Behaving Sanely (Psalm 34:1–22)

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Psalm 34 was written, according to its inscription, by David “when he pretended madness before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he departed.” The historical background to this psalm is found in 1 Samuel 21:1–22:2. David was on the run from Saul, who had begun to seek David’s life. He came to Nob, where he met Ahimelech the priest, and asked for food. The only food available was the showbread, which was given to David, along with Goliath’s sword.

David then fled to Gath, in the land of Philistia, where he hid from Saul. When the Philistines realised that David was there—the young man who had killed their champion, Goliath—they brought him before the Philistine king. David “was very much afraid” of the king, and “so he changed his behaviour” before the Philistines and “pretended madness in their hands, scratched on the doors of the gate, and let his saliva fall down on his beard” (21:12–23)

The Philistine king was angry that they had brought a madman to him, and so he ordered that David be removed from the land. David then fled to a cave in Adullam, where he was joined by his brothers and all his family. Soon, he was joined by “everyone who was in distress, everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented”—a group totalling “about four hundred men” (22:2). It was likely from that cave that he wrote this psalm.

This was a dark, and even a disgraceful, time in David’s life. The great man of faith, who had fearlessly challenged the great Goliath, cowered in fear before the Philistine king. It can be argued that David was wrong to even leave the Promised Land in the first place. This was hardly a shining moment of faith in his life.

As he reflected back on this period in his life, he may perhaps have been tempted to think that he had escaped through his own ingenuity. How clever it was for him to feign insanity before the Philistine king. But this psalm reveals that he did not do that. No, with those four hundred distressed, indebted and discontented men in the dark and dismal cave, David came to his senses. He no longer played the food, but behaved as if he was in his right mind. Psalm 34 flowed from right mind of a young king.

The New Testament tells us that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). This psalm is something of an expansion on that theme. In it, we see, broadly speaking, that there are two characteristics of those who behave sanely: praise (vv. 1–10) and obedience (vv. 11–22).

Thank God!

First, those who behave sanely thank God. David writes,

I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul shall make its boast in the LORD; the humble shall hear of it and be glad. Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt His name together.

I sought the LORD, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears. They looked to Him and were radiant, and their faces were not ashamed. This poor man cried out, and the LORD heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the LORD encamps all around those who fear Him, and delivers them.

Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him! Oh, fear the LORD, you His saints! There is no want to those who fear Him. The young lions lack and suffer hunger; but those who seek the LORD shall not lack any good thing.

(Psalm 34:1–10)

A Resolute Commitment

David begins this psalm with a resolute commitment to regularly and repeatedly glory in the Lord: “I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul shall make its boast in the LORD; the humble shall hear of it and be glad. Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt His name together” (vv. 1–3).

This resolve to praise actually shows great wisdom. As Boice, says, “He may have acted like a fool, but he was not so foolish as to neglect praise of him who was his only true wisdom. He may have been hiding in a dismal cave, but his psalm tells us that in his heart he was hiding in the Lord.”

This commitment is at first intensely personal (vv. 1–2a) before he urges those who are with him to join him in his resolve to praise (vv. 2b–3). The purpose of his personal resolve to praise is that others might come to praise his God with him. VanGemeren is right: “The purpose of praise is not to make God’s people feel good but to acknowledge in a communal way the greatness of our Lord.” His praise is exhortational and instructional.

At our church, on the last Sunday night of every month, we have opportunity during the service for testimonies. We encourage people to give testimony of how God has been working in their lives. Recently, we had one of the most memorable testimony nights that I can recall. Member after member stood up and praised God, testifying of his faithfulness amidst difficulties. I left that night greatly encouraged by the praise that others offered to the Lord. I’m sure many others did too. That is the design of praise in God’s community.

David acknowledges that “the humble” will hear his praise and be glad. In this context, “the humble” are those who are afflicted, and who will be encouraged by the praise that he is offering to God. There is great value in sharing our faith, for the testimony of God’s faithfulness in our lives may well be an encouragement to others who are afflicted. They may come to see that God is God, that He is believable, and that they can share our experience of encouragement in affliction.

Understanding this, we should be committed to corporately giving one another a bigger God. Years ago, J. B. Phillips wrote a great little book titled Your God is Too Small. In it, he argued that far too many professing Christians never grow beyond their Sunday school vision of God. When they are children in Sunday school, they believe that God is big enough to help them deal with the bully on the playground, but when they grow up they find that their vision of God has not grown. He is still big enough to handle the bully on the playground, but adult problems are too big for him.

One way to overcome this small God mentality is to be encouraged by testimonies of how our great God has worked in the very adult afflictions of others. As we see Him at work in their lives, we can be encouraged that He will work in our lives too.

A Radiant Countenance

Next, David speaks of his radiant countenance in the face of affliction:

I sought the LORD, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears. They looked to Him and were radiant, and their faces were not ashamed. This poor man cried out, and the LORD heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the LORD encamps all around those who fear Him, and delivers them.

(Psalm 34:4–7)

In March of 1982, I was in university under the heavy burden of a particular affliction. One night, I said to my roommate that I needed to spend some time alone with God. I left the room and went to a place where I could be alone. I opened to Psalm 34 and began reading and meditating on these words. I spent some time alone, reading and praying to God, before I eventually felt God lift the burden. When I walked back into my room, my roommate looked at me in surprise and asked, “What happened to you?” When I asked what he meant, he told me that my countenance had literally changed. David is describing a similar experience in these verses. A remarkable rescue had produced a radiant countenance.

