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Psalm 27: Entering the Psalm

illustration man on bike by tree with pink sky

Trust & Lament

The palmist opens this poetic reflection by confidently declaring trust in God’s saving powers, but then quickly laments the presence of dangerous enemies roundabout and prays fervently for deliverance. Where does the poet arrive at the end of this liturgical journey? Is his original confidence restored or has it been significantly altered?

Andrew Davis, PhD

The tension between the two halves of Psalm 27 has led some scholars to question the psalm’s unity; maybe, they represent two distinct psalms and were not meant to be read together. Although this possibility cannot be ruled out, the prevalence and impact of Psalm 27 within Jewish and Christian traditions suggest the tension at its core is, in fact, what makes the psalm relatable and powerful.

לְדָוִ֨ד ׀ יְהוָ֤ה ׀ אוֹרִ֣י וְ֭יִשְׁעִי מִמִּ֣י אִירָ֑א יְהוָ֥ה מָֽעוֹז־חַ֝יַּ֗י מִמִּ֥י אֶפְחָֽד׃
בִּקְרֹ֤ב עָלַ֨י ׀ מְרֵעִים֮ לֶאֱכֹ֪ל אֶת־בְּשָׂ֫רִ֥י צָרַ֣י וְאֹיְבַ֣י לִ֑י הֵ֖מָּה כָשְׁל֣וּ וְנָפָֽלוּ׃
אִם־תַּחֲנֶ֬ה עָלַ֨י ׀ מַחֲנֶה֮ לֹֽא־יִירָ֪א לִ֫בִּ֥י אִם־תָּק֣וּם עָ֭לַי מִלְחָמָ֑ה בְּ֝זֹ֗את אֲנִ֣י בוֹטֵֽחַ׃
אַחַ֤ת ׀ שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְהוָה֮ אוֹתָ֪הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵית־יְ֭הוָה כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י לַחֲז֥וֹת בְּנֹֽעַם־יְ֝הוָ֗ה וּלְבַקֵּ֥ר בְּהֵיכָלֽוֹ׃
כִּ֤י יִצְפְּנֵ֨נִי ׀ בְּסֻכֹּה֮ בְּי֪וֹם רָ֫עָ֥ה יַ֭סְתִּרֵנִי בְּסֵ֣תֶר אָהֳל֑וֹ בְּ֝צ֗וּר יְרוֹמְמֵֽנִי׃
וְעַתָּ֨ה יָר֪וּם רֹאשִׁ֡י עַ֤ל אֹֽיְבַ֬י סְֽבִיבוֹתַ֗י וְאֶזְבְּחָ֣ה בְ֭אָהֳלוֹ זִבְחֵ֣י תְרוּעָ֑ה אָשִׁ֥ירָה וַ֝אֲזַמְּרָ֗ה לַיהוָֽה׃
שְׁמַע־יְהוָ֖ה קוֹלִ֥י אֶקְרָ֗א וְחָנֵּ֥נִי וַעֲנֵֽנִי׃
לְךָ֤ ׀ אָמַ֣ר לִ֭בִּי בַּקְּשׁ֣וּ פָנָ֑י אֶת־פָּנֶ֖יךָ יְהוָ֣ה אֲבַקֵּֽשׁ׃
אַל־תַּסְתֵּ֬ר פָּנֶ֨יךָ ׀ מִמֶּנִּי֮ אַֽל־תַּט־בְּאַ֗ף עַ֫בְדֶּ֥ךָ עֶזְרָתִ֥י הָיִ֑יתָ אַֽל־תִּטְּשֵׁ֥נִי וְאַל־תַּֽ֝עַזְבֵ֗נִי אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׁעִֽי׃
כִּי־אָבִ֣י וְאִמִּ֣י עֲזָב֑וּנִי וַֽיהוָ֣ה יַֽאַסְפֵֽנִי׃
ה֤וֹרֵ֥נִי יְהוָ֗ה דַּ֫רְכֶּ֥ךָ וּ֭נְחֵנִי בְּאֹ֣רַח מִישׁ֑וֹר לְ֝מַ֗עַן שׁוֹרְרָֽי׃
אַֽל־תִּ֭תְּנֵנִי בְּנֶ֣פֶשׁ צָרָ֑י כִּ֥י קָֽמוּ־בִ֥י עֵֽדֵי־שֶׁ֝֗קֶר וִיפֵ֥חַ חָמָֽס׃
לוּלֵא הֶ֭אֱמַנְתִּי לִרְא֥וֹת בְּֽטוּב־יְהוָ֗ה בְּאֶ֣רֶץ חַיִּֽים׃
קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְה֫וָ֥ה חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהוָֽה׃

