Is doubt really the adversary of faith, or is it fear?
May I humbly suggest that if utilizing this passage in your Sunday worship, you and your worship leaders at the very least read the entire Psalm. If you’re preaching from it, please, utilize it in it’s entirety. Sometimes the editing of the Revised Common Lectionary makes sense; but in this case the cutting room floor neutralizes the fullness of the Psalm’s meaning and offering to the worshipful.
The Psalmist has much to be fearful of, according to the lists found in the prayer: evildoers seeking to devour flesh; adversaries and foes aiming to trip up and cause pain; entire camps of enemies and war rising against them; abandoning parents and false witnesses. Each is deeply relational in context and personally painful settings for rejection. Yet, the one declaring confidence in God does not question the unfailing, stable presence of God amidst such terrifying landscape. Boldly the psalmist asks, “whom shall I fear?” and “of whom shall I be afraid?” as they declare their strong faith in God as their light, salvation and stronghold. This is faith in the presence of fear. One of the metaphors utilized to imagine God is “light” which weaves itself throughout the lectionary passages today. Isaiah 9 and Matthew 4 both reference light and dark imagery. The biblical tradition connects God with light, naming God directly as light or bringer of light, or light as the parallel for God’s face. Three times God’s face is named in verses 8-9. The psalmist directly asks for a revelation of God’s face (light), seeks after God’s face (light), and pleads for God’s face (light) not to be hidden from them. How greatly God’s light illuminates the dark fields of fear when we cannot possibility imagine a way through frightening tumultuous times! It’s no wonder the Psalmist is asking for the intimacy of God’s shining face to be present in the midst of their troubles.
The Psalmist makes three unique requests in this prayer: 1) to be in God’s presence; 2) to know the loveliness of God; 3) to be taught by God. Verse four bespeaks the Psalmist’s single-hearted devotion to seeking, finding and settling into the presence of God’s “house” forever. It also asks to know the beauty, loveliness, and pleasantness (Hebrew, no’am) of God. Verse eleven utilizes a rare Hebrew verb, baqar, to describe their desire to be taught by God. The meaning of baqar is close to investigation or scrutinizing, hinting at the inquisitive quest the Psalmist is on: pursuing God’s essence and intimate personal presence.
The journey the Psalmist is on contains that of inner and outer landscapes; individual and communal elements. The Psalmist is certainly praying from a first-person perspective; yet all of the troubles they encounter are relationally intertwined. Verse four indicates that the author desires to find their peace in the temple of the Lord, among the house of worship with other seekers. Ultimately, the one who prays believes they’ll see their prayer answered “in the land of the living” among their community and validated by other worshipers and seekers.
Faith is an arching journey toward the light, salvation and refuge promised in this Psalm. It requires the courage described, the strength longed for and the willingness to wait when it has not yet arrived. Reading or preaching from this Psalm in any given worship setting means there will be many for whom this passage doesn’t automatically ring true or accurate of their current sojourns in relationship to God. We don’t always find ourselves assured of or centered in God’s presence. And that is why allowing the faith in the face of fear of this Psalm to saturate your worship gathering may be just the thing needed in week three of the Epiphany season. Epiphanies aren’t always accompanied with shimmering stars above golden-hued mangers. Sometimes they are found in the long and arduous journey to discovery. The thirsty and hungry chapters of questing when you’re not quite there yet. Listening to the heart’s longing of seeking the light of God’s face amidst these fearful chapters is willingness to put another foot to the path. This is not a Psalm dictating to worshipers who God is or how God acts. It is an invitation to be on the path toward the courage we seek; toward the faithfulness we long for; toward the shelter we ache for. Doubting is not the adversary of faith. Each of us will be prone to it along our paths with God. Fear, however, will monger it’s claws into our hearts if we do not honestly pray to God in the midst of it. That is the invitation of this Psalm: to name the fear; cling to the light and trust the promises of our living God.