” him. His request to discover God’s path is followed by fully four synonyms for enemies, all bent on his destruction.

An incomplete sentence (verse 13) follows, chilling in the implication of its trail into silence. “Were I not to believe” ultimately in God’s goodness, says the psalmist, “I would….” Bereft of human (including parental) support, surrounded by enemies, unable to find God, he knows he has only one thread to hang onto, and were it not for that, “then….” The reader is left to imagine the worst, an end the poet cannot even articulate.

The final sentence provides no answer, but only the penitent’s lingering admonition to himself. The central phrase, “Be strong and of good courage,” is identical to that once addressed to Joshua, facing a life of war to conquer an entire country! Indeed, the last verse frames that mandated determination with the repeated “Hope in the Lord!” The repetition is purposeful. The doubled imploration is as much a reflection of despair as it is of assurance.

This last verse is also a prodigious literary achievement. One hears at the same time the speaker addressing himself, the poet addressing the fictional speaker of his poem, and both (or either) addressing a shaken reader.

One Psalm

Are these two poems then two psalms? Evidently, the answer is no. The evidence of differing content stands in opposition to the structural indications of unity. Whereas each half indeed has its own inclusio (a single term opening and closing the text) that term is the same in both halves: the Tetragrammaton, God’s name (verses 1, 6, 7, and 14: “the LORD”), which thus becomes the inclusio for the psalm as a whole. Even if one were to posit the notion that this identical inclusio explains why two distinct psalms were placed one after the other (and possibly how they were combined), the vocabulary belies any contention of separation. Roots and words echo from one half to the other: “my salvation,” “my heart,” “my foes” “arise,” “seek,” “conceal,” and “life (living).” By structure, the psalmist demands that the reader find the connection in content between the two halves.

In this regard, we again recall the prominence of the word “one.” Did the poet also deliberately emphasize this term to indicate his demand for a unified interpretation?

Theories of Unity

Language and structure, then, indicate unity, as does the prominence afforded the word “one.” Moreover, some commentators have noted the appearance of general themes (God’s protection and the presence of enemies, but these alone are insufficient as proofs, for they are far too common as themes of psalms) and the emphasis in both halves on the nearness of God (if in obverse circumstances).

Classical commentators, of course, never questioned the unity of a received biblical text. The more recent commentators who sensed both the unity of the psalm and the radical difference between it two parts resolve the contradiction in a number of ways. Solutions are most often found in an applied set of circumstances, an assumed context explaining the difference. One such envisions the context as a king’s coronation, and finds the combination of different tempers to be quite understandable given the wide variety of experiences associated with the ascent of a new monarch. Another envisions a man innocently accused, first confident, later praying in the Temple, and finally hearing (last verse) God’s answer. Yet another scholar sees verses 1–6 as the experience of the past, cited to grant the speaker strength in face of severe present difficulties.

The unity of the psalm is attributed then―in one way or another―to differing circumstances: different experiences, different times, or different audiences. However, all of these “solutions” are based on a prior assumption, namely that in order to be a unit, the psalm must present either one “picture” or aspects of some single ongoing situation, even if it is an extended one. To the extent that there are contradictions, these interpretations seek to explain them away.

An Alternative Understanding of Unity

I propose an alternate view of unity. Psalm 27 offers an unanswered challenge, not a solution: a question to be dealt with, not a response. It does so by describing two contradictory situations that share certain terminology, a framework of living with the LORD, and a call for “one” understanding. It describes two well-known extremes in life: total assurance or belief and a deep, almost incurable, despondency. Out of these, the reader is to create one life of faith.

There are many psalms, of course, that integrate personal difficulty into a framework of belief and prayer. One might compare, by way of arbitrary examples, the first and last verses of Psalms 13, 22, and 56.

The uniqueness of Psalm 27, however, is in its application of a specific poetic method, used elsewhere in psalms, to the complex life of both suffering and assurance. This approach consists of bringing together two distinct sections that seem to contradict one another, and the listener/reader has to combine the two. (See the differing sections of Psalms 19, 126, or 145, by way of example.)

The proper biblical context of the present poem, then, is not the assumed pietistic reading of Psalms. It is, rather, the grand tradition of open-eyed confrontation with the greatest challenge to ethical monotheism―the question of evil and suffering in the world. On a personal level, this translates into the feeling of abandonment so well articulated in the second half of the psalm.

Were it not for that unstated pietistic assumption, Psalm 27 could readily be seen as it is: a bold challenge, a call for a solution. It demands unity, one-ness, rather than reflecting it. In the face of personal difficulties and life experiences that would shake one’s confidence in God’s guiding hand and His justice, the psalm asserts that God is indeed One. It does so radically, by setting up two parallel sections of totally different tones. More than in any other psalm, the two sets of life experiences are set one against the other. In doing so while not providing any explanation connecting the two clashing aspects of reality, the psalm forces the reader to provide the missing understanding, explanation, or acceptance.

“One” cries out a two-part, self-contradictory psalm, as self-contradictory as life. The subject is the LORD Himself, named in the inclusio, both of the psalm as a whole and of the two parts. What believer has not experienced the almost revelatory moment of total union with one’s God, and who has not experienced the depths of despair? Both are part of human existence. The poet has not chosen to present two moments in one life, but rather life’s duality in its extreme. The reader is charged to make them a unity.

* * * * * * * *

Special Addendum - Psalm 27 for the High Holiday Season

I add this addendum in light of the publication of this study at the High Holiday season, 2010.