1 Of David.
The LORD is my light and my help;
whom should I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life,
whom should I dread?
2 When evil men assail me
to devour my flesh—
it is they, my foes and my enemies,
who stumble and fall.
3 Should an army besiege me,
my heart would have no fear;
should war beset me,
still would I be confident.
4 One thing I ask of the LORD,
only that do I seek:
to live in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD,
to frequent His temple.
5 He will shelter me in His pavilion
on an evil day,
grant me the protection of His tent,
raise me high upon a rock.
6 Now is my head high
over my enemies round about;
I sacrifice in His tent with shouts of joy,
singing and chanting a hymn to the LORD.
7 Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud;
have mercy on me, answer me.
8 In Your behalf my heart says:
“Seek My face!”
O LORD, I seek Your face.
9 Do not hide Your face from me;
do not thrust aside Your servant in anger;
You have ever been my help.
Do not forsake me, do not abandon me,
O God, my deliverer.
10 Though my father and mother abandon me,
the LORD will take me in.
11 Show me Your way, O LORD,
and lead me on a level path
because of my watchful foes.
12 Do not subject me to the will of my foes,
for false witnesses and unjust accusers
have appeared against me.
13 Had I not the assurance
that I would enjoy the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living…
14 Look to the LORD;
be strong and of good courage!
O look to the LORD!

1 The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom should I fear?
The Lord is my life’s refuge;
of whom should I be afraid?
2 When evildoers come at me
to devour my flesh,
These my enemies and foes
themselves stumble and fall.
3 Though an army encamp against me,
my heart does not fear;
Though war be waged against me,
even then do I trust.

4 One thing I ask of the Lord;
this I seek:
To dwell in the Lord’s house
all the days of my life,
To gaze on the Lord’s beauty,
to visit his temple.
5 For God will hide me in his shelter
in time of trouble,
He will conceal me in the cover of his tent;
and set me high upon a rock.
6 Even now my head is held high
above my enemies on every side!
I will offer in his tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and chant praise to the Lord.

7 Hear my voice, Lord, when I call;
have mercy on me and answer me.
8 “Come,” says my heart, “seek his face”;
your face, Lord, do I seek!
9 Do not hide your face from me;
do not repel your servant in anger.
You are my salvation; do not cast me off;
do not forsake me, God my savior!
10 Even if my father and mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me in.

11 Lord, show me your way;
lead me on a level path
because of my enemies.
12 Do not abandon me to the desire of my foes;
malicious and lying witnesses have risen against me.
13 I believe I shall see the Lord’s goodness
in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord, take courage;
be stouthearted, wait for the Lord!

1 El Señor es mi luz y mi salvación;
¿a quién temeré?
El Señor es el baluarte de mi vida;
¿quién me asustará?

2 Cuando los malvados avanzan contra mí
para devorar mis carnes,
cuando mis enemigos y adversarios me atacan,
son ellos los que tropiezan y caen.
3 Aun cuando un ejército me asedie,
no temerá mi corazón;
aun cuando una guerra estalle contra mí,
yo mantendré la confianza.

4 Una sola cosa pido al Señor
y es lo único que persigo:
habitar en la casa del Señor
todos los días de mi vida,
para contemplar la hermosura del Señor
y buscar orientación en su Templo.
5 Porque en el día de la aflicción
él me resguardará en su morada;
al amparo de su santuario me protegerá
y me pondrá en alto sobre una roca.

6 Me hará prevalecer
frente a los enemigos que me rodean;
en su santuario ofreceré sacrificios de alabanza
y cantaré y entonaré salmos al Señor.

7 Oye, Señor, mi voz cuando a ti clamo;
compadécete de mí y respóndeme.
8 El corazón me dice: «¡Busca su rostro!».[a]
Y yo, Señor, tu rostro busco.
9 No escondas de mí tu rostro;
no rechaces, en tu enojo, a este siervo tuyo,
porque tú has sido mi ayuda.
No me desampares ni me abandones,
Dios de mi salvación.
10 Aunque mi padre y mi madre me abandonen,
el Señor me acogerá.
11 Guíame, Señor, por tu camino;
dirígeme por la senda de rectitud,
por causa de mis enemigos.
12 No me entregues al capricho de mis adversarios,
pues contra mí se levantan testigos falsos
que respiran violencia.

13 Pero de una cosa estoy seguro:
he de ver la bondad del Señor
en esta tierra de los vivientes.
14 Pon tu esperanza en el Señor;
cobra ánimo y ármate de valor,
¡pon tu esperanza en el Señor!

Entering the Psalm

By Andrew Davis, PhD

illustration of hands on colored backgroundPsalm 27 is a unique combination of trust and lament. The first six verses declare confidence in God’s salvation. After opening with two rhetorical questions, the speaker describes three attacks from which God will rescue him (vv. 2-3) and then expresses her desire for close relationship with the God (vv. 4-6).

When we come to verse 7, however, the psalm takes a hard turn. Confidence gives way to lament as the speaker pleads for God’s deliverance from threats that still beset her. The change in outlook coincides with shift in audience. Whereas the expressions of trust in verses 1-6 refer to God in the third-person and seem to be addressed to the congregation gathered around the speaker, the lament is addressed directly to God.

