Reflections on Psalm 34
(1)I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. (2)My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad. (3)O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together. (4)I sought the Lord and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. (5)Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. (6)This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble. (7)The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. (8)O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him. (9)O fear the Lord, you his holy ones; for those who fear him have no want. (10)The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. (11)Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. (12)Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good? (13)Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. (14)Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it. (15)The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry. (16)The face of the Lord is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth. (17)When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and rescues them from all their troubles. (18)The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. (19)Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all. (20)He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken. (21)Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned. (22)The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.
I usually begin my mornings with a Psalm. Quiet. Restful. Reassuring me of the intimate care of a God who is my Shepherd. Reminding me of God’s care for the needy as well as for me. Reminding me as well of God’s concern for justice among the nations. Praising this God who creates and sustains all that is and all that ever has been. Music for my soul.
Until I come to Psalm 34. Here the music becomes dissonant. Jarring, in fact, as I read of a God who rescues from every trouble (see bold verses above). From every trouble? Then, where, I wonder, where is that rescue for so many who long for God’s rescue?
I live with a chronic illness. I have a number of friends who are coping with chronic illnesses, a number of friends who are caring for a spouse or child with a chronic illness. I also read the morning paper, listen to the evening news, and see and hear the woes of the world piling one on top of the other. The dark side of life. All of us have experienced this to some degree. All of us have known something of the sometime absence and silence of God.
So Psalm 34’s claim of God’s “always-rescue” has been a problem for me. It’s an exuberant psalm, apparently written by King David after he had been delivered from the clutches of a foreign king. And I can understand the keenness of his joy. I, too, have had moments—haven’t we all?—moments of sensing God’s strong, delivering hand in our lives. But David’s promises in this psalm seem to over-reach. Spilling out their blissful pledges of God’s deliverance from every trouble, they seem to describe a world quite alien to the real world of illness and pain and evil writ so large across our lives.
Or do they? I’ve spent a good bit of time puzzling through this psalm, ranting at times, more quietly listening at other times. One thing has become very clear to me. The God of Psalm 34 is not a distant God, but rather a God who is deeply involved in all the ups and downs of our lives. A God with eyes and ears focused on our everyday lives. In the words of Walter Brueggemann, a God who is “present in, participating in, and attentive to the darkness, weakness, and displacement of life” (from The Message of the Psalms). I like the way folk musician Iris DeMent sings of this God as a God who reaches down, gets right down there on the ground to touch our pain.
This Presence is surely a gift, but the troubles remain. So instead of singing so exultantly about God’s deliverance, why doesn’t the psalmist simply state what we all know—sometimes this ever-present God’s delivers; sometimes not. At least not in the way in which we would like to experience God’s deliverance. We (at least I!) would like for God to wave a magic wand and make our troubles presto-vanish in the wind. We (I!) do not like darkness.
But I’m coming to realize that maybe God’s deliverance is always real, but real in ways only apparent if we are humbly learning what David calls “the fear of the Lord” (v. 11), learning to live into an acceptance of the mystery of who God is and of who we are. Certainly, if the God who delivered David is truly there with us in the darkness, “near to the brokenhearted” (v. 18), eyes seeing us, ears hearing us (v. 15), that in itself is a consolation and an opening to deliverance. Realizing deep within our souls that we are not alone, not unseen, not unnoticed, but are accompanied by a divine Presence:
- delivers us from the isolation that so often accompanies the darknesses of life,
- delivers us from self-pity,
- delivers and enables us to find a mindful acceptance of the disruptions of our lives,
- delivers and opens us up to new resources, new inner strengths,
- delivers us even to a new wonder at the Mystery in which we live and move and have our being.
In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of Jacques Lusseyran, who was blinded while still a young boy. He never was “delivered” from the blindness of his physical eyes, but Lusseyran learned to “see” a new light in his soul; learned as well to hear amazing things with his ears and developed a deep sensitivity to everything he touched or sensed around him. Certainly his life was limited by his blindness, but that very blindness also opened up his life, and I do believe that Lusseyran, like so many who have been “delivered” in unexpected ways, would gladly sing Psalm 34 and rejoice in God’s ever-present deliverance.
I pray that I may learn to do the same.