• Studies in the Book of Psalms Comments Off on PSALM 27: Worship in the Midst of Warfare

    by Gordon Franz

     Have you ever been in a dangerous situation and wondered if you would ever get out of it alive?  God often uses danger and adversity in our lives to remind us of what is important and this gives us an opportunity to contemplate the shortness of life and focus our minds on what really matters: our desires and goals for this life in light of eternity.

    King Saul hounded David like a fox hunter; chased him as one hunts a gazelle; tracked him as if he was a common criminal; and made war on his son-in-law as if he was a threat to his kingdom.  David fled from Saul, not knowing his future fate, nor if his next step would be his last.  There was always the possibility that in his haste to flee from Saul, he would slip on a rock and fall in the treacherous terrain of the Judean Desert, or that Saul would have an ambush prepared for him in the Shephelah.

     What kept David going in this dangerous and difficult time?  What was his focus, and priorities in this life?  Psalm 27 recounts David’s supreme and sole heartfelt desire to worship the Lord even in the midst of warfare.

    Historical Background
     Some of the psalms of David have superscriptions that give the historical circumstances that prompted David to compose the psalm.  In Psalm 27 the superscription states “le-David” in Hebrew and is translated, “to or by David.”  The Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, adds the words: “before he was anointed.”  If this addition is historically accurate (and I suspect that it is), the question is raised: “Which anointing?”  David was anointed on three separate occasions during his life.  The first time he was anointed was by Samuel in Bethlehem before the battle with Goliath in the Elah Valley (1 Sam. 16:13).  The second time was after the death of Saul when the men of Judah anointed David in Hebron (2 Sam. 2:4).  The final time was seven and a half years later when he was anointed king over all of Israel in Hebron by the elders of Israel (2 Sam. 2:11; 5:3).

     Most commentators that venture a historical setting for this psalm usually suggest it was composed during the rebellion of Absalom (Perowne 1976: 265).  Thus, the false witness against David (27:12) might have been the slander by Ahithopel (2 Sam. 16:1-21; cf. Ps. 55:4-6, 23), but this was after David was anointed all three times.  So most likely this is not the historical setting for the psalm.

     I suspect, however, David composed this psalm earlier in his life.  It had to be after his first anointing because we have no record of David engaged in military conflicts while he was a shepherd in the Wilderness of Judah.  Most likely it was during his flight from Saul and before he was anointed for the second and third time.   A possible setting could be in the cave at Adullam or the one at Ein Gedi.  David uses an interesting phrase in verse 5, “He [the LORD] will hide me in His pavilion.”  The Hebrew word translated pavilion is “sucah”.  The same word is used in Psalm 10, “He lies in wait secretly, as a lion in his den (sucah),” which is most likely a cave.

    After David fled the palace at Gibeah of Saul, he bid farewell to Jonathan and then headed for Nob (1 Sam. 21:1-9).  Most likely Nob is located at Ras el-Mesharif, althought it lacks pottery from the Davidic period (Barkay, Fantalkin and Tal 2002: 65-66).  There he got provisions (bread) for his flight and also the sword of Goliath.  Doeg the Edomite, the chief of the herdsmen, ratted on David to Saul (1 Sam. 22:9-10).  Saul summoned Ahimelech to his palace, a mere 2 ½ kilometers away (just over 1 ½ miles) and interrogated him and his family.  Saul accused them of being involved in a plot to overthrown him and to help place David on the throne of Israel.  They denied this accusation.  (David carefully worded his statements to Ahimelech so as not to let them know what his real intentions were.)  Saul ordered his men to slay Ahimelech and his family, but they refused.  Doeg the Edomite ended up carrying out this barbaric deed (1 Sam. 22:11-23), and the only priest to escape was Abiathar (22:20).  This incident lead David to compose Psalm 52 about the evil words and deed of Doeg.  The superscription of the psalm says: “To the Chief Musician.  A Contemplation of David when Doeg the Edomite went and told Saul, and said to him: ‘David has gone to the house of Abimelech.’”

    Psalm 52 may provide a clue to the time setting of Psalm 27.  There are distinct similarities in words and thoughts between the two psalms.  Psalm 52:1-4 describes the evil, lying tongue.  In Psalm 27, David mentions the false witnesses, presumably witnesses that lie with their tongues (27:12).  In 52:5 the wicked are removed from the land of the living; yet in 27:13 David anticipates the goodness of God in the land of the living.  In 52:7, the evil man did not make God his strength (maoz), yet David declares the LORD is his strength (27:1, 14).  David trusts in the mercy of God in Psalm 52:8, and in 27:7 he prays for God’s mercy.  In Psalm 52:9 David declares that he will praise the Lord forever.  In 27:6 he vows to sing praise to the Lord.  He concludes both psalms by saying he will wait upon the Lord (52:9; 27:14).  The mention of violence by the false witnesses (27:12) may be a hint of the slaughter of the priests and inhabitants of Nob by Doeg the Edomite (1 Sam. 22:18-19).  This was a barbaric crime that even Saul’s men would not do (1 Sam. 22:17).  David could have composed both psalms within a short period of time while his mind was thinking similar thoughts.

    Literary Structure
     Some commentators and critical scholars have suggested Psalm 27 was originally two psalms: 27:1-6 is seen as a psalm of confidence, while 27:7-14, is an individual lament psalm.  Some of the reasons for this suggestion is that in verses 1-6, the Lord is addressed in the third person (Lord, He); but in verses 7-14 He is addressed in the second person (You).  In the first section, we see the psalmist’s confidence, and the second, his prayer (Craigie 1983: 230).  But if we look at this psalm closely, these are two halves of the same psalm.  Both halves compliment each other and are linguistically related.  If we put them in chronological order, they would be reversed.  Verses 7-14 would come before verses 1-6.

