Were it not for the superscription to this psalm, Psalm 34 could be read as a beautiful response of praise and instruction based upon some unknown incident in which David was delivered from danger. Our difficulty in understanding the psalm arises from its historical setting:104 “A Psalm of David when he feigned madness before Abimelech, who drove him away and he departed.”105 I am immediately troubled by these words. Should David have been in Gath? Is his feigned insanity consistent with the dignity of the office of a king? Should God be praised because David pretended to be insane and thus escaped danger? Should others be taught (cf. vv. 11-22) on the basis of this kind of behavior? How can a psalm which condemns deceit (v. 13) be based upon the actions of a deceiver?
One might reason that these questions surface because of an inaccurate perception of the incident referred to in the superscription.106 Actually the opposite is true. The more one studies 1 Samuel 21:10-15 in context, the more distressing becomes David’s conduct when he was pursued by Saul. While I had previously viewed this time in David’s life as one of spiritual vitality and personal piety, a more careful study reveals that he was a man with feet of clay. Since the superscription is intended to turn our attention to the historical setting of the psalm, let us begin by considering David’s conduct as he fled from Saul. We will approach this broadly at first, looking at the context in which 1 Samuel 21:10-15 is found, and then consider the incident in Gath specifically.
The death of Goliath and the rout of the Philistines (1 Sam. 17) quickly swept David from obscurity to renown as a military hero. The women of Israel sang, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Sam. 18:7). The popularity of David surpassed Saul, making the king extremely jealous (18:8-9). Saul began to look upon David as his rival, and eventually he was marked out for death (cf. 18:10-11, 20-29).
Just as Saul sinfully responded to David’s popularity, David also reacted wrongly to the danger occasioned by Saul’s murderous intentions. Deception became David’s way of dealing with danger. The events leading up to Psalm 34 begin in 1 Samuel 19 when David escaped Saul’s assassination plot (19:10). He fled Saul’s spear, being lowered from a window by Michal, his wife. She then (at David’s instruction?) deceived her father. To allow time for David to escape, Michal placed a dummy made from a household idol in his bed (19:11-17). Sometime later David was expected to sit at Saul’s table to celebrate the feast of the new moon. Fearing for his life he asked Jonathan to lie about his absence from the festivities. Jonathan falsely explained to his father that David had gone to offer a sacrifice for his family at Bethlehem (20:6).
Later David fled to Nob. There Ahimelech the priest questioned David as to why he appeared alone. David fallaciously replied to the priest that Saul had commissioned him to carry out an urgent task and that he was to rendezvous with his men at an appointed place (21:1-2). David requested provisions and a weapon from Ahimelech. He was given some of the consecrated bread107 and the sword he had taken from Goliath.
David’s flight to Nob was costly. Along with eighty-four other priests, Ahimelech was executed at Saul’s command. Saul’s paranoid purge included the slaughter of the men, women, children and cattle of Nob (22:6-19).108 David acknowledged to Abiathar, the only son of Ahimelech to survive the massacre at Nob, that he was morally responsible for the slaughter (v. 22).
How was it possible for David, in the words of Psalm 34, to “seek and pursue peace” (v. 14) with a sword? When David went out to do battle with Goliath he said that he did not require a sword for the Lord was on his side:
“This day the Lord will deliver you up into my hands, and I will strike you down and remove your head from you. And I will give the dead bodies of the army of the Philistines this day to the birds of the sky and the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not deliver by sword or by spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and He will give you into our hands” (1 Sam. 17:46-47).
God was not only able to deliver David from Goliath without a sword, but He could also protect David from the treachery of Saul without David resorting to the use of Goliath’s sword. In 1 Samuel 19 we are told that David fled to Samuel at Ramah, after which the two of them went to stay in Naioth (v. 18). Saul heard that David was at Naioth and dispatched forces to arrest him. On three occasions Saul’s arresting forces were confronted by Samuel and a company of prophets; they were overcome by the Spirit of God so that they prophesied. Those men who were under the control of the Holy Spirit could not lay a hand on God’s anointed. Finally, Saul personally led his forces, only to prophesy himself (vv. 23-24). Without a sword or a spear, God was able to spare David’s life. Why, then, did David feel it urgent that he arm himself with a weapon?