Psalm 27 is recited in many Jewish liturgical traditions for a month before, and three weeks after, the New Year. One would expect association with repentance, celebration, creation or some other prominent theme of the season. However, the text does not seem to have any such direct reference. True, this recitation is a relatively new Jewish practice, first mentioned in the mid to late eighteenth century. Nevertheless, the connection is expected.

Why, then, is Psalm 27 included in its season? One must here differentiate between a search for an historical explanation and a search for valid justification. (“Is the psalm appropriate for its season?”) Concerning the historical origin, several theories have been offered. I list them at the end of these comments. Any may be correct. It is probably impossible to reconstruct that moment where the first congregation took this decision, and on what basis.

However, one can still ask concerning the contemporary suitability of the reading. Given the analysis of the psalm presented above, I suggest that there could hardly be a more appropriate subject. The penitent on the Days of Awe―the New Year and the Day of Atonement―sees him/herself standing before God, requesting forgiveness and seeking a year of blessing. If the Jewish tradition demands an open-eyed faith, one which coexists with doubt, one which acknowledges differing personal anecdotal evidence―how appropriate the forced confrontation with faith in the month preceding, and in the days surrounding, these holidays! The one who is to stand before “the Judge, writing in the Book of Life” is to have anything but a naive, simplistic, literalistic view of that judgment and writing. This is the message of Psalm 27. This is what it forces on the reader.

Ultimately, then, the final message (“Hope in the Lord”) may have yet another layer of meaning. For those who read and reread the psalm seriously, it is reassurance that the process of search for this unity is itself worthwhile, and that for this eternal quest, too, there is hope. One must be strong, and let his or her heart take courage.

I now cite a number of theories as to why this psalm was first chosen for this season. Any may reflect an historical element of truth, for the initial choice might well have been based on no more than a word play.

1. The word “were (I) not”(lulei) in verse 13 appears with dots above three of its letters, probably indicating an early scribe’s doubts about the text at that point. That word spelled in reverse is Elul, the Hebrew name of the month before the holidays, during which the psalm is said.

2. Midrash Tehilim (c. 1000 CE) 27:4 finds a veiled reference in the opening verses to the holidays of this period - “light” to the New Year (the light of justice) and “deliverer” to the Day of Atonement (verse 1). Later texts also apply “pavilion” (verse 5) to the Sukkot (“Tabernacles” or “Pavilions”) festival.

3. With "shouts of joy” (verse 6) in Hebrew is t'ruah, which also means “blast of the shofar (ram's horn),” a reference particularly appropriate to the New Year, when the shofar is blown.

4. God’s name appears thirteen times in the psalm, which possibly recalled the thirteen attributes of God’s faithfulness. These appear prominently in the High Holiday liturgy.

5. Midrash Tehilim has been understood to apply “adversaries” (verse 11) metaphorically to the temptations to sin.

6. The second half is indeed a moving prayer, even if not of confession. As such it is appropriate to a season of prayer for salvation.

The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at


א לְדָוִד יְהוָה אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי מִמִּי אִירָא יְהוָה מָעוֹז-חַיַּי מִמִּי אֶפְחָד

ב בִּקְרֹב עָלַי מְרֵעִים לֶאֱכֹל אֶת-בְּשָׂרִי צָרַי וְאֹיְבַי לִי הֵמָּה כָשְׁלוּ וְנָפָלו

ג אִם-תַּחֲנֶה עָלַי מַחֲנֶה לֹא-יִירָא לִבִּי אִם-תָּקוּם עָלַי מִלְחָמָה בְּזֹאת אֲנִי בוֹטֵחַ

ד אַחַת שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת-יְהוָה אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-יְהוָה כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-יְהוָה וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלו.

ה כִּי יִצְפְּנֵנִי בְּסֻכֹּה בְּיוֹם רָעָה יַסְתִּרֵנִי בְּסֵתֶר אָהֳלוֹ בְּצוּר יְרוֹמְמֵנִי

ו וְעַתָּה יָרוּם רֹאשִׁי עַל אֹיְבַי סְבִיבוֹתַי וְאֶזְבְּחָה בְאָהֳלוֹ זִבְחֵי תְרוּעָה אָשִׁירָה וַאֲזַמְּרָה לַיהוָה

ז שְׁמַע-יְהוָה קוֹלִי אֶקְרָא וְחָנֵּנִי וַעֲנֵנִי

ח לְךָ, אָמַר לִבִּי בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָי אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ יְהוָה אֲבַקֵּשׁ

ט אַל-תַּסְתֵּר פָּנֶיךָ מִמֶּנִּי אַל תַּט-בְּאַף עַבְדֶּךָ עֶזְרָתִי הָיִיתָ אַל-תִּטְּשֵׁנִי וְאַל-תַּעַזְבֵנִי אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׁעִי

י כִּי-אָבִי וְאִמִּי עֲזָבוּנִי וַיהוָה יַאַסְפֵנִי

יא הוֹרֵנִי יְהוָה דַּרְכֶּךָ וּנְחֵנִי בְּאֹרַח מִישׁוֹר לְמַעַן שׁוֹרְרָי

יב אַל-תִּתְּנֵנִי בְּנֶפֶשׁ צָרָי כִּי קָמוּ-בִי עֵדֵי-שֶׁקֶר וִיפֵחַ חָמָס

יג לוּלֵא הֶאֱמַנְתִּי לִרְאוֹת בְּטוּב-יְהוָה בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים

יד קַוֵּה אֶל-יְהוָה חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ וְקַוֵּה אֶל-יְהוָה

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