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Psalm 34 Biblical Commentary:
This is a psalm of thanksgiving, written by an individual but inviting the community to join in praising Yahweh (v. 3).
Psalm 34 is one of several acrostic psalms. Acrostic psalms begin the first verse with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (‘Alep) and each successive verse with the next letter of the alphabet. The acrostic model is one of several models of Hebrew poetry. To write an acrostic psalm requires great ability and discipline, so it isn’t unusual that the psalmist skips a letter or two, as this psalmist does.
PSALM 34:1. I WILL BLESS YAHWEH AT ALL TIMES
By David; when he pretended to be insane before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he departed.
1 I will bless Yahweh at all times.
His praise will always be in my mouth.
“By David; when he pretended to be insane before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he departed.” This is a superscription which, in this case, includes the name of the author and the circumstances that caused him to write the psalm. Most psalms include a superscription. Most scholars believe that the superscriptions were not original with the psalms that they accompany, but were added later.
The Bible doesn’t include a story of David pretending to be insane before Abimelech. 1 Samuel 21:10-15 tells of David feigning mental illness before Achish, king of Gath. The only Abimelech mentioned in the Bible who lived in David’s time was a high priest (2 Samuel 8:17). It is possible that the person adding the superscription inadvertently substituted Abimelech’s name for Achish’s name––or it might reflect an incident not otherwise recorded in the Bible. Abimelech means “father of a king” or “my father is king,” so Craigie thinks it might apply to all kings (such as Achish), just as Pharaoh applies to all rulers of Egypt.
“I will bless (Hebrew: barak) Yahweh at all times.
His praise (Hebrew: tehillah) will always be in my mouth” (v. 1).
These two lines repeat the same thought in different words, as do many psalm verses. This is the most common form of Hebrew poetry, and is known as parallelism. In this case, the psalmist is saying that his blessing and praise of Yahweh will be always active––always present.
The psalmist says that he “will bless (barak) Yahweh at all times.” The word barak (bless) is closely related to berak (kneel) and berek (knee). When the psalmist says that he will bless Yahweh, barak suggests that he will kneel in homage to Yahweh as a demonstration of reverence and an expression of praise.
The psalmist then says, “His praise (tehillah) will always be in my mouth.” The word tehillah is closely related to the word hallel, which means praise. An interesting aside: Our word hallelujah comes from hallel (praise) and yah (Yahweh or God or the Lord), so it means “praise the Lord.”
PSALM 34:2. MY SOUL SHALL BOAST IN YAHWEH
2 My soul shall boast in Yahweh.
The humble shall hear of it, and be glad.
“My soul shall boast (Hebrew: halal) in Yahweh” (v. 2a). We usually think of boasting as talking with excessive pride. We dislike such boasting, and try to avoid people who boast.
In English language Bibles, the word boast is used both as a positive (as in this verse, where the psalmist is boasting in or praising the Lord) and as a negative (as in Psalm 5:5, where the boastful cannot stand in God’s presence––and in Psalm 75:4, where the psalmist says “Don’t boast.”
The Hebrew word halal is related to the word hallel, which means praise––and halal means praise or boast. In this verse, the psalmist says that he is boasting in or praising Yahweh––showing reverence and deference to Yahweh. There is nothing self-serving in such boasting.
“The humble (Hebrew: anaw) shall hear of it, and be glad” (v. 2b). The word anaw means humble or meek. We often think of such people as timid, but that isn’t how the Bible portrays them. Moses was humble, but stood firmly against Pharaoh to lead the people of Israel out of Egyptian slavery. The New Testament describes Jesus as praus (humble or meek––Matthew 11:29; 21:5), but Jesus stood up against the ruling powers so firmly that they conspired to kill him. Being humble or meek as the Bible describes it involves finding strength, not in oneself, but in the Lord.
So the psalmist is saying that, when he praises or boasts in God, the humble will hear of it and be glad. Most of us have experienced that. When we hear someone speak of their faith in God, we are strengthened by their witness––and are gladdened by it.
PSALM 34:3. OH MAGNIFY YAHWEH WITH ME
3 Oh magnify Yahweh with me.
Let us exalt his name together.
“Oh magnify (Hebrew: gadal) Yahweh with me” (v. 3a). The word gadal (magnify) has several meanings. In this verse, the psalmist is entreating the worshiping community to exalt Yahweh with him. They could do that in a variety of ways, man of which are familiar to us. They could sing hymns of praise to Yahweh. They could exalt Yahweh in their prayers. They could speak of the ways that Yahweh has been faithful to them. They could talk about his great power.
“Let us exalt (Hebrew: rum) his name together” (v. 3b). The word rum means to lift up or to raise up on high or to exalt. As I mentioned in the comments on verse 1 above, the two lines of this verse mean pretty much the same thing, and are an example of Hebrew poetic parallelism.
PSALM 34:4. HE DELIVERED ME FROM ALL MY FEARS
4 I sought Yahweh, and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears.
“I sought Yahweh, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears” (Hebrew: megurah––fear or terror) (v. 4).
