A Faith that Includes Doubt – Psalm 27
Psalm 27 (ה' אורי וישׁעי) is one of the most familiar psalms in Jewish liturgy. Ashkenazic Jews recite it precisely one hundred times in the late summer and early fall, once in the morning and once in the evening during the fifty days that run from Rosh Chodesh Elul (one month before Rosh Hashanah) through Hoshana Rabba (the day before the holiday of Shemini Atzeret-Simḥat Torah) It is a poem of great beauty and also of great theological and psychological profundity.
From Confidence to Need: The 3-Part Structure of the Psalm
A striking element of Psalm 27 is its movement from confidence to need, from believing in God’s reliability to worrying about God’s absence. In conveying the movement, Psalm 27 divides itself into three stanzas, each with its own mood, and the relationship among them provides a key to the meaning of this poem.
The stanzas are stylistically distinct as well: in the first stanza, the worshiper speaks of God in the third person; in the second, the worshiper addresses God in the second person; in the third, God is again described in the third person.
In the first stanza (vv. 1–6) the worshiper is confident:
יְ־הוָ֤ה ׀ אוֹרִ֣י וְ֭יִשְׁעִי
YHWH is my light and my salvation —
Whom should I fear?
YHWH is the sure haven of my life —
Whom could I dread?
. . .
אִם־תַּחֲנֶ֬ה עָלַ֙י׀ מַחֲנֶה֘
אִם־תָּק֣וּם עָ֭לַי מִלְחָמָ֑ה
בְּ֜זֹ֗את אֲנִ֣י בוֹטֵֽחַ:
Should an army encamp against me,
My mind will know no fear.
Should war break out around me,
I will trust in this.
But in the second stanza (7–12), the worshiper is distressed about God’s absence:
אַל־תַּסְתֵּ֬ר פָּנֶ֙יךָ׀ מִמֶּנִּי֘
Don’t hide yourself from me!
Don’t thrust Your servant away in anger!
You were my helper
Don’t leave me, don’t abandon me
O God of my salvation!
. . .
אַֽל־תִּ֭תְּנֵנִי בְּנֶ֣פֶשׁ צָרָ֑י
כִּ֥י קָֽמוּ־בִ֥י עֵֽדֵי־שֶׁ֗֜קֶר
Don’t feed me to my enemies!
Yes, lying witnesses are rising against me,
With unfair, violent testimony.
The third stanza (13–14) expresses hope along with an implicit acknowledgment that certainty of salvation is not possible.
If not for the fact that I believe
That I will see YHWH’s own virtue
While still alive —
חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ
Hope that YHWH will come!
Courage! Let your mind be strong!
And hope that YHWH will come.
Incomplete Confidence in God: The Third Stanza
In this final stanza, we can sense an attempt to return to the serene confidence of the first stanza. But the attempt remains less than complete. The first poetic line of this stanza begins with an “If,” but we never get the “then” – the line is a sentence fragment. To be sure, the intention of the implied then-clause is clear: what the speaker was thinking was something to the effect of, “If not for my faith that I will see God’s goodness, I would be completely lost.”
The absence of the then-clause gives the impression that the speaker cannot bring himself to finish his sentence; his utterance brings him perilously close to an emotional place too dangerous to approach. The verse intends to make a statement of confidence, but the speaker cannot quite get the whole thing out. We have in a single line, then, the whole back-and-forth of the psalm: the confidence of the first stanza and the anxiety of the second are both manifest in this incomplete expression of faith.
A Levitical Reassurance or the Psalmist Reassuring Himself?
The second, and last, line of the third stanza (i.e., all of v. 14) may have been spoken to the worshiper by a Levite or a prophet working in the Temple where the psalm was recited in biblical times. If this is the case, the psalm ends with a new speaker’s voice, which urges the worshiper to keep faith. In other words, it ends with an implicit acknowledgement that the robust faith of the opening verses has been replaced with questioning, hope, and courage, but not pure confidence.
