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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 27

Verses 1-14

Psalms 27:1-14

THE hypothesis that two originally distinct psalms or fragments are here blended has much in its favour. The rhythm and style of the latter half (Psalms 27:7-14) are strikingly unlike those of the former part, and the contrast of feeling is equally marked, and is in the opposite direction from that which is usual, since it drops from exultant faith to at least plaintive, if not anxious petition. But while the phenomena are plain and remarkable, they do not seem to demand the separation suggested. Form and rhythm are elastic in the poet’s hands, and change in correspondence with his change of mood. The flowing melody of the earlier part is the natural expression of its sunny confidence, and the harsher strains of the later verses fit no less well their contents. Why may not the key change to a minor, and yet the voice be the same? The fall from jubilant to suppliant faith is not unexampled in other psalms (cf. Psalms 9:1-20 and Psalms 25:1-22), nor in itself unnatural. Dangers, which for a moment cease to press, do recur, however real the victory over fear has been, and in this recrudescence of the consciousness of peril, which yet does not loosen, but tighten, the grasp of faith, this ancient singer speaks the universal experience; and his song becomes more precious and more fitted for all lips than if it had been unmingled triumph. One can better understand the original author passing in swift transition from the one to the other tone, than a later editor deliberately appending to a pure burst of joyous faith and aspiration a tag which flattened it. The more unlike the two halves are, the less probable is it that their union is owing to any but the author of both. The fire of the original inspiration could fuse them into homogeneousness; it is scarcely possible that a mechanical patcher should have done so. If, then, we take the psalm as a whole, it gives a picture of the transitions of a trustful soul surrounded by dangers, in which all such souls may recognise their own likeness.

The first half (Psalms 27:1-6) is the exultant song of soaring faith. But even in it there sounds an undertone. The very refusal to be afraid glances sideways at outstanding causes for fear. The very names of Jehovah as "Light, Salvation," "the Stronghold of my life," imply darkness, danger, and besetting foes. The resolve to keep alight the fire of courage and confidence in the face of encamping foes and rising wars is much too energetic to be mere hypothetical courage. The hopes of safety in Jehovah’s tent, of a firm standing on a rock, and of the head being lifted above surrounding foes are not the hopes of a man at ease, but of one threatened on all sides, and triumphant only because he clasps Jehovah’s hand. The first words of the psalm carry it all in germ. By a noble dead lift of confidence, the singer turns from foes and fears to stay himself on Jehovah, his light and salvation, and then, in the strength of that assurance, bids back his rising fears to their dens. "I will trust, and not be afraid," confesses the presence of fear, and, like our psalm, unveils the only reasonable counteraction of it in the contemplation of what God is. There is much to fear unless He is our light, and they who will not begin with the psalmist’s confidence have no right to repeat his courage.

To a devout man the past is eloquent with reasons for confidence, and in Psalms 27:2 the psalm points to a past fact. The stumbling and falling of former foes, who came open mouthed at him, is not a hypothetical case, but a bit of autobiography, which lives to nourish present confidence. It is worth notice that the language employed has remarkable correspondence with that used in the story of David’s fight with Goliath. There the same word as here is twice employed to describe the Philistine’s advance. {1 Samuel 17:41; 1 Samuel 17:48} Goliath’s vaunt, "I will give thy flesh to the fowls of the air and to the beasts of the field," may have supplied the mould for the expression here, and the fall of the giant, with his face to the earth and the smooth stone in his brain, is narrated with the same word as occurs in the psalm. It might well be that when David was a fugitive before Saul the remembrance of his victory over Goliath should have cheered him, just as that of his earlier prowess against bear and lion heartened him to face the Philistine bully; and such recollections would be all the more natural since jealousy of the fame that came to him from that feat had set the first light to Saul’s hatred. Psalms 27:3 is not to be left swinging in vacuo, a cheap vow of courage in hypothetical danger. The supposed case is actual fact, and the expressions of trust are not only assertions for the future, but statements of the present temper of the psalmist: "I do not fear; I am confident."

