Expositor's Bible Commentary
A Psalm of David, when he changed his behaviour 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.Psalm 34:1-22THE occasion of this psalm, according to the superscription, was that humiliating and questionable episode, when David pretended insanity to save his life from the ruler of Goliath’s city of Gath. The set of critical opinion sweeps away this tradition as unworthy of serious refutation. The psalm is acrostic, therefore of late date; there are no references to the supposed occasion; the careless scribe has blundered "blindly" (Hupfeld) in the king’s name, mixing up the stories about Abraham and Isaac in Genesis with the legend about David at Gath; the didactic, gnomical cast of the psalm speaks of a late age. But the assumption that acrostic structure is necessarily a mark of late date is not by any means self-evident, and needs more proof than is forthcoming; the absence of plain allusions to the singer’s circumstances cuts both ways, and suggests the question, how the attribution to the period stated arose, since there is nothing in the psalm to suggest it; the blunder of the king’s name is perhaps not a blunder after all, but, as the Genesis passages seem to imply, "Abimelech" (the father of the King) may be a title, like Pharaoh, common to Philistine "kings," and Achish may have been the name of the reigning Abimelech; the proverbial style and somewhat slight connection and progress of thought are necessary results of acrostic fetters. If the psalm be David’s, the contrast between the degrading expedient which saved him and the exalted sentiments here is remarkable, but not incredible. The seeming idiot scrabbling on the gate is now saint, poet, and preacher; and, looking back on the deliverance won by a trick, he thinks of it as an instance of Jehovah’s answer to prayer! It is a strange psychological study; and yet, keeping in view the then existing standard of morality as to stratagems in warfare, and the wonderful power that even good men have of ignoring flaws in their faith and faults in their conduct, we may venture to suppose that the event which evoked this song of thanksgiving and is transfigured in Psalm 34:4 is the escape by craft from Achish. To David his feigning madness did not seem inconsistent with trust and prayer.
Whatever be the occasion of the psalm, its course of thought is obvious. There is first a vow of praise in which others are summoned to unite (Psalm 34:13); then follows a section in which personal experience and invocation to others are similarly blended (Psalm 34:4-10); and finally a purely didactic section, analysing the practical manifestations of "the fear of the Lord" and enforcing it by the familiar contrast of the blessedness of the righteous and the miserable fate of the ungodly. Throughout we find familiar turns of thought and expression, such as are usual in acrostic psalms.
The glad vow of unbroken praise and undivided trust, which begins the psalm, sounds like the welling over of a heart for recent mercy. It seems easy and natural while the glow of fresh blessings is felt, to "rejoice in the Lord always, and again to say Rejoice." Thankfulness which looks forward to its own cessation, and takes into account the distractions of circumstance and changes of mood which will surely come, is too foreseeing. Whether the vow be kept or no, it is well that it should be made; still better is it that it should be kept, as it may be, even amid distracting circumstances and changing moods: The incense on the altar did not flame throughout the day, but, being fanned into a glow at morning and evening sacrifice it smouldered with a thread of fragrant smoke continually. It is not only the exigencies of the acrostic which determine the order in Psalm 34:2 : "In Jehovah shall my soul boast,"-in Him, and not in self or worldly ground, of trust and glorying. The ideal of the devout life, which in moments of exaltation seems capable of realisation, as in clear weather Alpine summits look near enough to be reached in an hour, is unbroken praise and undivided reliance on and joy in Jehovah. But alas-how far above us the peaks are! Still to see them ennobles, and to strive to reach them secures an upward course.
The solitary heart hungers for sympathy in its joy, as in its sorrow; but knows full well that such can only be given by those who have known like bitterness and have learned submission in the same way. We must be purged of self in order to be glad in another’s deliverance, and must be pupils in the same school in order to be entitled to take his experience as our encouragement, and to make a chorus to his solo of thanksgiving. The invocation is so natural an expression of the instinctive desire for companionship in praise that one needs not to look for any particular group to whom it is addressed; but if the psalm be David’s, the call is not inappropriate in the mouth of the leader of his band of devoted followers.
The second section of the psalm (Psalm 34:4-10) is at first biographical, and then generalises personal experience into broad universal truth. But even in recounting what befel himself, the singer will not eat his morsel alone, but is glad to be able at every turn to feel that he has companions in his happy experience. Psalm 34:4-5 are a pair, as are Psalm 34:6-7, and in each the same fact is narrated first in reference to the single soul and then in regard to all the servants of Jehovah. "This poor man" is by most of the older expositors taken to be the psalmist, but by the majority of moderns supposed to be an individualising way of saying, "poor men." The former explanation seems to me the more natural, as preserving the parallelism between the two groups of verses. If so, the close correspondence of expression in Psalm 34:4 and Psalm 34:6 is explained, since the same event is subject of both. In both is the psalmist’s appeal to Jehovah presented; in the one as "seeking" with anxious eagerness, and in the other as "crying" with the loud call of one in urgent need of immediate rescue. In both, Divine acceptance follows close on the cry, and in both immediately, ensues succor. "He delivered me from all my fears," and "saved him out of all his troubles," correspond entirely, though not verbally. In like manner Psalm 34:5 and Psalm 34:7 are alike in extending the blessing of the unit so as to embrace the class. The absence of any expressed subject of the verb in Psalm 34:5 makes the statement more comprehensive, like the French "on," or English "they." To "look unto Him" is the same thing as is expressed in the individualising verses by the two phrases, "sought," and "cried unto," only the metaphor is changed into that of silent, wistful directing of beseeching and sad eyes to God. And its issue is beautifully told, in pursuance of the metaphor. Whoever turns his face to Jehovah will receive reflected brightness on his face; as when a mirror is directed sunwards, the dark surface will flash into sudden glory. Weary eyes will gleam. Faces turned to the sun are sure to be radiant.
