Psalm 27 is traditionally read every morning by religious Jews during the fall high holiday season. According to Alan Cooper, professor at Jewish Theological Seminary:
The custom of reciting Psalm 27 during the penitential season, variously understood to entail the period from Rosh Hodesh Elul through Yom Kippur, Hoshanah Rabbah, or Shemini Atzeret, is codified in Mishnah Berurah, siman 581: “In our region it is customary to recite [Psalm 27] followed by kaddish at the conclusion of the morning and evening services every day from Rosh Hodesh Elul until Yom Kippur; we customarily recite it until Shemini Atzeret.”
On the surface, the psalm does not seem to emphasize the holiday themes of repentance, forgiveness, atonement, etc. However, if you read the psalm in light of the themes of this season of the Jewish year, it does make some sense as to why the Jewish sages since the Medieval period selected this psalm to be read each day during this time period.
A Time for Introspection
This season is the time when we, as Jews, (and I am suggesting non-Jews might consider doing the same for the sake of our spiritual growth), take a deeper look into our own souls. However, this can be painful, and we need God’s help to open our hearts to ourselves and to Him . . . and even to others via our repentance during the ten days of awe, which is the tradition between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
David wrote in Psalm 27:2–3, “When evildoers came upon me to devour my flesh, my adversaries and my enemies, they stumbled and fell. Though a host encamp against me, my heart will not fear; though war arise against me, in spite of this I shall be confident.” This theme continues in verse twelve, “Do not deliver me over to the desire of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and such as breathe out violence.”
The adversaries the psalmist is concerned about in 27:2–3 and 12 seem to be external, but the sages encourage us to think in terms of these opponents of our souls as internal enemies . . . this begs the question of the evil inclination within Judaism.
In the midrash, the “enemies” of the psalmist are external. Later commentators often internalize them, identifying them with the psalmist’s own evil inclination—in some ways the most terrifying enemy of all: “the evil inclination and all the forces of uncleanness that are brought into being by transgressions—each one of which is like a warrior attempting to drag him into additional sin, ultimately to destroy his soul.”
In an interpretation of Psalm 27:3 (“should an army besiege me”) from his little-known 17th-century Psalms commentary, Hayyim Katz offers a virtuosic elaboration of the ambiguous “this” of the midrash:
[The “army” is] the army of the evil inclination. Even though it declares war against me—since the evil inclination of a person gains daily in strength. . . .
When the psalmist petitions God to “shelter me in his sukkah” (Ps. 27:5), Katz comments, “This means that God should providentially protect me against the evil inclination in this world, which is called a sukkah, since it is a temporary dwelling—the seven days [of Sukkot] corresponding to the seventy years [of a normal lifespan].”
The Underlying Problem Faced by the Psalmist
The psalmist wrotes in verses 7–9:
Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice, and be gracious to me and answer me. When You said, “Seek My face,” my heart said to You, “Your face, O Lord, I shall seek.” Do not hide Your face from me, do not turn Your servant away in anger; You have been my help; do not abandon me nor forsake me, O God of my salvation!
I have always wondered WHY the psalmist seemed to be so afraid of God’s rejection. His desire to dwell in the sanctuary and to enjoy the presence of God was in some way linked to his fear of being rejected by God. Perhaps the problem can be understood in this way:
- When I seek His face, I see His holiness and my unworthiness . . . the closer I get to God, the more my sin is revealed. Do you find this true as well (story of my recognizing the depth of my sin after I was saved)?
As believers in Yeshua, we believe that man has a sinful nature and further understand that, though saved, we still carry our sin nature with us . . . everywhere we go.
That is why Paul cried out in Romans 7:14–20:
For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.
You can almost hear the anguish and joy in his heart when he concluded in Romans 7:24–25:
Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.
The New Covenant Solution to Healing the Soul
- Recognize your sinfulness and sins
- Repent of your sins, but recognize that you cannot repent of your sinfulness
- Repentance is a lifetime process as God reveals more about Himself and more about you
It is critical to recognize the role of the Holy Spirit in our spiritual growth!
And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged. (John 16:8–10)
Welcome the conviction of sin, as it is the only way to grow.
Do not be discouraged by your sinfulness . . . it is the only way to pursue personal godliness.
The Confidence of the Psalmist
“I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage;
yes, wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:13–14).
Cooper further writes, powerfully and poignantly,
In order to fulfill the mitzvah of teshuvah (repentance), we must peel away the mask of confidence and complacency that we present to the world (and to ourselves) in order to scrutinize our flaws and vulnerability. “Doing” teshuvah demands that we focus on those aspects of ourselves most in need of repair and also on our inability to effect that repair without God’s help.
As believers, we always hope . . . the hope of forgiveness, of His everlasting love, and of the possibility for change in this life and perfection in the age to come.
As the apostle John wrote:
If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. (1 John 1:8–10)
Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. (1 John 3:2–3)
Or, in the words of the psalmist, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defense of my life; whom shall I dread?” (Psalm 27:1).
Rabbi Cooper writes:
The “normal” movement of biblical penitential prayer is from complaint to confidence by way of petition. The movement of Psalm 27 is precisely the opposite: stripping away the pretense of confidence brings the psalmist to the brink of despair. All that is left is for the psalmist to turn to the praying community with a final exhortation (Ps. 27:14): “Look to the Lord; be strong and of good courage! O look to the Lord!” Assuming the role of the psalmist’s audience, we recognize that we have only one true hope at the time of judgment, and that is the hope that God’s love and mercy will bring about God’s forgiveness. In hearing the psalmist’s prayer and grasping its import, we will have readied ourselves for the Days of Awe.
So, whom shall we fear or dread?
As those who know Yeshua, the answer is NO ONE—especially not God Himself! Again, the apostle John wrote:
By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us. (1 John 4:17–19)
We can continue to open our souls, without fear, during this special season and throughout the year, asking God to help us see our sin, yet having confidence in His love and forgiveness, knowing He will never forsake us. This path is the way to true spiritual growth.
 Alan Cooper and Elaine Ravich, “Psalm 27: The Days of Awe,” Jewish Theological Seminary, last modified August 25, 2012, accessed September 12, 2022, https://www.jtsa.edu/torah/psalm-27-the-days-of-awe/.
 From Sefer Romemut El by the great 16th-century homilist Moses Alshekh (2 vols.; ed. David Ohayon; Bnei Braq, 1992), 1:217-224.
 Eretz ha-Hayyim, published in Constantinople in 1750 and reprinted in Ashdod in 2005. Katz is so little known that it is not entirely clear what his name was. Avraham Hayyim Cohen is the name on the title page of the book, and a brief notice in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (2nd edition; vol. 6, p. 686) dubs him Hayyim (Abraham) Ben Samuel Feivush (Phoebus).
 Cooper and Ravich, “Psalm 27.”
 Cooper and Ravich, “Psalm 27.”