Essay / Theology

Psalm 27: One Thing

Psalm 27 is strikingly parallel to the famous 23rd Psalm: a testimony of personal trust in Yahweh, launched by a very direct metaphor and a possessive: “Yahweh is my light,” but then extended differently: “and my salvation… my strength.”

The 15th-century illuminated manuscript called The Visconti Hours illustrates this Psalm with a picture of King David kneeling before the Lord, pointing dramatically to his eye. This probably means that the Lord is David’s light, by which he perceives. But it may also evoke the beloved verse four, which has a reference to sight:

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his temple.

When I study the Psalms, I love to work my way through a responsible historical-grammatical interpretation, which is the foundation and control of any meaning to be found in them. Call me a philistine, but I think word usage and historical setting and author’s intent and unfashionable stuff like that really determines what a text means.

But after that, I also check rabbinic commentary, which uses more oblique methods of mining the text and tends to divert attention from the Psalm itself to the total meaning of scripture, often fancifully. In Psalm 24, for instance, the Midrash Tehillim probably spins the wheel of biblical association and asks, “who called on the Lord as his light? Abraham, when he left Ur. Isaac, when he sought a wife. Jacob, when he saw the ladder as he slept, and wrestled the man in darkness…” etc. Strange linkages, sometimes yielding powerful insight into the Scriptures at large (and less often, into the text at hand).

Then I head for the church fathers, where things get even wilder. On Psalm 27:4, I found a remarkable extended paraphrase by Gerhoch of Reichersberg (1093-1169). Remember, Gerhoch is not trying to explain exactly what is up in Psalm 27:4 in itself: he is trying to preach the central message of the entire Bible starting from this text. He, like a millenium of Christian commentators before him, took the septuagint’s superscription (“of David, when he was anointed”) to be a sign of messianic prophecy: anointed = christed = messiahed. So Gerhoch read the whole Psalm as a prayer by Christ during his earthly ministry, and when he comes to verse four he begins to ponder what “one thing” the Messiah would ask God for. Of course, Gerhoch already knows from the New Testament what “one thing” Christ asked of the Father. At this point I’m going to step aside and just let you see what Gerhohus Magnus comes up with as he imagines that prayer:

“I, in that night in which I was to be betrayed to death, to the end that I might overcome death, desired one thing of the Lord; which I will require, I, the True Unity, by interceding for the unity of them that are Mine even till the consummation of all things. And this was My prayer: Father, I will that they also whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory, which Thou hast given Me. Thus I then asked that one thing from the Lord, when I was about to die for that people; and not for that people only, but that I might gather together in one the sons of God that were scattered abroad. This one thing I then asked, namely, in My death; but I will daily require it in the Sacrament which I have commanded My Priests to offer for My holy Church continually. By My own mouth I desired it once; by the lips of My Priests I still require it continually, as long as My death shall be set forth in the Sacrament of the Altar, until I shall come at the end of the world, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord in peace; all war at an end, all My members completely united to their Head, all the stones banded together in the everlasting building, by the grace of Me, Corner and Top stone, Author and Finisher of Faith.”

What captures Gerhoch’s attention seems to be (1) the idea of unity, centered on the words “one thing,” which he explains both ecclesiologically and eschatologically, (2) the distinction between “desiring” and “requiring” this one thing, which he explains by once-for-all event and sacramental re-enactment, and (3) the house of the Lord, which he conflates intentionally with Jesus as the Cornerstone of the everlasting building, in which the members can join their head, dwelling in peace with their warfare accomplished.

A tour de force! A systematic theology in itself, hung from one verse. Gerhoch never fails to deliver precisely this kind of exposition: a long journey out and away from the text, looping allusively into the central ideas of the Bible and theology, and returning in surprising ways to make contact with the words in front of us. The dangers and gains are easily stated. But I never tire of watching the performance.

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