Alternatively, some have suggested that the worshiper recites this line. In fact, it is typical for the person reciting a psalm to turn toward an audience in the temple to urge them to believe in God’s saving power. But in such cases, the audience, a group of people, are addressed using plural imperatives (see, e.g., Ps 30:5; Ps 100:1–4). In Ps 27:14, however, the imperative verbs are all in the singular, which suggests that if the psalmist utters this verse, he is speaking to himself. In that case, it is significant that the worshiper feels the need — and has the strength — to reassure himself. He is not completely confident, but urges himself to hope for God’s salvation. This line, then, presents “an apt summary of the psychology that informs this psalm,” because it is “another statement standing between plea and trust.”
Two Separate Psalms?
How can we account for the stark contrast between the first stanza, in which the worshiper joyously proclaims trust in God, and the second and third stanzas, in which the worshiper betrays a fear that God might be far off?
The great German Psalms scholar Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) provides a simple answer to this question by asserting that this chapter contains two separate psalms that have been joined together, the first (vv. 1–6) a song of confidence and the second (vv. 7–14) a classic psalm of complaint and plea.
It is possible that a single chapter in the Book of Psalms might contain more than one composition. After all, there are cases in which a single psalm takes up more than one chapter: an alphabetic acrostic poem is spread over Psalms 9–10; Psalms 42–43 are also a single composition with a repeated refrain at 42:6, 42:12, and 43:5. Thus the converse — that two separate songs appear in one chapter — is certainly conceivable.
Signs of Unity
Nevertheless, several scholars have successfully defended the unity of Psalm 27. Peter Craigie and Marvin Tate point out shared vocabulary that draws together what Gunkel regards as separate poems: ישעי (vv. 1, 9), צרי (vv. 2, 12), לבי/לבך (vv. 3, 8, 14), ק.ו.מ (vv. 3, 12), ב.ק.ש (vv. 4,8), and חיי/חיים (vv. 4, 13), in addition to the theme of seeing God’s pleasantness or goodness (vv. 4, 13).
Further, it is not the case that the first stanza is entirely confident while the second and third completely lack elements of faith. The first stanza contains intimations of the darker themes that appear later in the poem. Jacob Blidstein notes,
[T]he progressive deterioration of the roof overhead from ‘stronghold (Ma-oz)’ to ‘hut (sukkah)’ and finally ‘tent’ - a glimpse into the crisis that is as yet in the distance.
And as John Goldingay astutely notes regarding v. 1, the worshiper’s statement that he has no reason to fear draws attention to the fact that he apparently is worrying about something.
Harris Birkeland also argues for the unity of the psalm, pointing to the presence of elements of confidence in the second and third stanzas. In the first versets of the two poetic lines in v. 9, the worshiper begs God not to abandon the worshiper, but the final versets of both lines confirm that God is the worshiper’s help and salvation.
Finally, the third stanza (in v. 13) at least attempts to restate the confidence of the first stanza, albeit in a sentence that never reaches completion. These elements of unity demonstrate that Psalm 27 is a literary unity that has to be interpreted as a whole.
Reading the Psalm as a Whole
We have seen that the first stanza hints at the source of fear even as it speaks of trust in God, while the second betrays worry over the possibility of God’s distance while also asserting that God is a source of salvation. Then the third stanza’s unfinished opening sentence acknowledges the possibility of life without trust in God while proclaiming that the psalmist indeed has this life-giving trust.
The psalm closes with imperatives that call on the worshiper (and us) to wait hopefully for God. The fact that these imperatives are deemed necessary points to the existence of doubts that must be overcome. In this one psalm we have a beautiful and brief distillation of the entire Psalter as a book of doubt and faith. As the psalm moves back and forth between belief and distress, it “manifests powerful psychological verisimilitude,” Robert Alter points out, because its emphasis on trust “does not preclude a feeling of fearful urgency in the speaker’s plea to God.”
An Unexpected Move from Faith to Doubt
The movement from faith to doubt is the opposite of what many readers might have expected of a religious text. Our worshiper does not grow into a more conventional piety over the course of the psalm, casting aside doubts to take up the armor of faith. Rather, the worshiper sets aside a seemingly ideal faith to take on a more realistic one.
