Scripture: Psalm 34
Psalm 34 in Historical Context (cf. 1 Sam. 21:10–15)
First, let’s consider Psalm 34 in its historical context. Your Bible translation may include a note that Psalm 34 is a psalm “of David, when he changed his behavior before Abimelech [another name for Achish, King of Gath], so that he drove him out, and he went away” (ESV). The backstory is recorded in 1 Samuel 21.
Saul, the paranoid and hotheaded king of Israel, had been jealous of David and viewed David’s successes as a threat to his reign. He may have swiftly executed David, but Saul’s son Jonathan was David’s best friend and secretly warned him to flee. David was devastated. He and Jonathan wept together, “David weeping the most” (1 Sam. 20:41). Imagine being forced to suddenly leave your home and the person you love most in the world—not because you have done anything wrong, but because a deranged government official doesn’t like you and is diverting his resources to have you murdered.
David first flees to the town of Nob, where he is helped by Ahimelech the priest. Then, in verse 10, he flees to the city of Gath, where Achish was king. David seems to have hoped that he could serve Achish anonymously, blending in with his army. But some of Achish’s servants recognize David and ask the king, “Is not this David the king of the land? Did they not sing to one another of him in dances, ‘Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands’?” (1 Sam. 21:11).
David is terrified. The madman Saul is hot on his trail, and Saul is out for blood. In fact, when Saul finds out that Ahimelech the priest has helped David at Nob, Saul orders the pointless slaughter of 85 priests of the Lord (1 Sam. 22:18). If Achish, King of Gath, decides to seize David and turn him over to Saul, David’s life is over. In a desperate attempt to escape, David “changed his behavior before them and pretended to be insane in their hands and made marks on the doors of the gate and let his spittle run down his beard” (1 Sam. 21:13).
Achish is convinced by David’s ruse, no doubt because the Lord was at work to preserve David’s life. “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1), and God appears to have turned King Achish’s heart to believe that David was truly a madman and send him out of his presence. Achish is frustrated at his servants for bringing David before him: “You see the man is mad. Why then have you brought him to me? Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to behave as a madman in my presence? Shall this fellow come into my house?” (1 Sam. 21:14–15).
David is able to escape to the cave of Adullam. David’s brothers and his father’s house join him there, and “everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander over them. And there were with him about four hundred men” (2 Sam. 22:2).
David recognizes the merciful hand of God in his escape from Achish. Pretending to be insane was a long shot, but God was at work to save and deliver. It was this deliverance that inspired Psalm 34.
David begins in verse 1, “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.” Even in the darkest of times—camping out in a cave, hiding for his life—David was determined to praise God without ceasing. “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job. 1:21). In verses 2 and 3, David invites the humble—like those in debt and distress that had gathered to him at Adullam—to hear his boast in the Lord and join him in praising God: “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!” (Psalm 34:3).
In verses 4–7, David praises God for hearing his prayer and delivering him. Since God hears the cries of his saints and delivers them, David turns in verse 8–14 to call others to join him in fearing God: “Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack!” (Ps. 34:9).
In verses 15–22, David concludes by reminding the righteous that God is with them in their afflictions. Contrary to the false gospel known as the prosperity gospel, God does not promise us perfect health and a carefree life in this world. Both the righteous and the wicked endure pain and suffering: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous” (Ps. 34:19); “Affliction will slay the wicked” (Ps. 34:21). The difference is that God is with the righteous; he draws close to those whose proud hearts have been humbled; he saves those who are at the end of themselves: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18); “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17).
Psalm 34 in Light of Christ
Second, let’s look at this Psalm in light of the whole Bible, which centers on Jesus. When we read Scripture, we should not stop with the original historical context of a passage or what the original human author had in mind when he wrote it. The Bible is a divine book with a divine author, and the Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture is always directing us to Christ. We must read all Scripture, especially the Old Testament, in light of Jesus. This is what Jesus himself taught us when “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to [his disciples] in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk. 24:27).
Irenaeus, the second-century bishop of Lyon, likened the many stories, songs, and proverbs of Scripture to tiles in a mosaic. When properly arranged, the tiles reveal the image of handsome king—King Jesus. Since Jesus has been revealed to us in the gospel, we are able to look back to the Old Testament and see how the various tiles of the mosaic set before us “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
We can start with Psalm 34:20 as an example. David writes, “He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken” (Ex. 12:46). According to John 19:36, this Scripture was fulfilled in Jesus. God kept all the bones of the truly Righteous Man, Jesus Christ, so that not one of them was broken on the cross. Exodus 12:46 says of the Passover Lamb, “you shall not break any of its bones,” and Christ our Passover Lamb was crucified without a broken bone. This was a miracle, since John 19:31–36 records that the Romans broke the legs of the criminals on each side of him:
31 Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. 32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. 35 He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. 36 For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.”
The Gospels present Jesus as a new David, a king in exile, always on the run, with his enemies plotting to kill him. This is especially true in Matthew’s Gospel, which presents Jesus as “fulfilling the life of David” (Matthew, Disciple and Scribe 66). But God does not abandon his Messiah. Even when it seems like his enemies have triumphed over him, Jesus is “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23); his bones are not broken (Jn. 19:36); he is delivered from his afflictions on the third day, when “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24).
