In times of great trouble and trials, it is important to keep an eye on the larger perspective. All too often we may be only focused on ourselves, and may not see the larger context of our trials and tribulations. I know how often this has been the case for me personally, where my own afflictions (and there have been many in my life) have led me to be rather self-absorbed and self-pitying, and unable to recognize the sufferings of others or the larger picture of what God was accomplishing through my difficult times. Often the same situations in life can be afflictions for different people, all of whom may be righteous and godly people who for a variety of reasons (including perspective) find the same situation to be a sore and difficult trial in different ways. Likewise, God has a variety of lessons for His servants in the trials we face. Speaking personally, I find Psalm 34 to be a comforting verse in light of the difficult and dramatic course of my own life.
Psalm 34 is one of the psalms that comes with a specific (and dramatic) historical superscription, which tells us that this is a psalm of David when he pretended madness before Abimelech, who rove him away, and he departed. This event was, undoubtedly, one of the more traumatic incidents of David’s life, and the Bible speaks of it in some detail in 1 Samuel 21:10-15: “Then David arose and fled that day from before Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath. And the servants of Achish said to him, “Is this not David the king of the land? Did they not sing of him to one another in dances, saying, ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands?’ Now David took these words to heart, and was very much afraid of Achish the king of Gath. So he changed his behavior before them, pretended madness in their hands, scratched on the doors of the gate, and let saliva fall down on his beard. Then Achish said to his servants, “Look, you see the man is insane. Why have you brought him to me? Have I need of madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? Shall this fellow come into my house?””
When David wrote Psalm 34 he was in a precarious situation that I can understand at least in part personally. He was an outcast and a refugee in an unfamiliar land, having fled the hostility of a king, and he was quickly seen as a threat to the people there. Seeing that harm was intended against him, he sought to make himself appear as harmless as possible, as he was a young man seeking a safe refuge from troubles, not a man seeking to cause harm even to the heathen. In order to do this, he feigned madness, taking advantage of the pagan superstitions against harming those who had “divine insanity” sent from the heavens and he was driven out in peace, suffering no lasting harm.
This short passage is full of a lot of telling details. For one, apparently the fact that Samuel had annnointed David as king was a fact that was well known, even though Saul still sat on the throne and would for some years. The Philistines possessed accurate intelligence about the political situation in Israel, and saw David as a threat given his actions against them (including the killing of Goliath in single combat, no doubt). Likewise, David was himself sensitive to his environment, and wise enough to recognize when he was in danger and respond appropriately to those concerns (not all of us are so wise). As a result, God was able to use the acting talent of David (which appears to have been considerable) to deliver him from harm and lead him safely into years in the wilderness where he learned godly character and leadership abilities as a young adult that he would use to lead Israel later on.
With that brief historical context, let us examine Psalm 34. Psalm 34 begins with a call to praise God in Psalm 34:1-3: “I will bless the Eternal at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul shall make its boast in the Eternal; the humble shall hear of it and be glad. Oh, magnify the Eternal with me, and let us exalt His name together.” Here we see that David was not a selfish man–he praised God (using the covenent name YHWH three times in the first three verses) at all times, both good and bad, prasing His works no matter what circumstances he found himself in. Oh, that we could all do so ourselves. Despite his own considerable personal troubles, he deliberately sought to encourage other people in difficult circumstances, seeking the company of godly people to praise God together with them, calling on the audience to share in his praise.
Continuing on, David sings in verses four through seven: “I sought the Eternal, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears. They looked to Him and were radiant, and their faces were not ashamed. This poor man cried out, and the Eternal heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the Eternal encamps all around those who fear Him, and delivers them.” Here David speaks eloquently of answered prayer, how he trusted in God to deliver him from his troubles and his fears (which I know all too well myself). Three more times in this passage David uses the covenental name of God to demonstrate his closeness to God and to the ways of the Eternal, and even mentions the Angel of the Lord, the preincarnate Christ, making this a deliberately Christian psalm. Despite David’s experiences of trouble, he had great faith that God would deliver him from them all, and that he (and other believers) would have no need to be ashamed and bask in the reflected glory of the Eternal as bright and shining ones themselves. David’s hope was rewarded–surely his deep faith was one important element that gave him the well-earned reputation of being a man after God’s own heart.