In 1 Samuel 25 we find David and his men living in the wilderness of Paran (v. 1). There David gave Nabal’s shepherds protection without requiring payment. He therefore requested from Nabal a token of his appreciation (vv. 5-8). Nabal foolishly denied this request, refusing to acknowledge that David was the coming king of Israel, as his wife Abigail testified (v. 30). David impetuously set out to attack Nabal, intending to kill him and every male heir. Only by the wise and godly intervention of Abigail was David turned from his act of vengeance (vv. 9-35).109 Surely David was not “seeking peace” in the way he instructed others to do in Psalm 34.
One final incident must be mentioned before we turn to David’s first flight to Gath in 1 Samuel 21. David made a second flight to Achish in Gath in 1 Samuel 27. In this instance it is very clear that David fled to this Philistine city out of fear and unbelief:
Then David said to himself, “Now I will perish one day by the hand of Saul. There is nothing better for me than to escape into the land of the Philistines. Saul then will despair of searching for me any more in all the territory of Israel, and I will escape from his hand” (1 Sam. 27:1).
In contemporary terms, David must have thought, “Better Red than dead.” David fled to the Philistines because he didn’t believe God could spare his life any other way.
David’s actions were based upon pragmatism rather than on principle. He was willing to make an alliance with Israel’s enemies in order to feel safe and secure. The Philistines who once fled from David, the warrior of Israel (1 Sam. 17:50-52), were now David’s allies to whom he looked for protection from Saul. In order to win Achish’s favor, David convinced him that he was conducting raids upon Israelite towns, while actually he was attacking the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites (27:8-12). David even told Achish that he would fight with him against the Israelites (28:1-2) which it appeared he was willing to do until a protest was raised by the Philistine commanders (29:1-5).
These events provide a backdrop for David’s predicament in 1 Samuel 21. In all previous incidents, violence and deception seem to have been more the rule than the exception. In continued flight from Saul David left Judah for Gath, the home town of Goliath (1 Sam. 17:4,23) and one of the five principle cities of the Philistines (cf. Josh. 13:3; 1 Sam. 6:17; 17:52). David apparently wished to remain anonymous, but such hopes were futile. He was soon recognized as the rightful king of Israel and a great military hero about whom songs were sung by the Israelite women (1 Sam. 21:11). These things were all reported to Achish, king of Gath.
The superscription to Psalm 56 suggests that David was placed under house arrest. David probably wondered if he was doomed to spend his life as the prisoner of Achish. After all, Israel and the Philistines were enemies and at war as nations. David was the enemy’s king (v. 11), or at least was going to be. And David was the one who had put their home-town hero Goliath to death. Things did not look good for David. It is not without reason that we are told, “David took these words to heart, and greatly feared Achish king of Gath” (v. 12).
An ingenious plan then came to David’s mind. Concealing his sanity, David began to manifest the symptoms of a lunatic. He scribbled on the walls and drooled down his beard (v. 13). How could such a maniac possibly pose a threat to Achish? In his present state of mind David would not be an asset to Achish in any armed conflict with Israel (cf. v. 15; 29:1ff.). The result was that David departed, not voluntarily as 22:1 might allow, but by force. The superscription to Psalm 34 indicates that this Philistine king “drove him away.”
I do not find it possible to praise David for the deception which characterized his actions while fleeing from Saul (cf. also 1 Sam. 27:8-12). Neither can I excuse David’s fraudulence in these events on the grounds of situational ethics, reasoning that in this “time of war” deceit was allowable.110 While Kidner attempts to minimize the wrong done here by referring to David’s deception as “abject clowning,”111 I find this an inadequate explanation. Let us be honest; this is not the same kind of “deception” we practice when we leave a light on in the house at night, allowing the burglar to conclude that we are home. This was deliberate lying. David’s actions, or at least some of them, were wrong. Not only are we hard-pressed to praise David for his cunning, we are caused to wonder how it is possible to praise God for David’s deliverance as Psalm 34 urges us to do. How can we possibly take seriously the instruction which David gives in the psalm? How are we to harmonize the situation of 1 Samuel 21:10-15 with the words of Psalm 34?
The solution to our problem is not to be found in the Book of 1 Samuel. It is not even to be found in Psalm 34. The key to our dilemma is contained in Psalm 56, which begins with these words: “For the choir director; according to Jonath elem rehokim. A Mikhtam of David, when the Philistines seized him in Gath.”
A look at Psalm 56, apparently based on the same event in David’s life, will help us to see the folly of David’s fears from which God delivered him: “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in Thee. In God, whose word I praise, in God I have put my trust; I shall not be afraid. What can mere man do to me?” (Ps. 56:3-4, cf. also vv. 10-11).
