The Psalms: One Thing

The Lord is my light and my salvation—
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
    of whom shall I be afraid?

When the wicked advance against me
    to devour me,
it is my enemies and my foes
    who will stumble and fall.
Though an army besiege me,
    my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me,
    even then I will be confident.

One thing I ask from the Lord,
    this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
    and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble
    he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
    and set me high upon a rock.

Then my head will be exalted
    above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy;
    I will sing and make music to the Lord.

Hear my voice when I call, Lord;
    be merciful to me and answer me.
My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”
    Your face, Lord, I will seek.
Do not hide your face from me,
    do not turn your servant away in anger;
    you have been my helper.
Do not reject me or forsake me,
    God my Savior.
Though my father and mother forsake me,
    the Lord will receive me.
Teach me your way, Lord;
    lead me in a straight path
    because of my oppressors.
Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes,
    for false witnesses rise up against me,
    spouting malicious accusations.

I remain confident of this:
    I will see the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
    be strong and take heart
    and wait for the Lord.

– Psalm 27

On 8 March 1941, Etty Hillesum, a 27-year-old Jewish Dutch student living in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam wrote her first entry into a diary that was to become one of the most remarkable pieces of literature that emerged from the Nazi Holocaust. Over the course of the next two and a half years, her diary gave witness to her transformation from a troubled and insecure young woman into an inspiration for those with whom she shared the suffering of the transit camp at Westerbork and those with whom eventually she died at Auschwitz.

Central to this transformation is the discovery by this thoroughly modern, secular woman of the power of prayer. As Etty learnt more of the Christian faith she wrote about how she found herself kneeling in prayer, an act that initially not only surprised but embarrassed her.

She wrote, ‘A desire to kneel down sometimes pulses through my body, or rather it is as if my body had been meant and made for the act of kneeling. Sometimes, in moments of deep gratitude, kneeling down becomes an overwhelming urge…’ She asks, ‘Is there indeed anything as intimate as man’s (sic) relationship to God?’ She admits feeling embarrassed: ‘Much more bashful than if I had to write about my love life.’

Etty’s spiritual journey, like some of her beliefs, was unconventional but hers was, to quote the title of a recent biography, ‘A life transformed’ by the unexpected discovery of God’s love in the midst of profound evil. Her diary entries record the intimacy of that relationship which sustained her and gave hope to others in the suffering they shared.

Psalm 27 is also an intimate Psalm, a love poem for public use. David expresses his longing to be with his beloved forever (v4), to gaze upon the beauty of his beloved (v5), he voices the (unfounded) fear of losing the beloved (v9) and the desire for that relationship to deepen (v11). It is this relationship which causes him to shout with joy, to sing, to celebrate (v6).

In verse 4 David speaks of ‘one thing’ that he desires, to dwell in God’s presence forever. Jesus said to Martha ‘only one thing is needed’ (Luke 10), Paul wrote, ‘One thing I do’ (Philippians 3). We live in a world where we are often spinning plates, multitasking, trying to do several things at once but Etty’s story and David’s song call us back to one priority, Jesus’ priority, to love the Lord with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength.