The Fear Of The Lord And The Good Life—Psalm 34 (Part 1)

A common human experience is to wonder what others are thinking. You are sitting there watching someone and you get this strong curiosity about what is going through their mind. We cannot read minds, which is probably a good thing, but we still want to know their thoughts. A penny for your thoughts, as we say. We can ask this of the living, but it is a little harder to satisfy our curiosity about the people of ages past. For as we read the Bible, we often wonder what the characters were thinking. How great would it be to interview Abraham, Daniel, or Deborah and delve into their thoughts? A Q&A with Moses would make an impressive article.

This is generally impossible, but with David we have a bit of an exception. For in the psalms, we are given the thoughts and prayers of David. And in Psalm 34, we specifically find David’s reflection on his time before Achish, when he acted the madman to escape. David’s thoughts, though, do not merely assuage our curiosity, but they also instruct us in the fear of the Lord, especially as it touches on Christ’s vindication as the righteous one.

The preamble informs us about the occasion that David wrote this psalm, when he played insane to escape Achish, or here Abimelech, which is just a royal title for the Philistine king. This places the psalm at the end of 1 Samuel 21. The preamble is probably not inspired—that is David did not write it—nonetheless, it is early and reliable information on the setting of the psalm, which sketches the image of David alone writing in a cave. After David got out of Gath, he ran to hide in the cave of Adullam. Imagine being handcuffed by the Philistines. The officials are clamoring for your execution. By the skin of your teeth, you escape and now you are all alone in a cave. This would make you reflective. So, David pens this poem in response to his situation; he writes down his thoughts about getting out of Gath alive.

And what a poem David writes. For, he puts his thoughts down in an alphabetic acrostic. That is, each verse of this psalm begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet (22 verses for 22 letters). Hence, the first word in verse 1 begins with A, verse 2 with a B, etc. This is a highly artistic and structured psalm, and the acrostic form is significant. The ABC form makes the psalm beautiful and memorable—indeed, a memory aid. It also has a sense of completion; from A to Z the whole matter is covered. Furthermore, to achieve the ABC form, you lose a little step-by-step logic from verse to verse. To get a B word or a C word, you have to move your ideas around a bit. This form, then, invites reflection and meditation. The acrostic wants to make you think. This is a poem to mull over, to chew on like a cow does its cud.

And this thoughtfulness comes out in the first few verses. David opens by promising praise and worship to the Lord, exuding gratitude and thankfulness. Everything he says here has the flavor of praise and thanksgiving, and he gives voice to his praise with an invitation to join him: “Let the humble hear and be glad.” David calls the humble to listen to him, to think about what he is saying and to learn, so that we can join him in magnifying the Lord. David’s goal for this poem is corporate worship. As saints, we are to weep and rejoice with one another. This is part of the family unity we have as the church—to share in each other’s emotions. David may be alone in a cave, but he longs for the humble saints to join him in exalting the name of the Lord. It is like when you get a piece of great news and are so bloated with happiness that you need to tell someone about it. You want others to be happy for you and with you. Thus, David is highlighting the unity and the similarity that we have with him. He is declaring that what the Lord did for him, the Lord likewise does for us.

What then is this shared experience? It is that the Lord heard his prayer and delivered him. When David was in Gath, he was praying. On the outside, David looked like a crazy person, but inside he was praying his heart out. The Philistine executioner was sharpening his axe. The guards held David tight. His enemies boxed David in like a prison. This situation was hopeless; David had no options. All the windows were barred, and the doors bolted. Acting like a madman was a long shot. Prayer was the only thing David had left, but it was all he needed.

The Lord is a God who answers prayer and saves. The Lord ensured there was no vacancy in Achish’s loony bin, so Achish threw David out. Note how David refers to himself as “this poor” or “humble man” in verse 6, which is the same word used in verse 2. David calls the humble to listen because he too is humble. What God did for David, He does for all His lowly people. Certainly, David’s specific case was unique, but it does not advocate acting crazy to get out of a speeding ticket. Rather, he is confident that the Lord hears the cries of His humble people, and that He will deliver them. This is why David keeps alternating between the singular for himself and the plural in verses 4–7.

As the Lord saved David, so the angel of the Lord encircles and rescues all those who fear Him. And since the Lord is a God who saves, David calls us to experience this salvation. He issues a few commands. He tells us to taste and see that the Lord is good, which is a call to know God’s salvation. The Lord’s salvation is sweet and delicious, so David summons us to taste it, to savor it. But how does one taste the rich goodness of the Lord? Well, he gives us a second command, “Fear the Lord.” The Lord’s salvation comes to those who fear Him.

Indeed, note how David piles up different descriptors for God’s people. He first called us humble, then those who fear, the holy ones or saints, the one who takes refuge, and, finally, those who seek. These are the ones whom the Lord delivers; fearers of the Lord have no lack. In our harsh world, even lions can die of starvation, but not those who fear the Lord. He provides every good thing for His people.

Of course, if it is the God-fearers who are saved, then we naturally ask, “How do we fear the Lord? What is this fear of the Lord?” These are probably questions you have asked yourself, for they are questions of utmost importance. David volunteers to be your father and teach you: “Come hear, my children; sit beside me and I will teach you.” David images our heavenly Father as He brings us into the family room and offers to instruct us with fatherly love. And David begins his lesson with a question that sets forth the goal: “What man is there who desires life, who loves many days that he may see good?”

David sets before us a good, long life, full of delight. Do you want a long life filled with health and joyful times? Do you want to be ninety and still have the vigor of a thirty-year-old? Is not this what everyone desires? The long, happy, and rich life is a universal desire. Yet, David’s language here particularly echoes that of Deuteronomy. The blessing of the covenant was a long, good life in God’s land. So, David sets before us the blessed life of the covenant, which is why he answers his question with commands to obey: “Keep your tongue from evil; turn from evil and do good.” If you want the long and good life, then you must guard you lips from deceit. The deceit-free mouth is the one that lives long. Performing what is good and upright, pursuing peace, this is the path to the good life.

Therefore, David points us to blessings of the covenant with the conditions of the covenant. And he finishes with a classic sanction statement. The Lord’s eyes are towards the righteous ones, but the face of the Lord is against the evildoers. The Lord rewards the upright with the long, good life, but He punishes the wicked by erasing the memory of them.

This is an essential aspect of the fear of the Lord. To fear the Lord is to honor and heed His word as true, that the Lord will surely do what He says. A common mistake is for people to think the Lord does not punish, so they can enjoy doing evil. Or we can think that obeying has no benefits, so why bother. The wicked prosper and the upright struggle. God’s word must not be true; He does not do what He says. But, David says, “Not at all. The fear of the Lord means you know God always keeps His word. And God has said the good life comes to the obedient, while judgment falls on the wicked. This is true. Fear God’s word for it will come to pass.”

This, though, makes us squirm a little does it not? Long life comes to the upright and judgment to the wicked, is it really this so neat and clean? But this is how David presents the principle of the law: obey for life; disobey for death. And this reality of law is foundational to proper fear of the Lord. And though uncomfortable, we should let it sit with us to absorb its truth. But David does not leave us in this sinking ship as we will see in part two.

©Zach Keele. All Rights Reserved.


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