The book of Psalms was the hymnal or song book of ancient Israel. It was largely composed by David, king of Israel but was expanded to include psalms by Moses, Asaph, the “sons of Korah”, and others. Some of the Psalms were probably composed over four hundred years after David. Many of the psalms contain what is known as a superscription, a very short preface that often contains musical directions. Sometimes it includes an indication of the occasion for the psalm’s composition. That is the case with Psalm 34. It reads: “A Psalm of David when he feigned madness before Abimelech, who drove him away and he departed.”
Psalm 34 has been on my mind a lot lately. I have read from and commented on it to some whom I have visited recently and last Sunday it was the subject of study and discussion in the Fireside Room adult Sunday School class. This is a very surprising psalm in that it does not seem to match David’s circumstances as stated in the superscription. There are psalms of lament and complaining in the psalms and one would think that this psalm should contain such language – but it definitely does not! It is full of exaltation, celebration, exhortation and encouragement. That is one reason why I think the superscription is accurate even though it may not have been an original part of the psalm. At some point David or some succeeding editor placed it there so we could see the context and not make the mistake of thinking, “David must have written this while enjoying good circumstances.” Let’s look a little more closely at what those circumstances actually were. They can be found in 1 Samuel 21:10-22:5.
In fact, let’s go back a little further than what we read in that passage so as to get the whole picture. David’s career at Saul’s court began when he was a young musician and singer brought in to soothe the king during his bouts of anxiety and depression. (1 Samuel 16:14-23) After his successful defeat of Goliath, David became a military commander as well and his fame as a successful warrior soon aroused the suspicion and jealousy of King Saul. He knew that God had chosen someone else to succeed him as king and although Samuel’s act of anointing David as that successor was not public knowledge, Saul drew his own conclusion. Twice, when David was playing for him, Saul threw a spear that barely missed David. Finally, after ascertaining from Saul’s son Jonathan, his dear friend, that Saul meant to kill him, David fled with a few of his companions to the Tabernacle which was then pitched in the town of Nob. There, he pretended to be on an urgent errand for Saul and therefore received food and a weapon from the high priest, Ahimelech.
Then David fled to Achash, the king of Gath in the land of the Philistines, hoping to receive asylum there. Instead, king Achash’s counselors urged him to kill David as he had killed many of their soldiers in earlier battles. Hearing this, David immediately began to feign madness, drooling and making weird markings on the posts of the palace gates. King Achash (whose title was “Abimelech”, meaning “King’s son”) This achieved the desired result that the king had David thrown out of the city and did not kill him. While that was indeed a good thing, it was no doubt deeply humiliating to David. He then fled to “the cave of Adullam” to hide from Saul. While others discontented with Saul’s rule also joined him, he had to ask the king of Moab to take in his parents as they were not safe in Bethlehem. Shortly after this, David learned that Saul had killed the high Priest Ahimelech and all his family (save one son who escaped to tell him) for having helped David. It was in these very low circumstances that David penned Psalm 34.
In this psalm, God, through David, is giving us abundant instruction in what to do when we are at our lowest. Let’s take a quick look at some of these lessons. Note, first of all, that David begins with praising God. He could complain and lament, to be sure, but in this case, he doesn’t. Instead he resolves to praise the Lord “at all times” and bless God “continually.” (Verse 1) This was no doubt the opposite of what he felt like doing. Of course, even to complain and mourn his circumstances to the Lord would have been better than forgetting God completely and sometimes we can do no better. But if we can manage to focus on God’s goodness and glory and lift our eyes to what is true no matter what we are going through, this will serve to brighten our hope and enliven our spirits. Because the truth, despite all we may be facing, is that God is with us and, as the Apostle Paul says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?!” (Romans 8:31) We may even be facing problems completely of our own making. Despite this discouraging fact, if we turn to God in repentance and place our trust in His love, power and wisdom, we can praise Him in the midst of our perils or sufferings. His goal for us is everlasting joy, peace and glory and He will use any circumstance to prepare us for these infinite blessings. He works all things together for good to those who thus love Him.
Then David says, “My soul will make its boast in the Lord; the humble will hear it and rejoice.” (verse 2) We may have nothing to boast in ourselves or in our circumstances. In fact, we may have plenty to be ashamed of, but when we boast in the Lord, when we are focused on His glorious perfections and marvelous deeds, then we encourage not only ourselves but those who likewise know their weaknesses and failures. We are encouraged because we are not depending upon our own goodness or abilities or those of anyone else but God’s. Christ has been made for us our “wisdom from God, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption so that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord’”. (1 Corinthians 1:30-31 – Paul, quoting from Jeremiah 9:24)
From praising God, blessing Him and boasting in Him, David proceeds to inviting others to join in: “O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together.” When we do these things in the midst of our troubles, it helps us rise above them and conquer them. Others in similar circumstances are encouraged by this. But then we can, like David, invite them into the circle of rejoicing. We thereby create a community of overcomers and further reinforce the spirit of victory. That is why we go to church, meet in small groups and nurture good, Christian friendships. Yes, we must weep with those who weep and be honest with what we are going through but then we must also turn to the Lord and remind ourselves about the One who loves us and who has given us everlasting life through faith in Him.
Friends, I have run out of space but keep reading Psalm 34 and look at it for what it is – instructions to those who are going through difficult circumstances of any kind.God taught David how to overcome at his lowest points – and so may we as we listen and learn from David’s example.