My May 25 post ended by suggesting we should regard the psalms as a worship (and prayer and praise) guide. So let’s return to Psalm 27 for direction. We looked briefly at that psalm in Knowing God by Heart as we examined the significance of David’s use of the name Lord when he addresses Him. We also considered some of the metaphors, each using the first person possessive pronoun – like my light — by which the psalmist describes the Lord and his relationship to Him. Then in The Sorrowing Heart we touched briefly on the question of when and how lament can be praise.
I mention lament again because the 27th psalm is most often categorized as one of the Psalms of Lament. But if we look carefully at lists of lament psalms, we may also see an asterisk beside 27. That leads to a note suggesting that while it is a lament, it might also be characterized as a Psalm of Thanksgiving. Certainly the psalm has elements of both. Instead of trying to decide in which pigeonhole to park Psalm 27, I believe we should contemplate how lament and thanksgiving together inform the spiritual and emotional depth of the psalm– to give it heart and to show us David’s heart. For that is precisely what the thanksgiving-lament combination accomplishes.
In my view, we cannot decouple thanksgiving and lament without unraveling the fabric of the psalm. Look closely at what David does. He weaves thanksgiving and lament together inextricably in what are best called the “supplications” that open the poem-prayer through the first six verses. Even as he cries out to his Lord for help, David simultaneously affirms with confidence the truth that he, the man of vision, sees. The Lord, and only the Lord, has been the source of his help and forever will be. At the same time that he acknowledges this abiding truth, David makes no attempt to hide his present fear or downplay its magnitude. He lays it out plainly and unequivocally before the Lord, who is his salvation and stronghold, who will “lift [him] high upon a rock.”
Surely the Lord discerns the thoughts of David’s heart before he utters them; in a literal sense He does not need to hear about them to know David’s situation or his emotional state. But David needs to articulate his feelings: first to God, as a heartfelt expression of thanksgiving– even in the midst of his dread and distress– and as a way to move into communion with Him; and second to himself, as a reminder of the character and nature of Him on whom he depends. I believe there is a third audience for these supplications as well, namely, his kinsmen and fellow worshipers. And we, who have been grafted into that multitude by faith in the God of David and the Son of David, also become part of the congregation that learns from its worship leader.
It is important to recognize that the psalmist’s expression of confidence in the midst of attack is based on his firm hope. Hope in biblical Hebrew has a distinctly different meaning from our modern English one that sometimes equates it with a wish or desire that is inherently tinged with doubt (Well, I hope so, but…). Hope in the psalmist’s lexicon is a reality on which he can absolutely depend. In other words, David’s confidence is based not on what might be but rather on what his heart knows with certainty is and will forever abide (verses 3 and 8).
Let’s look carefully at the interior dialogue in verse 8: “You have said, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to You, ‘Your face, Lord, do I seek.’” David recites God’s own command and then responds in obedience; therein lies his assurance. God has given numerous instructions to man. The specific image David engages here is deliberately chosen. Seeking the face of God with the goal of ultimately beholding it alludes to the divine-human relationship at its most intimate, as Moses knew when he asked to see His face. The power of that understanding is at play here in the converse. God’s decision to turn His face away from His servant would have signified total abandonment. Thus David entreats Him: “Do not hide Your face from me; do not turn your servant away…” (v.9).
The man after God’s heart knows this will not ever happen, and thus his pleadings are transformed to hope and confidence in the short declaration at the conclusion of verse 10. There the psalm reaches its emotional and spiritual crescendo. “…the Lord will take me in” asserts David. When and under what circumstances will He do that? Even “Though my father and mother have forsaken me.” The statement is most certainly a figure of speech, and that image is possibly the most poignant and breathtaking of any in the psalms. Its power is impossible to parse but it clearly gains strength in juxtaposition and contrast to the perfect relationship described in the previous verse. When or if the parent-child bond is irreparably fractured and the supreme example of unconditional human love has failed, David says, then my Lord is there “to gather me in.” That is the final image of the psalm. The remainder is entreaty followed by the assertion of trust.
So we learn from this psalm how to worship and when our lament can be praise –when it is poured out in obedience and without guile, is grounded in trust, and seeks not only deliverance from distress (evil, enemies, fear, want) but also intimacy with Him who alone can set us free. Our lament is thanksgiving when it emanates from the heart and is addressed to our hope.
“Let your heart be firm and bold, and hope in the Lord.” Psalm 27:14