The tension between the two halves of Psalm 27 has led some scholars to question the psalm’s unity; maybe, they represent two distinct psalms and were not meant to be read together. Although this possibility cannot be ruled out, the prevalence and impact of Psalm 27 within Jewish and Christian traditions suggest the tension at its core is, in fact, what makes the psalm relatable and powerful.

In Jewish tradition Psalm 27 figures most prominently during the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Beginning one month before the holidays with the commencement of the final month of the Hebrew calendar, Elul, the psalm is customarily recited at the end of the morning and evening services until the conclusion of Sukkot. These holidays embody the trust found in the first part of the psalm as well as the need for God’s help expressed in the second. In Christian liturgy, too, Psalm 27 occurs in contexts that combine trust and lament. For example, Christians may be most familiar with its regular use in funeral liturgies, which are opportunities to affirm in faith that our loved one will be welcomed into God’s kingdom but also to express feelings of grief and loss. Psalm 27 gives voice to both feelings.

Discussion Questions on Psalm 27

  • Is this psalm familiar to you? In what setting(s) have you previously encountered it?
  • What does the “House of the Lord” mean to you as a contemporary seeker?
  • How does the psalm’s tension between trust and lament resonate with you now?

Featured Commentaries

Ps. 27: Finding Our Way Home by Rabbi Adina Allen

We release anything that stands in the way of our returning to that house we are always seeking, that house which is our home no matter where we move. In the words of Psalm 27, the Psalm for the High Holiday season, “One thing I ask of God, this do I seek: to dwell in God’s house all the days of my life.” What is this home we are seeking?

Read Allen's full essay

Psalm 27 and the Jewish New Year

Why is Psalm 27 Recited in advance of Rosh Hashanah through Sukkot (Hashanah Rabbah)? When and where did this become a popular tradition? How do you feel about this Psalm as the psalm of the Jewish New Year?

Learn more

Psalm 27: Concealment

Alyse Radenovic is an American fine artist living in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband and daughter. The subject matter of her paintings is varied. Her paintings have been exhibited as paintings alone and as part of multimedia projects in galleries and performance spaces in America and Europe. Her work has been featured in various publications.

Learn more

More Multimedia Resources

The Ambiguity of a Term: "Lulei"

By Andrew Davis, PhD

The ending of Psalm 27 is highly ambiguous. Some translations take verses 13-14 as a straightforward declaration of faith, as if the speaker is returning to the confidence that began the psalm. Other translations hedge on this certainty. The NJPS, for example, renders verse 13 with a conditional clause (“Had I…) and an ellipsis. At issue is a single Hebrew word—lulei—which could support either translation. This word usually introduces a counterfactual conditional clause. If I said, for example, “If I didn’t have my glasses, I couldn’t read that sign,” the first clause is counterfactual because I do have my glasses and I can read the sign. Thus, the NRSV is probably right to assume that the word is beginning a positive statement. But the statement is never completed so the NJPS translation is right to question the strength of the affirmation.

The dilemma is further complicated by the six dots that surround the word in the Hebrew text (see the image above). According to one Jewish tradition, these dots highlight the doubt expressed in the verse and may explain the ellipsis in the NJPS translation. Alternatively, it’s possible that an ancient scribe added the dots to mark the word for erasure.

Discussion Question

  • Please reread verses 13 and 14 of Psalm 27. How do you understand the use of the word lulei? Do you think the psalm ends on a note of trust, doubt, or both?

a. Kaveh el YaH

hazak v’ya-ametz libekha

b. Kaveh el YaH

“Immerse yourself in God”

c. Ḥazak v’ya-ametz libekha

“Be strong and brave in your heart”

Psalm 27 is recited throughout the High Holy Day period from the beginning of the New Moon of Elul/Virgo until the end of Sukkot/the Harvest Festival. As I understand it, the last verse of the psalm is a statement of faith and action. We can hope, but we must also do. This passionate three-part round contains a richness of interwoven sounds that we intend to help open the gates of our hearts and of Heaven. — Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel

Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel is a poet and mystic through whom song and inspiration flow. She weaves together prayerful melodies and thoughtful teachings in a web of spirit and celebration. She received rabbinic ordination in 2003 from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and other rabbinic colleagues in the Jewish Renewal Movement. She also earned a Masters of Jewish Studies degree from Hebrew College the same year. 

Discussion Questions

  • What role does music play in your spiritual life?
  • Siegel creatively renders “Kaveh el YaH” as “immerse yourself in G-d” (as in the Hebrew term “mikveh,” ritual pool). What might immersion in the Divine feel like? Can you envision it?
  • Where you do you feel brave or strong in your own life? How does that strength relate to your relationship with the Divine?

Copyright 2022 by Rabbi Or Rose, Hebrew College and Dr. Andrew Davis, Boston College. Forthcoming lesson plan by Morgan Figa, Hebrew College Rabbinical School student.