I Called and God Heard - Psalm 34 - sermon notes
This sermon continues the season of lent.
Introduction to Psalm 34: “Prerequisites for Happiness in the Midst of Trouble”
by Carl Bosma
Along with Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12, the Gospel of John (19:34) probably also applied Psalm 34:20 to Christ’s crucifixion. In view of Psalm 34:17-18, this application was very appropriate because, as is evident from Luke 23:47, the Gospels portray Jesus as a righteous sufferer. Moreover, the instructions from Psalm 34:12-16 are quoted in 1 Peter 3:10-12 to support the exhortation in verses 8-9. These exhortations presuppose that Jesus is the suffering servant (Is 53) and instruct the reader how to live in response to Christ’s suffering. Furthermore, because of the command to taste and see that the LORD is good (v. 8), Psalm 34 is also used in connection with the celebration of the LORD’s Supper. As a result of these thematic connections, Psalm 34 is very appropriate for Lent and Holy Week.
Significantly Psalm 34 also contains a beatitude in verse 8, “Oh the happiness of the heroic warrior who finds refuge in the LORD.” This beatitude links Psalm 34 thematically, first of all, with the beatitudes of Psalm 1:1-2 and Psalm 2:12. The obvious echo of Psalm 2:12 is important because the phrase “all who find refuge in him” from verse 12 of this psalm is also found in Psalm 34:22. The beatitude in Psalm 34:8 also links Psalm 34 with Psalm 32, which opens in verses 1-2 with a double beatitude on forgiveness as the key to happiness, and Psalm 33, in which the beatitude (v. 12) stands at the center of the poem. As a result, Psalm 34 belongs to a cluster of three psalms that contain beatitudes and thus concern true happiness.
I. COMPOSITIONAL STRUCTURE
Structurally, Psalm 34 is an alphabetic acrostic in which each verse (=poetic line) begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Like Psalm 25, however, the letter nun is also missing in Psalm 34 and a second pe-line has been added after the final taw line. As a result of the omission of the nun line, the lamedline (v. 11) is the center of the poem.1 The occurrence of the verb “teach” in this pivotal verse indicates clearly that the primary purpose of the poem is to teach the fear of the LORD.
Scholarly opinions differ on the compositional structure of Psalm 34. Based on the shifts in subject and verbal forms as well as repetition of key words, we suggest that Psalm 34 begins with an introductory summons to praise (vv. 1-3). This summons is followed by the psalmist’s testimonial in verses 4-6. Significantly, these verses are structured according to an alternating a (v. 4) – b (v. 5) // a’ (v. 6) – b’ (7) pattern.2 Verses 8-14 constitute a new unit of wisdom-like exhortations.3 This unit consists of 10 imperatives and seven poetic lines with verse 11 at its center.4 Verse 15 marks the beginning of another unit. This new unit extends to verse 21, as is evident from the poet’s recourse to alternating parallelism. Verse 15 describes the LORD’s attentiveness to the righteous (pl.)5 and verse 16 describes his negative attitude to the “doers of evil.” Verses 18-21 elaborate on verse 15, and verse 22 reverts back to verse 16.
From a compositional perspective it is important to note that verse 17 corresponds thematically with verses 4 and 6. This is evident from the significant lexical parallels between verses 4, 6 and 17:
I sought the LORD This poor man called They cried out
and he answered me and the LORD heard him and the LORD heard them
he delivered me from he saved him from he delivers them from
all my fears all his troubles all their troubles.
Moreover, the nearness of the LORD in verse 18 also corresponds thematically with the presence of the Angel of the LORD in verse 7. As a result of the alternating connections between verses 17-18 and verses 6-8, it is inferred that verses 4-7 and 15-21 frame verses 8-14. Consequently, verses 8-14 constitute the center of Psalm 34 with verse 11 as its thematic pivot.
The final pe line in verse 22 marks the climax of the poem. Some think that this poetic line was a latter addition.6 Two considerations argue for its appropriateness in this context. First, the verb “condemned” from verse 21 is repeated in verse 22. Second, the phrase “those who take refuge in him” in verse 22 reverts to the beatitude in verse 8.
II. LITERARY GENRE
A majority of commentators classify it as a psalm of thanksgiving of an individual with strong elements of wisdom in verses 8-14.7 However, unlike Psalm 30, a paradigm of this literary genre, Psalm 34 is not addressed directly to the LORD. On the contrary, throughout the poem the psalmist speaks about the LORD. Moreover, the opening resolve to praise in verse 1 is similar to the concluding renewed vow to praise in Psalm 30:13c (“ LORD, my God. I will thank you forever.”). Both contain the additional temporal element (forever=at all times=continually).