The hypothesis of the Davidic authorship gives special force to the great assurance of Psalm 34:7. The fugitive, in his rude shelter in the cave of Adullam, thinks of Jacob, who, in his hour of defenceless need, was heartened by the vision of the angel encampment surrounding his own little band, and named the place "Mahanaim," the two camps. That fleeting vision was a temporary manifestation of abiding reality. Wherever there is a camp of them that fear God, there is another, of which the helmed and sworded angel that appeared to Joshua is Captain, and the name of every such place is Two Camps. That is the sight which brightens the eyes that look to God. That mysterious personality, "the Angel of the Lord," is only mentioned in the Psalter here and in Psalm 35:1-28. In other places, He appears as the agent of Divine communications, and especially as the guide and champion of Israel. He is "the angel of God’s face," the personal revealer of His presence and nature. His functions correspond to those of the Word in John’s Gospel, and these, conjoined with the supremacy indicated in his name, suggest that "the Angel of the Lord" is, in fact, the everlasting Son of the Father, through whom the Christology of the New Testament teaches that all Revelation has been mediated. The psalmist did not know the full force of the name, but he believed that there was a Person. in an eminent and singular sense God’s messenger, who would cast his protection round the devout, and bid inferior heavenly beings draw their impregnable ranks about them. Christians can tell more than he could of the Bearer of the name. It becomes them to be all the surer of His protection.
Just as the vow of Psalm 34:1 passed into invocation, so does the personal experience of Psalm 34:4-7 glide into exhortation. If such be the experience of poor men, trusting in Jehovah. how should the sharers in it be able to withhold themselves from calling on others to take their part in the joy? The depth of a man’s religion may be roughly, but on the whole fairly, tested by his irrepressible impulse to bring other men to the fountain from which he has drunk. Very significantly does the psalm call on men to "taste and see," for in religion experience must precede knowledge. The way to "taste" is to "trust" or to "take refuge in" Jehovah. "Crede et manducasti," says Augustine. The psalm said it before him. Just as the act of appealing to Jehovah was described in a threefold way in Psalm 34:4-6, so a threefold designation of devout men occurs in Psalm 34:8-10. They "trust," are "saints," they "seek." Faith, consecration and aspiration are their marks. These are the essentials of the religious life, whatever be the degree of revelation. These were its essentials in the psalmist’s time, and they are so today. As abiding as they, are the blessings consequent. These may all be summed up in one-the satisfaction of every, need and desire. There are two ways of seeking for satisfaction: that of effort, violence and reliance on one’s own teeth and claws to get one’s meat; the other that of patient, submissive trust. Were there lions prowling round the camp at Adullam, and did the psalmist take their growls as typical of all vain attempts to satisfy the soul? Struggle and force and self-reliant efforts leave men gaunt and hungry. He who takes the path of trust and has his supreme desires set on God, and who looks to Him to give what he himself cannot wring out of life, will get first his deepest desires answered in possessing God, and will then find that the One great Good is an encyclopedia of separate goods. They that "seek Jehovah" shall assuredly find Him, and in Him everything. He is multiform, and His goodness takes many shapes, according to the curves of the vessels which it fills. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you."
The mention of the "fear of the Lord" prepares the way for the transition to the third part of the psalm. It is purely didactic, and, in its simple moral teaching and familiar contrast of the fates of righteous and ungodly, has affinities with the Book of Proverbs: but these are not so special as to require the supposition of contemporaneousness. It is unfashionable now to incline to the Davidic authorship; but would not the supposition that the "children," who are to be taught the elements of religion, are the band of outlaws who have gathered round the fugitive, give appropriateness to the transition from the thanksgiving of the first part to the didactic tone of the second? We can see them sitting round the singer in the half-darkness of the cave, a wild group, needing much control and yet with faithful hearts, and loyal to their leader, who now tells them the laws of his camp, at the same time as he sets forth the broad principles of that morality, which is the garment and manifestation among men of the "fear of the Lord." The relations of religion and morals were never more clearly and strikingly expressed than in the simple language of this psalm, which puts the substance of many profound treatises in a nutshell, when it expounds the "fear of Jehovah" as consisting in speaking truth, doing good, abhorring evil and seeking peace even when it seems to flee from us. The primal virtues are the same for all ages and stages of revelation. The definition of good and evil may vary and become more spiritual and inward, but the dictum that it is good to love and do good shines unalterable. The psalmist’s belief that doing good was the sure way to enjoy good was a commonplace of Old Testament teaching, and under a Theocracy was more distinctly verified by outward facts than now; but even then, as many psalms show, had exceptions so stark as to stir many doubts. Unquestionably good in the sense of blessedness is inseparable from good in the sense of righteousness, as evil which is suffering is from evil which is sin, but the conception of what constitutes blessedness and sorrow must be modified so as to throw most weight on inward experiences, if such necessary coincidence is to be maintained in the face of patent facts.
