Le-David

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I

Human beings are, in the best of cases, complex creatures – their identities fluid and their inner lives shot through with dynamic tension and ambivalence. For the individual person, this means a life’s vocation of forming the ragtag collection of energies populating his soul into an effectively coherent self. For the yerei shamayim, this quickening takes place in the acknowledged presence of the Almighty.

Listen to the opening lines of Mizmor 27 (“le-david”) and what you will hear is a man wholly content and ultimately confident: “The Lord is my light and salvation, whom should I fear? / The Lord is my life’s stronghold, of whom should I be afraid?” He is assured in his faith, certain of God’s caring provenance and of his own personal fortitude – this is a man with no worries.

And for good reason, as the meshorer (psalmist) continues:

When evil men draw near, to eat my flesh,
It is they, my foes and my enemies,
Who stumble and fall.
Should an army besiege me,
My heart would have no fear.
Should battle beset me,
Still I would be confident. (Verses 2-3)

We hear of unremitting success, a parade of triumph unmarred by setback or obstacle; we imagine the psalmist has never lost a battle, never tasted defeat or come to any harm. No matter the enemy and no matter their violent-to-the-point-of-flesh-eating intentions, it is ever they who trip and fall as our hero stands tall unscathed and unshaken. For this fortune gratitude wells in his soul until, with a rising cadence, it irrupts in ecstatic exaltation:

And now my head rises,
over my enemies roundabout:
Let me offer in His tent,
Sacrifices with shouts of joy,
Let me sing and hymn to the Lord! (Verse 6)

A fitting capstone to a joyous, celebratory song of triumph, gratitude, and praise – or so it might have been, were we not only less than halfway through the mizmor. But in fact the psalm continues, and does so with a jarringly unexpected shift in style and tone: Suddenly it is not God as the third person referent – “The Lord is my light and salvation” – but as the focus of direct address: “Hear O Lord, my voice when I call.” And the mood of plaintive desperation is a world apart from the proud, rhapsodic declarations hitherto. Somewhere in the space between verses 6 and 7, jubilant confidence has turned to vulnerability and distress, thanksgiving to a tearful plea for mercy:

Hear O Lord, my voice when I call,
And grant me grace and answer me:
Of you, my heart said “Seek my face”
Your face, Lord, I do seek.
Do not hide your face from me,
Do not turn away your servant in wrath.
You are my help, abandon me not, nor forsake me
O God of my rescue. (Verses 7-9)

Notice that the theme is the same as before – the God of rescue showing his face in times of danger – but the mood and mode could not be less similar. Mortally frightened and without natural recourse, the meshorer turns to God, pleading for salvation – a salvation of which he is, it seems, painfully unassured. “God is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear?” has abruptly become “Do not abandon me, do not forsake me, O God of my rescue.” What are we to make of so sudden, and so dramatic, a transformation? Ought we to conclude, as many able scholars have, that we are actually dealing with two distinct psalms – that the psalmist of verses 1 through 6 simply cannot be the psalmist of verses 7 through 14? Put positively, what would an integrated reading mean, and what would be its message?

II

Few things get Bible scholars going like the prospect of a single text with multiple authors, but the fact is that people are existentially nuanced, multi-layered things, and the human soul is more than hospitable to sundry, often conflicting and convolutedly intertwined sentiments. Moreover the living soul is dynamic, restless, always on the move – any one snapshot view of its goings on will of necessity betray its fuller truth. Personal experience is not a static fact but a perpetually evolving challenge.

Encountering mortal threat and peril, the theoretical religious individual has before him several paths forward. He may simply appeal to the sure reality of God’s caring provenance, and so stand firm and secure without worry, exalting in the Lord’s salvation; in the full light of God’s protection all enemies are stilled, their menace withering into oblivion. If his faith does not permit such certainty of salvation – perhaps, he may worry, he is not deserving, or perhaps God simply has other plans – he may cry out in prayer, addressing his God with a plea for grace and mercy. These models of religious response are straightforward and familiar.