On the basis of the above considerations we infer that Psalm 34 is not a psalm of thanksgiving.8 Instead, we suggest that Psalm 34 is an individual hymn of praise. Like Psalms 145 and 146, Psalm 34 fulfills what was promised in the renewed vow to praise in a psalm like Psalm 30:13c. As a result, Psalm 34 functions as a liturgical counterpoint to psalms of thanksgiving by an individual.9
As a descriptive psalm of praise of an individual Psalm 34 was designed to be sung in the worshiping community (Ps 111:1), which in Psalm 34 is referred to in a rich variety of terms.10 This cultic situation is evident from the imperatives addressed to members of the worshiping community in verse 3a and in verses 8-14.
The purpose of a descriptive psalm of praise by an individual is to teach the congregation. This purpose comes to clear expression in the invitation in the central verse of the poem (v. 11):
Come, o sons, and listen to me
so that I may teach you the fear of the LORD.
This has important implications for a sermon and for the liturgy. As for the sermon, verse 11 should be the goal of the sermon. With respect to the liturgy, Robert Davidson observes correctly that “we should never underestimate the extent to which worship can and should be a teaching and learning experience.”11
- Opening Summons to Praise (vv. 1-3)
Psalm 34 begins with a triple resolve to praise (vv. 1-2a). In this opening resolution the psalmist commits himself to bless12 the LORD (Ps 16:7), not just for this occasion, but continually. He promises to boast13about the LORD all the times.
With respect to the resolve to praise, two observations are in order. First, in view of Jeremiah 9:24, it would seem that the purpose of the psalmist’s boast in his poem is to tell everyone that he knows the LORD and that the LORD “acts with steadfast love, justice and righteousness.” Second, the addition of the temporal phrases “at all times” and “continually”14 in verse 1 underscores the fact that restored life has meaning only with praise.15 Or, to use the language of the Westminster Catechism, the purpose of human life is to praise God. Therefore, “the whole life of the God-fearing” person should “serve the praise of God.”16
The purpose of the psalmist’s resolution is indicated by two wishes that the afflicted ones may hear and rejoice. These two desiderative clauses (v. 2bc) clearly indicate the testimonial purpose of praise.
In line with his expressed desire (v. 2bc), therefore, the speaker then proceeds in verse 3 to invite the afflicted to magnify the LORD with him (vs. 3a; imperative) and to join him in exalting the name of the LORD(vs. 3b; cohorative). As the psalmist was afflicted (v. 6a), so now he invites the afflicted one (v. 2b) to join him to magnify the LORD and to exalt his name.17
- The Psalmist’s Personal Testimony (vv. 4-7)
The opening resolve to praise is followed by the psalmist’s personal testimony that provides the reason for praise. This testimony consists of a summary report of deliverance similar to Psalm 30:2-3. As we noted above, this report is structured according to the following pattern of alternating parallelism: (a [v. 4]-b [v. 5]/a’ [v.6]-b’ [v. 7]).
Typical of descriptive songs of praise of an individual, verse 4 does not describe in detail the specific nature of the psalmist’s distress. He only describes the distress with the phrase, “all my fears.” 18
Obviously, if the psalmist does not explain what exactly happened, a sermon on Psalm 34 should not seek to reconstruct the historical occasion. This would conflict with the expressed purpose of the psalmist. The psalmist does not want to share the “individual features” of his story. Instead, he comes before the congregation to testify what the LORD has done for him and to invite them to exalt the name of the LORD (v. 3).19 For this reason the emphasis in verse 4 is on the LORD.
It is important to note that verse 4 summarizes in a nutshell the three-step sequence of a lament-event: I sought the LORD, he answered me, and he delivered me from all my fears. This brief report of divine deliverance effectively introduces the theme of the efficaciousness of prayer in the midst of distress. This important theme will be repeated in verses 6, 15, and 17. In essence what the psalmist is teaching in verse 4 is: “This was my experience; it can be yours.”20
The very succinct report of verse 4 is followed by a third person plural statement in verse 5 that generalizes the psalmist’s experience. Although the translation of this verse varies,21 its essential meaning is clear: those who look to the LORD in their distress will be radiant (because of the implied deliverance) and never be put to shame.22 As such, verse 5 also underscores the efficaciousness of prayer.
This same theme is repeated in verse 6. However, now this truth is transformed into a third person singular declaration that is very similar to verse 423:
This afflicted one called,
and the LORD heard him;
and he saved him from all of his troubles.
As in verse 4, so in verse 6 the emphasis falls on the LORD’s salvific actions.
After verse 6 there follows another generalizing descriptive statement in verse 7. It claims that the Angel of the LORD (Ps 35.5-6; cf. Josh 5:14) continually encamps24 around and delivers those who fear the LORD.
- Wisdom-like Instructions in the Fear of the LORD (vv. 8-14)
As we mentioned above, the next section (vv. 8-14) consists of wisdom-like instruction. The fact that this section is framed by verses 4-7 and 15-22 indicates that its instruction is based on his personal experience of divine deliverance in response to prayer. The repetition of the word “fear” and the verb “hear” (sm c; vv. 2b and 11) suggests that the addressees are the afflicted ones and those who fear the LORD.