The confidence of Psalms 27:3 is rested not only on Jehovah’s past acts, but on the psalmist’s past and present set of soul towards Him. That seems to be the connecting link between Psalms 27:1-3 and Psalms 27:4-6. Such desire, the psalmist is sure, cannot but be answered, and in the answer all safety is included. The purest longing after God as the deepest, most fixed yearning of a heart, was never more nobly expressed. Clearly the terms forbid the limitation of meaning to mere external presence in a material sanctuary. "All the days of my life" points to a continuance inward and capable of accomplishment, wherever the body may be. The exclusiveness and continuity of the longing, as well as the gaze on God which is its true object, are incapable of the lower meaning, while, no doubt, the externals of worship supply the mould into which these longings are poured. But what the psalmist wants is what the devout soul in all ages and stages has wanted: the abiding consciousness of the Divine presence; and the prime good which makes that presence so infinitely and exclusively desirable to him is the good which draws all such souls in yearning, namely the vision of God. The lifelong persistence and exclusiveness of the desire are such as all must cherish if they are to receive its fruition. Blessed are they who are delivered from the misery of multiplied and transient aims which break life into fragments by steadfastly and continually following one great desire, which binds all the days each to each, and in its single simplicity encloses and hallows and unifies the else distracting manifoldness! That life is filled with light, however it may be ringed round with darkness, which has the perpetual vision of God, who is its light. Very beautifully does the psalm describe the occupation of God’s guest as "gazing upon the pleasantness of Jehovah." In that expression the construction of the verb with a preposition implies a steadfast and penetrating contemplation, and the word rendered "beauty" or "pleasantness" may mean "friendliness," but is perhaps better taken in a more general meaning, as equivalent to the whole gathered delightsomeness of the Divine character, the supremely fair and sweet. "To inquire" may be rendered "to consider"; but the rendering "meditate [or contemplate] in" is better, as the palace would scarcely be a worthy object of consideration; and it is natural that the gaze on the goodness of Jehovah should be followed by loving meditation on what that earnest look had seen. The two acts complete the joyful employment of a soul communing with God: first perceiving and then reflecting upon His uncreated beauty of goodness.

Such intimacy of communion brings security from external dangers. The guest has a claim for protection. And that is a subsidiary reason for the psalmist’s desire as well as a ground of his confidence. Therefore the assurance of Psalms 27:5 follows the longing of Psalms 27:4. "A pavilion," as the Hebrew text reads, has been needlessly corrected in the margin into "His pavilion" (A.V.). "It is not God’s dwelling, as the following ‘tent’ is, but a boothas an image of protection from heat and inclemency of weather" {Isaiah 4:6} (Hupfeld). God’s dwelling is a "tent," where he will shelter His guests. The privilege of asylum is theirs. Then, with a swift change of figure, the psalmist expresses the same idea of security by elevation on a rock, possibly conceiving the tent as pitched there. The reality of all is that communion with God secures from perils and enemies, an eternal truth, if the true meaning of security is grasped. Borne up by such thoughts, the singer feels himself lifted clear above the reach of surrounding foes and with the triumphant "now" of Psalms 27:6, stretches out his hand to bring future deliverance into the midst of present distress. Faith can blend the seasons, and transport June and its roses into December’s snows. Deliverance suggests thankfulness to a true heart, and its anticipation calls out prophetic "songs in the night."

But the very brightness of the prospect recalls the stern reality of present need, and the firmest faith cannot keep on the wing continually. In the first part of the psalm it sings and soars; in the second the note is less jubilant, and it sings and sinks; but in both it is faith. Prayer for deliverance is as really the voice of faith as triumph in the assurance of deliverance is, and he who sees his foes and yet "believes to see the goodness of Jehovah" is not far below him who gazes only on the beauty of the Lord. There is a parallelism between the two halves of the psalm worth nothing. In the former part the psalmist’s confidence reposed on the two facts of past deliverance and of his past and continuous "seeking after" the one good; in the second his prayers repose on the same two grounds, which occur in inverted order. "That will I seek after" (Psalms 27:4), is echoed by "Thy face will I seek" (Psalms 27:8). To seek the face is the same substantially ‘as to desire to,’ gaze on the pleasantness of Jehovah." The past experience of the fall of foes (Psalms 27:2) is repeated in "Thou hast been my help." On these two pleas the prayer in which faith speaks itself founds. The former is urged in Psalms 27:8-9 with some harshness of construction, which is smoothed over, rightly as regards meaning, in the A.V. and R.V. But the very brokenness of the sentence adds to the earnestness of the prayer: "To Thee my heart has said, Seek ye my face; Thy face, Jehovah, will I seek." The answering heart repeats the invitation which gave it courage to seek before it responds with its resolve. The insertion of some such phrase as "in answer to Thy word" before "seek ye" helps the sense in a translation, but mars the vigour of the original. The invitation is not quoted from any Scripture, but is the summary of the meaning of all God’s self-revelation. He is ever saying, "Seek ye my face." Therefore He cannot but show it to a man who takes Him at His word and pleads that word as I have never said the warrant for his petition "to the seed of Jacob, Seek ye my face in vain." the consistency of the Divine character ensures His satisfying the desires which He has implanted. He will neither stultify Himself nor tantalise men by setting them on quests which end in disappointment. In a similar manner, the psalm urges the familiar argument from God’s past, which reposes on the confidence of unalterable grace and inexhaustible resources. The psalmist bad no cold abstract doctrine of immutability as a Divine attribute. His conception was intensely practical. Since God has helped in the past, He will help in the future, because He is God, and because He is "the God of my salvation." He cannot reverse His action nor stay His hand until His dealings with His servants have vindicated that name by completing the process to which it binds Him.