In 1 Samuel 21:12 we read: “And David took these words to heart, and greatly feared Achish king of Gath.” It was David’s fear of Saul that prompted him to flee to Gath to seek the protection of the Philistines (cf. 1 Sam. 27:1). It was David’s dread of man which caused him to deceive others with his lips (e.g. 1 Sam. 20:5-6; 21:1-2, etc.). It was David’s panic that led him to the conclusion that he must feign madness before Abimelech if he were to survive. Psalm 56 focuses on David’s fears, which prompted him to flee from Judah and to seek to preserve his life by deception. In Psalm 56 I believe David came to see his problem as that of fearing man rather than God. With a renewed trust in God (a fear of God), David now realizes that “mere man” (vv. 4, 11) can do nothing against him while God is his defense (vv. 3-4, 9-11).
It is my opinion that the sequence of events recorded in 1 Samuel 21 and Psalms 34 and 56 was something like this: Out of fear of Saul, David fled to Gath. He attempted to live in that city without revealing his identify, but was soon discovered (cf. 1 Sam. 21:11). When Achish learned of David’s identity and reputation as a soldier, he seized him (superscription, Psalm 56). Under house arrest, David began to ponder his situation and realized he was in grave danger (cf. 1 Sam. 21:12). David acted as though he was insane and was expelled from Gath. The king looked back upon these events at a point in time and came to understand that he had acted out of the fear of man and not out of the fear of God (cf. Psalm 56:3-4, 10-11). He was humbled before God and wrote Psalm 56 as his confession and vow of trust. Finally, Psalm 34 was penned to praise God for His deliverance (in spite of his deception and sin) and to teach the principles pertaining to the “fear of the Lord” which David had learned through this painful experience.
Psalm 34 must therefore be interpreted in light of the additional revelation of Psalm 56. We need not attempt to excuse David’s sin, because he confessed it and expressed his renewed trust in God. When we read Psalm 34 we understand that it was written by the same man who has already acknowledged his sin and is forgiven. The trust of which David speaks in Psalm 34 is that which he reaffirmed in Psalm 56. The key to our understanding of the relationship of Psalm 34 to 1 Samuel 21 is that David was forgiven and renewed as a result of his experience described in Psalm 56.
It should be noted that Psalm 34 is an acrostic, or alphabetical psalm, with the first word of each verse (including the superscription) beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Other psalms, such as 25, 119 and 145, are also acrostics. This form served as a poetic device, which among other things, may have aided in the memorization of the psalm. Since much of the psalm takes the form of wisdom literature, it is not unusual that this form would be employed considering the subject matter of the psalm.
Psalm 34:1-3 1 A Psalm of David when he feigned madness 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. 2 My soul shall make its boast in the LORD; The humble shall hear it and rejoice. 3 O magnify the LORD with me, And let us exalt His name together. (NASB)
David begins this psalm with a vow, or a promise: “I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth” (v. 1). Here David promises to persistently praise His God. His praise, while based upon a specific event in his life, is ongoing. It should be understood that David is not promising a marathon praise session, but rather is committing himself to the praise of God at every opportunity and in the midst of various states of mind, spirit, and body. Just as we are to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17)—to pray consistently and in all circumstances—David promises to praise without ceasing.
While verse one stresses the frequency of David’s praise, the second verse reveals the focus of that praise. His soul will “make its boast in the Lord” (v. 2a). David does not dwell on his experience, nor even on his deliverance, but on his Deliverer. The Lord is both the subject and the object of David’s praise.
Verses 2b and 3 remind us of the fellowship of praise. Praise can be private, but that is not the kind of praise which the psalms practice and promote. When David publicly praised God at worship, he did so purposing to promote worship on the part of the entire congregation.112 Those who loved God, as David did, could rejoice with him. Paul’s teaching in Romans chapter 12 indicates that New Testament worship should be a sharing in the joys of fellow-Christians: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15).
David therefore urges his fellow-worshippers to join with him in magnifying the Lord so that His name will be corporately exalted (v. 3).
4 I sought the LORD, and He answered me, And delivered me from all my fears. 5 They looked to Him and were radiant, And their faces shall never be ashamed. 6 This poor man cried and the LORD heard him, And saved him out of all his troubles. 7 The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear Him, And rescues them. (NASB)
The praise of God in the psalms is based upon two central themes: (1) the acts of God and (2) the attributes of God. God’s works and His worth provide the basis for praise. In verses 4-7 David describes his deliverance, which is the basis for his praise and his teaching.