Psalm 34 presents Christ as the Savior, Deliverer, and Redeemer of the Church.
Psalm 34 also presents Christ as the Savior, Deliverer, and Redeemer of the Church: “The Lord redeems the life of his servants” (Ps. 34:22). Recently, I’ve been blessed by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir’s rendition of “Psalm 34,” which closely follows the words of the Psalm, then interprets them in light of Jesus, the Son of God:
I sought the Lord
And He answered me
And delivered me
From every fear
Those who look on Him
They’ll never be ashamed
They’ll never be ashamed
This poor man cried
And the Lord heard me
And saved me from
The Son of God
Surrounds His saints
He will deliver them
He will deliver them
If we seek Jesus, he will deliver us from all of our fears. When we come to Christ as a poor man, Jesus will not turn us away. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt. 5:3), for Jesus will save them out of all of their troubles. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). The church is the body of believers that have joined David in the cave of Adullam: “everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander over them.”
It is those who have come to Jesus, Peter says, that “have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet. 2:3). Will you come to Jesus, place your faith in him, and taste “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior” (Titus 3:4)? “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Ps. 34:8; cf. Ps. 2:12).
“Those who look to him are radiant” (Ps. 34:5). As the face of Moses was radiant when it beheld the glory of God, 2 Corinthians 3:18 tells us that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” The people of God are sanctified as they see and savor the Son of God.
The people of God are sanctified as they see and savor the Son of God.
Because he is my Deliverer and Refuge, I will bless Jesus at all times. My soul will make its boast in Christ alone. Oh, magnify Jesus with me, and let us exalt his name together! For “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Psalm 34:1–3).
Moral Application from Psalm 34
Third, let’s consider some of the moral applications of Psalm 34. The same Spirit who inspired the Scriptures and illuminates the church to see Jesus in the Scriptures is at work in the church to make us more like Jesus. This is the Father’s predestined plan: to conform us to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29). Once we understand a passage of Scripture in light of its original context and in light of the whole Bible, which centers on Jesus, then we are prepared to read it with an eye towards specific things that the Spirit wants to do in the church to make us look more like the handsome king. Here are three applications.
First, since God has delivered us from our enemies in Christ, we should thank and praise him constantly, even in the worst circumstances (Ps. 34:1–3). Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” God may have a very specific plan for your life; he may want you to be a preacher or a missionary; but don’t became so fraught with “finding God’s will” that you overlook this fact: God has already revealed his will for you, and it is to be a person who thanks God in all circumstances. The Lord delivers his saints, and he deserves our unending praise.
It may seem impossible to give thanks “always,” “constantly,” or “without ceasing.” But consider this: What do you do when you have a spare moment in the day? If you grab your smartphone and lift it up to your face, then it is fair to say that you are on your phone “constantly” and “without ceasing,” even though, of course, much of your day is spent doing other things. Looking at your phone is your default position in life. But what if our default position in life was to look to Jesus—to lift up our eyes to God in thanksgiving and praise? This is one mark of a Spirit-filled life: “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:18–21). God wants the default position of our lives to be looking at Jesus, not looking at our smartphones.
God wants the default position of our lives to be looking at Jesus, not looking at our smartphones.
Second, since God delivers those who fear him, we should fear God by keeping our tongues from evil and our lips from speaking deceit (Ps. 34:13). To do this, we must rely on the power of the Spirit at work in our lives, since “no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (Jas. 3:8).
Fearing God also means turning away from all evil and doing good (Ps. 34:14). It means seeking peace and pursuing it, or as Hebrews 12:14 puts it, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
A final application is this: since Jesus is the only sure refuge, we should flee to him constantly, and rely on him to overcome our enemies. Jesus taught us to pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Arise each day in the spirit of St. Patrick’s Prayer:
I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me;
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s hosts to save me
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a multitude.
Christ shield me today
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through the mighty strength
Of the Lord of creation.
Psalm 34 and the Redemption of All Things
Let’s conclude, fourth and finally, by reading Psalm 34 in light of God’s plan to redeem all things. Scripture is taking us somewhere. If you have ever flipped ahead to the end of a novel, you cannot help but read all the beginning parts in light of the ending. Since we know the end of the story, we should intentionally read the beginning parts in light of God’s plan to redeem all things. God created all things, and he is making all things new.
Psalm 34 addresses the affliction that the righteous face at the hands of the wicked in this world. But as the Apostles’ Creed says, Christ ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. On that day, the Lord will deliver his saints. “Those who hate the righteous will be condemned” (Ps. 34:21). The Lord will gather his elect from the ends of the earth, and deliver them from all of their troubles once and for all. On that day, “none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned” (Ps. 34:22). He will be forever near to those who were brokenhearted in this life (see Rev. 21:1–5).
Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord will deliver us out of them all. Now, we have a foretaste of the goodness of the Lord; then, we will feast on his mercies forever. Now, we see in part; then, we will behold the Lord in all his radiant goodness. Romans 8:18–24 gives us a beautiful picture of the eschatological hope to which Psalm 34 points:
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved.