With the concluding verses of Psalm 34, the author has returned to the subject matter with which he began, namely the suffering from which God delivered him (verse 4).
Along the way, as we saw last Sunday, the psalmist explored the connection between worship and some of the wisdom principles for right relationships (verses 9-14). It may have been possible, however, to get the wrong impression from those general principles. The way the question in verse 12 is posed -- "Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good?" -- might suggest to us that if we simply uphold the standards of right speech and action listed in verses 13-14, we can count on a long and happy life.
In case we are tempted to follow that logic, the remainder of the psalm brings us back to reality. Today's psalm lection is fraught with a sense of conflict between good and evil, intense affliction for the righteous, but also the hopeful assurance that the Lord is aware of such trouble and acts to rescue the sufferer. Among the many avenues for reflection available to us in this passage, the following three ideas stand out to me.
The reality of suffering for the righteous
The psalmist unflinchingly holds the traditional wisdom of verses 11-14 together with the fact of suffering for the righteous. Given the reputation of the Book of Proverbs as presenting a simplified view of obedience and blessing, we should notice that the object of oppression and trouble in verses 15-22 are not some group of pretend-worshipers or secret slackers who finally get what's coming to them. If that were the case, then we could explain their sufferings and take refuge in our tidy theology of prosperity for the righteous.
However, this psalm won't let us off the hook. Without disparaging the general truth of traditional wisdom, the author nevertheless states that the righteous do indeed suffer. They "cry" and experience "troubles" (verses 15, 17).1 They are "brokenhearted" and have "afflictions" (verses 18-19). It is also likely the case that these righteous ones are "socially marginal," turning to Yahweh for help instead of to some other source within human society.2 Such a class reading may help to explain a source of their affliction, but the repetition of "righteous" points to a moral/spiritual cause of persecution as well. One thinks, in this regard, of the apostle's encouragement of those who "suffer for doing what is right" (1 Peter 3:14; 4:15-16).
The reality of evil in the world
As obvious as this affirmation seems, I take the time and space to comment on the "conflict" theology present in the psalm. There are excellent biblical and theological reasons for shunning a world and life view that explains everything in terms of conflict. We live with the increasing potential for demonizing enemies and even average folks who simply disagree with us on politics and religion. A gospel mindset teaches that abundant life isn't about identifying the "bad guys" in every situation or turning every issue into an ultimate battle between good and evil. That being said, the tone of opposition in our passage is confirmed by human experience.
Thus, in spite of the very real danger of oversimplification, Psalm 34 provides an eloquent Old Testament conversation partner for the New Testament epistle reading this Sunday (Ephesians 6:10-20), with its message of spiritual conflict. The psalmist's reason for acknowledging such conflict is not to demonize evildoers but to maintain solidarity with the victims of evil. The believer leaves the judgment in the hands of the Lord (verse 16). While this passage is not a mandate to end the struggle for justice, the author prefers to trust the mysterious workings of providence, namely, that "evil brings death to the wicked" (verse 21a). Moreover, the passive sense of verse 21b ("those who hate the righteous will be condemned") tends to remove personal vengeance from the disposition of justice.
The reality of divine rescue
In spite of the above painful realities, the psalmist nevertheless believes that God is actively present to bless and save the righteous sufferer. This theme is lifted up in manifold ways that all have a vivid, sensory, and personal expression: God's "eyes" and "ears" which see and hear the plight of the needy (verses 15, 17); God's "face" which is "against evildoers (verse 16); God's nearness to and salvation of the "brokenhearted" (verse 18); God's keeping "the bones" and redeeming "the life" of the righteous (verses 20, 22). Thus, Weiser writes, "The true happiness of a godly life consists in the nearness of God and in the living experience of his help and not in being spared suffering and affliction."3 This notion dovetails nicely with the sense of "abiding" in the gospel lection for today, John 6:56-69.4
There is a challenge here of translating the truths of an ancient Hebrew worldview into modern Christian categories. To speak of rescue is not to advocate some type of "victorious Christian life." We are clearly cautioned by the ultimate expression of Jesus as the perfectly righteous sufferer who does not experience God's rescue on the cross but only from the grave. Even so, we do not have to suggest, with Derek Kidner, that verse 19b "urges the mind to look beyond death."5
There will be moments in the here and now when the believer asks others to join her in thanking God for answers to prayer, deliverance from illness, provision for the journey, and so on. The cumulative effect of verses 15-22, therefore, is to assure the believer that whatever the outcome of any particular experience of persecution, grief, or pain, God's nature as a rescuer offers hope and peace.6 And that truth makes possible the act of worship in the midst of suffering.
1In verse 17a, the NRSV follows the Greek by clarifying that it is indeed "the righteous" who cry for help. The Hebrew has no such noun, simply writing, "they cry . . ." The potential problem is that the immediately antecedent noun in verse 16 is "evildoers." The Hebrew could imply that those crying out to God in verse 17 are repentant evildoers. In spite of the grammatical openness, such a reading goes against the grain of the whole passage, and verse 15 has just used "righteous" with another noun for "cry." See W. VanGemeren, "Psalms" in The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 1991), 285.
2W. Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Augsburg, 1984), 134.
3A. Weiser, Psalms: A Commentary (Westminster, 1962), 299; italics his.
4J. McCann, "Psalms," in The New Interpreter's Bible (Abingdon, 1996), 816.
5D. Kidner, Psalms 1-72 (InterVarsity Press, 1973), 141. Still, Kidner is right in seeing Christ's resurrection as a fulfillment of this hope, given the New Testament's citation of the psalm with respect to the cross (verse 20 in John 19:36). Patristic interpretation certainly went in this direction. See C. Blaising and C. Hardin, eds., Psalms 1-50, Ancient Christian Commentary (InterVarsity Press, 2008), 19: 266-269.
6See M. Gilmour, "Crass Casualty or Purposeful Pain? Psalm 34's Influence on Peter's First Letter," Word and World 24 (2004):404-411.