It is not at all clear to me precisely the thinking behind dedicating three August Sundays to a single psalm. Preachers are challenged enough this month on the Gospel side of things with five weeks’ worth of sermons from John 6, all pretty much on the same theme. But now we are getting a triplet of the 34th psalm. Last week was the first 8 verses, this week we get the middle 6 verses, and next week we will get the last 8 verses. It feels a little like chopping up “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” across three nights with your kids: it’s hard to do because it is finally just one story! And Psalm 34 is finally just a single poem.
However, if the first and last 8 verses work a similar (if not the same) theme of how God always delivers those who call out to him, these middle verses do cover some different ground. Having just established the seemingly overly optimistic idea that God will always rescue his people when they ask him to do so, the middle portion of Psalm 34 turns to something of a challenging tone.
Yes, God can be counted on for help. However, that does not mean that as the people of God we can just coast. We have to make concerted efforts to turn from evil. We have to guard our tongues so they don’t speak lies or other evil things. The fact that the people are urged to turn from evil would seem to imply that at least some of Israel had turned toward evil at some point. And based on what we know of Israel’s history after the days of David and Solomon—just read the Minor Prophets—this was certainly the case. Idolatry, mistreatment of the poor, a flagrant disregard for God’s Law: this summed up Israel and even its leadership as often as not in its history.
But at the heart of the few verses assigned by the Lectionary this week there is a solution that is definitely a one-size-fits-all kind of spiritual prospect: nurturing a proper “fear of the Lord.” The Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament assures us that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. And in the New Testament although Jesus is mostly identified as the Word of God made flesh, it is also clear that Jesus is the Wisdom of God made flesh. Jesus himself, then, may also have been the fear of the Lord made flesh.
Years ago when reading one of Frederick Buechner’s novelizations of biblical stories, I was struck by the fact that he often had characters like Isaac and Jacob refer to their God as “The Fear.” Initially I thought this was just Buechner being clever until I checked into it more and discovered that in the Hebrew text, God actually is referred to as “The Fear” in some parts of Genesis. Maybe Isaac coined this after his father’s God very nearly had Abraham sacrifice Isaac on an altar one morning on Mount Moriah!
In any event, it is a curious designation for God and yet not surprising since the fear of the Lord is central to being a faithful follower of God. Of course, “fear” is a multifaceted word and although there is a sense in which we might fear the power of God in the sense of being a bit afraid of God, mostly in the Bible fear of the Lord was meant in the sense of having reverence for God.
Such reverence is often associated with worship. We bow down in humility before the majesty and holiness of God. We praise God for his glory. That is all right and proper. But mostly the fear of the Lord is supposed to be something we carry with us every day whether we are in an overt posture of worship or not. The primary manifestation of this kind of everyday fear is the moral shape of our lives. Do we indeed turn away from evil? Do we discipline our speech so that we speak the truth and avoid lies and slurs and slanders and gossip? Do we live gladly inside the boundaries marked off by God’s moral fences or are we always trying to move those fences to be more convenient for how we want to live?
If we properly fear the majesty and holiness of God when worshiping this same God, then that has to carry over into our behavior and actions. Throughout the Bible we know that God is nauseated by sacrifices made on the Sabbath by people who then turn right around and go back to lives of corruption and abuse. Lives that are shot through with injustice cannot be papered over in God’s sight by a few pious actions here and there when it comes time for worship.
This is the call of the middle portion of Psalm 34. If you want life abundant, fear the Lord and then act accordingly every day. If you expect God to come through for you in times of distress—as this same psalm talks about in its opening and its closing—then display your gratitude for all that in your daily walking and talking and acting.
But don’t fail to notice the last part of verse 14 when the people are called upon to pursue peace. Because this is not peace in the sense of an absence of conflict but rather shalom, that condition of living in which every person and every creature not only senses how connected he or she is to every other living person and creature but actively tries to enhance those relationships into mutually edifying relationships in which we are all striving to build one another up. In a world shot through with shalom the only competition would be to see who can out-enhance whom!
If we pursue those kinds of relationships, then the fear of the Lord will shine from every area of life. And then it will also be true that our worship is not restricted to Sundays in church but becomes a daily reality. Near as I can tell from the Bible, God may enjoy that kind of Wednesday afternoon worship when we do our jobs well and help take care of others almost as much as—maybe even more than—the Sunday stuff!
Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Romans 12:1-2 nicely captures some of what the middle part of Psalm 34 is also trying to say:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 15, 2021
Psalm 34:9-14 Commentary