In Psalm 27, David begins with a stirring declaration of faith and then plunges into near despair before emerging with another, calmer declaration of faith.
The change is so abrupt that many commentators have suggested that somehow two separate psalms got jammed together. Unless some unknown editor was thoroughly incompetent, that doesn’t explain the structure of the psalm as we have it.
The suggestion comes, perhaps, because no modern poet would structure these thoughts the way David did. Perhaps no European poet even back in antiquity would structure these thoughts that way. So one lesson of Psalm 27—repeated by many other Old Testament passages—is that the ancient Hebrews didn’t think the way we do.
So why is Psalm 27 written as we have it, and what can we learn from it?
David had a personal relationship with God. The Lord is my light, my salvation, my stronghold. He’s not light, salvation, and stronghold in theory or in general. What’s more, he doesn’t provide light and salvation, he is light, salvation, and stronghold. It is this personal connection that enables David to boast that he fears no one.
Light must mean something more than natural light, a light that helps us see spiritual reality. And salvation can’t mean what Christians first think of—heaven after death. Few Old-Testament writers had any concept of an afterlife. The word David uses means deliverance, rescue, safety, and welfare.
Whom should we regard as enemies?
David certainly needed rescue and safety throughout his life. Psalm 27:2-3 shows a progression from personal enemies to an army encamped around him to active warfare. He does something dangerous here. He equates his enemies with the wicked.
If we think of ourselves as such good people that only wicked people would oppose us, we get too close to a judgment that belongs to God alone.
Nonetheless, we will find people opposing us. David described his enemies as a bunch of wild beasts who wanted to eat him. But they stumbled and fell. It’s possible to stumble without falling, but those enemies hit the dirt.
David doesn’t say that he knocked them over, or even that God tripped them. He relied on his trust instead of his own righteousness. There’s something unstable about a posture that seeks to destroy someone else.
But then he pictures an army encamped against him. This picture may be the most dangerous in the progression. In a real war, soldiers respond to the real conditions they face according to their training. In our own crises, we deal with real conditions, too
Before the battle starts, we face nothing but possibilities. If it goes one way we imagine, then it can’t go any of the other ways we imagine. Reality may be something we never anticipated. But in anticipation, it’s so easy to dread all the possibilities that come to mind as if they could all happen at once.
Seeking one thing
In a key verse, Psalm 27:4, David declares that he seeks only one thing from God. He could have sought all kinds of things. In the immediate context, it would make sense to pray to prevail in battle or to be avenged for the wrongs he suffered.
Instead, he only seeks to dwell in God’s house all his days and gaze on God’s beauty.
Dwell means to make himself at home. He doesn’t seek God’s house as an emergency shelter or a place to drop in from time to time. And beauty? It has nothing to do with anything God can do for him. It isn’t even particularly useful. David seeks beauty for the sake enjoying God’s essence—for the sake of the relationship.
But the secret place of God’s dwelling is also a place of protection as a byproduct of seeking his beauty. David never would have been permitted to go the inner sanctum of the tabernacle physically, but he’s not talking about that.
In the spirit, God makes his secret place open for anyone who seeks it. Any enemy would have to get past God to attack anyone he has pledged to protect.
In the same breath as saying God will hide him in the secret place, he says God will lift his head above his enemies. Thus, he provides two pictures of the same level of protection.
David could not have just sat back and wait for God to deliver him. He still had to fight his battles. Scripture records that he won every war he ever fought. Here, though, he takes no personal credit.
Instead of boasting, he offers praise. Praise requires humility. No one will praise God while keeping his eye on his own circumstances. The sacrifice of praise at least means sacrificing our own ego. It also requires faith. David sees victory in advance and sees it as a gift from God. He has only sought to dwell with God, and God gives him what he didn’t ask for.
It’s one thing to boast of confidence in times of relative peace, even when we expect trouble. It’s quite something else to exercise confidence in the middle of a conflict.
David wrote the last two verses of the last section in future tense. In the heat of conflict, when enemies have not yet stumbled and fallen, when his head is not yet lifted above his enemies, his confidence falters.
But in the depths of this abrupt change of mood, David never falls into despair or fear.
It’s interesting, in verse 8, that the command to seek God’s face is plural. We can see that in the King James Version, written at a time when English still distinguished between second person singular and plural: “when thou saidst seek ye my face.” It’s God’s command to anyone who will pay attention, not just David.
And look at the word “when.” When David recognized God’s call, he didn’t put it on his schedule to do it when he got around to it. He immediately said, “yes sir. I will seek.” That this verse echoes verse 4 indicates that Psalm 27 is a unit, not two separate thoughts awkwardly jammed together.