     The psalmist’s supreme and sole desire in life is to dwell in the house of the Lord in order to worship Him, behold His beauty, and meditate on His Word (27:4), yet he is battling enemies around him that prevents him from accomplishing his goal.  He expresses his confidence in the Lord that one day this goal would be attained.  Until that day, his desire for worship sustains him as he goes through conflicts in his daily life.  In other words: Worship in the midst of warfare.

    An Exposition of Psalm 27

    The psalmists desire for worship leads to confidence in the Lord during daily conflicts.  27:1-3

     The Apostle Peter, on the day of Pentecost in AD 30, stated that David was a prophet (Acts 2:30).  He predicted the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus more than a millennia before it happened (Ps. 22; cf. Matt. 27:35-50; John 20:20), as well as His subsequent resurrection (Ps. 16; cf. Acts 2:25-33).  David had an understanding of the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.  How much he comprehended, we can only venture to guess (I Pet. 1:10-11).

    David describes the LORD three different ways in the first verse.  First, he says the LORD is “my light.”  In the Hebrew Scriptures, God is never called Light.  The closest it comes is the “Sun of Righteousness with healing in His wings” (Mal. 4:2).  However, in the New Testament John the Baptizer, introduces Jesus as the Light.  The Apostle John records in his gospel: “In Him [the Word, the Lord Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of men.  And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.  There was a man sent from God, whose name was John [the Baptizer].  This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe.  He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.  That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (1:4-9).  The Apostle goes on to say that He came into the world, but His own did not receive Him.  But John holds out the promise: “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (1:12).

    Jesus Himself said when He was in the Temple for the Feast of Succoth in AD 29, “I AM the Light of the World” (John 8:12; 9:5).  This statement was made in sharp contrast to the four large candelabras that lit the Jerusalem sky at night during this festive holiday.  During Passover of AD 30, Jesus said: “I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness” (12:46).  The Apostle John continues with the light theme in his first epistle.  He states: “This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (1:5; cf. 1 Tim. 6:16).

    The second way David describes the LORD is that He is “my salvation.”  The word salvation is “yeshua,” the Hebrew name of Jesus!  Recall the words of one of the angels of the Lord who appeared to Joseph in a dream.  “And she [Mary] will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

    The third description of the LORD by David is that he is the “strength of my life.”  The word strength (maoz) is often translated fortress or stronghold.  In Psalm 31:3, David describes the Lord as his Rock (zor) and Fortress (maoz).

     David also asks two rhetorical questions in this verse: “Whom shall I fear?” and “Of whom shall I be afraid?”  The obvious answer for David was no one because the LORD is his light, salvation, and fortress.  The only Person he was to fear was the Lord Himself.

     In verse 2, David demonstrated his confidence in the Lord by describing his enemies, and what they planned to do to him, but also what the Lord does to them.  The wicked (maraim) wanted to eat David’s flesh, like a lion or a leopard would do of the prey that was caught.  I’m sure David was using this in a metaphorical sense.  Saul was not a cannibal.  Yet a distressing spirit came upon him and Saul tried to kill David with a spear (1 Sam. 18:5-16; 19:1-24).  His enemies (zar) [Same word in use in verse 12] and foes (ayv) would eventually stumble and fall.  That was the case of King Saul when he finally realized David was more righteous than he was (1 Sam. 24:17-22).

     David makes a bold assertion of his confidence in the Lord by saying that even when an organized army came against him, he would not be afraid of them (27:3).  King Saul led his army against David and his band of men, chasing them throughout Judah.  Yet David was confident when he said, “In this (the Lord is my light, my salvation and the strength of my life) I will be confident.”  David was fearless in the face of danger because his desire for worship, even in the midst of warfare, lead him to a greater confidence in the Lord.

    The psalmists desire for worship leads to a more intense desire to have fellowship with the Lord.  27:4-6

    The Lord is omnipresent (everywhere present), but was also localized in one place at times in Biblical history (cf. 1 Kings 8:23, 27).  When the Children of Israel were redeemed out of Egypt, God led them by a pillar of clouds by day and a pillar of fire by night.  He resided in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness.  When David fled from Saul, the Tent of Meeting was at Nob (1 Sam. 21:1-9), just 3 ½ kilometers to the north of the Jebusite city of Jebus / Salem.  Perhaps before he fled, while David was staying at King Saul’s palace at Gibeah of Saul he would make frequent visits to the Tabernacle at Nob, just a 20 minute walk from the palace.

    Hebrew worship was sensual: all five senses were involved in worship.  One could see the beauty of the Tabernacle and observe the sacrifices being offered.  One could hear the beautiful music sung by the Levites accompanied by harps and other musical instruments in praise to the Lord.  One could handle the sacrifices before they were given to the priest to be offered.  One could smell the sacrifices roasting on the altar.  One could taste the offerings after the sacrifices were “bar-b-qued.”  One could sing praises to the Lord with the mouth, or thank God for fulfilling a vow that was made.  On occasion, the feet were involved when the people danced before the Lord.  David made his contribution to Hebrew worship by composing songs that were later gathered together to comprise the Hebrew hymnbook, the book of Psalms, for worship in the Temple.

     This section begins by David saying, “One thing I have desired of the LORD, that will I seek” (27:4).  What will follow is David’s supreme, sole, and only desire in life.  It was his priority in life, it was everything he lived for, and it was the focus of his entire being.  He sought it because the Lord had earlier challenged him to “Seek My face” (27:8).  His supreme and sole desire was to dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of his life, a reference to the Tabernacle at Nob.  This is in contrast to the end of Psalm 23 when David wants to “dwell in the house of the LORD forever,” a reference to heaven.

