Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 27

Psalm 27

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsr (v. 1); 4QPsc (vv. 12-14)

This Psalm is often considered to be a lament, and its character as such would tend to be confirmed by the 3+2 meter that dominates throughout. Certainly, the repeated references to the enemies and adversaries that threaten the Psalmist are typical in this regard. The first half of the Psalm (vv. 1-6) however expresses a clear trust and confidence in God, and in many ways is more characteristic of a song of praise. The second half (vv. 7-14) is more properly a prayer to God for deliverance. A number of themes we have encountered thus far in the Psalms occur here as well. The composition (the words, if not the music) is marked again as simply “belonging to David”, with no further musical direction indicated.

Verses 1-6

Verse 1

“YHWH (is) my light and my salvation—
from whom shall I be afraid?
YHWH (is the) place of safety for my life—
from whom shall I be alarmed?”

This pair of formally similar couplets emphasize YHWH as the source of the Psalmist’s safety and security—from darkness, evil, and all who might do him harm. The implicit threat from enemies/adversaries is present here, introducing a theme that will run through the Psalm.

Verse 2

“In (their) coming near upon me, (the one)s causing evil,
(it is) to devour my (very) flesh;
my adversaries, and (all the one)s hostile to me,
(see!) they stumble and they fall.”

The protection provided by YHWH is illustrated by way that attacks from the Psalmist’s enemies are thwarted. This imagery of nameless and faceless adversaries surrounding and threatening the protagonist is a common feature in many Psalms. It may be rooted in the royal background, involving actual socio-political conflict during the reign of the king (such as David); if so, by the time the Psalms were composed and came into regular use, such a setting had been generalized and given wider application, under the influence of Wisdom traditions (and other factors). The ‘enemies’ are largely symbolic of the various forces of sin and wickedness at work in the world. Here, in the first couplet, they are summarized broadly as “(one)s causing evil” (participle <yu!r@m=), while in the second couplet the common word pair “adversaries” and “enemies” is used—the latter through a verbal noun (participle), “(one)s being hostile”.

On the idiom of “eating flesh”, Dahood (p. 166) notes the Phoenician Kilamuwa text (lines 6-7). It expresses the idea of being reduced to the last point of life, and could be realized (quite literally) during the horrifying experience of siege warfare (Jer 19:19, etc). It is used figuratively in Mic 3:3; Isa 49:26.

Verse 3

“If an encampment should put down camp upon me,
my heart shall not be afraid;
(and) if battle (itself) should stand up [i.e. rise] upon me,
(even) in this shall I trust (His protection).”

Here in these couplets, the Psalmist’s adversaries are described in terms of a military force—something which might have been understood quite literally, from the standpoint of the royal background of the Psalms (i.e., battle between the king and rebellious vassals, etc). In the first couplet, the image is that of a military encampment, utilizing a root that fundamentally refers to stretching out and putting down a tent—that is, the army has its tents pitched and is ready for battle. The battle itself (hm*j*l=m!) is referenced in the second couplet. The Psalmist may remain secure, and confident in YHWH’s protection, even in the face of a powerful military threat.

Verse 4

“One (thing) have I asked from YHWH,
(and) it (alone) do I seek—
(that) I should sit [i.e. dwell] in (the) house of YHWH
all (the) days of my life,
(and) to gaze on (the) delightfulness of YHWH,
and to break through (each morning) in His palace.”

There is a certain rhythmic irregularity (and tension) in these three couplets, due to the climactic nature of the imagery, expressing the Psalmist’s desire to dwell with God in the blessed life to come. Here the “house of YHWH” refers to God’s heavenly dwelling, of which the Temple sanctuary on earth is a reflection. In speaking of the “days of my life”, the Psalmist utilizes a common Hebrew idiom for the eternal, divine life—expressing it in terms of a long and full life. The phrase “all the days of my life” is parallel with the idea of waking each morning. The actual vocabulary in this last line is difficult to render accurately in English. The verb rq^B* literally means “break through”, and can refer to the morning light ‘breaking through’ the darkness; this seems to be the sense here—the Psalms wishes to wake each morning of his life in the palace of YHWH. He will gaze with wonder at the beauty (<u^n), lit. “delightfulness, pleasantness”) of God just as one might the morning sunrise.

