Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 25, 2015
Psalm 34:1-8 (19-22) Commentary
Psalm 34 blends thanksgiving to God for answering prayer with teaching about the kind of godliness that’s the most appropriate response to God’s salvation. Yet as the NIV Study Bible points out, that combination makes this psalm somewhat unique. After all, most psalms’ thanksgiving leads to calls to others to join in that praise.
There’s certainly an element of that movement, particularly in verse 3’s, “Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together.” However, in Psalm 34, the poet’s thanksgiving largely leads her to instruct her fellow worshipers about how to live godly lives.
This psalm is realistic about the plight of even worshipers 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). 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 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 troubles some of God’s children experience. It can stimulate 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 their neighbors, family members or friends.
That natural human neglect and deafness is part of the reason why Psalm 34 offers such great news for those who experience 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 one who is very personal, who looks at and carefully listens to God’s adopted sons and daughters.
This offers those who preach and teach Psalm 34 an opportunity to reflect with hearers 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 address such forgetfulness by helping hearers to more carefully reflect on God’s personal care.
Certainly 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. So, for example, in verse 4 he remembers how God “delivered” him from all his “fears.” Yet 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.” Yet 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, insists the poet, God’s children are blessed.
In 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 Job 42:1-6. That passage follows four chapters of God speaking to Job after allowing him to suffer so “many troubles.” God’s repeated questions have finally silenced both Job and his know-it-all friends. Yet in Job 42 God’s beleaguered adopted son finally does respond. In words reminiscent of Psalm 34:8 he admits, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” His words sound a bit like those of Thomas who, on seeing the resurrected Jesus, believes in him. Yet we don’t sense that Job is claiming that he has somehow seen God. Instead he seems to be admitting that he’s seen God’s majesty for himself and that it has shown him his arrogance in questioning and challenging God’s goodness.
The Lectionary also pairs Psalm 34 with Mark 10:46-52 where we read of a blind man who cries out to Jesus, asking him to have mercy on him by restoring his sight. Jesus graciously responds by healing from his blindness. That healed man gets to both see that the Lord is good and experience the blessing that comes from such recognition.
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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