     Two reasons are given as to why David wanted to dwell in the House of the LORD.  First, he wanted to behold the beauty of the Lord; and second to inquire in His Temple.

    When David visited the Tabernacle he was awestruck by its beauty because it was a reflection of the Person of the Lord Himself.  It was constructed of acacia wood overlaid with silver and gold.  It also contained finely woven tapestries with beautiful colors and designs.  Within the Tabernacle were vessels made of finely crafted gold.  All these things reflected the beauty of the Lord, as well as His ways in redemption.  Apparently the Glory of the Lord, the Sheikana Glory, was there as well.  The beauty of the Lord reflects the Person of the Lord.

     The second thing David wanted to do in the House of the Lord was to inquire of the Lord.  The word inquire has the idea of meditation on, or contemplation of, something.  This would be done with the Word of God.  While God’s revelation to humanity was not complete at this time, the priests at Nob would have had copies of the Torah with them, as well as the books of Job, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth.  David would have been able to read the Word of God.  He could meditate on His ways and discern His will from the Scriptures that had already been written.

     In verse 5, the psalmist states that the Lord will protect him.  Three times David says that “He shall …” do something to protect him.  Twice “He shall hide”  David and once “He shall set him on a high rock.”  The Lord would hide him in His pavilion (sucah), a word that is used of a lions den, most likely a cave, possibly at Ein Gedi (Ps. 10:9; 1 Sam. 24:3).  The Lord would also hide him in the secret place of tabernacle (ohel).  The Lord also set David high upon a rock (zor).  I would like to suggest that this is a reference to Masada because after David and Saul depart at Ein Gedi, David went to the “stronghold”, a reference to the high plateau overlooking the Dead Sea (1 Sam. 24:22; Cf. Ps. 18:1-2; 28:1; 31:2; 89:26).

     During David’s flight from Saul, He made a vow to the Lord that when the Lord delivered him he would go to the Tabernacle and offer thanksgiving offerings to the Lord and publically thank Him for the deliverance (27:6; Num. 10:10).  When God answered his prayers, and the warfare had ceased, David offered his vows to the Lord as he worshiped.

    A more focused prayer life leads the psalmists to an intense desire for worship.  27:7-12

     This section (27:7-12) seems to be a reflection on some past experience that prompted David to seek the Lord and to fulfill his desire to worship the Lord in the midst of warfare.  What the historical circumstances were, we are not told.  Chronologically, this section would come before verses 1-6.

     The psalmist begins this section by pleading, “Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice!” (27:7).  The word “hear” is the Hebrew word shema.  The same word that is used in Deut. 6:4, “Hear, O Israel:  The LORD our God, the LORD is one!”  David pleaded to the Lord for His mercy in answering his prayer for deliverance from his enemies.

     God responds to David’s request by saying, “Seek My face” (27:8).  Whether this was an audible request, or the still small voice, or something David had read, we are not told. But David got the message and knew the Lord was right.  He responded, “Your face, LORD, I will seek.”  David knew God’s presence was in the Tabernacle, so he sought the Lord there. 

     David pleads for mercy and petitions the Lord not to do three things (27:9).  The first is: “Do not hide Your face from me.”  The word hide is the same word used in 27:5, “He shall hide me [in His Tabernacle].”  When God hides His face, He removes His blessings from a believer (cf. Psalm 22:24; 30:7; 143:7).

     The second petition is “Do not turn your servant away in anger.”  David reminds the Lord that He has been his help.

     The third petition that David prays is for the Lord not to leave him nor forsake him (27:9).  In verse 14, David was aware of the “Be strong and of good courage” phrase from Deuteronomy 31 and Joshua 1.  Within these verses, Moses wrote “He [the Lord] will not leave you nor forsake you” (31:6, 8).  The LORD also promised Joshua, “I will not leave you nor forsake you” (1:5).  Of course, every AWANA clubber in Sparks knows Hebrews 13:5, quoting Joshua 1:5: “For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’”  David addresses this petition to “O God of my salvation.”  David began this psalm by saying: “The LORD is my light and my salvation” (27:1)!

     When David fled from Saul, he took his parents to Moab and left them there with distant relatives, descendants of Ruth (1 Sam. 22:3-4).  His parents did not forsake him, but rather waited for David to return to get them.  David’s statement “When my father and mother forsake me” should be taken as a hypothetical construction, such as “Even if my father and mother forsake me.”  If that ever happened, the Lord in His infinite love would take up David as a loving father lifts up his child in order to take care of him (27:10).

     The second part of this stanza is a prayer for God to teach David His ways, or guidance (27:11-12).  This prayer was answered in David’s desire to inquire of the Lord in His temple, which is the second reason David wanted to dwell in the Tabernacle (27:4).  He goes on to pray, “Lead me in the smooth path, because of my enemies.”  The smooth path is the level road.  When travelling in the Hill Country and Wilderness of Judah, the easiest, most convenient lines of communication are the ridge routes.  If David went into the valleys his enemies could attack him from above.

    The next prayer was for victory over his enemies.  “Do not deliver me to the will of my adversaries.”  The word “adversaries” in this verse is the same as enemies in verse 2.  As mentioned before, the reference to the violence by the false witnesses (27:12) may be a hint of the slaughter of the priests and inhabitants of Nob by Doeg the Edomite (1 Sam. 22:18-19).  David would have been saddened by this event because this was the place for him to worship, even in the midst of warfare.

