For the entire month of Elul, leading into Succot, this Psalm is traditionally read at both morning and evening services. Perhaps because its last stanza –“Hope in Adonai; be strong and of good courage!”`– may fortify those who recite it, as they face the Days of Repentance and Judgement. Perhaps because the first line of the song itself suggests both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “Adonai is my light and salvation” — that quality of God recognized in Rosh Hashanah is light; that sought for in Yom Kippur, salvation.
The metaphors of the first verse may allude to the predicament of the singer that he struggles with throughout the song: Adonai is his light and salvation, but also his stronghold –the first qualities, light and salvation, are the elements of the heavens; the latter, stronghold, in contrast, suggests the physicality of earth. The singer, yearning for the heavens, must decide whether or not to reconcile himself with the earth and the anguish –abandonment (v. 10), enmity (verses 2, 3, 6, 11, 12)– it has caused him. Thus the song is inspired by the two locations or spaces, the heavens and the earth, and, along with them, by the two periods of time, present and future: surrounded by his foes, with seemingly no allies, he would escape both the present and the earth it binds him to, for a vision of a future in the heavens of God’s sanctuary.
Although he declares, in verses 2 and 3, that his “heart would have no fear” of the evildoers who would “devour” his “flesh”, for he is fortified by God, nonetheless verses 4 and 5 make clear the singer’s conflict. His desire to dwell in the heavens, his reality that he is solidly mired in the earth, sound out a verbal tug-of-war: the verbs of verse 4 are “dwell”, “behold”, “frequent”. Certainly “dwell” and “behold” can complement each other, but “frequent” is their counter. For “frequent” suggests a visit; “dwell”, a permanency. Both conditions cannot exist at the same time. And yet the one line of verse contains all three verbs, with no break indicating a change in point of view or perception:
One thing I ask of Adonai; that is what I seek:
to dwell in the house of Adonai all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of Adonai,
to frequent His temple.*
Similarly, verse 5 asks that God “hide” the singer in “His pavilion”, “conceal” him in “His tent”, a request that is immediately contradicted
–again, without break or pause– by the addition, “raise [him] high upon a rock”: the two images of concealment, at once countered by an image of utter exposure. Moreover, the rock is distinctly an element of the earth, in complete contrast to the heavenly pavilion and tent of God.
Verse 6 continues the contradictory imagery, at once explaining that, elevated upon the rock, the singer will have advantage over his enemies, while, in the next phrase, declaring how he will “sacrifice in His tent with shouts of joy; [he] will sing and chant hymns to Adonai”. It would seem, then, as though the singer is standing with his feet on the rock and his head in the heavens. Part, that is, of both spaces but belonging wholly to neither.
Seeking God’s protection, the singer pleads “to behold the beauty of Adonai” (v. 4), to seek His face (verses 8 and 9). Again, his perception, his vision, is of the heavens, of God’s sanctuary, while his physical body, in turn, is under his enemies’ scrutiny.
Not until verse 11 does the singer come to a resolution, a reconciliation, within himself; ironically, the cause brought about by his foes**:
Show me, Adonai, Your way,
and lead me on a level path
because of my watchful adversaries.
The level path is earth’s. Its necessity, to allow the singer to overcome his enemies. But it is level, without impediments, simply because it is God’s way. The singer will now place his feet on the firm ground, no longer seeking the elevation of the rock, sure that God will mark his path for him.
Verse 13 affirms the singer’s resolve –he must believe that earth will not be devoid of God’s presence, that, indeed, hewill “see Adonai’s goodness in the land of the living”. Only now is he able to accept his own place, to make his own dwelling, among the living. The last stanza proclaims his commitment, his credo and his purpose:
Hope in Adonai;
be strong and of good courage!
O hope in Adonai.
* The temple was not built until King Solomon’s time, so the reference is to God’s imagistic one, not to the actual earthly structure.
**The power and malevolence of the foes are revealed in the metaphor of their “breathing out violence” (v. 12). Violence is, then, a part of their very being. Not imposed on them by outside forces, but, rather, their basic element.