Commentary on Psalm 34:1-8
Music has a way of provoking memories of events long forgotten.
Acting as aural time machines any particular song, melody, or lyrical tone can transport us across time and space to another space and time in our own journey through life. High water moments are interspersed with low water events and much of the rest of our life experiences are lived somewhere between the two.
The melodies we craft or choose to focus attention on along the way say much about what we were about at that particular point in space and time. Simple lines like “welcome to the Hotel California” or “be thou my vision” or “wasting away again in Margaritaville” or “amazing grace how sweet the sound” can catapult us to places once central in our experience. They can bring to mind friends who are no longer with us, places we have visited, and events that have shaped us. A few words coupled with a catchy melody can be burned into our memories like tattoos that never go away.
Psalm 34 functions something like that for me. Each poetic line is like a line from a song I once knew. “This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord.” How many times could I say the same? The line itself transports me back to those flood and drought moments where life seemed out of control or too much to control. My poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord. In personal recognition about my watermark moments and parched places I discover something about the presence of God that was there in the midst of it all and was vitally real.
Perhaps Psalm 34 as poetry set to song served in some way like that for the people of God. Each human life is an aggregation of experiences that build up over time. Sedimentary layers of rocks, sludge, and discarded ideas mingle together and press in on one another. We are walking repositories of all that has happened to us and each new experience fits into that matrix to find its place among the rest.
If one were able to cut through the accretions to see by way of a cross section all that has been, what would they discern. I suspect they might be surprised to see layers where God’s grace covered the hard places and where God’s presence brushed against jagged stones of disappointment or personal pain. Perhaps the activity of God in human experience is not unlike a fertile layer of soil laid down by a springtime flood over our river bottoms of stone and sand. Once given to the rocky places new life can emerge where none previously may have been thought possible. Our hard times can be transformed by recognition of the abiding presence of God.
What would it mean to bless the Lord at all times with praise continually in our mouths? Is the Psalmist realistic about human capacity to stay focused on a topic? Or is the Psalmist interested in inviting the people of God to some reorientation of thought and action? How would it be to go through life with each 24 hour day permeated by reflection on the presence of God and God’s activity in the things we think are somehow too removed, too banal, or too mundane? What if God were one of us as the pop song suggested? How might we note the difference?
The opening explosion of praise invokes human senses of taste, hearing, sight, and touch. It seems only the sense of smell is missing or perhaps it isn’t. Since smell is intimately connected with our sense of taste it may be implicitly indicated. Smell from campfire smoke as the angel of the Lord encamped nearby touches minds filled with memories of outdoor camping experiences in the wilderness and in travels from place to place.
The Psalmist provides a sonnet of God’s activity that hears human pleas, speaks to human fears, and provides deliverance from what might paralyze capacities to live in the fullness of grace. The kinesthetic activity of God affirms a living and present God involved in the lives of people for their comfort and strength. The Psalmist’s poetic flurry of expression involves the whole human being. The five senses are pictured as places where God is present. They are places where God might be discovered in the ordinary events of life.
The Hebrew word—ira—translated into English as “fear” stands out in the text and draws hearers toward further reflection about how to not only be cognizant of the actions of God, but to face fears through living in right relation with the living God. The word fear is sprinkled through the Psalm from start to finish — delivered from all fears and angels encamp around those that fear God. Following verse 8 the Psalm encourages hearers to fear the Lord and reminds them about how the dimensions associated with the imperative to fear the Lord will be taught to them through faithfulness. Maybe the word translated into English in the first part ought to remain as “fear,” but perhaps in later portions of the Psalm to be translated not as “fear,” but “awe” or “reverence.”
Fear for human beings is the result of many catalysts. It can be derived from human experiences of guilt and shame. It can arise from threats real and imagined to our existence or the existence of those whom we love. It can grow from experience with the natural world that can be a place of physical and emotional pain. It may emerge when one is faced with something that has not been previously experienced—like the first time standing at the edge of a high cliff when faced with the recognition that one slip could cause our demise.
Fear can make the legs weak or can trigger a response to run from the perceived danger or risk. Rarely in my experience does fear invite adoration. Instead the fight or flight response seems more common. Maybe the idea of fearing God is not so much fighting or fleeing as it is recognition of the scale of something that cannot be fully comprehended. Like an unsolvable math problem, the number of stars in the universe, or the number of beats our heart will beat over a lifetime—we cannot determine with certitude what the solution or numbers are. We only know that they exist and if we had the capacity to determine them the answers would only produce more questions.