    The psalmists desire for worship leads to patience as he waits on the Lord to answer prayers.  27:13-14

     The words “I would have lost heart” (NKJV) is in italics which means it was added by the translators.    The idea that the translators were trying to convey is “I can not even think about this possibility.”  So sure was his confidence, or trust, in the Lord that He would deliver him from the life-threatening situation that he found himself in.

     David was anticipating the goodness of God in the land of the living.  In this passage, the “land of the living” is not referring to the “pie in the sky, sweet bye-and-bye” – heaven – but rather to his deliverance in the nasty here and now – life on earth!  His attitude was not one of cockiness, but rather of confidence in the Lord as seen in the beginning of this psalm.  There is a difference between these two attitudes.

     David concludes this psalm by twice admonishing his hearers to “wait on the LORD!” (27:14). While they were waiting, they were to be of good courage so that the Lord would strengthen their hearts.  Courage and strength are linked together in other contexts, as well.  Just before the Children of Israel entered the Promised Land, Moses, in his farewell address, instructs them to be strong and courageous as they battled for the Land (Deut. 31:6).  He then commanded General Joshua, “Be strong and of good courage” (Deut. 31:7, 23).  Just before the Israelites crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land, the LORD commanded General Joshua three times to be strong and courageous (Josh. 1:6, 7, 9).  The Israelites also commanded General Joshua to be strong and of good courage as he led them into the Land (1:18).  Later, during the Shephelah Campaign, Joshua admonishes the Israelites to be strong and of good courage (10:25).  Each time the admonition was given, it was in a military context.  David took this phrase and applied it to the military conflict that he was involved in when he composed this psalm.  David also used the phrase to encourage his son, Solomon, to build the Temple in Jerusalem (1 Chron. 22:13; 28:20).

     When Sennacherib, the king of the Assyrians, entered the Land of Judah he threatened Jerusalem with total destruction.  King Hezekiah made military preparations for the upcoming battle and encouraged his army by saying, “Be strong and of good courage” (2 Chron. 32:7).  He applied the words of the Lord, Moses, Joshua and David to the desperate military situation that Judah was facing, but his confidence was ultimately in the Lord (32:8).

     In this psalm, David’s confidence was in the Lord, and he rested in His sovereignty, knowing that the LORD was his light, salvation, and the strength (fortress) of his life.  So he could, wait – be of good courage – and strengthen his heart, knowing that God would answer his prayer to worship Him even in the midst of warfare.

     There are several applications we can draw from this psalm for our daily life.  First, the LORD is my salvation.  David realized he could not save himself, both in a spiritual sense as well as a physical/political sense.  He could only depend upon the Lord for his salvation.

     The same is true of each and every one of us.  We have a problem called sin (Rom. 3:23).  In order for us to enter Heaven and have fellowship with a holy God, we must be as perfect as God (Rev. 21:7).  None of us are.  That is why the Lord Jesus came to earth and lived a perfect life, never sinning once because He was sinless.  When He died upon the Cross, He paid for all our sins (1 John 2:2) and offers us His perfection and His righteousness, if we would trust Him as our Savior (Phil. 3:9; Rom. 4:1-5; Eph. 2:8-9).  Like David, we can truly say, “The LORD is my salvation” because, by faith alone in Christ alone, He paid for all my sins, gives me His righteousness, the forgiveness of sins, and a home in Heaven.

    Second, we have confidence in the Lord in our daily struggles when we know who He is and what He has done for us.  David’s prayer to the Lord was “Teach me Your ways, O LORD.”  The way to know the ways of God is revealed in His final revelation, the Bible.  David had to go to the Tabernacle in Nob to read the Word of God, but we just need to go to our bookshelf and pull down a copy of God’s Word.  It is imperative that we know our Bibles, and that can only be accomplished by studying and memorizing it.

    Finally, we need to develop a heart for worship like David had.  His desire was to behold the beauty of the Lord in His Tabernacle.  This is the one application that I would like to focus on.  Most of us will not find ourselves in harms way in a military conflict such as David experienced.  For those believers in the Lord Jesus who are in the military and serving overseas, they could relate to David’s personal experience and emotional feelings better than most of us.  However, the Apostle Paul says of Christians, that we are engaged in a spiritual warfare.  “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).  Thus, he encourages the Christian to put on the whole armor of God and engage in this spiritual warfare in the power of the Lord’s might (6:10-20).

    While we are engaged in this spiritual warfare, this psalm asks one question of us.  Do we have the single minded and focused desire that David had to worship the LORD and to meditate on His Word as we are engaged in this spiritual warfare?  David’s sole desire was to dwell in the Lord’s Tabernacle so he could behold His beauty, and to contemplate Him.  But today we do not have a Tabernacle to go to, but instead, a Table (1 Cor. 10:21).

    On the night in which the Lord Jesus was betrayed, He instituted the Lord’s Supper and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”  And again, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood.  This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me” (1 Cor. 11:24, 25).  The command given by the Lord Jesus was to remember Him when we gather to worship.

    When we gather corporately to worship the Lord and remember His Son we do not come to remember our sins, but rather, the Savior of sinners.  We do not come to remember and recount our blessings for that week, as many as they may be, but rather to remember the Blesser Himself – the One who has already blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places (Eph. 1:3).  We do not come together to remember the dumb sheep that we are, but rather the Good Shepherd who gave His life for the sheep (John 10:7-18).  Nor do we come together to remember the Bride of Christ, but rather the Bridegroom.  As the hymn writer so eloquently and profoundly wrote:

    “The Bride eyes not her garment, but her dear Bridegroom’s face;
    I will not gaze at glory, but on my King of Grace.
    Not at the crown He giveth, but on His pierced hand;
    The Lamb is all the glory of Immanuel’s land.”