The psalmist closes his song with a bold statement of the general principle that goodness is blessedness and wickedness is wretchedness; but he finds his proof mainly in the contrasted relation to Jehovah involved in the two opposite moral conditions. He has no vulgar conception of blessedness as resulting from circumstances. The lovingkindness of Jehovah is, in his view, prosperity, whatever be the aspect of externals. So with bold symbols, the very grossness of the letter of which shields them from misinterpretation, he declares this as the secret of all blessedness, that Jehovah’s eyes are towards the righteous and His ears open to their cry. The individual experiences of Psalm 34:5 and Psalm 34:6 are generalised. The eye of God-i.e. His loving observance-rests upon and blesses, those whose faces are turned to Him, and His ear hears the poor man’s cry. The grim antithesis, which contains in itself the seeds of all unrest, is that the "face of Jehovah"-i.e. His manifested presence, the same face in the reflected light of which the faces of the righteous are lit up with gladness and dawning glory-is against evil doers. The moral condition of the beholder determines the operation of the light of God’s countenance upon him. The same presence is light and darkness, life and death. Evil and its doers shrivel and perish in its beams, as the sunshine kills creatures whose haunt is the dark, or as Apollo’s keen light arrows slew the monsters of the slime. All else follows from this double relationship.
The remainder of the psalm runs out into a detailed description of the joyful fate of the lovers of good. broken only by one tragic verse (Psalm 34:21), like a black rock in the midst of a sunny stream, telling how evil and evil-doers end. In Psalm 34:17, as in Psalm 34:5, the verb has no subject expressed, but the supplement of A.V. and R.V., "the righteous," is naturally drawn from the context and is found in the LXX, whether as part of the original text, or as supplement thereto, is unknown. The construction may, as in Psalm 34:6, indicate that whoever cries to Jehovah is heard. Hitzig and others propose to transpose Psalm 34:15 and Psalm 34:16, so as to get a nearer subject for the verb in the "righteous" of Psalm 34:15, and defend the inversion by referring to the alphabetic order in Lamentations 2:1-22; Lamentations 3:1-66; Lamentations 4:1-22 where similarly Pe precedes Ayin; but the present order of verses is better as putting the principal theme of this part of the psalm-the blessedness of the righteous-in the foreground, and the opposite thought as its foil. The main thought of Psalm 34:17-20 is nothing more than the experience of Psalm 34:4-7 thrown into the form of general maxims. They are the commonplaces of religion, but come with strange freshness to a man, when they have been verified in his life. Happy they who can cast their personal experience into such proverbial sayings, and, having by faith individualised the general promises, can regeneralise the individual experience! The psalmist does not promise untroubled outward good. His anticipation is of troubled lives. delivered because of crying to Jehovah. "Many are the afflictions," but more are the deliverances. Many are the blows and painful is the pressure, but they break no bones, though they rack and wrench the frame. Significant, too, is the sequence of synonyms-righteous, broken-hearted, crushed in spirit, servants, them that take refuge in Jehovah. The first of these refers mainly to conduct, the second to that submission of will and spirit which sorrow rightly borne brings about, substantially equivalent to "the humble" or "afflicted" of Psalm 34:2 and Psalm 34:6, the third again deals mostly with practice, and the last touches the foundation of all service, submission, and righteousness, as laid in the act of faith in Jehovah.
The last group of Psalm 34:21-22, puts the teaching of the psalm in one terrible contrast, "Evil shall slay the wicked." It were a mere platitude if by "evil" were meant misfortune. The same thought of the inseparable connection of the two senses of that word, which runs through the context, is here expressed in the most terse fashion. To do evil is to suffer evil, and all sin is suicide. Its wages is death. Every sin is a strand in the hangman’s rope, which the sinner nooses and puts round his own neck. That is so because every sin brings guilt, and guilt brings retribution. Much more than "desolate" is meant in Psalm 34:21 and Psalm 34:22. The word means to be condemned or held guilty. Jehovah is the Judge; before His bar all actions and characters are set: His unerring estimate of each brings with it, here and now, consequences of reward and punishment which prophesy a future, more perfect judgment. The redemption of the soul of God’s servants is the antithesis to that awful experience; and they only, who take refuge in Him, escape it. The full Christian significance of this final contrast is in the Apostle’s Words, "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus."