Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 8, 2021

Psalm 34:1-8 Commentary

These days I am contributing two sermon commentaries a week here on the CEP website: the Old Testament reading and the Psalm.  This week I worked on the Old Testament passage first: the tragic story of the unraveling of David’s household through the rebellion and later the heartbreaking death of David’s son Absalom.  So having just worked through that sad story, it was a striking experience to turn to Psalm 34.

Because if the story in 2 Samuel 18 tells us anything, it is that even the favored of God are not spared every hardship.  Yes, all those sad events seem to spiral out from David’s egregious sin against Bathsheba and Uriah.  The prophet Nathan indicated that though David was forgiven, he probably had not quite heard the end of the matter.  Indeed, he had not.

But whether we construe what all went down with Absalom as in part David’s fault or something else, the fact is that this represents a dreadful episode.  We can be quite certain that if David really is the author of the 34th psalm, this was not a song he sang anytime too soon after what we read about in the Old Testament passage for this week.  David for sure knew that on this particular occasion, he had not been delivered from every bad thing by God.

Within just the first 8 verses assigned by the Lectionary, the psalmist claims God always hears every cry for deliverance, that the righteous never have faces covered in shame.  And then near the end of the psalm beyond the bounds of this lection, the psalmist says that even when the righteous have troubles, “the Lord delivers him from them all.”

Who knows if the people who assemble the Lectionary were trying to send a message by yoking these two passages.  Whether they intended to do so or not, however, I think we can discern a few things that might be worth preaching about.

First we can observe that for all its sunny promises, Psalm 34 is not the only type of poem within the Hebrew Psalter.  There are plenty of other laments that indicate not only that trouble can and often does come to even righteous people, but sometimes that trouble lingers for a good long while too.  We for sure need to know this and preach about this.  The one line of thought we should wish to banish from the church as much as any other is the one that says “When trouble comes, it’s because your faith is weak or you did something wrong or you did not pray hard enough or . . . .”  Or any number of things that you can read about in the Book of Job on the lips of Job’s miserable so-called friends.

Second, however, we can also see Psalm 34 as having multiple and differing horizons of fulfillment that are worth noticing and also celebrating.  Sometimes people in our congregations can testify that following a genuinely harrowing stretch of their lives, the Lord did answer prayers, God did bring some measure of healing, deliverance, and restoration.  Whether those good things were precisely what these people had been hoping and praying for, something happened that reassured them that God was near after all.  They had not been abandoned.  We need to listen to these testimonies and find prudent ways to bring them into the proclamation of the gospel in our congregations.

But such relatively near-term fulfillments of what Psalm 34 promises can also give way to the longer-term fulfillment that we all expect by and by.  No, we dare never wave away someone’s current (and undeniably bad) pain with some trite “Don’t worry: in heaven it will be all better” kind of overly sunny pronouncement.  Most people find that attempt to paper over genuine sorrow to be merely offensive.  And they are right.

Still, we do have the consolation of God’s ultimate promises in Christ.  We do believe that in the cosmic long run, wrongs will be righted, unjust suffering will be reversed, those who for now got away with murder will face a reckoning, and in the words of a well-known saint, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”  Yes, this is prone to run overly far in the direction of “pie in the sky by and by” optimism but that is no reason to not at least try to encourage the downtrodden with this final hope for restoration and justice.

Because in that longest possible run the final verse of Psalm 34 will ring true eternally:

The Lord will rescue his servants;
no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned.

Illustration Idea

If we connect the ultimate promises of Psalm 34 to the rescue finally provided by Christ Jesus, it might remind us of a fairly well-known little parable.  I first heard it on the TV program The West Wing when the White House Chief of Staff Leo is trying to help the deputy Chief of Staff, Josh, through a rough time of dealing with PTSD after nearly getting killed in an assassination attempt on the President.  Leo is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict and so knows full well what Josh is going through and so connects Josh to a therapist who really did help.  When Josh wonders why Leo is doing this, Leo tells this fable or parable:

A guy is walking down the street and suddenly falls into this really deep hole.  The walls are steep and slick.  A doctor wanders by and the guy cries out, “Hey, Doc, can you help me?”  The doctor writes out a prescription and throws it down the hole.  A priest comes by and the guy calls out, “Father, can you give me a hand?”  The priest writes out a prayer and drops it into the hole.

The guy’s best friend comes by and he says, “Hey, Joe, can you help me out?”  Joe immediately jumps into the hole.  “What did you do that for, dummy, now we’re both stuck down here.”  But Joe answers, “Nah.  I’ve been down here before.  And I know the way out.”


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