Sometimes, our fears are our own fault. I am of the persuasion that David never ought to have left the Promised Land in the first place, and so the terror that he experienced in the presence of the Philistine king was largely his own fault. Nevertheless, God lifted his countenance in His kindness.

God’s promises have a way of changing our appearance. This was literally the case with Moses in the book of Exodus. In chapter 34, he spent time on the mountain with God. When he descended the mountain toward the end of the chapter, his face was literally glowing, so that he had to cover his face with a veil.

This section also draws attention to the angel of the LORD, a figure who appears time and again in the Old Testament (see Genesis 16:7–13; Genesis 32:22–32; Exodus 23:20–23; 33:2–3; Judges 13; etc.). Many interpreters of the Bible agree that this angel of the Lord was probably a preincarnate appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ. This angel of the Lord is said to encamp around those who fear the Lord.

Believer, you are not alone—even when you feel as though you are. Will you trust God and be transformed? Stephen’s face was transformed even in the midst of frightening opposition (Acts 6:15; 7:54ff), and ours can be too if we will trust the Lord.

A Restful Contentment

In vv. 8–10 we read of David’s restful contentment: “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him! Oh, fear the LORD, you His saints! There is no want to those who fear Him. The young lions lack and suffer hunger; but those who seek the LORD shall not lack any good thing.”

David had tasted and seen that the Lord was good, and now he exhorts those who are with him to do the same. He had sought the Lord and found him, and he was sure that others would share that experience. Because this was his own experience, he was confident that he knew what he was talking about and he called those with him to trust him.

Note that David is not talking about testing God in a sinful way. He is talking about trusting God’s promises and clinging to them. He is saying that God always proves faithful to His promises. God invites us to trust His promises (see Malachi 3:10), and David is inviting his readers here to do the same. We discover God’s goodness by trusting and surrendering to Him. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5–6).

God is “good,” a term that “embraces everything that is beneficial to life,” according to Ross. The invitation is to taste, to delve with deep trust into God’s character. “The tasting should be more than a casual sampling,” exhorts Kidner. We should believe God and then wait for Him to prove Himself faithful. Jesus pronounced a special blessing on those who, unlike Thomas, had believed Him even without visible evidence (John 20:29). This is not “an empty promise of affluence but an assurance of his responsible care” (Kidner).

The principle is simply this: Those who fear God trust Him and He blesses them.  Those who are wise take refuge in the Lord and they discover that He is good. “The wise taste God’s goodness for themselves by taking refuge in him and by submitting their way of life to him” (VanGemeren).

Fear God!

In the second major section of the psalm, David exhorts his readers, and those with Him in the cave, to fear God.

Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD. Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry. The face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.

The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles. The LORD is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit.

Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all. He guards all his bones; not one of them is broken. Evil shall slay the wicked, and those who hate the righteous shall be condemned. The LORD redeems the soul of His servants, and none of those who trust in Him shall be condemned.

(Psalm 32:11–22)

The fear of God of which he writes here will manifest itself in at least two ways.

Righteous Conduct

First, those who fear God will display righteous conduct.

Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD. Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry. The face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.

The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles. The LORD is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit.

(Psalm 34:11–18)

These verses sound very New Testamentish (see, for example, Ephesians 4–5). David first offers some practical instruction (vv. 11–14), exhorting his readers to listen to the wise. He had learned the fear of God and he was inviting others to join him in learning this. Interestingly, as Paul does in the New Testament, David defines the fear of the Lord by actions. Those who fear the Lord behave in a certain way: They keep their tongue from evil; they depart from evil and do good; they seek peace and pursue it; etc. If they enjoy the goodness of God it will produce good works in their lives.

But David also offers some powerful incentive to obey (vv. 15–18): God is good to those who obey, but His face is against those who rebel. They can therefore trust the Lord to deliver them from their afflictions. “They need not pray polished or precise prayers—they may simply cry out to the Lord in distress, and he will take it from there” (Ross). As before, this is not a promise of avoidance of affliction, but rather a promise of God’s kind care in the face of affliction. With Paul, David learned contentment regardless of circumstances (Philippians 4:11).

Having God near is the privilege of those who fear the Lord. What an incentive! Will you fear God and therefore enjoy His special presence even in your afflictions?

Redemptive Confidence

Finally, David counsels those with him with redemptive confidence: The saved are secure.

Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all. He guards all his bones; not one of them is broken. Evil shall slay the wicked, and those who hate the righteous shall be condemned. The LORD redeems the soul of His servants, and none of those who trust in Him shall be condemned.

(Psalm 34:19–22)

Paul offers this same promise to God’s people in the New Testament. He writes,

What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written:

“Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offence,

And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”

(Romans 9:30–33)

David here offers an interesting summary of those who fear the Lord: They are righteous (v. 19); they are afflicted (v. 19); they are rescued (vv. 19–21); they are redeemed (v. 22); and they are rewarded (v. 22). They are resolute, radiant and restful.

So, will you taste and see that the Lord is good? You can act mad, but the sane way to behave is to take David’s word to heart and experience the faithfulness of the Lord.