< August 09, 2009 >

Commentary on Psalm 34:1-8

 

Psalm 34 is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving.

Fifteen individual Hymns of Thanksgiving occur in the book of Psalms. In them, psalm singers give thanks to God for deliverance from various life-threatening situations: illness, enemies, and dangers. Two aspects of Psalm 34 intrigue this reader.

First, the superscription of the psalm places it within a particular life situation of King David: "when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away." The only story in the biblical text that might be associated with Psalm 34's superscription is found in 1 Samuel 21:10-15. There, David fled from Saul and went to King Achish--not Abimelech--at Gath. But Achish recognized him and David was afraid for his life, so he feigned madness to disguise his true identity.

Ascertaining a specific historical event in the life of David in which to place Psalm 34 is not as important as using the setting to gain insight into the meaning and intent of the psalm. In Psalm 34, David praises God for deliverance from a life-threatening situation--perhaps his encounter with King Achish of Gath, later remembered as Abimelech.

Second, Psalm 34 is an alphabetic acrostic. Each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems were the works of highly skilled literary artists and functioned in ancient Israelite literature in a number of ways. Acrostics were most likely memory devices to aid in private and public--that is, individual and corporate--recitation; in addition, literarily, they summarized all that could be said or that needed to be said about a particular subject, summing it up from alif to tav, from A to Z. Adele Berlin suggests further that in an acrostic, the entire alphabet−the source of all words−is marshaled in praise of God. One cannot actually use all of the words in a language, but by using the alphabet one uses all potential words.

Thus, Psalm 34 is an individual hymn of thanksgiving of David sung on the occasion of the deliverance of his very life by God, perhaps as the ultimate word about God's help to those who are in need (a summary of all that could be said about God's help in the face of oppression and hurt). Readers and hearers, then, should heed the words of Psalm 34, a song of thanksgiving for deliverance and find in them hope for deliverance from various oppressive situations. In the focus text, Psalm 34:1-8, the psalmist first offers praise to God:

I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the LORD (1-2).

Blessing and praising God are common themes in the Psalter. The word "bless" comes from the same root as the Hebrew word "knee." Thus, to bless is literally "to bend the knee"--to kneel before a sovereign. The words "praise" and "boast" come from the same Hebrew root word, the word that occurs in the phrase "hallelujah." Thus, praise will be in the mouth of psalmist; while the psalmist's inmost being (here translated as "soul") finds its praise ("boasts") in the Lord.
The psalm singer then states the reasons for offering praise to God:
I sought the LORD and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears. (4)
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD,
and was saved from every trouble. (6)

Two more common themes of the Psalter occur in these verses. God delivers (natsal) and God saves (yashah) the psalm singer when the singer cries out to God. The two verbs are similar in meaning, but carry slightly different nuances of meaning. Natsal suggests a "snatching away" or "pulling away." Thus, we may picture God plucking the psalmist out of midst of fears and moving the psalmist to a safer place. Yashah means "to take full care of" or "to help," suggesting that God enters the troubled situation of the psalmist and cares for the psalmist in the midst of the trouble. Note that the word "soul" occurs in verse 6, just as it does in verse 2. The inmost being (soul) of the psalmist cried out to God and was cared for (verse 6) and thus finds its praise (boasts) in the Lord.

Finally, the singer exhorts hearers/readers to join in praise of God's deliverance with words of admonition:
O magnify the LORD with me,
and let us exalt his name together. (3)
Look to him, and be radiant;
so your faces shall never be ashamed. (5)
The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him,
and delivers them.
O taste and see that the LORD is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him. (7-8)

The words of verse 8 are familiar words, but what does it mean to "taste and see" the goodness of the Lord? The word translated as "taste," means "to try something by experiencing it." The psalm singer admonishes readers/hearers to try God's goodness for themselves and experience it as one would taste a new food. The word is used in the same metaphoric way in Job 11:12 and Proverbs 31:18. Tasting is one of our five senses. Seeing is another. We see the goodness of God powerfully displayed in the created world. Recall that in Genesis 1, after each creative act, God "saw" that it was good. And at the end of the creation story, God saw that creation was not just good, but that it was "very good." Psalm 34 encourages us to experience God for ourselves and to open our eyes and see the goodness of God that is all around us.

Verse 8 ends with the words, "Happy are those who take refuge in him." The word translated here as "take refuge" means "to hide oneself." This writer pictures a small child wrapped up in its parent's arms--protected, warm, loved. The result? Happiness. The word "happy" occurs some twenty-five times in the Psalter (see 1:1; 2:12; 41:1; 65:4; 112:1, etc.). Some translations render the word as "blessed," others as "happy." Another option for translation is "content." Taking refuge in God--being protected, warm, and loved--can result in a deep, inner sense of contentment, a feeling in the very depth of your being that all is well. Content, indeed, are those who allow themselves to be wrapped up in the arms of God.