From the superscription to this psalm and the account in 1 Samuel 21, we know the details of the deliverance to which David is referring. If we did not have these additional details, we would hardly have concluded that David’s praise resulted from that incident with Achish. In view of the background to this psalm, several observations can be made here which will help us better understand the brief historical reference contained in verses 4-7.
(1) The fact that this psalm has a superscription which points us back to 1 Samuel 21 indicates that there was no attempt here to conceal David’s failures. Indeed, it would be safe to say that it was intended for us to interpret this psalm in the light of those failures. There is no effort to “cover up” for David to make him (or this psalm) look good.
(2) The brevity of the description of David’s deliverance should be understood in the light of David’s purpose for the entire psalm, which was to exhort others to share in the blessings of God’s protection and in His praise. David had purposed (and promised, cf. v. 1, 2a) to praise the Lord. While it would have been possible for him to embellish the account, it would have obscured the object of David’s praise, the Lord Himself. The more David minimized his personal experience and generalized God’s goodness, the more others could identify with him and join in his praise. If David’s flight to Gath and his relationship with these Philistines were less than commendable (as I believe was the case), then David would not wish to concentrate on his wrong doings but on God’s grace. There is little value in exploring David’s sin, but much to be gained from pondering God’s salvation.
(3) David is not stressing his deliverance from danger in these verses (which he encountered as a result of his own sin) as much as his deliverance from his fears. In verse 19 David writes that the afflictions of the righteous are many. The righteous must expect affliction. God does deliver His own out of some dangerous situations, just as He removed David from the hand of Achish. David’s fears were his greatest threat. Psalm 56 describes the change of heart David underwent, exchanging his fear of man for the fear of God.
(4) While verses 4-7 briefly account for David’s personal deliverance, they emphasize that what God has done for David, God also does for all His own. Notice the interweaving of the specific (David’s deliverance, vv. 4, 6) with the general (God delivers those who look to Him for salvation, vv. 5, 7). David exhorted all the righteous to praise God with him. While they can rejoice in David’s deliverance, they can do so even more enthusiastically when they are reminded that what God has done for David He has done (and will do) for them.
Verse 5 is most often understood as a reference to the countenance of those who look to the Lord for their deliverance.113 They look to Him, and they are never put to shame by being neglected or forsaken. Verse 7 changes the focus from the security and assurance of the saints to the instrument by which God’s protection is accomplished and guaranteed. This indeed is one of the few clear references to the “angel of the Lord” in this context in the Old Testament. Just as Elisha was confident of the protection of the angelic hosts when he and his servant were surrounded by the army of Syria (2 Kings 6), so David sees the “angel of the Lord” (whom I understand to be the pre-incarnate Christ) encamped about every saint.
Such protection is unseen under normal circumstances (e.g. 2 Kings 6:17), but nonetheless present. Only by the “eye of faith” can we be assured of divine protection. David was fearful of Achish because he had forgotten that his protector was ever-present. Those who look to God for their protection and deliverance must understand that deliverance may often take place in unexpected and unforeseen ways. In the Old Testament the Son of God was near at hand to save His people, but few were aware of it. In the New Testament the Son of God came to the earth in human flesh to dwell amongst His people and to save them, yet few recognized Him.
8 O taste and see that the LORD is good; How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him! 9 O fear the LORD, you His saints; For to those who fear Him, there is no want. 10 The young lions do lack and suffer hunger; But they who seek the LORD shall not be in want of any good thing. (NASB)
David has already exhorted those in the congregation to join with him in praising God as their provider and protector. Now he urges his fellow-Israelites to personally experience this protection and provision.
A significant shift occurs in verse 8. The psalm which is based upon a personal experience in David’s life begins with a commitment to praise God (vv. 1-3), then devotes only four verses to the deliverance of David (vv. 4-7, only two of which are specific). It then shifts from David’s experience to exhortation and instruction of others to experience the goodness of God in their lives. The remainder of Psalm 34 is addressed to others about their own relationship to God.
We can best understand verses 8-10 by answering two questions: (1) Who is David inviting to share his blessings? (2) What are the blessings which they are invited to enjoy with him? Let us consider these questions.
Those who are exhorted to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (v. 8a) are co-worshippers with David, Israelites who have come to worship God. They are not pagans, nor are they apathetic with regard to their attendance at worship. The blessings which they are encouraged to experience are those which David himself has experienced. The “goodness of the Lord” (v. 8a) is God’s protection (v. 8b) and His provision (v. 9b).