Structurally, this central seven-line unit may be subdivided into two parts, namely, verses 8-10 and 12-14, which are joined together by verse 11 that constitutes the thematic central line, not only of this section but also of the poem as a whole:
Come, my children, listen (sm c) to me
so that I may teach you the fear of the LORD.
From this pivotal line it is obvious that the primary aim of verses 8-14 is to teach the fear of the LORD.
The first subsection (vv. 8-10) begins with the well-known bold double command, “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (1 Pt 2:3).25 As is evident from verses 9-10 that follow, the LORD’s goodness in verse 8 refers to God as “the source of human well-being and prosperity.”26 Those who seek and fear the LORD will not lack any good because the LORD is good. However, the command in verse 9a also shows that to receive the LORD’s goodness one must fear him. Or, to use the word that denotes the addressees in verse 9a (“holy ones”) one must be holy. In fact, if one reads the command in verse 9a in conjunction with the beatitude in verse 8b, then happiness is holiness.
The precise meaning of the command to fear the LORD in verse 9a is developed in the second section (vv. 12-14). However, before we proceed to examine this section, it is important to note that the command to fear the LORD in verse 9a is preceded by an exultant beatitude, “Oh the happiness of the heroic warrior,” that recalls the almost identical beatitude of Psalm 2.12.27 The fact that the concept of “taking refuge” in the LORD is repeated in the concluding verse of Psalm 34 indicates that it is an important concept.28
The second section (vv. 12-14) that follows the pivotal invitation in verse 11 begins with a rhetorical question in verse 12 (cf. Ps 25:12): “Which of you desires life and loves to see good days?” This very relevant question is followed by specific instructions in verses 13-14 on how to obtain a good life, i.e., on how to achieve happiness. The response to this question begins with two negative commands. Those who desire a good life must first control their speech habits.29 Next they must turn themselves from evil (Prov 16:6). These negative commands, in turn, are followed by three positive commands. Instead of doing evil, they must do good (cf. Am 5:14) and pursue peace. In short, to receive God’s goodness one must do good (Cf. Dt 6:18).
- The Lord’s Constant Providential Care of the Righteous (vv. 15-21)
After the wisdom-like instruction of verses 8-14, verses 15-21 return to the main theme of prayer-audition-deliverance from verses 4-7. As we noted above, this is evident from the parallel between verses 4, 6 and 17. The primary focus in verses 15-21 is on the LORD’s attentiveness and nearness to the righteous. However, the repetition of the word “evil” from verses 13-14 in verse 16 and 21 shows that this theme is developed in terms of verses 8-14 that stipulated the prerequisites for achieving happiness.
Verses 15-16 introduce the contrast between the righteous and the wicked, a prominent theme in Psalm 1. The following comparison illustrates the basic elements of the contrast in these two verses:
The eyes of the LORD on the righteous
His ears open to their cry
The face of the LORD against evildoers.
The reference to the eyes and ears of the LORD in verse 15 (cf. Ps 33:18) represents God’s continued concern and involvement in the life of the righteous, i.e., those who take shelter in him and fear him in terms of the succinct summary of verses 13-14. He is concerned about their distress and listens attentively to their cry. This means that God “takes our prayers seriously.”30 In sharp contrast, however, the (angry) face of the LORD confronts evil doers in order “to cut off their memory from the earth.” For Israel to have one’s memory cut off meant the loss of descendants, an awful prospect for an Israelite (2 Sam 18:18).
Verses 17-21 elaborate the contrast between the righteous and the wicked. More specifically, verses 17-20 develop the theme of verse 15 and verse 21 develops the theme of verse 16.
As we noted above, verse 17, the first verse of the new sub unit (vv. 17-20), recalls verses 4 and 6. However, what the poet experienced in verse 4 (and perhaps in verse 6) is now applied to all, as the switch from the singular in verses 4 and 6 to the plural in verse 17 indicates. It reaffirms the three-step acts of deliverance and expands the promise of deliverance to include all troubles.
This enormous promise is followed by verse 18, which, in language reminiscent of the supplication in Psalm 69:18, transforms the metaphor of God’s eyes and ears into his proximity to the “broken hearted.”31 For them God’s proximity means, according to verse 18b, his readiness to save.32
The LORD’s nearness to the righteous, however, does not mean that they do not suffer. From the instruction in verses 13-14 the reader could infer (erroneously) that if one does good, good days will automatically come. Such, however, is not the case, according to verse 19a. This verse states emphatically and realistically that the righteous have many troubles (lit. “evils”). But the good news is, according to verse 19b, that the LORD delivers the righteous from all of their troubles. In fact, according to verse 20, the LORDcompletely protects the righteous so that not one of his bones (=whole person; cf. Ps 6:3) will be broken.