The interesting thing about this verse is that the psalmist isn’t rejoicing over his deliverance from enemies or illness. He is celebrating deliverance from his fears or terrors. That is no small matter to those of us who have awakened in the night with what I call night terrors. When that happens, I pray for deliverance from those terrors and am finally able to nod off. In other words, the Lord has answered my prayer by delivering me from my fears, even as he did for the psalmist so many centuries ago. When that happens, it is an enormous relief.
PSALM 34:5-8. THEY LOOKED TO HIM, AND WERE RADIANT
5 They looked to him, and were radiant.
Their faces shall never be covered with shame.
6 This poor man cried, and Yahweh heard him,
and saved him out of all his troubles.
7 The angel of Yahweh encamps around those who fear him,
and delivers them.
8 Oh taste and see that Yahweh is good.
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.
“They looked to him, and were radiant” (Hebrew: nahar) (v. 5a). The word nahar has several meanings. The one that applies here is radiant or shining. The psalmist is describing someone who has sought the Lord’s help, has received it, and is bubbling over with joy.
“Their faces shall never be covered with shame” (Hebrew: haper) (v. 5b). People, both then and now, regard a person’s face as representing something of his character. We talk about the eyes as being windows into our souls.
Haper means to be shamed, disgraced, or humiliated. While suffering disgrace might seem a mild adversity compared with terrible physical diseases or wounds, it ranks high on any realistic scale of human suffering. When suffering public humiliation, people have often said, “I wish I could die”––and mean it.
The psalmist is saying that those who look to Yahweh need not fear that their faces will be covered with shame. A significant part of that is that the person who tries to be faithful to the Lord isn’t likely to fall prey to the kinds of temptations that result in humiliation. The other part is that a person knows the reality of receiving forgiveness is better able to survive humiliation than someone who doesn’t believe that they can be forgiven.
“This poor man (Hebrew: ‘aniy) cried, and Yahweh heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles” (v. 6). The word ‘aniy means poor or afflicted or oppressed. Such people possess no power, and are at the mercy of the wealthy and powerful.
Torah law included provisions to provide for the needs of the poor. Landowners were required to leave the edges of their fields unharvested so that poor people could glean those fields and obtain enough food for survival (Leviticus 19:9-10). The law also made provision for the next of kin to redeem land sold by a relative (Leviticus 25:25), and required families to support indigent kin (Leviticus 25:35). The prophets emphasized concerned for the poor and condemned ill treatment of widows and orphans (Isaiah 1:17, 23; 10:1; Jeremiah 5:28; 7:6; 22:3; Malachi 3:5).
But this poor man doesn’t rely on the wealthy and powerful to save him, but takes his case to Yahweh, who hears and saves him.
“The angel of Yahweh encamps around those who fear him, and delivers (Hebrew: hanah) them” (v. 7). Angels are God’s messengers––and more. God sent an angel to guide and guard Israel on her journey the Promised Land (Exodus 14:19; 23:20). An angel with drawn sword acted as God’s agent, blocking Balaam’s pathway (Numbers 22:22ff). An angel of the Lord touched Gideon’s staff, “and fire went up out of the rock, and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes” (Judges 6:21). Angels wield Godly power.
So in this verse, the angel of Yahweh (or of the Lord) “encamps around those who fear Yahweh and delivers them.”
The phrase “encamps (hanah) around them” is interesting. It portrays the angel’s presence as a buffer zone surrounding those who fear Yahweh––protecting them from whatever might threaten them.
This understanding is confirmed by Yahweh’s promise to Israel in Zechariah 9:8:
“I will encamp around my house against the army,
that none pass through or return;
and no oppressor will pass through them any more.”
“Oh taste (Hebrew: ta’am) and see that Yahweh is good” (v. 8a). The word ta’am is usually used in the Old Testament to refer to physical taste, such as describing manna as tasting “like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31).
But in this verse, the psalmist is saying that Yahweh’s goodness is so obvious that it can be experienced by the senses, such as taste.
“Blessed (Hebrew: ‘eser) is the man who takes refuge in him” (v. 8b). The word ‘eser means blessed or blissful or happy. In this instance, the psalmist is saying that the person who seeks refuge or security in Yahweh will be very happy.
We have seen that. We know Godly people who bear adversity with a glad heart. I have visited people in the hospital, hoping to cheer them, only to have them cheer me. A cynic would say that their cheerfulness is a mask, covering their true feelings. However, those of us who know them best can attest to the fact that there is nothing phony in their demeanor. The smile on their face is the product of their glad heart.
PSALM 34:9-10. THERE IS NO LACK WITH THOSE WHO FEAR YAHWEH
9 Oh fear Yahweh, you his saints,
for there is no lack with those who fear him.
10 The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger,
but those who seek Yahweh shall not lack any good thing.