Thoughts on seeking God’s face
God commands us to seek his face, not just seek him in general. “Face” is the Hebrew “paniym.” Sometimes, translators use other English words besides face. See 2 Samuel 5:3, for instance: So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them before the Lord at Hebron; then they anointed David king over Israel.” The word “before” in the verse is “paniym.”
We never seek what’s immediately evident to us. And if I’m looking for a person I want to speak with, I’m not content to talk to the back of his head when I find him. I’ll want to be in front of him––before him––to relate to him most fully.
David implores God not to hide his face. That’s his emotions talking, not his faith. If David’s faith wavers, then I don’t have to beat up on myself if mine does. Psalm 27:9 is the emotional low point of the psalm. But God wouldn’t command us to seek his face if he didn’t intend for us to find it. If it feels like God is hiding it, keep seeking.
God turned away from Saul in anger. David knows his own sin. But in imploring God not to reject him in anger, he addresses God as “my Savior.” It’s a reminder of the declaration in verse 1 that God is his salvation and not just salvation in general.
God and parents
With this reminder, David remembers that even if his most basic human relationships fail, God won’t. Various translations have very different emotional weight:
- “When my father and my mother abandon me” (KJV)—they haven’t, but David expects them to.
- “Even if my father and mother abandon me” (HCSB)—they haven’t, but they might.
- “For had my father and my mother forsaken me (DARBY)—they could have but didn’t
- “For my father and my mother have forsaken me” (NASB)—they’re out of my life
Children rightly expect acceptance, guidance, and protection from their parents. They expect to be heard. No parents do all that perfectly. Some parents fail completely at one or more. And children can feel abandoned at times whether they really are or not. What we think about our parents can color what we think about God.
Consider Isaiah 49:8-21. God boldly proclaims his love for his people and says that he has comforted them, “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, and the Lord has forgotten me'” (verse 14).
I find myself too much like Zion when I read of God’s promises. But at this point in the psalm, David is finding his way back to his grounds for the boldness the psalm started with.
The return of confidence
In verse 8, David declared that he was seeking God’s face in response to his command, an attitude of worship. In verse 11, he seeks God’s way, an attitude of discipline.
Some translations say, “Show me your way,” as if God can point out a direction and we can follow it.
Now there’s a fool’s errand. Whenever we think we can find God’s way on our own, we’ll quickly get sidetracked.
The Hebrew word for “show,” yarah, pictures an archer aiming an arrow at a target. David is asking God to aim him towards his way and fire. “Teach me your way” is a much better translation, but even that doesn’t have the full force of the Hebrew.
Proverbs 22:6 says, “train up a child.” Training requires discipline. Think of the guided repetition and correction needed to teach someone to play piano, hit a baseball, or learn any other skill. A veteran once told me at length how much he appreciated basic training. Not that he enjoyed it at the time!
Asking for God’s direction and way is asking for his presence.
David also asks for a level path because of his oppressors. Not an easy path, but a path with firm footing so he won’t slip. His enemies will be watching for any misstep.
As soon as anyone becomes a Christian, the world takes notice. Worldly people eagerly point out anything that doesn’t look like what they think a believer ought to look like. When they condemn us with their lips, our godly lives ought to condemn theirs without a word. And that requires submitting to God’s way.
To me, the greatest impact of verse 13 is in words that aren’t there. In NASB, it reads, “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” But the first Hebrew word is “unless.” The translators supplied the opening phrase.
Only a few translations leave the verse as a fragment. Some modern translations omit the “unless,” but that robs the verse of all meaning. That word demands consideration of alternatives. Here, it’s a choice between faith and despair.
David had no sense of an afterlife. He could only express confidence that he would see God’s goodness while he still had a beating heart.
But Christians do have a well-developed sense of the afterlife. In 1 Corinthians 15:19, Paul said that if Christians had hope only for this lifetime, we would be the most miserable people in the world. After all, we dwell in the land of the dying.
We need faith that we will see God’s goodness while we’re still breathing, but God also intends for us to see past this life to the land of the living. There, we will be sinless in God’s unveiled presence.
In hope, we must wait. In English, “wait” has two different senses. When we go to a restaurant, someone waits on us. That is, someone serves us. When we expect something that hasn’t happened yet, we wait for it. And that’s the sense of the Hebrew word here.
But this waiting does not mean passively filling the time. Hopeful waiting is an activity. David tells us to wait with strength and courage. He earned the right to tell us that by living it.
Quiet contemplation. Some rights reserved by luckyjimmy. Link to Flickr no longer works, September 2017.
Exercise with a trainer. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Light after darkness. Some rights reserved by JD|Photography