Posted On August 11, 2018

Psalm 34:1-3: “Bless the Lord!”

by | Aug 11, 2018 | pSaturday Psalms, Theology

Introduction:

Toward the end of Book 1 of the Psalms lies Psalm 34; an acrostic Psalm of David written during the time David feigned madness before the Canaanite king Achish. This was during his flight from Saul. David left his dearest friend Jonathan, and his father and brothers, to flee his homeland. He was the very man for whom it was sung that he had slain his ten thousands, and now he reduces himself to pretending madness before a foreign king.  David is a stranger in a strange land. He’s in danger, alone, far from home, and seemingly far from the protection of the God who chose him as the rightful king. It was a dark time for David.

But like a phoenix out of the ashes rose a great king.  A man that God used mightily for His purposes. Forged by the trials of his life -and there would be many- David, having already destroyed the giant Goliath, would go on to conquer much of the land promised to Israel, and become a man after God’s own heart. But from the ashes of this  particular darkness, from this unique time of David’s flight, rises Psalm 34; a magnificent testimony to the goodness of God.

From that fertile soil of suffering grew trust in God, reverence for His holiness, and ultimately the great comfort and surety of God’s promises.  In this Psalm, which commentator Gerald Wilson calls the “beatitudes of the Old Testament”1, we see David teach us those things he learned, and boast in his God.  Above all, we can’t help but sit with David, in awe of the unfathomable compassion of God to not only redeem us but also care for our every wound.

Background:

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Verse 1 opens with the ever important occasion of the Psalm.  Much is made in academic circles to cast doubt on the occasions and other comments that became part of the Psalms.  There are interesting arguments to be heard and made, but traditionally, believers have had little doubt about the authenticity of these occasions.  In this particular Psalm lies one of the great arguments for those casting doubts, because it is said in verse 1 that David feigned madness before “Abimelech”.  The historic occasion of this Psalm is 1 Sam 21:10-15, which shows the king’s name is not Abimelech but Achish.

A mistake and contradiction, the skeptics tell us!  Proof that the Bible went through several revisions!  Proof of the late writing of the Old Testament during the intertestamental period!  Proof of the dubious authorship other than what is stated! Fire up the blogs and inform the seminary professors!  We’ve finally disproved the entire Bible!  So say the skeptics and critics that latch onto any excuse they can to cast doubts on the Scriptures.  

Rational people, on the other hand, try to put themselves in the shoes of the people in Old Testament times and are more prone to trust the document, rather than the critic, until evidence can be presented to move them from that position.  The fact is: it’s FAR more likely that the people of that day knew exactly what was meant by Psalm 34:1, and it is far more likely that Abimelech is a generic term for the Canaanite king, much like Caesar and Pharaoh are generic names for the Roman and Egyptian emperors2.  The Bible doesn’t contradict here, it merely understands the situation better than a 21st century blogger with a chip on his shoulder (and I say that as a 21st century blogger who sometimes has a chip on his shoulder!).

1 Samuel 21:10-15 reads as follows:  

[10] Then David arose and fled that day from Saul, and went to Achish king of Gath. [11] But the servants of Achish said to him, “Is this not David the king of the land? Did they not sing of this one as they danced, saying, ‘Saul has slain his thousands, And David his ten thousands’?” [12] David took these words to heart and greatly feared Achish king of Gath. [13] So he disguised his sanity before them, and acted insanely in their hands, and scribbled on the doors of the gate, and let his saliva run down into his beard. [14] Then Achish said to his servants, “Behold, you see the man behaving as a madman. Why do you bring him to me? [15] “Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this one to act the madman in my presence? Shall this one come into my house?” {1Sa 21:10-15 NASB}  

After that, David left Gath and continued to wander the Cannanite wilderness.

As I mentioned, this is an acrostic Psalm which means that the 22 verses begin with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  This, of course, is completely lost in the translation to English, and it’s not exactly perfect in the original Hebrew, but a Hebrew reader could certainly recognize the pattern.  The point of an acrostic is to make it easy to memorize. God saw it fit to make a Psalm such as this easy to recall in difficult times; perhaps we should take the hint.

Verse 1

[A Psalm] of David when he feigned madness before Abimelech, who drove him away and he departed. I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. 

The psalms are the prayer book and hymnbook of the Bible.  Psalm 34 is a great demonstration of the brilliance of that format.  Verses 1-7 have a rhythm to them. We see a call which is usually a straightforward statement, then an answer which usually enhances the statement, and then a resolution of sorts which acts a result or a comment, playing off of what was said in the first half of the verse.  For example, in verse 1, David calls out “I will bless the Lord”, and then answers that call with the enhancement “at all times”, which he then follows up with a resolution “His praise shall be continually in my mouth”. Call, answer, response. And that’s the pattern of the first 7 verses.  It’s easy to see how one could set music to it.