Verse 5

“For (so) He will store me in [i.e. under] His cover
when (the) day of evil (comes);
he will keep me hidden in (the) hidden (place) of His tent,
plac(ing) me high on a rock.”

Here it becomes clear that the dwelling of God is, in a real sense, simply an extension of His presence. It is understood especially in terms of the divine protection that will be given to His faithful ones (i.e., the motif of covenant loyalty). The apparent mixing of metaphors in the second couplet (tent vs. rock) is due to the fact that in ancient Semitic (Canaanite) cosmological myth the dwelling of the Creator °E~l was envisioned as both a mountain and a great domed tent. In Israelite religious thought, El-Yahweh shared many of the attributes and characteristics of the high Creator °E~l, including the concept of his dwelling-place. As with the temple sanctuary, any specified local mountain could serve as a reflection of the cosmic mountain of his dwelling. Even the modest hilltop site where the Temple was located could be thought of as the “mountain of God” (i.e., Mount Zion). The use of the term rWx specifically refers to a sharp cliff which might contain any number of safe hiding places within it; beyond this, the rock itself is set up high (root <Wr), a natural place of safety and protection.

By protecting the Psalmist from danger during his life, God ensures that he will be able to live the fullness of life with Him in the blessed time to come.

Verse 6

“And (even) now my head is raised (up) high
upon [i.e. over] (the) hostile (one)s surrounding me,
and I will slaughter in His tent
slaughterings (with) a shout (of joy),
I will sing and will make music to YHWH!”

The rhythm of the lines that bring the first half of the Psalm to a close is complex. As the text stands, we have a 3+3 couplet, followed by a short 2+2 couplet, and ending with a single 3-beat line. Again we are dealing with mixed metaphors, involving the same two lines of imagery from the prior verses: (1) the protective cover God gives the Psalmist (from his enemies), and (2) the sacred house of God where the Psalmist finds his ultimate dwelling. These are two aspects of the same core idea of God’s dwelling, which, in reality, means His very presence. Two kinds of “slaughter” are also associated with God’s protective dwelling: (a) victory by the Psalmist in battle over his enemies (implied in the first couplet), and (b) sacrificial offerings (i.e. ritual slaughter, jbz) made in the Temple complex. The context may imply the offerings that are made, in thanks to God, following victory in battle (cp. the royal background/setting of Psalms 20-21).

Verses 7-14

Verse 7

“Hear, YHWH, my voice (as) I call (to you),
and show favor to me and answer me.”

The tone of the Psalm shifts from one of confidence and praise, to that of prayer and petition. Some commentators have theorized that two separate poems have been combined (cf. Kraus, p. 332). In any case, there is a definite transition here between the closing line of v. 6 and the first line of the couplet in v. 7. In each instance the Psalmist is crying out (with his voice) to God; in verse 6 it is a shout/song of praise, while in v. 7 he calls to God in prayer.

Verse 8

“‘Go,’ my heart said (to me),
‘(and) seek His face!’
Your face, YHWH, will I seek.”

The Psalmist’s heart impels him to seek God (in prayer), part of the wider religious idea of seeking the “face” (hn#P*) of God. This idiom relates to one’s faithfulness and devotion to YHWH, and also to the blessedness of the life to come (i.e. the beatific vision when we will “see” God’s face); the latter is the result, and the natural outcome, of the former.

I tend to agree with Dahood (p. 168) here in reading il as an imperative form of the verb El^h* (El@, “go!”), and also in understanding the y– of yn`P* as preserving an archaic 3rd person suffix (i.e., “his face”).

Verse 9

“Do not hide your face (away) from me!
Do not spread (out) your servant with your nostril(s),
(you who) should be my help!
Do not leave me (outstretched) and do not abandon me,
O Mightiest (One) of my salvation!”

