George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 1

Psalm 34

1. Structure

Sorting out the framework of this psalm is no easy matter. The reconciling of several features is quite a challenge. For instance, verses 4-9 almost demand to be read as ABABAB because of their alternation between singular and plural. Yet, in general, the psalm seems to subdivide into paragraphs of three verses each. However, when account is taken of the historical background, verses 8-18 ask to be read in one piece as David’s exhortation to his followers in a very difficult time.

2. Acrostic form

This accentuates the foregoing complications. The 22 verses follow the Hebrew alphabet strictly except for the omission of Waw and in its place another Pe verse at the end. The reason for this may lie in the suggestion advanced in Par. 5. (Also see Introduction, Chapter 4.)

3. Psalm title

The allusion is to David’s terribly difficult time at the court of Achish (1 Sam. 21). David had fled Saul on the advice of Jonathan, passing through Nob where he retrieved the sword of Goliath, and finally coming to Gath. There he feigned madness, causing Achish to send him away. He then went to the cave of Adullam, where the dispossessed and discontented of Israel flowed unto him, forming the nucleus of his later army. (Psalms 56, 57, and 142 have all been suggested as belonging to this same difficult period.)

4. Historical reference

The background, as stated above, is 1 Samuel 21. David’s reliance on his own superb improvised play-acting in order to deceive Achish of Gath is not a thing to be admired. How different from the reliance upon the Lord of hosts with which he met Goliath of Gath! Amongst the men now asking that he be slain out of hand would be Goliath’s four brothers. These were the more eager because David now came to Gath with Goliath’s own unique sword in his hand (1 Sam. 21:8,9).

His praise shall be continually in my mouth — that mouth which had dribbled spittle into his beard! The sight of the angel of the Lord (v. 7) had changed his tactics (just as Peter’s seeing Jesus in the court of the high priest had changed his temporizing, deceitful tactics).
The humble shall hear thereof, and be glad. So glad, in fact, that they came to join themselves to David’s cause in ever-increasing numbers (1 Sam. 22:1,2).
O magnify the Lord with me. At last David was driven out from Gath and, with so many other desperate men, took refuge in the cave of Adullam. There his first move was to lead these who now joined him in prayers of thanksgiving. This is now a very different David.
I sought the Lord, and he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears. Faith in the care of God is to be built on past experience (see on Par. 8). Having learned this lesson afresh, David now seeks to inculcate it in his followers. This verse implies that in the crisis of danger he had been feigning madness and praying to the Lord at the same time! “Praise God, and keep your gunpowder dry!”
They looked unto him. Or, as the margin, they flowed unto him, as in 1 Sam. 22:2. (The same word occurs in Isa. 2:2; 60:5; Jer. 31:12; 51:44; Mic. 4:1.)

And were lightened. The juxtaposition of ideas suggests the streams of light flowing forth from Moses (Exod. 34:29,35) and Christ (at the Transfiguration) and Stephen (Acts 6:15). The verbs here can also be read as exhortations: “Look to him and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed” (RSV; cp. NEB). Perhaps also lightened expresses the delight of his men at the leader’s return.

To look within is to be miserable (Psa. 77). To look at others is to be distracted (Psa. 73). But to look unto the Lord’s anointed is to be “enlightened”!
This poor man cried, and his cry was Al Taschith, “Destroy me not” (see Psa. 57 title). The abrupt change in this verse to third person singular suggests the possibility of it being a Hezekiah addition, as in a number of other Psalms of David. (Note v. 7 and also that the Lord....saved him is the name Isaiah.)
The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them. This is the exhortational verse par excellence of this psalm (see Par. 9). The phrase “angel of Yahweh” is used only twice in the Psalms. The other reference is 35:5, an example of judgment to contrast with the mercy shown here. Compare Acts 12, where an angel of Yahweh appears twice: once in mercy (vv. 7-11: delivering Peter out of prison) and once in judgment (v. 23: smiting the vile Herod). Angelic agency is often unseen, yet it is recognized by the eye of faith!

Encampeth is hanah, a military camp, and is the root word of the place name Mahanaim (which signifies two camps). This was the site of Jacob’s protection by the unseen hosts of angels (Gen. 32:1,2). As the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day, so the angel of the Lord — a “ministering spirit” — remains with and protects those that fear him: Matt. 18:10; Heb. 1:14; Psa. 91:11; 103:20.

Round about suggests that here angel is used as a collective noun, or that the angel signified here is the captain of a host.
Should vv. 8-18 be read as David’s exhortation to his desperate followers joining him in the outlaw life?

