Reflecting on Rhetoric—Psalm 27

The Politics of Scripture

The king of Israel was charged with reciting a psalm that contained reflection and humility alongside confidence. Moreover, he was charged with waiting on God. If God’s own instrument in the Bible was charged with this, how much more are we?

Psalm 27

1The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
2When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.
3Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
4One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.
5For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.
6Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
7Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
8“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.
9Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!
10If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.
11Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
12Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.
13I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
14Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Recently debates over nationalism have come to the fore in political discussions. The United States in particular has seen a rise in white nationalists as well as attempts to keep non-citizens out. For example, in the past several years, bans on people from primarily Muslim countries have been stopped or partially implemented by the courts. For another more immediate example, I might point to the wall the president is attempting to force into creation to separate the United States from Mexico.

Often, when people feel threatened, they look inward, not in terms of retrospection, but in terms of protecting one’s own. And often, this nationalistic rhetoric, for better or for worse, starts from quotations of or references to the Bible. This nationalistic mindset can lead to something as aggressive as Manifest Destiny where settlers could destroy native peoples in order to claim what they believed was divinely ordained. Or as we will see in the lectionary texts for this week, it can be something as simple as, “If I wait, God will destroy my enemies.”

The lectionary readings for this week all deal with nationalism in one way or another. God makes Abraham a promise over and against other nations (Genesis 15). Paul mentions having citizenship in heaven (Philippians 3:20). Jesus’ teachings threaten the nationalism of Herod (Luke 13:31). And Psalm 27 explicitly invokes God for the destruction of enemies. Each of these readings conveys a message of “us against them” in true nationalistic style, but none so obviously as Psalm 27.

Psalm 27 serves as an unnamed royal psalm. In other words, it has all of the elements of a royal psalm—a statement of confidence, prayer to God, and an oracle—without explicitly invoking the king. Some scholars have argued that this psalm is actually two psalms in one: 27:1–6 and 27:7–14. Regardless of its original format, it exists in the canon as one psalm, so the psalmists intended it to be read as such.

The first six verses are comprised of an extended statement of confidence. The speaker, likely the king, insists that God will ensure he prospers and his enemies are defeated. He won’t be afraid because God is with him. His enemies, on the other hand, should be afraid because if they rise up against him, God will destroy them. The king doesn’t waver in his faith in and confidence of God.

In verses 7–13, the psalmist directly addresses God through prayer. These verses lack the confidence of the first 6. Here the psalmist approaches God with humility, asking God for the comfort and protection he was certain of in the first section. He asks for general connection to God, and in verses 11–12 specifically asks for God to teach him the right way and also for God to provide protection from his enemies.

The last verse serves as a response from another speaker. This voice, likely an oracle in the context of the royal psalm, tells the king to take heart and wait for God.

This psalm ultimately highlights a nationalistic agenda, but it does so in a self-reflective way. In other words, the king does not stand up, spout nationalist material, and then sit down. Instead, the psalm is set up in such a way as to highlight not just nationalism, but also reflection, waiting, and verification.

If it is indeed a royal psalm as I and others have posited, then it likely would have been recited at some sort of royal event. So, perhaps Psalm 27 would have played a role in propaganda or encouraging nationalism, but it did not do so in a bid for power. Rather, it served a ritualistic purpose, ensuring the king could not ignore the danger of forgetting God or that outside peoples might upset the monarchy.

Further, the reason this psalm begins with a statement of confidence about God’s role in the speakers life is both to remind the king of God’s importance as well as to ensure God is listening. Flattering or exalting the gods in the ancient Near East seems to have been thought to increase the likelihood of a positive response.

This exaltation, then, serves as a precursor into the request where the king petitions God for support and protection. So, the king transitions from praising God with full confidence into a reflective prayer where he understands God might not support him. The petition, therefore, serves as an genuine prayerful approach of God.

The psalm ends with the response, probably spoken by a priest or someone involved in temple life. This response does not say the king should charge forward in full confidence that God is with him. Certainly that is there in the “Be strong and let your heart be bold!” (Psalm 27:14), but there is also the command to wait on God that both precedes and succeeds this response. So, the king should be strong and bold, but not thoughtless. Waiting is an important part of being faithful.

This lectionary reading is for the second Sunday of Lent. Lent is traditionally a time of waiting, a time of reflection on God and on self. This text provides a useful means of reflection for both God and self. First, the charge to wait. Too often we pick up the Bible and feel it is speaking to us. The charge to reflect and wait helps us to remember that before we can appropriate the Bible for our own ends, we should stop. We should wait. And we should prayerfully consider if something like a royal psalm or gospel reading actually applies to our life or just sounds good.

The text emerged in an historical context far different from our own, and stopping long enough to remember this can help us to avoid harmful and sometimes nationalistic appropriations of the Bible.

And second, too often we and our leaders praise God in certainty, knowing we are the ones who are justified. This exaltation and praise of God misses the next step. Think of how often we hear leaders around the world adopt a nationalistic rhetoric where their country is the one justified and others are enemies. They do not ever reach the second stage of prayerfully approaching God, or even of just stopping to reflect.

When people utilize nationalism, someone is necessarily demonized. And often, when people turn to nationalism, they speak from a position of power. In these cases, the enemies demonized are actually the ones the person in power oppressed. The “enemy” becomes someone not from here, someone who looks different, or someone who thinks differently. These are often the populations most at risk of oppression. So in fact, the “enemy” is an enemy of the nationalist’s own creation.

The king of Israel was charged with reciting a psalm that contained reflection and humility alongside confidence. Moreover, he was charged with waiting on God. If God’s own instrument in the Bible was charged with this, how much more are we? Whenever we face a situation where we are in the position of power, we might have confidence, but this Lenten season serves as a reminder to stop, reflect, be humble, and wait.

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