    We come together to remember the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36); the Bread of Life who came down from Heaven (John 6:22-59); the Light of the Word who shines in darkness (John 1:7-9; 8:12); the Prince of Peace who brings peace with God to sinful humanity by faith alone in Christ alone; and the peace of God to His children who walk by faith and not by sight (Isa. 9:6; Rom. 5:1; Phil. 4:7).  We remember the Bright and Morning Star who shines in our hearts (Rev. 22:16); and the Son of Righteousness with healing in His wings (Mal. 4:2).

    The subject of the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ is inexhaustible in God’s Holy Word (for a limited, yet excellent attempt, see Lockyer 1975:93-280).  This gives us unlimited facets of the Person of the Lord Jesus to focus on at the Lord’s Supper.  The worship service is not about us; it’s about Him!  That was David’s supreme heart’s desire and should be ours as well, even in the midst of spiritual warfare.


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    1975 The Psalms.  Translated and Explained.  Grand Rapids. MI: Baker Books.

    Barkay, Gabriel; Fantalkin, Alexander; and Tal, Oren
    2002 A Late iron Age Fortress North of Jerusalem.  Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 328: 49-71.

    Cohen, A.
     1974 The Psalms.  New York: Soncino.

    Craigie, Peter
     1983 Word Biblical Commentary.  Psalm 1-50.  Waco, TX: Word.

    Dahood, Mitchell
     1986 The Anchor Bible.  Psalms I.  1-50.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

    Delitzsch, F.
    1975 Psalms.  Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament.  Vol. 5.  Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.

    Gaebelein, Arno
    1963 The Book of Psalms.  A Devotional and Prophetic Commentary.  Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers.

    Kidner, Derek
     1973 Psalms 1-72.  Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity.

    Kissane, Edward
     1963 The Book of Psalms.  Vol. 1.  Dublin: Browne and Nolan.

    Lewis, C. S.
    1958 “The Fair Beauty of the Lord.”  Pp. 44-53 in Reflections on the Psalms.  London: Geoffrey Bles.

    Lockyer, Herbert
    1975 All the Divine Names and Titles in the Bible.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

    Paul, Shalom
    1982 Psalm 27:10 and the Babylonian Theodicy.  Vetus Testamentum 32: 489-492.

    Perowne, J. J. Stewart
     1976 The Book of Psalms.  Vol. 1.  Gramd Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

    Tesh, S. Edward; and Zorn, Walter
    1999 The College Press NIV Commentary.  Psalms.  Vol. 1.  Joplin, MO: College Press.

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    1991 The Expositor’s Bible Commentary.  Psalms – Song of Songs.  Vol. 5.  Edited by F. Gaebelein.  Gand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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    2002 The NIV Application Commentary.  Psalms.  Vol. 1.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan.


  • The Life and Land of the Lord Jesus, Uncategorized Comments Off on THE RESURRECTION OF THE JERUSALEM SAINTS AT THE FEAST OF FIRSTFRUITS (Matthew 27:51-54)

    by Gordon Franz

    In my younger days in Jerusalem, I enjoyed exploring the ancient burial caves throughout the city.  I also had the privilege of working with, and learning from, Dr. Gabriel Barkay.  In my estimation, he is the world’s expert on the history and archaeology of Jerusalem.  Among other things, we surveyed together a number of burial caves in and around Jerusalem, mostly of the Iron Age (the period of the Judean Monarchy), and even excavated a handful of them.  The most important caves were at Ketef Hinnom (the “Shoulder of Hinnom”), below the St. Andrew’s Scottish Church, on the edge of the Hinnom Valley.  This is where the two oldest Biblical texts found to date were discovered (Franz 2005).

    In my studies of the funerary practices and burials in Jerusalem, one passage of Scripture especially interested me as I visited ancient tombs in Jerusalem.  It is Matt. 27:51-54: “Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.  So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, ‘Truly this was the Son of God’!”

    I would like to examine this passage in light of what we know of Jewish burial practices in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period, and then ask two questions, “What happened to these resurrected saints?”  “What is the prophetic significance of the veil of the Temple being torn in two from top to bottom and the saints being resurrected?”

    Second Temple Burial Practices
    A Jewish person who died in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period was usually buried before sundown, or at least within 24 hours of death.  The body was taken to the family’s rock-cut tomb where it was washed and wrapped in burial shrouds and placed in a burial niche called a kok (kokim plural) that was in the tomb, or on a bench in the tomb called an arcosolia.  The body was left to decay.

    The family would return to their home and have a seven day period of intense mourning called shiva.  They would turn over the bed of the dead person, smash any pottery vessels that were in the house because they were ritually defiled by the dead, and the men would not shave for the week.  The extended family and friends would visit and consol the bereaved family on the loss of their loved one.  After the week was over, the immediate family had a less intense period of mourning for thirty days, called sholshim.  On the one year anniversary of the death of the individual, the family returned to the burial cave and gathered the bones of the dead, anointed them with olive oil and wine, and then placed them in a bone box called an ossuary.  The ossuary was then placed elsewhere in the tomb.

    The rock-cut tombs where the dead were buried were located outside the city walls of Jerusalem.  More than a thousand burial caves from the Second Temple period have been surveyed and / or excavated in the area of Jerusalem.  Archaeologists have determined that these tombs are located within three rings, or circles, surrounding the city (Kloner and Zissu 2007).  The inner circle consisted of tombs in the Hinnom Valley to the west and south of the city and the Kidron Valley and the range of the Mount of Olives to the east of the city.  The middle ring included the Valley of Rephaim and the back side of the Mount of Olives.  The outer ring consisted of tombs that were 4 or 5 miles away from Jerusalem, but still within Jerusalem’s environs.  It was from these tombs that the resurrected saints came forth.