Taste signifies to consider seriously and thoroughly (Rev. 14:5). Adullam is noted for its springs of clear, pure water — a welcome treat in a barren wilderness. The cave and its surroundings are a place of impressive beauty and grandeur, so that we might easily picture David gesturing about him, calling upon his men to taste and see that the Lord has been good to us in providing us safe shelter.

To “taste” may also especially connote the first venture into faith, as it appears to do in both Heb. 6:5 and 1 Pet. 2:3, with the implicit exhortation that one should progress beyond a casual sampling of God’s goodness to a fuller appreciation. Compare similar ideas in Isa. 55:1 and Luke 14:16,17.

The word trusteth fits the context well, for it signifies “to flee for refuge to” (cp. v. 22). How the psalms harp on this supreme virtue of faith! David might well say this, having remembered nearly too late his own extraordinary lapse from trust in God.
Ye his saints....them that fear him. This is what makes a saint. To think that David should refer to these rough desperate outlaws by such a word!
The young lions = David’s hungry band of marauders: cp. 1 Chron. 12:8. A very apt figure if written in the wilds of the “outback”!
Ye children. A not uncommon idiom for followers or disciples. Such a form of address is at the same time affectionate and authoritative. In the words that follow is the code of conduct laid down for David’s growing army.
Keep....thy lips from speaking guile. This expresses David’s rueful repentance for the guile he employed at Nob and in Gath.
He keepeth all his bones. David’s bones were kept; Saul’s were scattered (Psa. 53:5; 1 Sam. 31:9-13)!

5. Passover

There are here distinct suggestions of a Passover psalm:

The angel of the Lord encampeth....and delivereth. These phrases link up readily with Exod. 12:23.
O taste and a rather strange phrase until combined with the Passover meal.
He keepeth all his bones; not one of them is broken. These words echo the ruling about the Passover lamb: Exod. 12:46; Num. 9:12.
Evil shall slay the wicked. Is this a metonymy for one of the Lord’s angels of evil, the destroying angel who slew the firstborn in Egypt? Exod. 12:23; note Psa. 78:49, RV (“angels of evil”, and context).
Why should the acrostic form of the psalm be extended by an extra verse beginning with Pe (for Pesach, or Passover) except as a further reminder that this is a Passover psalm? If also this psalm had an editing at the time of Hezekiah (Par. 4, v. 6, note), that verse becomes especially powerful because the Assyrian army was destroyed at Passover by an angel of the Lord (Isa. 37:36). Attention is also drawn to vv. 19,21,22 with their theme of marvellous deliverance of a stricken people — the very experience of David also at the court of Achish.

6. Messianic reference

What was true for David’s time of trial was true also for his greater Son. The essential difference is, of course, that there was nothing in the reaction of Jesus to match David’s lapse of faith and desperate reliance on his own cleverness and scheming.

His praise....continually in my mouth. The Hebrew word for continually suggests the continual burnt-offering, a ceaseless sacrifice to the Lord. The mouth that is continually filled with praise has no room for complaining, foolish talking, jesting, gossip, or criticism (cp. v. 13).
They looked unto him, and were lightened. Compare Paul’s words about the glory of God to be found (literally and figuratively) in the face of Jesus Christ: 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:6.
The angel of the Lord, as in Luke 22:43 — and Matt. 26:53, an allusion to the twelve legions of angels who guarded Israelite homes in Egypt on Passover night.
Children is used by Jesus in reference to his disciples: Mark 10:24; John 13:33.
Depart from evil was the Lord’s special appeal to Judas: “That thou doest, do quickly” (John 13:27) might better be translated ‘That thou doest, be done with it quickly’.
To cut off the remembrance of them. A further warning to Judas? And what a contrast with: “Do this in remembrance of me”!
Not one of them (i.e. all his bones) is broken. This figure of the members of Christ’s body is frequent and powerful: 139:16; 35:10; 6:2; 22:14. We are all one in Christ; hence v. 3: “Magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.” At first sight there seems to be an inconsistency with 51:8 (“the bones which thou hast broken”). But no! for this last verse speaks of “bones” of sin broken by God.

In the New Testament the figure of “bones” as members of a spiritual “body” is pursued even more vigorously: 1 Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 4:4,16; 5:30. See, of course, John 19:33-36 — where Christ as the Passover lamb (John 1:29; 1 Cor. 5:7) is spared the breaking of his “bones” (Exod. 12:46).

7. Peter’s use of Psalm 34

The context of the apostle’s sustained quotation (Psalm 34:12-16a = 1 Pet. 3:10-12) matches that of the psalm excellently. Instead of David and his outlaws, all of them the quarry of pursuers, there was, at the time when Peter wrote, a violent reproach of the name of Christ (1 Pet. 4:14), and of those who gave him loyalty. (1 Peter, especially chs. 4 and 5, is full of allusions to the Neronian persecution; see also James 2:7.) Thus, just as David exhorted his men to self-discipline and the expression of high ideals in their behavior to friend and foe alike, so also now Peter eloquently exhorts later believers to display in all circumstances a character worthy of the Leader to whom they have pledged loyalty.