A pair of 3+2 couplets is preceded by a single line of exclamation, following upon the idea in verse 8 of seeking the face of God. The fear lies in the possibility that YHWH might turn away and “hide” his face. This may be due to a situation of moral or ritual impurity, of which the protagonist is not fully aware, but which could spark the anger of God. I have rendered this anger-idiom quite literally above as “with (the) nostril(s) [[a^]”, i.e., the burning/flaring of the nostrils to express anger, like the snorting of an angry bull. The verb (hf*n`) in this regard is a bit difficult to translate in English. It has the fundamental meaning “stretch (out)”, and in the Hiphil stem has the rare sense of causing something to be spread out (i.e. pushed away). A related verb, vf^n`, is used (in a similar sense) in the second couplet, expressing the idea of something being left spread out or outstretched. We might consider the image of a person laying stretched out in prayer, with no answer being given to him by God. It is just such an abandonment that the Psalmist fears, and wishes to prevent through his fervent prayer and devotion.

Verse 10

“For (even if) my father and my mother should abandon me,
(surely) YHWH will gather me (to Himself).”

The faithfulness and loyalty of YHWH is greater than even one’s own parents. This of course plays on the traditional (covenantal) image of YHWH as the father of Israel, and of the people of Israel as His children. In Wisdom tradition, this was generalized and given a specific ethical-religious sense—i.e., God as the father of the righteous. Both aspects—the covenantal and the ethical-religious—are present here in the Psalm. It is an expression of YHWH’s own loyalty to the covenant, and effectively serves as an appeal for God to answer the prayer of one who is faithful and devoted to Him.

Verse 11

“Instruct me, YHWH, (in) your way,
and guide me in (the) path of straightness,
in response to (the one)s watching me (in evil).”

This metrically irregular verse reads as a 3+3+2 tricolon, a rhythmic structure most difficult to reproduce in English translation. A clearer sense of the short third line would be produced by treating the noun rr@v) (“one watching, watcher”) as synonymous with “adversary / enemy” (by@oa / rx^)—i.e., “in response to my enemies”. However, the fundamental meaning of the root rrv ought to be preserved here as well, viz. “(one)s watching me (with evil intent)”. There may also be a bit of alliterative wordplay between “straight place” (rovym!, mîšôr) and the noun rr@ov (šôr¢r).

The “path of straightness” here has two levels of significance: (1) it refers to “way of God”, the divine instruction that the faithful one must follow, and (2) it leads to the wide and level place where the righteous will dwell together with God. Cf. the previous study on Psalm 26.

Verse 12

“Do not give me (over) in(to the) throat of my adversaries,
for repeaters of false (accusation) have stood a(gainst) me,
and (those) giving witness (with) violence.”

The rhythmic tension and irregularity of this tricolon(?) is altogether fitting for the situation it conveys–namely, the wicked and deceitful actions of the Psalmist’s adversaries. The prayer is that God should not abandon (vv. 9-10) him to his adversaries, but should instead protect and rescue him.

The use of vp#n# here in line 1 provides a rather clear example where commentators such as Dahood (p. 169) are justified in understanding the term in the sense of “throat”, a meaning attested occasionally in Akkadian and Ugaritic, but extremely rare in the Old Testament (and only in poetry). It does, however, demonstrate the relatively wide semantic range of vp#n# (usually translated “soul”); other possible renderings here are “appetite” and “desire” (in a negative sense). The image of the throat is quite appropriate, both to the idea of being devoured by the wicked (cf. on verse 2 above) and also to the evil speaking being done here by the Psalmist’s adversaries. Indeed, the sense of the final two lines is that of witnesses (in a religious-judicial setting) who bring a false accusation against him. The expression rq#v#-yd@u@ literally means something like “repeaters of falsehood”, that is, they repeat false or deceitful claims about the protagonist. Many of the Psalms include this theme of the righteous person (loyal/faithful to YHWH) defending himself against any disloyalty and faithlessness on his part.

