< August 16, 2009 >

Commentary on Psalm 34:9-14

 

Last Sunday's Psalm lection (34:1-8) contained some of the typical features of individual Psalms of Thanksgiving, where a worshiper invites others to praise God (verses 1-3) for an act of personal deliverance (verses 4, 6).

This Sunday's reading continues that invitation to learn from the author's experience, but with verse 9 the psalmist begins to move in a new direction, focusing on the fear of the Lord and the wisdom that accompanies it.

The pastor who has been using the psalm readings for preaching already will have wrestled with the more challenging aspects of Psalm 34, from speculation about its literary form and original setting in worship to the historical superscription connecting the psalm to King David's life (1 Samuel 21). If verses 1-8 have not been expounded on in the previous Sunday, the congregation will need help getting their bearings. Whatever the circumstances for proclamation, the exegetical and theological currents within today's lection are challenging. These six verses are united by the concept of the fear of the Lord, which is developed in the two ways: worship and wisdom.

Worship and the Fear of the Lord
The "fear of the Lord" is mentioned four times in the central section of the psalm (verses 7, 9 [twice], 11).1  This concept challenges people of faith for many reasons, not the least of which is the problem of enjoying a close, personal relationship with someone who terrifies us. People wonder how to love and fear God at the same time. We may take refuge in texts such as 1 John 4:18, "Perfect love casts out fear," but it will be most helpful if our explanation is based on the concept of fear in the Old Testament, especially the Psalms.

Biblical words have a range of meanings connected to the contexts in which they are found, and "fear" can be associated with terror, respect, or worship depending upon the setting. In the Psalms, when the Lord is the object of this fear, the meaning of worship pervades. Thus, in the Israelite community, those who fear the Lord are those who worship Yahweh exclusively.2 

I am therefore suggesting that we unite the themes of worship and the fear of God. The psalmist has already identified his audience as Yahweh's "holy ones" (verse 9). In other words, he is not addressing a group of belligerent unbelievers who want nothing to do with Yahweh and thus need to be frightened into submission. Quite the contrary, they are the same ones who are called to "exalt God's name forever" (verse 3), who "taste and see that the Lord is good" (verse 8), and "who seek the Lord" (verse 10). These believers are called "holy ones" in much the same way that the New Testament uses the term "saints" (e.g., Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; etc.); they are consecrated unto Yahweh for worship and service.

In the logic of the psalm, therefore, worship is still very much on the psalmist's mind as we begin this lection, but the distinctive occasion here is not just the blessing of refuge in verse 8, but the way that protection from evil doers -- metaphorically the "young lions" in v. 10 -- ushers forth in provision for Yahweh's congregation.3  God graciously and abundantly meets the needs of those who seek him, a truth that creates not a paralyzing fear but a worshipful reverence before God.

Wisdom and the Fear of the Lord
At verse 11, the psalm shifts its attention from worship to wisdom. There are several reasons for saying this:

  • First, the kind of language in the invitation of verse 11, "Come, O children, listen to me," is found numerous times in the Book of Proverbs (1:8; 2:1; etc.). One of the important settings of Israelite wisdom teaching was the home and larger clan, and so the congregation is reminded of their need to be teachable.
  • Second, the subject matter to be learned, namely, "fear of the Lord" (verse 11), is echoed in the famous insight of Proverbs 1:7, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom."
  • Third, several of the motifs in verses 12-14 (long life, speech, peaceful relationships) are regularly expounded in Proverbs.
  • Fourth, Psalm 34 is but one psalm that focuses either entirely or partly on wisdom themes (e.g. Psalms 1, 37, 49, 73, etc.).

Perhaps all of these factors led to the selection of Proverbs 9:1-6 as the Old Testament lection for this Sunday. The epistle lectionary text (Ephesians 5:15-20) goes in a different direction, but it still exhorts hearers to connect worship and wisdom in their lives.

Familiarity with the Bible should not keep us from sensing the juxtaposition in the rhetorical question of verse 12 and the categorical response of verses 13-14. Under normal circumstances, everyone would "desire life" and "covet many days," but they will not find the path an easy one to take. Avoiding deceitful speech and harmful actions, while also maintaining healthy relationships, is a tall order for anyone. The logic seems simple and straightforward, as Michael Wilcock writes, "if you desire good, then do good."4 

The irony, however, is that to aspire to a long life for oneself, a person must become completely committed to others. Indeed, living by these ideals is not merely difficult; the remainder of the psalm goes on to suggest that such a life will potentially invite brokenness and rejection (see next week's commentary on Psalms 34:15-22). Regardless of the outcome, James L. Mays is correct that the connection of wisdom and worship gives "an ethical dimension to liturgical practice."5  Psalm 34 thus stands in the tradition of the prophets who called for integrity of worship and life.


1The root word here is yara', different from the rare word in v. 4, meguroth, translated "fears" (NRSV).
2M. Van Pelt and W. Kaiser, "yara'" in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. W. VanGemeren (Zondervan, 1997) , 2:527-533.
3The word for "young lions" (kephirim) need not be amended as in the LXX (see New American Bible, "the great"); neither should the original term be avoided altogether (see New English Bible, "unbelievers"). The metaphor is discussed in B. Strawn, What is Stronger than a Lion? (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005), 51, 304-310.
4M. Wilcock, The Message of Psalms 1-72 (InterVarsity Press, 2001), 117.
5J. L. Mays, Psalms (John Knox, 1994), 153.