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October 25, 2009
Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22)

Psalm 34 is an acrostic psalm. An acrostic psalm is organised around the Hebrew alphabet with each verse, or number of verses, beginning in sequence with the next letter of the alphabet. There are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet, hence twenty-two verses in this psalm. Other psalms constructed on this pattern include Psalms 9-10, 25, 37, 111, 112, 119 and 145. Some of these are complete, that is they cover the whole Hebrew alphabet, while others are not complete. The reason for incompleteness is not always clear. The purpose for using an acrostic pattern in these psalms is not clear either. It may have been an artistic device, or it may have had some mnemonic or educational role, or it might have been used to convey a sense of ‘completeness’ in relation to the subject matter, i.e. covering everything from A to Z.

The lectionary designates vv. 1-8 for reading this week and possibly vv. 19-22. The first eight verses fit the reading from Job 42 very well, especially if one reads that text in the first way mentioned in our comments on Job for this week, that is, as Job capitulating before God, bowing before the might and power of the divine. In the psalm, the psalmist blesses the Lord who has appeared to him. Job sought the Lord and the Lord answered him. However, whether we would imagine Job going as far as the psalmist to say that the Lord ‘delivered me from all my fears’ (v. 4b) or that he has been ‘saved from every trouble’ (v. 6b) is questionable.

The suggested additional verses for the week, vv. 19-22, do change the way the psalm can be read in relation to Job. In those verses there is definitely a taste of the prose epilogue to the book of Job where Job is vindicated by God and ‘receives back’ all that he had lost. The end of the psalm raises as many questions for the reader as does the epilogue to the book of Job. Does the Lord rescue the righteous from every affliction (v. 19)? Are none of the bones of the righteous ever broken (v. 20)? Are only those who hate the righteous condemned (v. 21)? No one with any sensitivity to what happens in our world could say that this is how things work out in life. One would have to understand these verses in other than some literal way in order to say them with any confidence. Either one has to understand them metaphorically, as speaking of other than literal fulfilment, or in some eschatological way, that is, in relation to an ultimate hope to be fulfilled beyond ordinary experience?

The section of the psalm omitted from the reading this week in ne way does not add significantly to the meaning of the psalm. On the other hand the omission of these verses means that it be more difficult to grasp what the psalmist is directing us toward. This is especially the case with vv. 9 and 11 where the ‘fear of the Lord’ is mentioned three times. The fear of the Lord is mentioned only once earlier in the psalm (v. 7b) and human fear of various circumstances or foes is referred to in v. 4. But it is clear from vv. 9, 11 that the overcoming of the latter (fear of foes) by the former (fear of the Lord) is precisely what the psalm is about.

In this psalm the psalmist employs heavily words relating to the face and the organs of speech and hearing (‘mouth’, ‘face’, ‘taste’, ‘eyes/sight’, ‘ears/hearing’, ‘tongue’, ‘lips’). They draw the community or reader into their thanksgiving to the Lord (vv. 3, 8). The psalmist’s own experience is an example for others (vv. 4-6) of how the Lord rescues those who fear the Lord (vv. 9, 11; cf. Pss. 25.12, 14; 31.19; 33.8, 18 etc.). The psalmist strives to teach others through their own words (vv. 11-14), having been taught themself by the Lord (cf. Pss. 25.4, 5, 12; 27.11). Psalm 34 then finishes with reassurance of the Lord’s rescue and care for the righteous (cf. Pss. 32.11; 33.1).

To underline further what this psalm is getting at it is helpful to consider the superscription of the psalm, that is, the fine (italic) print in many Bibles at the start of the psalm. Not all psalms have much in their superscriptions, if they have one at all, but this one like a number of others has a statement relating the psalm to a particular time in King David’s life. It reads: ‘Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.’ This relates the psalm to the brief episode in 1 Sam. 21:10-15 in which David, fleeing Saul, sought protection with King Achish of Gath, only to fear for his life there. He went out of the frying pan into the fire, so to speak. Only by feigning madness was David able to escape.

The narrative in Samuel has a number of verbal connections with Psalm 34. The Hebrew translated in the psalm superscript in the NRSV as ‘he feigned madness’ is rendered in 1 Sam. 21.13 as ‘he changed his behaviour’. Literally it means ‘he changed his taste’. This is a rare expression and links with the psalm’s call to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ (v. 8). The same Hebrew word is used in v. 2 in a form meaning ‘boast’ and in 1 Sam. 21:13 in another form meaning ‘pretend madness’. In addition, David’s fear in 1 Samuel of both Saul and Achish is picked up in the psalm by way of contrast with its theme of the ‘fear of the Lord’. The psalm becomes an example for the reader of how one ‘fear’, that of foes and danger, can be replaced by a more beneficial one, the ‘fear of the Lord’. The point is underlined further by the Psalm superscription replacing the Philistine king Achish of Gath in the Samuel version by Abimelech of Gerar, a figure whom Abraham and Isaac also feared (Genesis 20; 26).

The psalm then is about ‘fear’ and plays on the two uses of that word in Hebrew, namely fear of dangerous people or circumstances or fear of the Lord, that is worship and awe of the Lord. The one fear, destructive of human life, is overcome by the other which gives life. Such a lesson could also be seen in the context of the story of Job. Is it that Job’s fear in the face of his suffering can only eventually be overcome by a fear of the one who is creator of all? The latter fear may not provide answers to all the questions Job has of God but it is nevertheless the only power to be acknowledged within such contexts.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:

This psalm offers a number of verses that are familiar to many, e.g. vv. 4, 7, 8, 14, 15, and 18. The start of the psalm could be used in the call to worship:

1  I will bless the LORD at all times;
    his praise shall continually be in our mouths.
2 My soul makes its boast in the LORD;
    let the humble hear and be glad.
3 O magnify the LORD with me,
    and let us exalt his name together.
As part of the declaration of forgiveness after confession vv. 4, 5, 7 and 22 could be used:
4 I sought the LORD, and he answered me,
    and delivered me from all my fears.
5 Look to him, and be radiant;
    so your faces shall never be ashamed.
7 The angel of the LORD encamps around
    those who fear him, and delivers them.
22 The LORD redeems the life of his servants;
    none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.
And so I declare to you, that in Jesus Christ,
your sins are forgiven.
            Thanks be to God.
As part of the invitation to the communion table, if the sacrament is celebrated that day, v. 8 could be used.
8 O taste and see that the LORD is good;
    happy are those who take refuge in him.
Other verses could be used as part of the final benediction:
15 The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous,
    and his ears are open to their cry.
18 The LORD is near to the brokenhearted,
    and saves the crushed in spirit.
And the blessing of the Lord,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Be on you, now and forever.
Old Testament Reading: Job 42:1-6, 10-17

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