The short final line of v. 12 is difficult to interpret (and translate). As Dahood notes (p. 169), the word ypµ in Ugaritic refers to a witness, and this meaning obviously fits the context and parallelism of the verse. The noun sm*j* (“violence”) can be understood broadly as any extreme form of wickedness or corruption.

Verse 13

“If it were not so (that I) had remained firm,
(how could I hope) to look on (the) goodness of YHWH
in (the) land of (the) living!”

The syntax of this tricolon is most difficult, apparently beginning as it does with the conditional particle al@Wl (“if [I had] not…”), but with no apodosis following the conditional statement. Such a conditional clause (without apodosis) can effectively be read as a positive statement of certainty (cf. GKC §159dd; Kraus, p. 332). I am inclined to view it as having the force of a solemn declaration or asseveration, in response to the ‘false accusations’ being made against the Psalmist (v. 12). Whether or not an actual judicial setting is envisioned, the motif serves the purpose of providing an opportunity for the protagonist to declare his faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH. If he had not remained firm in his trust and devotion, he could not expect to experience the beatific vision of God in heaven (the “land of the living”, cf. above). Here in verse 13, the Psalmist affirms his loyalty, and, along with it, his hope to dwell with YHWH in His heavenly palace, gazing upon Him “all the days of his life”.

Verse 14

“Look (forward) to (seeing) YHWH!
Be strong and make solid your heart—
and look (forward) to (seeing) YHWH!”

The Psalm concludes with a tricolon that is rhythmically similar to that of verse 13. The initial exhortation of the first line is repeated in the third. It involves the root hwq I (Piel stem), which has the basic meaning of looking with expectation, i.e. hoping for something to occur. In accordance with the theme of the blessed future life that runs through this Psalm—of the promise of “seeing” God in His heavenly dwelling—it is best to recognize this same theme here as well. Clearly, the emphasis in these closing lines has shifted from the protagonist of the Psalm to the people/audience as a whole. We have seen how the final verses of many Psalms contain a more general application (for the righteous), largely through the influence of wisdom traditions, and as a response to the increasing use of the composition in a communal worship setting.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, Biblischer Kommentar series, 5th ed. (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); in English translation as Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:8 (continued)

Matthew 5:8, continued

In the previous article, I discussed the first clause of the sixth Matthean Beatitude (Matt 5:8)—

Maka/rioi oi( kaqaroi\ th=| kardi/a|, o%ti au)toi\ to\n qeo\n o&yontai
“Happy the (ones) clean in the heart, (in) that they will see God”

where I examined the meaning and significance of the expression “pure/clean in the heart” (kaqaro\$ th=| kardi/a|). Today, I will look at the result-clause, which states that they are declared “happy/blessed” in that they will see (o)pta/nomai optánomai, lit. “look with [open] eyes [at]”) God.

“They will see God”

There are several difficulties involved with this phrase, both theological and eschatological.

A fundamental tenet of Israelite and Jewish monotheism was that no human being could surviving seeing God (in this life); Moses’ encounter in Ex 33:20ff makes this clear (for a possible poetic echo of this motif, cf. Song 2:14). This theological point is emphasized especially in the Johannine literature: Jn 1:18; 5:37; 6:46; 1 Jn 4:12. However, there are other passages where chosen individuals are given a direct vision of God (Gen 32:30; Ex 24:10; and the prophetic visions 1 Kings 22:19; Isa 6:1-5; Amos 9:1; Ezek 1:1ff; Dan 7:9-22 [cf. Rev 1:12-16ff; 20:11ff]). In addition, there are references to Moses and others encountering God “face to face” (Exod 33:11; Num 12:8; 14:14; Deut 4:36; 5:4; 34:10; cf. also the expression in Judg 6:22; 1 Cor 13:12). For the metaphor of seeing God’s “face”, note in Gen 33:10; Isa 64:4, etc.