“Oh fear Yahweh, you his saints, for there is no lack with those who fear him” (v. 9). Fear of the Lord involves reverence and faith that lead to obedience. The person who fears the Lord is like a person who fears electricity, knowing both its potential to bless if used correctly and to injure if used otherwise.
As I write this, Florida has just suffered a hurricane that knocked out electrical power to most Floridians. Among those who still have no power, I am sure that they are longing for the blessings that come with electricity––they want to be reconnected. But they are also aware of the danger of handling a downed power line. Their attitude involves the kind of respect that seeks both to receive the blessing and to avoid the potential danger.
The psalmist says that those who fear the Lord will lack nothing. We have to think of that as hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point), because we know faithful people who lack money, health, and other essentials. However, their faith tends to keep them afloat through the hard times––and especially at the point of death.
“The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger, but those who seek Yahweh shall not lack any good thing” (v. 10). Lions serve here as symbols of power. However, even powerful lions suffer hunger, because hunting doesn’t always gain them prey.
But the psalmist contrasts the state of those powerful animals with the state of “those who seek Yahweh,” whom he says, “shall not lack any good thing.” See the comments on verse 9 above.
PSALM 34:11-12. I WILL TEACH YOU THE FEAR OF YAHWEH
11 Come, you children, listen to me.
I will teach you the fear of Yahweh.
12 Who is someone who desires life,
and loves many days, that he may see good?
“Come, you children, listen to me. I will teach you the fear of Yahweh” (v. 11). The psalmist has talked about the blessings received by those who fear the Lord (vv. 7,9). Now he offers to teach them the fear (reverence) of Yahweh.
“Who is someone who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good?” (v. 12). The psalmist has offered to teach people the fear of Yahweh, and now asks who desires life and loves many days––implying that these are the rewards associated with fearing Yahweh.
PSALM 34:13-14. DEPART FROM EVIL
13 Keep your tongue from evil,
and your lips from speaking lies.
14 Depart from evil, and do good.
Seek peace, and pursue it.
“Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking lies” (v. 13). This is the first piece of instruction for those who would fear (reverence) Yahweh. James describes the tongue as a fire capable of great destruction––”a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” He concludes that a Godly person should have a Godly tongue (James 3:4-12)
“Depart from evil, and do good. Seek peace, and pursue it” (v. 14). This is the second piece of instruction.
PSALM 34:15-16. YAHWEH’S EYES ARE TOWARD THE RIGHTEOUS
15 Yahweh’s eyes are toward the righteous.
His ears listen to their cry.
16 Yahweh’s face is against those who do evil,
to cut off their memory from the earth.
“Yahweh’s eyes are toward the righteous (Hebrew: saddiya). His ears listen to their cry” (v. 15). This is the next piece of instruction. The psalmist is instructing his charges about Yahweh––that Yahweh hears the cries of the righteous. The implication is that anyone who desires to live a long life and to see many good things (v. 12) should live a righteous life.
The Hebrew adjective saddiya (righteous one) is closely related to the noun sedaqah (righteousness), which is life lived in accord with ethical principles –– life lived in accord with God’s law and God’s will.
“Yahweh’s face is against those who do evil, to cut off their memory from the earth” (v. 16). This is the next piece of instruction. The implication is that those who are concerned about their reputation and legacy should avoid evil.
PSALM 34:17. YAHWEH HEARS THE RIGHTEOUS
17 The righteous cry, and Yahweh hears,
and delivers them out of all their troubles.
“The righteous cry, and Yahweh hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles” (v. 17). This repeats the thought of verse 15 in slightly different words.
PSALM 34:18-20. YAHWEH DELIVERS THE RIGHTEOUS
18 Yahweh is near to those who have a broken heart,
and saves those who have a crushed spirit.
19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but Yahweh delivers him out of them all.
20 He protects all of his bones.
Not one of them is broken.
“Yahweh is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves those who have a crushed spirit” (v. 18). More instruction regarding the nature of Yahweh, who is partial to those who are broken or crushed. Yahweh saves such people.
“Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but Yahweh delivers him out of them all. He protects all of his bones. Not one of them is broken” (v. 19-20). More instruction concerning the nature of Yahweh.
PSALM 34:21-22. YAHWEH REDEEMS HIS SERVANTS
21 Evil shall kill the wicked.
Those who hate the righteous shall be condemned.
22 Yahweh redeems the soul of his servants.
None of those who take refuge in him shall be condemned.
“Evil shall kill the wicked. Those who hate the righteous shall be condemned. Yahweh redeems the soul of his servants. None of those who take refuge in him shall be condemned” (vv. 21-22). More instruction contrasting the fate of the evil with that of those who take refuge in Yahweh. Evil people will be condemned, but Yahweh’s people will not.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 1-72 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Craigie, Peter C., Word Biblical Commentary, Psalms 1-50, Vol. 19 (Dallas: Word Books, 1983)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1-72, Vol. 14a (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 1-41, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2012)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
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Copyright 2017, Richard Niell Donovan