We can infer from verses 8-10 that the majority of David’s contemporaries did not experience the fullest blessings of God. After all, why exhort others to experience what they already possess? If the Israelites of David’s day were devout enough to regularly worship, why did they need to be encouraged to taste, to trust, and to fear the Lord? I would suggest that they, like many church-going people today, go through the rituals of worship, but fail to have the relationship with God which enables them to personally experience the provision and protection of God David had come to know.
Why did faithful, worshipping Israelites not know God’s love and care as they should? I believe that the answer is briefly given in verse 10, and the solution is carefully explained in verses 11-22. The one who “takes refuge” in God (v. 8) is depicted by the Hebrew term geber, which means “the strong man,” “the mighty man.”114 The one who is really strong is the one who finds his strength in the Lord and not in himself. Those who have been delivered from their fear of man are those who have come to fear the Lord.
Verse 10 illustrates the principle underlying verses 8 and 9 and also the principle which will be expounded in the following verses. There are few animals as awesome and as powerful as the young lion. He is the epitome of strength, and yet in spite of its strength, the young lion does go hungry. As great as it may be, its strength is no guarantee of abundant provision. In contrast to the young lion who lacks in spite of his strength, those who seek the Lord (uprightly and out of weakness) are assured that they shall not lack “any good thing.” While we are not promised every thing we may want if we trust in the Lord, we are promised we will not lack “any good thing.”
The emphasis of verses 8-10 is to invite others to experience the same kind of blessings for which David is praising God. The assumption is that most of his fellow-Israelites are not experiencing these blessings, despite their religious heritage and their devotion to religious ritual. Like the young lions, they have trusted in their own strength and have not trusted in God, and thereby have suffered want. How then shall they enter into the fear of the Lord (v. 9) and thus taste and see (v. 10) the goodness of the Lord? Verses 11-22 answer this question in detail.
11 Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD. 12 Who is the man who desires life, And loves length of days that he may see 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 toward the righteous, And His ears are open to their cry. 16 The face of the LORD is against evildoers, To cut off the memory of them from the earth. 17 The righteous cry and the LORD hears, And delivers them out of all their troubles. 18 The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, And saves those who are crushed in spirit.
19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous; But the LORD delivers him out of them all. 20 He keeps all his bones; Not one of them is broken. 21 Evil shall slay the wicked; And those who hate the righteous will be condemned. 22 The LORD redeems the soul of His servants; And none of those who take refuge in Him will be condemned. (NASB)
Observe the change in style in verse 11 from exhortation to instruction, from public praise to a kind of preaching.115 In a form nearly identical with that found in the Book of Proverbs, David begins to instruct men concerning one of the missing factors in their religion, one which has kept them from experiencing the blessings of God’s provision and protection—the fear of the Lord. The subject is introduced in verse 11. In verses 12-14 the results of a fear of God are described. Verses 15-18 depict the relationship which a fear of the Lord establishes. The rewards of a fear of the Lord are spoken of in verses 19-22. Let us consider each of these aspects of the “fear of the Lord.”
Verse 11 is an invitation to receive instruction concerning the “fear of the Lord”: “Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” The invitation in verse 11 is to “children” (literally, “sons”). As in Proverbs the teacher often addresses the student as his “son” (cf. Prov. 1:8, etc.). The fear of the Lord is not an ill-defined, illusive concept, but one which can be taught and known. It is not only subjective, but objective. In addition, the fear of the Lord is not merely academic, but is worked out in very practical terms.
David has already praised God for being good to him (vv. 1-7). He furthermore has urged his fellow-Israelites to taste and see that God is good to them (v. 8). The fear of the Lord is now presented as the prerequisite to seeing the goodness of the Lord. God’s goodness is not for all. David has experienced it, and he urges others to taste of it as well. However, God’s goodness is directed only toward those who fear Him.
While the definition of the “fear of the Lord” is more extensive than a few brief verses, David epitomizes the outworking of this fear in verses 13-14. The fear of the Lord is not merely learned; it is lived. Just as James taught that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14ff.), David teaches that the fear of the Lord is manifested in very practical ways. In verse 13 we are taught that the fear of the Lord is to result in the control of our lips, a prominent theme in the Book of Proverbs.
