Psalm 27 is a psalm of trust. It addresses the author’s deepest fears: the enemy is coming and there is nothing to be done. All of us have moments in our lives when we fear. We might be afraid of being alone. We might be afraid of what will happen after death. We might fear the ending of a relationship. We might fear dogs or snakes. Fear is part of life in the world. Fear is an emotion that helps us know when there is the potential for danger. Fear protects us. And yet scripture is reminds us again and again, “be not afraid.” This psalm contains three explicit commands to not be afraid and to not live in fear. The author give us a choice: trust God or live in fear.
And that’s all very well and good but how do we not live in fear? Sometimes our fears are grounded in past experience that something is dangerous. Sometimes fear is less rational but just real. Sometimes we can predict where the danger lies. Sometimes we can see it off in the distance. Sometimes it sneaks up on us. The Psalm uses the imagery of an army surrounding the writer. There is nowhere to run. There is nowhere to hide. The author is outnumbered. What to do now?
The author turns to God and says: I trust you! If I trust you, I have no need to be afraid. God is here and I have nothing fear. But how does the author know that God is trustworthy?
Saying, “I trust you,” doesn’t make someone worthy of trust. In the instance of this video the test subject proclaimed again and again “I trust you,” and yet only one person caught him. We can say that we trust God but that doesn’t necessarily make God worthy of the trust.
One of the things you might notice in this video is that the expression of trust is one sided. There is no explanation for the trust. There is no explanation about what it is that he wants to trust the other person with. There is no warning that there is something going on in his life that he needs support with. The declaration of trust is made in a void. The declaration of trust is made without context. The declaration of trust is made without any type of relationship.
If the man had gone to a friend and asked them to catch him, the response would have been quite different. His friends would have preparation time, would know what the expectations are, and go out of their way to support him because they would not want to see him hurt. If he had gone to strangers and explained the exercise, the response might have been better. People would have some warning about what was going to happen and the expectations being placed on them.
Trust is something that requires relationship. It isn’t one-sided and it doesn’t happen in a void. We know in human relationships that people often need to earn our trust. We have certain people we know we can trust to catch us. There are many others that we might not be certain if that will catch us because we don’t have enough of a relationship with them to know whether or not they will be there when we need them. There are others that we have learned not to trust because of our experience with them. Our ability to trust God is similar. We need enough experience of God to know that God will catch us. Or maybe our experience of God leads us not to trust. Either way, we need to decide for ourselves whether or not to trust God.
If we don’t have relationships we are certain we can trust, we can do a couple things in our lives. We could risk trusting. Like the person in the video we could go to random people and hope that they catch us. We could also decide that trust isn’t worth the risk and so we try to do everything on our own without the support of others.
What does all this have to do with the psalm? This psalm is the psalm of someone who has experience of God. The writer of this psalm has been through enough of life to know that God is faithful. This author has been around the block a few times. The author is not placing trust in his own army or supporters. The author hasn’t cut himself off to fight the battle alone. The author places trust in God. The trust isn’t a blind, random trust but a trust that has been built through a lifetime of experience. It is a trust that is based on the author’s relationship with God.
How do we know that God is worthy of our trust? How do we know that God will be present when most needed? How do we know that God won’t harm us? We don’t know any of these things unless we are in a relationship and give God opportunities to build trust with us. Think about any new relationship that we enter. There needs to be an opportunity to build trust. Sometimes our trust in other people increases over time. Sometimes behavior proves that another is not to be trusted. Trust is not something that can simply be willed or something that we can simply be told and then know. Trust (or lack of it) has to be experienced in order to be real.
The psalm begins with the author expressing, very matter-of-factly: I know God brings light in darkness. I know God is present so there is no reason to be afraid. This is not someone new to difficulty. It is not someone new to God. This is someone with lots of God experience to back up the claims.
Further along in the psalm, the writer describes one great wish: “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.” This request, according to Walter Brueggemann, is about “encountering the life-giving divine presence.” So the author’s one wish is to be in the life-giving presence of the divine. The author is constantly seeking God in all moments of life.
The author has a second request: “teach me your way O God and lead me on a level path.” The word teach is the root of torah. In the post, Way to Live, I wrote about torah as the law of God that gives life—not the set of rules that we follow—but the advice given allows us to live with love and compassion and healthy relationships. Torah becomes both the teaching itself and the way in which it imprints itself on those who seek God. Torah is both noun and verb. It is way of life that we learn and it is the process of learning how to live with God.
The author of this particular psalm seeks God but has enough experience to know that God, and the way of God, must be learned. God is not a magic bullet that will take away all the hardships and difficulties of life. The relationship that we learn and create with God sustains us through all the hardships and difficulties. Without the relationship, we cannot be sure that God will catch us when we most need catching. The learning of God’s way creates the place where we can trust God.
This learning is not a onetime thing but a lifelong process. The author knows very well that death may happen at any moment but that God is in the midst of death and life and everything in between. The author, even in the midst of being surrounded by enemies, is recommitting to learning again and more deeply God’s way of life.
Trust is not something that necessarily happens naturally and it isn’t something that we can switch on and off. Trust is something that is learned but it is also something that we choose. We choose to learn the torah, God’s way, in order to build trust. Author begins the psalm by choosing between trust and fear.
The author begins with the choice between trust in God and fear:
The 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?
Trust in God is not magic but is learned through relationship and learning God’s way of life. Trust cannot be accepted simply by word of mouth. Because God has been faithful and trustworthy in the past, the author ends the psalm with these words:
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!
. Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), Psalm 27.