The prayer "Forsake me not" is based upon a remarkable ground in Psalms 27:10: "For my father and my mother have forsaken me." That seems singular plea for a mature man, who has a considerably varied experience of life behind him, to urge. It is generally explained as a proverbial expression, meaning no more than the frequent complaints in the Psalter of desertion by friends and lovers. Cheyne (Commentary in loc.) sees in it a clear indication that the speaker is the afflicted nation, comparing itself to a sobbing child deserted by its parents. But it is at least noteworthy that, when David was hard pressed at Adullam, he bestowed his father and mother for safety with the king of Moab. {1 Samuel 21:3-4} It is objected that this was not their "forsaking" him, but it was, at least, their "leaving" him and might well add an imaginative pang as well as a real loss to the fugitive. So specific a statement as that of the psalm can scarcely be weakened down into proverb or metaphor. The allusion may be undiscoverable, but the words sound uncommonly like the assertion of a fact, and the fact referred to is the only known one which in any degree fits them.

The general petitions of Psalms 27:7-10 become more specific as the song nears its close. As in Psalms 25:1-22, guidance and protection are the psalmist’s needs now. The analogy of other psalms suggests an ethical meaning for "the plain path" of Psalms 27:11; and that signification, rather than that safe road, is to be preferred, for the sake of preserving a difference between this and the following prayer for deliverance. The figures of his enemies stand out more threateningly than before (Psalms 27:12). Is that all his gain from his prayer? Is it not a faint-hearted descent from Psalms 27:6, where, from the height of his Divine security, he looked down on them far below, and unable to reach him? Now they have "risen up," and he has dropped down among them. But such changes of mood are not inconsistent with unchanged faith, if only the gaze which discerns the precipice at either side is not turned away from the goal ahead and above, nor from Him who holds up His servant. The effect of that clearer sight of the enemies is very beautifully given in the abrupt half-sentence of Psalms 27:13: "If I had not believed to see the goodness of Jehovah in the land of the living!" As he thinks of his foes he breaks into an exclamation, which he leaves unfinished. The omission is easy to supply. He would have been their victim but for his faith. The broken words tell of his recoil from the terrible possibility forced on him by the sight of the formidable enemies. Well for us if we are but driven the closer to God, in conscious helplessness, by the sight of dangers and antagonisms! Faith does not falter, though it is keenly conscious of difficulties. It is not preserved by ignoring facts, but should be by them impelled to clasp God more firmly as its only safety.

So the psalm goes back to the major key at last, and in the closing verse prayer passes into self-encouragement. The heart that spoke to God now speaks to itself. Faith exhorts sense and soul to "wait on Jehovah." The self-communing of the psalmist, beginning with exultant confidence and merging into prayer thrilled with consciousness of need and of weakness, closes with bracing him up to courage, which is not presumption, because it is the fruit of waiting on the Lord. He who thus keeps his heart in touch with God will be able to obey the ancient command, which had rung so long before in the ears of Joshua in the plains of Jericho and is never out of date, "Be strong and of a good courage"; and none but those who wait on the Lord will be at once conscious of weakness and filled with strength, aware of the foes and bold to meet them.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 27". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-27.html.