Commentary on Psalm 34:15-22
John Goldingay has claimed Psalm 34 possesses an ABC-type of spirituality.
Structurally speaking, Psalm 34 is an alphabetic acrostic (though incomplete because of vv. 5 and 22) in which each verse, or poetic line, begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.1 It is an invitation to praise, it is a testimony of one person’s troubled experience, it is a proclamation of YHWH’s acts, and it is full of teaching that seeks to “wrest some kind of order and coherence out of the variety and seeming disconnectedness of the experiences of everyday life.”2
Vv. 15-22 pick up where vv. 9-14 left off. Vv. 9-14 wove together a series of commands alongside a series of assurances, but these last eight verses are primarily about the assurances from verses 15-22. Furthermore, they are “more about YHWH and less about attitudes toward YHWH,” and they bring together themes from vv. 1-6 which emphasized the corporate nature of this psalm — namely that YHWH will “rescue from all troubles,” protect all bones,” and “vindicate all those who take refuge.”3
Psalm 34: 15-22
After affirming, “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry” (v. 15), the Psalmist utters a disturbing word, “The face of the Lord is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth” (v.16). Ouch. That hurts. It was Martin Luther in his First Lectures who asked, “If we believed this to be true … who would doubt that we would go about far more carefully?”
Verses 17-18 states two contrasts, however. “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and rescues them from all their troubles” (v. 17), and “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (v. 18). Not only does YHWH hear the outward cry, but God also saves the inward spirit. Vv. 19-20 affirm that even those who are faithful to YHWH will also experience bad things, but YHWH will preserve them.
V. 21 echoes the sentiments of v. 17, that the wicked will be condemned, but v. 22 summarizes the whole of Psalm 34: YHWH will redeem the life of those who take refuge in YHWH’s arms. Harkening back to the first six verses of this Psalm, v. 22 says none of those, “none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.”
Preaching Psalm 34
Helping those with afflictions is a topic we don’t always handle well. We offer distraught or sick friends our own remedies as though we are the experts. We tell them that if they see the right doctor, do the right thing, or follow the right paths, they will get better. We cite old wives’ tales, saying that if you touch your nose with your tongue while using your left hand to hold you right foot, you will get better.
The Christian community also deals with distress and sickness poorly. We ignore the reality of our troubled members by flippantly saying, “God will heal — just pray.” Then, we leave them to do that alone. And sometimes, even after prayer, medicine, and doing the right thing, change doesn’t happen and none of us knows quite what to do. The distraught don’t get better and we can’t explain it. Or, what might be worse — the distraught do get better and we try to explain that.
We’re guilty of reducing trouble to only the physical when trouble might be emotional, mental, relational, or any combination thereof. These are the problems in the world that we don’t describe enough. And, these are the hurts and troubles that plague all of us because we live in a broken world where we all need the redemption that only the kingdom of God can bring. While different parts of scripture can help us with this challenge, Psalm 34:15-22 is yet another place where we can turn to be reminded that while humans don’t always deal well with complications life may bring, God’s people can turn to God who will hear their afflictions because his ears are open to our cry.
When confronted with the reality that all of us — the “faithful — need help in one way or another, questions begin to lurk in the back of our minds, “Does the God of David still come to help?” “And, if God does come to help, will God help me?” “And if God comes to help me, what can I expect?” Psalm 34 is a sure testimony to these questions, and it answers them in the affirmative. The God of David promises help in Psalm 34, and the God of David promises to fully redeem the life of his servants. Not just one, not just two or three, but all of them. And, we are brought full circle to v.3: “Come, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt God’s name together.”
1 John Goldingay, “Psalm 34,” in Psalms, Volume 1: 1-41, ed. Tremper Longman, III, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 477.
2 Anthony R. Ceresko, “The ABCs of Wisdom in Psalm xxxiv,” VT 35 (1985): 99-104.
3 Goldingay, 483.