    The Gospel of Matthew and the Resurrection of the Saints
    The gospel of Matthew the only gospel to record the account of the opening of the tombs and the saints being resurrected.

    Matthew, also called Levi, was a scribe and a tax collector (Mark 2:14; 3:18; Matt. 9:9; 10:3).  He was also the author of the gospel that bears his name.  This book was written primarily to the Jewish people to demonstrate that the Lord Jesus was the fulfillment of all that the Hebrew prophets wrote about, and spoke, concerning their Messiah, the Son of God.  The key word that is used over and over in the book is the word “fulfilled.”  Usually, “that which was fulfilled that was spoken by the prophets, or written by the prophets.”  Verses of the Hebrew Scriptures are quoted over and over again in this gospel.  Matthew assumes his readers have a Jewish mindset, that they know the Torah, and they are familiar with rabbinic theology, and therefore does not explain some things.  Christian readers need to know this material as well, in order to fully appreciate the words of this gospel because it is a Jewish book.

    It should be observed that the resurrection of the Hebrew saints occurred when Jesus rose from the dead.  Chronologically, that would have occurred by Sunday morning.  What was going on in Jerusalem on Sunday morning of Passover week?  For this we need to turn to the Hebrew Scriptures.

    The Omer of the Firstfruits of the Barley Harvest
    The LORD has a divinely ordained agriculture / religious calendar that began in the month    of Aviv, also known as Nisan.  Moses, being a prophet (Deut. 18:15), wrote of this divinely given calendar in what is known as the “Feasts of the LORD” found in Leviticus 23.  This calendar could also be seen as God’s prophetic program of redemption for individuals as well as nationally, for all Israel.  The Sunday morning after the Shabbat that followed the Passover was the harvesting of the omer of the first fruits of the barley harvest (Lev. 23:9-14).

    Concerning this harvest, Moses wrote:  “And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: “When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf [omer] of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest. [the barley harvest is in view, the wheat harvest is not for almost two months].  He shall wave the sheaf [omer] before the LORD, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it.  And you shall offer on that day, when you wave the sheaf [omer] a male lamb of the first year, without blemish, as a burnt offering to the LORD.  Its grain offering shall be two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, an offering made by fire to the LORD, for a sweet aroma; and its drink offering shall be of wine, one-fourth of a hin.  You shall eat neither bread nor parched grain nor fresh grain until the same day that you have brought an offering to your God; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.”

    There was a debate in the First century BC and early First century AD between the Pharisees and the Sadducees concerning the timing of this event.  The Sadducees, rejecting the oral law and traditions of the Pharisees, understood the phrase in verse 11, “the morrow after the Sabbath”, in a literal sense, i.e. the day following the first Shabbat after the Passover (Sunday morning).  The Pharisees, on the other hand, understood Shabbat in verse 11 as being a Festival Day, the first Day of Passover (Danby 1985:506, footnote 1).  In AD 30, the year that the Lord Jesus was crucified, the Pharisees would have gathered the omer on Friday night after sundown.  I suspect that there were two separate events that year.  The Pharisees would have conducted their gathering of the omer on Friday night and the Sadducees would have gathered their omer on Sunday morning.  The Mishnah, the rabbinic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, devotes one chapter of Tractate Menahoth to the gathering of the omer in the fields and its processing in the Temple (Danby 1985:505-507).

    The Lord gave Moses the instructions concerning the Feasts of the LORD.  These feasts had an agricultural and religious purpose to teach the people to trust the Lord, and Him only, in their daily lives throughout the year.  But they also had a prophetic purpose concerning God’s program of redemption.  The first two feasts are Passover (Pasach) and Unleavened Bread (Lev. 23:4-8).

    The Apostle Paul referenced Passover and Unleavened Bread in a discussion on church issues, saying: “Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened.  For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us.  Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:7-8).  Also the Apostle Peter alludes to the Passover Lamb when he describes the redemption purchased by the Lord Jesus as being “with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:19; cf. Ex. 12:5; Lev. 22:18-20).  This is the Lamb that John the Baptizer pointed to when he saw the Lord Jesus coming toward him at Bethany beyond the Jordan when he said: “Behold!  The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).  The Lord Jesus is the fulfillment of the Feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread.

    But what of the omer (sheaf) of the first fruits of the barley harvest?  The Apostle Paul gives us a hint as to its meaning when he wrote to the Church at Corinth about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.  He stated: “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep” and he went on to say, “But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterwards those who are Christ’s at His coming” (1 Cor. 15:20, 23).

    Let us use our sanctified imaginations for a minute.  Jesus was crucified on Friday afternoon; Saturday was Shabbat, a day of rest.  Most people in Jerusalem probably stayed home that day and reflected on the monumental events that transpired that week in Jerusalem.  On the first day of the week, Sunday morning, there was a group of women who went out the Gennath Gate (Garden Gate) to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea in order to anoint the body of Jesus.

    There were also other groups of people leaving the city of Jerusalem early that morning as well.  These people followed the Sadducean tradition concerning the cutting of the omer of barley.  They were heading toward the barley fields in the Valley of Rephaim, just to the west of Jerusalem (cf. Isa. 17:5).  Can you imagine them leaving the gates of the city with sickle in hand and baskets on their shoulders, and having a festive attitude as they went forth to harvest the omer?  As they walked on the paths to the barley fields, they saw some people approaching them, heading toward the Holy City.  One was their previously dead Uncle Eliyahu, another was Grandpa Akiva, as well as cousins Yonah, Elisheva and Batya, all dressed in tattered burial shrouds!  Imagine their shock.  “Hey, Gramp, what are you doing here?  We buried you twenty years ago!”  And the same question was asked of the others also.  This was an experience that went against their theology because the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the body (Acts 23:8)!