When we take into account what was happening when David wrote the Psalm, it would be easy to think he would be rather depressed.  But instead we find the opposite. The entire Psalm is full of optimism and hope. In verse 1, David is blessing the Lord to the point of resolving to have God’s praise continually in his mouth.  It is upon simple, easily grasped truths that David hangs his hope. That’s not a bad policy for those going through trials. David may not be able to do anything about Saul pushing him out of the kingdom, but he sure can control his attitude.  These verses are all about attitude. He’s blessing God, which implies more than just saying nice things about God.

Gerald Wilson talks at great length about how this concept is found throughout the Old Testament3.  Traditionally, Christians have often shied away from the idea of “blessing God”, but that’s what David resolved to do here.  Blessing God is much more than just talking back to God about His goodness. The very word itself seems to imply a determination to also give back to God too.  It’s about being purposeful in that regard, a drive to honor God in word AND deed.  The exact phrase is found 23 times in Scripture, all in the Old Testament most notably in Psalm 103; “Bless God” is found once in Psalm 64.  The determination it expresses is a major teaching woven throughout the Old Testament. We’d do well to take note of it.

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The Jews of the Old Testament, although often from poor motives, took quite literally the idea of the praise of God being continually in their mouths.  Among the many scrolls found in the Dead Sea Scrolls that were NOT Scripture was a scroll called “The Community Rule“.  Inside this scroll is described (among other things) a system by which at least one priest in all of Israel was studying the Word of God and praising Him at all times.  This commitment may have taken on a legalistic motive from time to time, but the principle they built the ritual on does accurately capture the idea of “continually” here in the Psalm.  David is responding to his determination to “bless the Lord at all times” by resolving to praise with his mouth at all times.

Verse 1 sets the tone for the Psalm. In this dark time of David’s life, he doesn’t write a lament, he praises his God. Make no mistake, the core of this verse is “praise” the sentence literally makes no sense without it.  The grammar emphasizes it and the message is clear: Let God be praised “continually”, and let that praise not be silent. The answer to difficulty for the sinner is to curse God and die. The answer for the Christian is to bless God and praise Him.  He alone deserves our praise, regardless of circumstances.   As Spurgeon said “It is well to mark the mercies of God with wellcarved memorials.”4 David resolved to do just that, and so must we.

Verses 2 and 3

[2] My soul will make its boast in the LORD; The humble will hear it and rejoice. [3] O magnify the LORD with me, And let us exalt His name together.

Verse 2 begins a series of 3 couplets.  In this case the couplets are of two verses where the first verse says something about David, and the second invites the reader to join in what David is experiencing.  In verse 2 David is boasting in the Lord and verse 3, he’s inviting us to magnify God with him.  David can’t find a whole lot to boast about with his own life at this low point, but he doesn’t grumble.  Instead, he brags about the Lord, and the humble hear it and rejoice. 

Isn’t God great, that gives the humble a reason to rejoice?  The humble have little to rejoice in, but they will always have their Lord.  Spurgeon points out that this verse redeems the natural inclination to boast, turning to praise of God’s glory instead of self-serving building up of ourselves.5  Boasting in oneself is a persistent sin for even the most shy among us; and David was not shy.  Yet, it’s again a simple truth, a small idea to hold onto that sets David’s mind and heart on the right track.  He will boast in the Lord, not in himself, and it will honor God and serve others.  David is actively managing and taking proactive steps with his attitude in the midst of a trial.  “We ought to talk of the Lord’s goodness on purpose that others may be confirmed in their trust in a faithful God,says Charles Spurgeon.6

In verse 3, he calls us to magnify God and exalt His name together.  The word for magnify there is also the word for “tower” and “greatness”. It is the type of word that carries a majestic weight with it.  When David writes about praising God, he leaves little doubt that God deserves nothing short of the greatest praise man can offer. That’s the kind of idea being communicated there.  Spurgeon, following up his idea from verse 2, reminds us that this verse is the fulfillment of verse 2.7  How do we boast in the Lord?  We magnify His name, make Him known, and proclaim his greatness throughout the world; and we do it together.

It’s worth asking how a God who is already the greatest there can be can possibly be “magnified”.  It’s important to remember that the believer never changes God but God always changes the believer; and also sometimes God can change the watching world.  When we honor God, we don’t make God more honorable, but we become people who honor Him.  When we pray, we don’t make God more knowledgeable, but we become people who sought Him and wished to speak with Him.  And so also, when we praise God, God does not become better, but we become people who praise Him. ALSO, importantly & additionally, those who do not yet know God are left with little doubt as to what we believe our God to be, and have heard a good report of who He is.  Come, let us exalt His name together!

1 Gerald Wilson, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002), 573.

2 Steve Lawson, Holman Old Testament Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 183.

3 Wilson, 572-573.

4 Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David (Chios Classics, 2015), Kindle Location 17189.

5 Spurgeon, Loc. 17195

6 ibid

7 ibid

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