It is most interesting that David should bring up the matter of deceit here, for that seems to have been a predominant characteristic of his life as he fled from Saul. He asked Jonathan to lie concerning his absence at Saul’s table (1 Sam. 20:1- 6). He lied to Ahimelech about the purpose of his visit, which resulted in the death of many innocent people (1 Sam. 2:1-2; 22:11-19). He sought to deceive the people of Gath about his identity and his military prowess (1 Sam. 21:10ff.). How, then, could David speak of putting aside deceit? How could he be so hypocritical as to teach on the very point in which he had failed?
As we have already seen, David is teaching us as one who has learned this truth the hard way. David is telling us that when he feared Achish more than God he was more concerned with pleasing Achish than he was with obeying God. Fearing God involves acting consistently with God’s character and His commands. Psalm 56 informs us that David learned this lesson the hard way from his experience at Gath. In verses 13 and 14 David is attempting to communicate what he himself had learned about deceit.
In verse 14 the fear of the Lord is spelled out in more general terms. Not only must we guard our mouth, speaking the truth rather than deceit, but we must also depart from evil and practice what is right. We must aggressively seek peace. David had failed here as well. He had asked Ahimelech the priest for Goliath’s sword (1 Sam. 21:8-9). Why would he possibly need a sword to pursue peace? Why did David angrily seek to kill Nabal and every male in his house (1 Sam. 25:21-22)? Finally, why was David willing to go to war with Achish against Israel (1 Sam. 28:1-2)? These examples show that David was not a peace-seeker. Once again, David failed to seek peace because he feared Achish more than God. Therefore he can honestly teach what he has learned: the fear of the Lord is inconsistent with evil.
We learn then that the fear of the Lord is no ethereal, academic matter. The fear of the Lord involves acting consistently with God’s character and with His commands. It means we must forsake deception, and we must speak truthfully. It means that we must cease pursuing evil and must pursue peace instead. The fear of the Lord not only involves doctrine, it implements it.
Verses 12-14 suggest that the fear of the Lord demands a response, while in verses 15-18 that fear is dependent upon a relationship. Verses 13 and 14 describe the behavior of one who fears the Lord; verses 15-18 depict the relationship between man and God which is based upon such belief and behavior. While we are told what God does on behalf of the righteous in this section, the primary emphasis falls upon why God acts on man’s behalf to save and to deliver him from his troubles.
The fear of the Lord is the basis of a relationship between God and man. God is described as being “near the brokenhearted” (v. 18). His eyes and ears are ever attentive to the cries of the righteous (vv. 15,17), while His face is against the wicked (v. 16). Several things characterize the righteous in these verses. While verses 13-14 describe the actions of the righteous, verses 15-18 emphasize their attitudes. The righteous trust in the Lord as evidenced by their cries to Him for deliverance (vv. 15, 17). In contrast to the pride and arrogance of the wicked, the righteous are humble and brokenhearted (v. 18). The bottom line is that the righteous are dependent upon God, looking to Him for deliverance rather than trusting in their own strength. I believe this is also a lesson David learned in Gath. Human ingenuity did not save David (i.e. acting insane); he was delivered by God’s grace in response to David’s humble petition for deliverance. David was saved in spite of his cleverness and because of God’s mercy, which moved Him to answer David’s cry for deliverance.
Verse 11 speaks of the fear of the Lord in terms of its beliefs; verses 13 and 14 focus on its behavior; verses 15-18 on its basis. In verses 19-22 David expands verse 12 by describing the benefits of the fear of the Lord.
In verses 19 and 20 the fear of the Lord is described as providing the righteous with protection and deliverance from the wrath of man. We dare not suggest in the light of verse 19 that God’s care promises us that the righteous will not suffer. God will keep us in our afflictions, and He will ultimately deliver us from all adversity. The extent of our protection is stressed in verse 20. While this verse may be related to Exodus 12:46 and ultimately fulfilled in the life of our Lord (John 19:36), it probably should be applied to the righteous in view of the context of Isaiah 38:13 (cf. also Num. 24:8). In Isaiah the expression describes the defeat and despair of one who has been overcome by adversity. David teaches that this will not be the case of those who fear the Lord.
The emphasis seems to shift in verses 21 and 22 from the tests and trials of life to the judgment of God. Those who fear the Lord are not only assured of God’s protection in the adversities of life, but are also kept from divine retribution and wrath. In contrast to the righteous, the wicked will be slain by evil, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned. These verses describe the destruction of the wicked from both sides of the coin. On the one side, the wicked are destroyed by their own wickedness. They suffer divine retribution, as we see from the Book of Proverbs: “So they shall eat of the fruit of their own way, and be satiated with their own devices. For the waywardness of the naive shall kill them, and the complacency of fools shall destroy them” (Prov. 1:31-32).
