Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 9, 2015
Psalm 34:1-8 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 34 combines thanksgiving to God for answering prayer with teaching about the kind of godliness that’s the most appropriate response to such salvation. Yet as the NIV Study Bible points out, that combination makes this psalm somewhat unique. After all, most psalms’ praise leads into calls to others to join in that praise. And while there’s certainly an element of that, particularly in verse 3’s, “Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together,” Psalm 34’s poet’s thanksgiving largely leads her to instruct her fellow worshipers in godly living.
This psalm is realistic about the plight of even those who love the Lord. There is no prosperity gospel in it. It speaks, after all, of the righteous person’s “many troubles” (19). Those troubles may come in the form of “fears” (4) or simply “troubles.” The psalmist even alludes to such troubles by referring to the need for angels to surround the righteous (7), as well as speaking of the need for “refuge” (8). Such troubles may leave people “afflicted,” (2) “brokenhearted” and “crushed in spirit” (18).
This offers those who preach and teach Psalm 34 an opportunity to reflect on the many troubles God’s children sometimes experience. It offers a kind of stimulus for worshipers to open their ears and eyes to evidence of such trouble in the lives of their Christian brothers and sisters, as well as others. So often the trouble that is grief, fear, doubt or loneliness goes unnoticed by busy citizens of the 21st century. While God hears the cries of “poor” people (6), those cries all too often go unheard by even their Christian neighbors, family members or friends.
That human neglect and deafness is part of the reason why Psalm 34 offers such great news for those who experience many troubles. The psalmist, after all, celebrates how God responded to his cries by answering him and delivering him from the troubles that caused him to cry out in the first place. The God of Psalm 34 is a God who graciously both hears and answers righteous peoples’ prayers in ways that bring them deliverance. This God is no blind and deaf deity like so many of Israel’s neighbors. The psalmist’s God is very personal and looks at as well as carefully listens to God’s adopted sons and daughters.
This offers those who preach and teach Psalm 34 an opportunity to reflect on the ways they’ve experienced God’s watching and hearing. After all, particularly in and immediately after the “heat of the moment,” it’s easy to forget God’s loving answers to prayers. Sometimes it requires a conscious effort to reflect on God’s goodness. Those who preach and teach Psalm 34 can help rectify such forgetfulness by helping hearers to more carefully reflect on God’s care for those they love and them.
The poet’s response to such care is very appropriate. She begins the psalm with a commitment to ongoing praise. The psalmist’s even invites those who are afflicted the way she’s been to both hear and join her in praise to the living God.
Yet the psalmist’s response to God’s mercy isn’t limited to praise. He alternates remembrance of God’s mercy with teaching about the shape of that mercy. So, for example, in verse 4 he remembers how God “delivered” him from all his “fears.” Then in verse 5 the poet immediately adds, in language that’s reminiscent of the results of Moses’ encounter with the Lord on Mount Sinai, “Those who look to him are radiant.”
In verse 6 the poet recalls, “This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles.” Then in verse 7 he immediately teaches, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him,” suggesting that God sometimes answers prayers by erecting a kind of protective hedge around God’s sons and daughters. Because of that protection, God’s children are blessed.
In the verses 9-22 which the Lectionary omits the psalmist describes the appropriate response to God’s “hearing” that is the “fear of the Lord.” Patrick Miller calls such fear an “all encompassing term for worship and obedience” that make up “the proper relationship to God.” Such fear is something that can be both taught and learned. It’s comprised both of relying on God for every good thing and showing that dependence by loving our neighbors in very concrete ways.
The Lectionary pairs Psalm 34 with I Kings 19:4-8’s account of God’s rescue of the fleeing Elijah. When the “poor man” Elijah seeks the Lord, God answers him. God provides the prophet with something to eat and drink so that he may carry on his ministry even in the face of intense opposition.
The Lectionary also pairs Psalm 34 with John 6:41-51’s account of Jesus’ description of himself as the “bread of life.” This gives an interesting perspective on the psalmist’s call to “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” As we “taste” Jesus as the bread of life, we indeed see that God is good.
A number of years ago Alka Seltzer ran a television advertisement featuring a diner in a busy restaurant recalling a conversation with a somewhat aggressive waiter. He recalls the waiter insisting that he try something to treat his indigestion. The waiter’s words, “Try it, you’ll like it!” became a kind of catch phrase used by people all across North America.
Verse 8’s heart of Psalm 34 contains a similar kind of message. James Limburg notes that it’s as if the poet says about serving the Lord, “Give it a try! Look at it. Taste it. Try living it for thirty days. Try prayer and try praise. See for yourself that this religion that we practice is good!”
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