It is worthwhile to note the impressively abrupt cut-off of the quotation in the middle of a verse — Peter’s neat device for steering special attention to the words that follow: “to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth”. This very thing, which Nero sought to achieve, they would bring upon their own selves if, to avoid the rigors of persecution, they turned away from Christ. It needed only a pinch of incense on a pagan altar, only a misleading word dissociating oneself from the persecuted Christ, and — humanly speaking — all would be well. But no! “Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile”, for there was “no guile found in his (Christ’s) mouth” (1 Pet. 2:22).

Was 34:10b (“they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing”) the Lord’s warning to Peter, foreseeing his temptation in the court of the high priest’s palace? Yet the apostle did not keep his tongue from evil and from speaking guile.

An earlier allusion also makes attractive use of Psa. 34:8 (= 1 Pet. 2:3): “If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious”; the LXX, used by Peter, has “the Lord is chrestos (a pun on christos!)”. And this follows immediately on another exhortation to avoid “all guile and hypocrisies” (2:1).

And how is one to taste that the Lord is gracious? By “desiring the sincere milk of the word (of Scripture)” and of “the Word ” (Jesus) — a typical double meaning. Accordingly, the exhortation: “Come, ye children....” (34:11) is echoed in Peter’s address to his “babes”: “To whom coming....” (1 Pet. 2:2,4).

As David’s outlaw band came to include many Gentiles along with Jews, so Peter (the Lord’s outlaw) was instrumental in bringing Gentiles (Acts 10) as well as Jews (Acts 2 and 3) into the Lord’s band. See the allusions to Psalm 34 in this light (Whittaker, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles, p. 151).

8. Other details

Cited Eph. 5:20.
My soul shall make her boast in the Lord. Compare Jer. 9:24; 1 Cor. 1:31. Man is not to boast in riches, strength, or honor, but only in knowing God.
Magnify: Luke 1:46: “And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord.”
How to build faith on past experience: Deut. 1:31; Deut. 2 (entire chapter); 7:18; Mark 11:24 (which should read “Believe that you have received”); Psa. 37:25; 22:4; 106:13; 2 Tim. 3:4,11; 2 Cor. 1:10; Gen. 50:20; 24:7; 1 Sam. 17:37; 2 Kings 1:13; Matt. 16:8,9; Mark 8:16-21.
O taste and see. But note also the warning of Heb. 6:4-6 (where also note “enlightened”, as in Psa. 34:5).
Examples of hunger as a means of turning men back to God: Amos 4:6; Luke 15:14-16.
The fear of the Lord: Psa. 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 2:2-5; 8:13; 14:26,27; 15:16,33; 16:6; 19:23; 23:17.
Exhortations concerning the tongue: James 1:26; 3:2-10; 4:11; Prov. 6:17,24; 12:13; 17:4,20; 18:21; 21:23; Tit. 3:2.
Seek peace: Heb. 12:14; Rom. 14:19.
As to the eyes of the Lord, see Psa. 33:18.

His ears are open to their cry: James 5:15,16; Prov. 15:29.
Paul quotes this verse, or its repetition in v. 19, in 2 Tim. 3:11:

”Persecutions, afflictions, which came unto me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra: what persecutions I endured: but out of them all the Lord delivered me.”
Broken heart....contrite spirit = The publican in Christ’s parable: Luke 18:9-14. Compare Psa. 51:17; Isa. 57:15; 66:1,2.
He keepeth all his bones. For the general sense, note also Matt. 10:30: “The very hairs of your head are all numbered.”
None of them that trust in him shall be condemned (RV): Rom. 8:1! “There is therefore no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.

9. Conclusion

“Some Psalms have hearts — in fact, most of them have — but in some they are quite obvious. You can almost see them steadily beating in some deeply embosomed word or in some central, power-motivated sentence. They are places to which we repair when, weary and footsore at the end of the day’s pilgrimage, we seek rest and repose. Such is the seventh verse of Psalm 34, and the powerful word is ‘encampeth’.

“It is essentially an eventide word; whether we are on a pilgrimage or on the battlefield of life, at sundown we must pitch tent....For the time being we must give in and let someone else take up the struggle. But who?

“After we have crept into our little tent at eventide, do we ever think of drawing back the flap and looking out again? We ought to, for there, in the far-stretching realm of the Eternal’s unseen things, we should see the Angel of the Lord encamping with us. There he stands erect, sword drawn, his shining never-sleeping eyes watching” (N.P. Holt).

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