On the other side, it is not simply fate which catches up with the wicked. God deals with the wicked because He is righteous and cannot overlook sin and also because He will not allow His righteous ones to be persecuted without finally executing justice on the evil-doers who oppress them. The wicked are “condemned” or “held guilty” (margin, NASB, v. 21).
Verse 22 is perhaps the most beautiful verse in this psalm for it assures us that while the wicked will experience retribution, the righteous will be redeemed: “The Lord redeems the soul of His servants; and none of those who take refuge in Him will be condemned” (v. 22). David knew that God not only saves men from temporal trials and tribulations, but that He saves men from their sins. The wicked will perish, but the souls of His servants are redeemed.
Please take note of something which is very important to the teaching of this psalm. The same word “condemned” is used in both verse 21 and verse 22. The wicked, we were told in verse 21, will be condemned. Those who take refuge in Him will not be condemned (v. 22). The word “condemned” assumes guilt in both instances. As the marginal note of the NASB informs us, it means to be “held guilty.” David intends for us to understand that both the wicked and the righteous are guilty. In the one instance the guilty are held guilty and are punished for their sins. In the other instance the guilty are redeemed and are not punished. The reason some are forgiven and others are not is that some “take refuge in Him” (v. 22), those who are “brokenhearted” and “crushed in spirit,” while others stubbornly resist God and “hate the righteous” (v. 21).
The word “redeems” is also important in verse 22, because it suggests that the forgiveness of those who take refuge in God is not without cost. From the New Testament teaching we know that we are redeemed, not by the shedding of the blood of animals under the Old Testament law, but by the shed blood of Jesus Christ (cf. Heb. 9:11-14; 1 Pet. 1:19). The important thing for us to remember is that some are saved, not because they are righteous, but because they have been redeemed, forgiven, and thus are no longer held accountable for their sins. Their sins have been paid for by Another.
This is especially important in regard to the historical background of Psalm 34. David was not delivered from the hand of Achish because of his righteousness but because of his relationship with God. David feared the Lord. When David sinned through his deception and violence, it revealed that he had allowed his fear of the Lord to wane, replacing it with the fear of man. God graciously delivered David, not due to his righteousness, but because of his relationship. In response to God’s merciful deliverance, David’s fear of God was renewed. As a result David not only could praise God, but he could also share what he had learned with others, urging them to experience the blessing of God in a richer and fuller way.
We should now be able to see the psalm beginning to come into focus. David’s actions in fleeing to Achish from Saul were not at all commendable. We need not make any effort to excuse or explain them. From our own experience we can readily understand why David would act in the way he did. David, under the pressure of the pursuit of Saul, had begun to weaken in his fear of the Lord and had come to fear men instead (in particular, Achish). This led to acts of deception for it was more important to David in his present state of heart to satisfy Achish than to please God.
David’s attitudes and actions in 1 Samuel 21 are remarkably similar to those of Abram, his forefather. Abram had not yet come to an adequate grasp of the power of God to provide and to protect him, even in spite of His promise in Genesis 12:1-3. When there was a famine in the land of Canaan, Abram feared that God could not provide for him, and so he fled from the land of promise to the land of Egypt (Gen. 12:10). Once in Egypt, Abram began to fear for his life because his wife Sarai was beautiful. He sought to protect himself by deceitfully telling the Egyptians she was his sister (and therefore eligible for marriage), not his wife. Graciously, God delivered Abram in spite of his sin, not because of it. It was only when Abram came to a more complete trust in God that he could offer up his son (his security in the ancient world) in faith, trusting in God to provide and protect. We need not minimize the sins of Abram or of David. God’s goodness is even greater when we recognize that God most often delivers us in spite of ourselves, and not because of our clever and cunning schemes.
We need not be surprised that David can praise God for his deliverance in Psalm 34 any more than we need be dismayed that he even goes on to teach us about personal and practical holiness. David could praise God because his heart was now right with God (as seen in Psalm 56). David could teach others about the fear of the Lord because he had come to understand it more fully from his own failures.
Psalm 34 should not distress us any more than should Psalm 32. David could praise God for the forgiveness of his sins (cf. vv. 1-7), and he could go on to teach others about following God, in spite of his sin with Bathsheba. He could teach with integrity because he had already dealt with his own sin in Psalm 51. From this psalm we learn that David had come to see the seriousness of his sin and had confessed it before God. In verses 3 and 4 of Psalm 32 we learn that David’s sin brought much pain and agony of soul. His sin was not taken lightly, either by God or by David, but once confessed David could praise God and exhort and instruct others.