Blidstein argues that the psalm criticizes the simplistic faith of the first stanza, whose God he labels “an ersatz divinity, a facile projection of [the worshiper] himself.” Similarly, Ellen Charry, maintains that in the first stanza, the worshiper thinks that “he has God in his pocket.” While the faith of that section seems on the surface to be stronger, the truth is that in that section, the worshiper speaks of God — always in the third person — as something he knows about, but not someone whom he knows.
In the second stanza, the worshiper moves to second person in order to address God directly, and only then does the worshiper achieve the experiential contact with God that he yearned for in verse 4:
אַחַ֤ת׀ שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְ-הוָה֘
One thing I ask of YHWH
Only that do I seek
To dwell in His house
All the days of my life
To gaze on YHWH’s beauty
And to serve in His palace.
It is precisely when the worshiper first speaks directly to God that doubt becomes prominent. God is no longer something the worshiper claims to know all about; now God is a partner (though of course the senior partner) in a relationship, and relationships are slippery and unknowable in a way that does not conform to the simplistic faith of the first stanza.
A Maturing Relationship with God
The direction of the psalm’s movement is crucial, because it models the maturing of an authentic relationship with God. A simple faith that asks no questions and admits no anxieties is not the most religious faith. A relationship that can articulate anxiety about the beloved’s distance is ultimately stronger. As Charry writes, this psalm tells us that,
[U]npleasant emotions are not to be repressed as untoward but to be healed through models that show how to handle them. Here, the psalmist gives permission to his audience to be emotionally conflicted in relation to God. He does not urge his hearers to ‘grin and bear it’ or ‘put on a happy face,’ and he does not disparage honest fear of God-abandonment...
A faith that allows no doubt is hubris: when it claims to know for sure what God will and will not do, it denies God’s freedom and invests far too much in the believer’s impregnable security. Such a faith is the very opposite of true piety. The wavering faith of Psalm 27 is humbler and more honest. It is neither Pollyannish nor naive; it is realistic about the fact that God seems absent at times.
Ending with Hope: A Quintessentially Jewish Faith
This form of faith is quintessentially Jewish in ending neither with fear nor with complete confidence but with hope (v. 14). The final verse of Psalm 27 recalls the Pentateuch, which does not conclude with entry into the Land of Israel and the fulfillment of God’s promises. Deuteronomy 34 narrates not the victory of the hero, Moses, but his death. But that chapter also leaves us with the expectation that God’s promises to Moses and to the patriarchs before him will nevertheless come to fruition in coming years with the victory of Moses’ assistant, Joshua.
Moses’ life was a success not because he completed his task but because he did not desist from it – that is, because he lived up to the teaching of his latter-day disciple, Rabbi Ṭarfon in m. Avot 2:16:
לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל ממנה.
It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to desist from it.
It is significant for the nature of the Jewish religion that the Torah ends on a note of hope rather than fulfillment. That tendency made it natural that the anthem of the Zionist movement and later of the State of Israel is התקוה, “The Hope” (rather than, say, a song with the title like הניצחון, “The Victory”).
Hope rather than perfect confidence characterizes the most mature Jewish faith: a readiness to admit one’s fears, to look toward God expectantly while renouncing the claim to predict all God’s actions. This faith is well displayed by Psalm 27’s journey from simple, trusting piety in its first stanza, through doubt in the second, to hope in the third.
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January 4, 2017
October 26, 2023
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Prof. Benjamin Sommer is Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Senior Fellow at the Kogod Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He holds an M.A. in Bible and Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and a Ph.D. in Religion/Biblical Studies from the University of Chicago. Sommer is the author of Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (Yale, 2015), The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge, 2009), and A Prophet Reads Scripture: Allusion in Isaiah 40–66 (Stanford, 1998). The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz described Sommer as “a traditionalist and yet an iconoclast – he shatters idols and prejudices in order to nurture Jewish tradition and its applicability today.”
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