In the Old Testament, vision of God is intertwined with the idea of a divine appearance or manifestation (theophany), which usually takes place in the language and imagery of various natural phenomena (fire, wind, light, etc.)—Ex 3:4ff; 16:10; 19:16-25; Deut 5:24; Judg 6:22; 13:22; Ezek 1:1ff; 10:20; cf. also 1 Kings 19:11-13, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). In general terms, God also is said to have “appeared” to the Patriarchs and other saints (Gen 12:7; 17:1; 18:1; 35:9; Num 12:5). In the New Testament, God becomes visible in the Person of Jesus, as noted especially in the Gospel of John (Jn 1:14, 50-51; 12:45; 14:7ff).

So, on the one hand, God cannot be seen; on the other, he is seen. This has led to the theological distinction that God, in his essence, is invisible (cf. Deut 4:12; Rom 1:20; Col 1:15-16; 1 Tim 1:17; Heb 11:27), and can only be seen through an intermediary. Jewish tradition and theology, in particular, was uncomfortable with the idea of any personal theophany, attributing the Old Testament accounts (see above) to an angel or the hypostasized Word (memra) of God, rather than to YHWH himself (see Acts 7:38 for an instance of this in the New Testament). Christian theologians debated whether human beings in their unfallen state had a true vision of God, and whether even the blessed in Heaven could ever see God in His essence (cf. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae Part I Question 12; Question 94.a1; Part II:ii Question 173.a1; Part III suppl. Question 92).

A vision of God (or, at least, of His Glory) was an established element of eschatological hope throughout the religions of the ancient world. We see this expressed in Old Testament passages such as Job 19:26; Ps 98:3; Isa 35:2; 40:5; 52:10; 60:2; [Lk 2:30-32; 3:6]. In Greco-Roman religion and the mystery cults the promise of blessedness in the afterlife could also be expressed in terms of beatific vision, related to the purity of soul (e.g., in Plato, Phaedo 69; Plutarch, On the Cessation of Oracles 40, On the Delay of Divine Vengeance 22ff; On the Face appearing in the orb of the Moon p.943; Apuleius, Metamorphoses bk 11, etc). This language of eschatological promise pervades the New Testament (Mark 9:1 par; Jn 11:40; 17:24; Acts 22:14; 1 Cor 13:12; 1 Jn 3:2; Rev 20:11ff; 22:4) and is certainly the primary emphasis in Matt 5:8—the one who is pure in heart will be found worthy to receive a vision of God Himself in the afterlife. It is worth noting that the future forms of the verb o)pta/nomai typically are used in an eschatological context in the New Testament (Mark 13:26; 14:62 par; Luke 3:6; 13:28; 17:22; Jn 1:50-51; 3:36; 16:16-22, etc).

However, the New Testament references also suggest an experience of the promise for believers now (in this life), which will only be realized fully in the life to come (see 1 Cor 13:12). This is understood first in terms of seeing God (the Father) in the person of Jesus (Jn 1:14, 50-51; 12:45; 14:7ff, also Col 1:15-20; Heb 1:1-4ff). Fundamentally, then, it is experienced through the power and presence of the Spirit (of God and Christ), cf. Rom 8:9-16; 2 Cor 1:22; 5:5; Gal 4:6; Eph 1:13-14; 2:22, etc). In an earlier article, I discussed the principal significance of the Beatitude—that the happy/blessed status of the righteous (believer) consists in sharing in the blessedness of God. Here vision is closely related to the idea of imitation (and even transformation), as Paul makes clear especially in 2 Cor 3:18.

The beatific paradox of God’s invisibility and our vision of Him was cherished and deeply felt by Christian mystics throughout the ages. Gregory of Nyssa holds these two aspects together in his Life of Moses II.152-158, 162-169, and esp. 219-255 (commenting on Exod 33:11, 20) and Sermon 6 On the Beatitudes (commenting on Matt 5:8). He states, in appropriately paradoxical fashion—

Kai\ tou=to/ e)stin o&ntw$ to\ i)dei=n to\n qeo\n, to\ mhde/pote th=$ e)piqumi/a$ ko/ron eu(rei=n
“And this is really to see God: not ever to find (one’s) fill of desiring (to see Him)”
This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see Him” (transl. Ferguson/Malherbe)
Life of Moses II.239