Faith and Doubt in Psalm 27

September 6, 2018 | Benjamin Sommer
About the author:

In many Jewish communities, the 27th psalm, which begins with the words “The Lord is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid?,” is read daily in the month before Rosh Hashanah and continues to be read until the end of Sukkot. It opens, as some modern commentators have noted, with expressions of the speaker’s unshakable faith in God and the confidence it gives him. A few verses later it abruptly changes tone, while switching from referring to God in the third person to addressing Him directly, as the speaker pleads that God not abandon him. The final verses return to expressions of faith, but this time in a hopeful—albeit not confident—key. Benjamin Sommer tries to make sense of this progression:

The movement from faith to doubt is the opposite of what many readers might have expected of a religious text. Our worshiper does not grow into a more conventional piety over the course of the psalm, casting aside doubts to take up the armor of faith. Rather, the worshiper sets aside a seemingly ideal faith to take on a more realistic one. . . . While the faith of [this] section seems on the surface to be stronger, the truth is that in that section, the worshiper speaks of God—always in the third person—as something he knows about, but not someone Whom he knows. . . .

It is precisely when the worshiper first speaks directly to God that doubt becomes prominent. God is no longer something the worshiper claims to know all about; now God is a partner (though of course the senior partner) in a relationship, and relationships are slippery and unknowable in a way that does not conform to the simplistic faith of the first stanza. . . .

The direction of the psalm’s movement is crucial, because it models the maturing of an authentic relationship with God. A simple faith that asks no questions and admits no anxieties is not the most religious faith. . . . A faith that allows no doubt is hubris: when it claims to know for sure what God will and will not do, it denies God’s freedom and invests far too much in the believer’s impregnable security. . . . The wavering faith of Psalm 27 is humbler and more honest. It . . . is realistic about the fact that God seems absent at times.

This form of faith is quintessentially Jewish in ending neither with fear nor with complete confidence but with hope. Its final verse, [“Put your hope in the Lord! Be strong and courageous, and put your hope in the Lord.”], recalls the Pentateuch, which does not conclude with entry into the Land of Israel and the fulfillment of God’s promises but the death of Moses. It is significant . . . that the Torah ends on a note of hope rather than fulfillment. That tendency made it natural that the anthem of the Zionist movement and later of the state of Israel is ha-Tikvah, “The Hope.” Hope rather than perfect confidence characterizes the most mature Jewish faith.