    In 1973 there was a Jewish burial cave that was excavated on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem.  It consisted of seven kokhim with five articulated skeletons and nine ossuaries in them (Rahmani 1980:49-54).  On the lid of ossuary no. 2 there was an Aramaic inscription that was translated by Prof. Frank Moore Cross as followed: “No man can go up (from the grave), nor (can) ‘El’azar or Sappirah.”  Cross attributed the denial of the resurrection to either Hellenized Jews or Sadducees (1983:245-246).

    What Happened to these Resurrected Saints?
    There are three possibilities as to what happened to these resurrected saints.  First, they are still alive today.  I have lived in Jerusalem, on and off, for more than thirty years.  I’ve met a lot of people in that city.  I even met some people who thought they were Jesus, or Elijah, or John the Baptist, but I have never met anybody that was 2,000 years old.  So I think we can safely assume that they are not alive today.

    The second possibility is that they died again.  We have no Scriptural warrant for this claim, nor are there any Jewish or Church traditions that states they died again.  So I think we can dismiss this idea.

    The third possibility, and the one I believe is correct, is that they ascended into Heaven with the Lord Jesus forty days after His, and their, resurrection (Cambron 1973:57, 146-147, 334).  Let’s examine the account of the ascension of the Lord Jesus to Heaven.  After the Lord Jesus gives another commission to His disciples for world evangelism (Acts 1:8), Luke records:  “Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.  And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven?  This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven’” (Acts 1:9-11).

    There are several things to notice in this passage.  First, “a cloud” received Him out of their sight.  Most commentators would state that when Jesus ascended, He disappeared into a cloud, a vaporous mass.  But Dr. Luke may be using this word in another way.  When the Apostle Paul describes the return of the Lord Jesus in the air for His saints, what has been called the Rapture of the Church, he states: “Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17).  It is important to note that in the Greek text, there is no definite article before “clouds.”  So the text should state that the living saints shall be caught up “in clouds” to meet the Lord Jesus in the air.  At the Rapture there would be a cloud of saints over North America, a cloud over Europe, a cloud over South America, Asia and Africa.

    I believe that Dr. Luke is using the words “cloud” in this manner, as a collection of saints. Thus, the cloud that received the Lord Jesus above the Mount of Olives was a cloud of the saints that were resurrected in Jerusalem when the Lord Jesus was resurrected.  This was the first fruits of a greater harvest to come and the prophetic point of the Feast of the LORD.  The Israelites were to bring the first fruits of the barley harvest to the Temple and the priest would wave the omer (sheaf) before the LORD and acknowledge His provision for the harvest and trust Him for the full harvest in the months to come.  In the prophetic analogy, the priest would not wave one stalk [Jesus] before the LORD, but rather, a sheaf [Jesus and the Jerusalem saints that were resurrected at the same time that He was].  Thus, this fulfilled the prophetic aspect of the Feast of Firstfruits and what Paul wrote, “Christ, risen from the dead, has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

    Notice also the words of the two men in white apparel, most likely angelic beings.  They said: “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into Heaven.”  When the Lord Jesus returns to earth with His saints at His revelation as the King of kings, and Lord of lords, the Apostle John states that “He is coming with clouds [of saints], and every eye shall see Him, even they who pierced Him.  And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him.  Even so, Amen” (Rev. 1:9; cf. Rev. 19:11-16).

    The prophet Zechariah predicted that the Messiah would return to the Mount of Olives with all His saints (Zech. 14:4-5).  The words of the two angels were that the Lord Jesus would return the same way He left.  He will one day visibly return to the Mount of Olive with His saints.  If he returns with saints, then He must have left with saints as well!  The saints that He left with were those resurrected from the graves around Jerusalem at His resurrection, but one day He will return to earth with more than just these resurrected Jerusalem saints.  He will have all His Church saints, those who have trusted Him as their Savior, from Pentecost to the Rapture, with Him as well (cf. John 5:25-29).

    The Significance of the Rent Veil and the Raised Saints
    Remember those Sadducean Jerusalemites who were amazed at seeing their resurrected relatives?  They were perplexed about what was going on.  The last question that needs to be addressed: “What is the significance of the veil of the Temple being torn in two and the saints being resurrected?”  In order to answer this question, the larger context of the crucifixion in Matthew’s gospel needs to be examined (Senior 1976; Witherup 1987).  In verses 39-44, there are two groups of people that mock the Lord Jesus because of His claim to be the Son of God.

    “And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself!  If You are the Son of God come down from the cross’” (27:39-40).

    This first group of people invoked the testimony of the false witnesses at Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin.  The false witnesses said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days’” (Matt. 26:61). They misconstrued the words of the Lord Jesus because He was speaking of the temple of his body (John 2:19-21).  Nevertheless, the high priest put Jesus under oath and said, “Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!”  Jesus acknowledged, “It is as you said” (Matt. 26:63-64).  The people in the first group used satanically inspired words when they said, “If You are the Son of God.”  These are the same words Satan used when he tested the Lord Jesus from the pinnacle of the Temple (Matt. 4:6).

    The second group of people, the chief priests, scribes and elders, mocked Him.  They said: “He saved others; Himself He cannot save.  If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him.  He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God’” (27:42-43).

    This second group, predominately Sadducean, mocked His claim to be the Son of God.  They also invoked Psalm 22:8: “He trusted in the LORD, let Him rescue Him; Let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him.”  Unwittingly, and possibly, unknowingly, they fulfilled the words of verse 7 as well, “All those who see Me ridicule Me; they shoot out the lips, they shake the head, saying, ‘He trusted in the LORD.’”