This promise of special protection, of course, received its unique fulfillment in Jesus Christ, who cried out from the cross and committed his life to God (Lk 23:47) in the certainty that God would redeem his life (Ps 31:5). God, the Father, heard his Son’s cry and redeemed him from the pit.33
The enormous promises of verses 17-20 raise a complex experiential problem. How do these promises and the reality of the suffering of the righteous square with the teachings about happiness in verses 8-14? In answer to this crucial question Artur Weiser writes:
The true happiness of the godly consists in the nearness of God and in the living
experience of his help and not in being spared suffering and affliction. On the
contrary, suffering is an essential part of the life of the righteous, and only he who
is brokenhearted and crushed in spirit will experience what the nearness of God
and his help can really come to mean. The fact that God does not forsake the
godly for ever but preserves him from utter despair and from the complete
destruction of his existence (v. 20), is the blessed experience of the presence of
God and of communion with him, a communion which is granted to the God-
fearing man at the very time of his suffering….34
Verse 21 picks up the theme concerning the evildoers from verse 16. As a result, it frames the reassuring words of verses 17-20 and sets up the final contrast. True, the righteous are not exempt from evil (pl.). But the LORD delivers them from all of them. Such is not the case with the wicked, who are defined in verse 16 as the doers of evil and in verse 21 as those who hate the righteous. Evil ties the wicked to death, quite the opposite of the good life everyone desires (v. 12).35 The wicked are condemned to death.
Strikingly, unlike Psalm 5:10, the LORD is not the subject of the verb “condemn” in verse 21b. No, in according the wisdom’s act-consequence principle in Psalm 1:6b, the wicked suffers the boomerang effect of his evil doing. In short, evil kills the wicked! In the end, therefore, under God’s righteous rule “crime does not pay.”
- Summary Postscript (v. 22)
The additional pe line in verse 22 marks the conclusion of Psalm 34. According to some, this additional line is a later insertion. However, for reasons indicated above, we agree that the poet has intentionally added this extra line himself so that his poem would not end on a negative note concerning the fate of the wicked.36 Instead of ending on a negative note, he added verse 22 as a climactic summary statement of the totality of the LORD’s redemptive actions that was based on his own experience. This summary statement stands in sharp contrast with the preceding verse.
Like Psalm 25:22, the climactic line of Psalm 34 also begins with a verbal form of the verb “ransom.” In Psalm 25:22, however, it is used in the final petition, “Ransom Israel, O God, out of all its troubles!”37 In contrast, it introduces a reassurance in Psalm 34:22: “The LORD continues to ransom38 the life of his servants.”39 As is evident from Psalm 49:7-9, only the LORD can ransom the life of human beings.
As a result of the LORD’s redemptive action, according to the second clause of verse 22, “all those who take refuge in him” are not, unlike the wicked (v. 12) condemned. This concluding statement reminds the Christian reader of Paul’s claim in Romans 8:1, “There is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ.”
Again, this reassurance received its unique confirmation in the life of Jesus. On resurrection day God the Father heard the words of his Son quoted from Psalm 31:5 and redeemed his life from the pit, thereby declaring him “not guilty.” In the midst of suffering, this is the key to genuine happiness for all that take shelter in him.
As Derek Kidner appropriately notes, the Christian can echo the jubilant spirit of the sweeping assurance of this verse, “knowing the unimagined cost of 22a and the unbounded scope of 22b.”40 We would join our hearty “Amen” to his concluding statement, especially in this season of Lent.
During Lent a sermon on Psalm 34 should be preached from the perspective of 1 Peter 3:10-12 because it applied Psalm 34:12-16 to the problem of suffering for doing good. The basis for this application is the example of the suffering servant (Is 53), Jesus Christ, who suffered for us.
The preacher might want to begin his sermon with the rhetorical question from verse 12: “Which of you desires life and loves days to enjoy good things?” Everyone does, of course. But what is life? What are good things?
Contemporary culture defines life and good things in terms of material abundance and fun. Unfortunately, however, this definition fosters greed, baseness and corruption. From the perspective of Psalm 34 these attitudes and actions are the works of evildoers and those who hate the righteous.
In the midst of these troubles how then does one pursue genuine happiness? The simple answer from the perspective of Psalm 34 is: take it to the LORD in prayer. On the sure knowledge that the LORD is near, watches over the righteous and delivers them when they cry to him, the righteous should take refuge in his temple where they can plead their case with the LORD. That is the nature of prayer!
Who may enter into the LORD’s courts to have their case vindicated? Only those who practice the prerequisites for happiness outlined in verses 13-14, verses that echo the requirements outlined in the entrance liturgies of Psalm 15 and 24. The liturgy should include one of these psalms to establish the connecting link.