Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

9Fear the LORD, you saints of the LORD, for those who fear the LORD lack nothing.

August 19, 2012

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Commentary on Psalm 34:9-14

9Fear the LORD, you saints of the LORD, for those who fear the LORD lack nothing.

10The lions are in want and suffer hunger, but those who seek the LORD lack nothing that is good.
11Come, children, and listen to me; I will teach you reverence for the LORD.
12Who among you takes pleasure in life and desires long life to enjoy prosperity?
13Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from lying words.
14Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

Because we don’t have the first eight verses of the psalm, we are presented here with a disembodied first-person-singular voice that the community in worship will easily hear as a continuation of Wisdom’s monologue from Proverbs. In the first lesson, Wisdom claims to offer maturity, life, and insight; the psalm in turn promises access to the good life, prosperity, insight, and general morality. What makes the psalmist’s voice distinct from that of Wisdom is the sectarian tone of the invitations to “fear” and “revere” God. Verse nine and ten of the psalm hint at a parallel construction consisting of an antithesis where saints are set against lions (when does the NFL season start, anyway?).

Saints are those who fear God and therefore lack nothing. Though lions are sometimes portrayed positively in Scripture, here they have a negative character. The psalmist doesn’t specify the actual persons to whom “lions” metaphorically refer nor what behaviors put them in disfavor with God. What we can infer is that lions personify (felinify?) whatever is the opposite of “fear” of God — perhaps pride, independence, or the inability to submit. Whatever it is, the lions are hungry and in want because of it. The image of “hungry lions” is ironic on the one hand in that it taps into the broad biblical theme of fortune reversal that gives hope to the poor and weak. At the same time, the metaphor has a frightening aspect in that hungry lions are desperate and dangerous lions!

The psalmody shifts to a more intimate tone at verse 11 as we move from saints who fear God to children who will be taught reverence for God. Verse 11 is where the echo of Wisdom’s voice from Proverbs is the strongest: “Come, children and listen to me …” The verses that follow provide an interesting mix of exhortations exemplary of wisdom literature (secular, general morality) and those using sectarian, creedal language more typical of liturgical psalms and prophetic literature (repent, turn). For example, taking “pleasure in life” is a strong wisdom theme while “turning from” (evil) sounds more covenantal or sectarian.

Verses 12 and 13 present three exhortations: keep your tongue from evil (lying is specifically mentioned in the specifying parallel); turn from doing evil toward doing good; and seek and pursue peace. Each of these exhortations is rich in its own right and could be separately treated in a sermon. But the psalmody taken as a whole seems more concerned with the larger issue of fear and reverence for God of which these activities are symptomatic.

One of the theological assumptions of Scripture is the connection of spiritual cause with material effect — in Psalm 34 the implication is that “fearing God” leads to “lacking nothing.” But who — apart from the most enthusiastic proponents of “prosperity theology” — really believes that reverence for God leads to empirical rewards? (Not even the psalmist sustains the connection as we’ll see next week when Psalm 34:15-22 comprises the psalmody!)

When I’m sitting in the congregation on August 19, I’d like to hear some thoughtful reflection about whether there are concrete, real-life, even material benefits of “fearing and loving God.” Our default position is to treat “will lack nothing” and “enjoy prosperity” as spiritual promises, an unsatisfying solution especially in light of the visceral “hunger” to which the lions are condemned.

At a more topical theological level, the psalm invites consideration of what it means to “fear” God. Martin Luther is said to have said, “I fear God because God can squash me; I love God because God does not.” Such a sentiment might track with biblical notions of God’s glory, holiness, sovereignty, and power but falls flat in our secularized scientific view of the world — not to mention our presumption of “casual friendship” with the Creator.

Teach me to revere God without resorting (only) to exhortation to fortify my prayer and worship practices. I’d welcome hearing a preacher wrestle with an understanding of “fear of God” that convicts me of my skewed proportions and perspective with respect to God. Pushing us beyond the tepid connotations of such palatable synonyms as “awe” or “respect” might serve to stir us to faithful action in global justice and care of the earth.