But a real-life believer may exhibit a more ambitious pattern. Consider the following narrative sketch: Our faithful individual – let’s call him David – becomes appraised of a potential threat. Momentarily frightened, David’s first response is to marshal his faith as a bulwark against fear, fortifying his soul within the security of God’s salvational stronghold. David need dread no mortal foe, for his faith is sure – so sure that far from quivering in fear he ought to celebrate, exalting in his divinely-rooted confidence. And as the enemy approaches, the threat steadily occupying more of the horizon and the drumbeat growing louder, David’s rapture blossoms in step – he will stand high above his foes, he will joyfully worship in God’s home, offering sacrifice and ecstatic hymn to the Lord.

But just as the vision reaches its emotional climax, it is shattered by the piercing cry of impending reality; the cold facts take their grip, and the realization of the situation’s gravity sets in. Right now he is not in the Temple, but on the battlefield; he is surrounded not by jubilant worship but by looming, mortal danger. His heart, to be sure, yearns for the Lord’s house – to dwell there is all he ever wanted – so strongly he can taste its reality. But that, he can no longer help but see, is not the present. First there is danger, danger he must now confront with clear eyes. Equaling the magnitude of his initial elation’s crescendo, the need for salvation becomes all-consuming, existential.

And so he cries out, baring his soul before God in a tearful plea for mercy. Joy gives way to terror, confidence to doubt, exaltation in God’s saving light to desperately uncertain wish that God alone might not forsake him. “Though my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will take me in” – the latter clause ambiguous between prediction and prayerful wish, and likely an intentional synthesis of both. Salvation does not feel certain, but the necessity to entreat God for salvation does.

In the end, even his faith has become a question: “Were I not to trust that I would enjoy the Lord’s goodness” – and the confession is cut short before the thought could be finished. Apparently the other side of the ‘were it not,’ while allusively acknowledged, is too frightful to vocalize. Faith has indeed become a question, but the necessity of faith remains sure as the sun’s setting in the West. Here our meshorer pulls himself together, looks himself in the eye, and affirms the deepest truth he knows:

Hope for the Lord!
Let your heart be firm and bold
Hope for the Lord! (Verse 14)

In the journey through joy and sorrow, stalwart confidence and paralyzing fear, hope for the Lord is the abidingly ultimate response. Rain or shine or both, the meshorer sings, let your heart be firm and bold.

III

A central message of le-david then, on this reading, is that human faith is complex, which is because human experience is complex, which is because human beings are, themselves, complex. In the authentic religious life, therefore, there are times for confidence and times for fear, times for celebration and times for supplication. The challenge is to meaningfully weave them all together, forging the disparate parts into a coherent whole. Often this process goes by names like ‘therapy’ or simply ‘self-improvement’; the Jew knows it as teshuva. And a premonition of mortal fear inspiring a celebration of God’s caring governance climaxing into a tearful supplication for divine mercy? Well that sounds an awful lot like the yamim nora’im.

About Alex Ozar

Rabbi Alex Ozar is a PhD student in philosophy of religion at Yale University. His writing has appeared, or will be appearing, in Tradition, Torah U-Madda Journal, Harvard Theological Review, Journal of Religious Ethics, and First Things magazine.

One comment

  1. Your explanation is very good, based on the emotions and needs of a person in prayer. It is a lesson as to how to pray.
    However, there could be another explanation. There is a famous vort (I heard it first from Rav Yehoshua Dovid Turchin, then Rosh Yeshiva of Metzuyanim in Yerushalayim, now Rav of Kehal Perushim-Yerushalayim) on Leah’s naming of Yehuda הפעם אודה את ה’, ותעמוד מלדת that she stopped giving birth to children after announcing that now is the time to praise H-SHem. The understanding was that whenever we thank H-Shem for something, we must add a prayer for the continuing blessing. That is why we add prayers after praise in bentsching. That may be what happened here. Dovid HaMelech thanked H-Shem with all his heart. He then asked for more yeshuos with all his heart. That request has the extreme level of understanding of his precarious position, just his thanks included the full vision of his triumph.
    כתיבה וחתימה טובה שיקובלו תפלותיכם ברצון

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