    With the death of Christ, the tables are turned on the mockers.  God the Father had said of His Son at His baptism, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).  And again at the Transfiguration, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.  Hear Him” (Matt. 17:5).

    The Lord Jesus was suspended between Heaven and earth while there was darkness over the face of the earth for three hours.  At the ninth hour, He cried out with a loud voice, in Hebrew, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Ps. 22:1).  This was the opening lines of Psalm 22, the same psalm the chief priests, scribes and elders invoked.  Now the Lord Jesus invokes it.

    A Jewish person in the Second Temple period would have most, if not all, of the psalms memorized.  When this passage was read in Matthew’s gospel, the answer to that question was obvious.  Psalm 22:3 states, “But You are holy!”  Because of the holiness of God, the Father could not look upon His Son as He became sin for us, and took all the sins of all humanity upon Himself (II Cor. 5:21; I John 2:2), so darkness covered the earth.  Matthew records that: “Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit” (27:50).  John reveals those words: “It is finished!” (19:30).  After paying the full price for all sin, the Lord Jesus voluntarily gave up His life (John 10:11-18).

    In a Jewish court of law, a fact is established by two or more witnesses (Deut. 17:6-7; 19:15).  God the Father gave two signs to the nation of Israel in order to vindicate His Son.  The first, at His death, the veil of the Temple was torn from top to bottom.  Only God could do this, thus it was a divine sign.  The message of the torn veil was two-fold.  The negative aspect was that God was finished with the corrupt priesthood, mostly controlled by the Sadducees.  But on the positive side, it showed that all sin had been paid for and there was no more need for sacrifices because the way to God was open to all, both Jews and Gentiles.  This message was not lost on the centurion and his men who were guarding the tomb of Jesus.  They saw all that transpired – the darkness and the earthquake – and feared greatly.  The centurion said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (27:54).

    This was the beginning of the fulfillment of Psalm 22:27-28: “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You.  For the kingdom is the LORD’s, and He rules over the nations.”  It also affirms the creed that the Apostle Paul began the book of Romans with: “Concerning His Son, who was born of the Seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.  Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:3-4).

    Matthew recorded the Gentiles expression of faith in the Lord Jesus as the Son of God.  This was to provoke Israel to jealousy (cf. Rom. 11:11-14).  Interestingly, a few years later, Dr. Luke recorded that “a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).  Had they thought through the theological implications of the veil being rent?

    The second sign, at the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, was that many saints from Jerusalem were raised from the dead.  This showed the Sadducees that there was a bodily resurrection.  Perhaps their minds would go to the prophet Ezekiel and his vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37:1-14).  The Lord prophesied through Ezekiel that these dry bones were the whole House of Israel (37:11), and said of them: “Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the Land of Israel.  Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves.  I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.  Then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken it and performed it” (37:12-14).

    The Jerusalem saints that were raised were just the firstfruits of a greater harvest / resurrection to come.  Ezekiel described the resurrection of those in the House of Israel who died outside the Land of Israel (contra Grassi 1964-1965).  At the end of days, those outside the Land of Israel will be resurrected and brought back to Jerusalem.

    Applications for Us
    There are at least three applications for us today.  First, even though people mock the Lord Jesus Christ and deny He is the Son of God, God has already vindicated His Person and work.  This was done by rending the veil from top to bottom to show the mockers their words are empty.  It also showed that the Lord Jesus had paid for all sin and the way to God was open to any and all who would put their trust in Him.

    This leads to the second application that is seen in the rent veil.  Now the way into the Holy of Holies is open because of the death of Christ.  He offers the free gift of salvation, a home in heaven, the forgiveness of sins, and Christ’s righteousness, to any and all, both Jew and Gentile, who would put their trust in Him as their Savior.  Have you trusted the Lord Jesus to forgive all your sins?

    The final application is seen in the resurrection of the saints from Jerusalem.  This gives every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ the assurance that one day there will be a resurrection and believers in the Lord Jesus will live eternally with Him.  These Jerusalemite saints were the first fruits and guarantees that there will be a greater resurrection to follow.  For those who have trusted Christ, there is no fear of death.  One day we will either be taken in the Rapture, or raised from the dead if we have already died.


    Abodah Zarah
    1982    The Talmud of the Land of Israel.  Vol. 33.  Trans. by J. Neusner.  Chicago: University of Chicago.

    Cambron, Mark
    1973    The New Testament.  A Book-By-Book Survey.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

    Cross, Frank M.
    1983    A Note on a Burial Inscription from Mount Scopus.  Israel Exploration Journal 33/3-4: 245-246.

    Danby, Herbert
    1985    The Mishnah.  Oxford: Oxford University.

    Franz, Gordon
    2005    “Remember, Archaeology is NOT a Treasure Hunt!”  Bible and Spade 18/2: 53-59.

    Grassi, J. A.
    1964-1965    Ezekiel 37:1-14 and the New Testament.  New Testament Studies 11:162-164.

    Kloner, Amos; and Zissu, B.
    2007    The Necropolis of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period.  Leuven: Peeters.

    Rahmani, Levi
    1980    A Jewish Rock-cut Tomb on Mt. Scopus.  ‘Atiqot 14: 49-54.

    Senior, Donald
    1976    The Death of Jesus and the Resurrection of the Holy Ones (Mt 27:51-53.  Catholic Biblical Quarterly 38: 312-329.

    Witherup, Ronald D.
    1987    The Death of Jesus and the Raising of the Saints:  Matthew 27:51-54 in Context.  Pp. 574-585 in Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 1987.  Atlanta, GA: Scholars.


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