Continuing on, David says in verses eight through ten: “Oh, taste and see that the Eternal is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him! Oh, fear the Eternal, you His saints! There is no want to those who fear Him. The young lions lack and suffer hunger, but those who seek the Eternal shall not lack any good thing.” David speaks to his audience (namely, fellow saints and believers) and calls on them to try out (as if one needed to taste and sample it) the ways of God. He encourages his audience to try out faith in God by pointing out that God will (ultimately) provide His believers with all of their needs. God knows what we all need (and we certainly tell Him often enough) and generally has His own plans for how to provide it without absolving us of our own need to work hard and take responsibility for our actions while supplementing what we do with that we cannot provide for ourselves by our own efforts alone.
David then sings in Psalm 34:11-14: “Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Eternal. Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deciet. Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” Ironically enough, even though David was a man of war and conflict, he knows that if one wants to seek good in life in one’s relationships one has to seek peace. It is difficult enough to find peace if one earnestly and seriously looks for it, but it is impossible to find peace if one seeks war and conflict. Even though David was himself a young man when he wrong this psalm, he saw himself alreaady as a teacher and as someone who could guide his listeners (and readers) to follow God’s ways. Speaking to those who desire eternal life, he seems to know his audience will be receptive to his message to live godly and righteous lives in all sincerity and truth and seek to avoid all unnecessary conflict with others, wise advice that is difficult to take (as wise advice often is).
In Psalm 34:15-16, David sings: “The eyes of the Eternal are on the righteous, and His ears are open unto their cry. The face of the Eternal is against those who do evil, to cut off the remembrance of the earth.” This is a serious note. Here we see the two faces of God contrasted. Towards the righteous, those who seek to do His will, He shows loving and attentive concerns to their cries. To those who deliberately do evil and wickedness and who do not repent from their ways, He promises eternal judgment, of not even being remembered on the earth, a promise we ought to take seriously..
Continuing on, David writes in verses seventeen and eighteen: “The righteous cry out, and the Eternal hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Eternal is near to those who hae a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit.” David is both realistic and encouraging in pointing out this particular aspect of God’s character. God nowhere promises that believers and saints will be free from troubles, even immensely serious ones. Certainly our lives are all testament to that in our own ways. However, if our troubles and the brokenness of our lives lead us into repentance and contrition and proper humility and empathy and concern for others (and that is a lot of ifs), then we should be encouraged by the fact that we will be delivered from our troubles and not overwhelmed by them. Likewise, we should also be encouraged by the fact that God is states here through David that He is particularly close to the sensitive and vulnerable souls who have known great trouble and sadness and suffering in their lives. It is our suffering that purifies and refines our character and allows us to encourage others, enjoy and appreciate the good things that God provides, and to mourn with those who mourn.
David closes his praise of God’s lovingkindness in Psalm 34:19-22 as follows: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Eternal delivers him out of them all. He guards all his bones; not one of them is broken. Evil shall slay the wicked, and those who hate the righteous shall be condemned. The Eternal redeems the soul of His servants, and none of those who trust in Him shall be condemned.” Here we see that even though those who are righteous people will have to suffer a great deal in this world (and the experience of serious trials ought to be a comfort that God is working through us and strengthening us, even if we often feel overwhelmed by the difficulties that we face), The purposes of God are for our good and not evil. God promises to protect the righteous and redeem their souls. Ultimately, we are redeemed through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and this psalm appropriately includes a messianic promise that none of the bones of the Messiah would be broken. Despite the fact that we all face many troubles in our lives, God promises us through David that those who trust in Him and have faith will ultimately be redeemed and suffer no more.
It is a comfort that God promises never to abandon His saints, no matter what difficulties they may find themselves in. Whether our troubles are the results of the evil of others, our own follies and errors, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time and being subject to time and chance, God promises to redeem those who trust and believe in Him and deliver them from their troubles. He does not promise us an escape from our difficulties and problems, but He promises us a way through them. We ought to appreciate this psalm for its encouraging message, even though it was written in a time of great stress and difficulty for David. And let us praise God for his faithfulness to His saints, even as we cannot see for what purposes He chooses to direct the course of our lives.