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All I Ask

The Jewish month of Elul is traditionally connected to Psalm 27. And with its familiar haunting melody, the 4th verse of the Psalm is particularly well known: “I ask only one thing of God — it is what I want: To live in God’s house all the days of my life, to gaze upon God’s glory, and to visit God’s Temple.”

The nuances of the words — is it “glory” or “beauty,” “visit” or “seek,” etc. — are less interesting to me than the obvious contradiction in the line, because after specifically claiming only to want “one thing,” the Psalmist lists three: The Psalmist wants (1) to live in God’s house, (2) to gaze upon God’s glory, and (3) to visit God’s Temple.

What are we to make of this? Why can’t the Psalmist count to one?

I see insight into the nature of being human and wanting.

The Psalmist wants to live in God’s house not just for the sake of being there, but for what it will lead to, namely, seeing God’s glory. The next lines, verse 5-6, continue in a similar vein: …because in times of trouble God will hide me and keep me safe, bring me safely out of reach, and bring me victory over my enemies who are all around me. The Psalmist has the whole thing planned out. If he can only manage to live in God’s house, he’ll see God’s glory, then get God’s defensive protection, which will naturally lead to an offensive victory over his adversaries. “If only I could live in God’s house,” the Psalmist thinks, “I could finally beat them!”

The Psalmist has perpetrated his own internal bait-and-switch on himself, confusing what he wants with how he will get there. The result is a jumble in his mind, with tranquility, Godliness, safety, and retribution all mixed up.

It seems to be human nature to confuse our desires with the paths that might lead to them, and advertisers exploit this trait of ours.

Coca Cola’s website, for example, displays a prominent image of a Coca Cola bottle with the caption “open happiness.” Who wouldn’t like a little more happiness? The advertising at Coca Cola nudges us into thinking that Coke will lead us in that direction. Next thing we know, we get confused between buying Coke and becoming happier.

Most of the material goods we think we want work the same way. We get confused and think that they are a path to happiness. Then when we buy something and it doesn’t make us happy, we come to the reasonable but wrong conclusion that we have bought the wrong thing. Like Charlie Brown — who is the only one who doesn’t know that Lucy will never cooperate — we think that all we have to do is try again and buy something else. Most of us keep stumbling, and we never learn that what we really have to do is play a different game.

Non-material desires are really no different. We want power, a loyal following, recognition, or what-not, but for what we imagine they will lead to, not for what they are.

I have nothing against money or material possessions. (As the Russians say, it’s better to be healthy and rich than sick and poor.) Money can buy really important things like medicine and education and food, and make it easier to visit friends and fix the world, just to name a few benefits. On a smaller scale, if buying new clothes makes you happy for a day, it seems like money well spent.

We just have to be careful not to get confused. The Psalmist’s mistake is not that he wants to be with God or that he wants to defeat his enemies. His error is right at the start of verse 4: “I ask only one thing.”

We are seldom seeing clearly when we think that our lives lack only one thing or that with the addition of one thing our lives would be perfect. Yet even without the incessant prodding of advertisers, it would be part of our very nature to make this mistake. Ignore it, and we can’t even notice when “one” is “three.”

But once we see past it — once we differentiate between what we want and what we think it will do for us — we begin our journey toward spending our time, money, and energy wisely.

Categories: Bible, spirituality
  1. August 30, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Thank you Joel for looking at the Psalm in a way I had not. It seems we often miss the “path” for the “state”. Is it, however, possible to (and I’m aware of those who suggest this “theologically”… I’m not going there) have one thing that consists of three parts? The particular version in question seems to suggest that those other “things” are extraneous “outcomes” of simply “being” in God’s house. Again, thank you for the thinking/learning.

    • September 1, 2009 at 7:45 pm

      I think everything has smaller parts, just as everything contributes to a larger whole. Perhaps that’s part of the message of the Psalm. The Psalmist claims only to want one thing. We see a list of three.

      Surely there are things like that in our own lives — things we work toward, when really we should be working toward their parts, and parts that we are working toward, not realizing that what we really want is the whole.

  2. September 6, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    well, I know when I have a can of Coke I am usually happy! 😉

    anyways, given the poetic nature of the Psalms would not these seemingly three things really be three ways of saying the same thing, the one thing the Psalmist wants, which is ultimately to be “in God’s Temple”? Would this be a form of parallelism or something different?

    I think your are hitting it right on with how human nature works.

    • September 6, 2009 at 12:51 pm

      I think two things. On the one hand, what we see here is typical Biblical parallelism, where the poetry comes from the repetition. On the other hand, in this context the specific phrase “one thing” highlights a whole other side of human nature.

      Thanks for your kind words.

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