Peter was a man very much like David in my estimation. Both seemed to be impulsive, and yet both had a heart for God. While God had purposed for Peter to become a leader of His church (cf. Matt. 16:17-19), He intended that a part of the process was to allow him to fail: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32).
I want to suggest to you that God is gracious. He has chosen to use fallible men to serve and to worship Him. God never takes our sin lightly, and we are warned of the dire consequences of sin, yet it is often through our failures that the greatest lessons of life are learned. We need not excuse David’s sins any more than we should attempt to excuse Peter. Yet what we can do is to praise God with them for His gracious deliverance. Furthermore, we should learn from these men that God is a gracious deliverer for us as well.
A friend and I were talking recently about some men in the ministry who somehow are able to live a double life—preaching the gospel on the one hand and yet living in immorality. I think that this Psalm helps to explain why some can live such a lie. They are hypocritical in their immorality because they have developed a pattern of hypocrisy. Because they are preachers and people hold them up as models, they feel that they cannot fail. Perhaps I should say, they conclude that they dare not admit that they fail. Those of us who are unwilling to admit that David sinned in his relationship with Saul and with Achish are certainly not willing to learn that Christian leaders fail, too. Consequently, our leaders, teachers, and ministers learn to live a lie. They give the appearance of having control over sin in their life, but they know they are weak. Having become conditioned to hypocrisy, when they fall into immorality they are inclined to continue to do what they have always done—play the role which people expect of them.
Please do not misinterpret my words here. I do not think we should be easy on sin or on sinners, including those of religious leaders. I am simply saying that we are unwilling to allow them to admit that they do fail, and so they become hypocritical. Neither do we want to be led by those who make mistakes. All of the leaders of the Old and New Testaments were men with “feet of clay.” We dare not demand more of men today. We need to be reminded that God does deliver us from our sins, if we but confess them and forsake them. The way to live righteously is not to ignore sin or to rationalize it, but to repent of it and to be restored. I pray that we may find the forgiveness and the restoration to fellowship and worship that David experienced and that he urges us to experience as well.
Do you desire length of days and a good life (v. 12)? Then learn from David that these things come from God to those who fear Him. “O taste and see that the Lord is good; how blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!” (v. 8).
The message is one from a sinner to sinners. I pray that you will “seek refuge” in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Redeemer of mankind through His sacrificial death on the cross of Calvary. As believers, my prayer is that you and I will come to fear Him as we ought.
104 Psalms 3, 7, 18, 30, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, and 142 are all psalms based upon episodes in the life of David. Cf. Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72 (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), p. 53.
105 I must say “apparently” because the superscription of Psalm 34 tells us that David “feigned madness before Abimelech,” while in 1 Samuel 21 the name of the king of Gath is said to be Achish. As the marginal note of the NASB indicates, Abimelech may be the title of Achish. This, if so, would be similar to the title “Pharaoh” which was used by Egyptian kings. Cf. A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House [reprint], 1982), p. 170.
Perowne’s remarks are both perplexing and disturbing: “No value can be attached to the superscription with its historical reference, because while it is borrowed from I Sam. xxi. 13 , Abimelech is substituted for Achish, which looks like a confusion with the narrative in Gen. xx. xxi.; and further, the contents of the Psalm do not very readily, or naturally, harmonise with the supposed circumstances.” J. J. Stewart Perowne, The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Zondervan [reprint], 1976), I, p. 298.
Leupold has a more balanced and biblical approach: “He resorted to the dubious expedient of feigning madness (‘changed his behavior’ says the Hebrew idiom) in the presence of the king. It is quite obvious that the contents of the psalm neither prove nor disprove this claim. Yet it is scarcely likely that the editors that attached this heading to the psalm will have done so without some good reason. In fact, we need only the following two assumptions: 1) that the psalm was not composed until a reasonable time had elapsed to allow David to produce a well-balanced, objective treatment of the case; and 2) that the vv. 13ff. indicate that the deception practiced was not what helped the author, in fact, such efforts are to be thoroughly discountenanced.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House [reprint], 1969), p. 278.
106 Those who are inclined to take the superscriptions to the psalms lightly must be reminded of this important fact, pointed out by Kidner: “In the Heb. text there is no break between these words and those which we normally print as the first line. Our custom of placing the title above the psalm, rather than as part of verse 1, is a matter of convenience, which does not alter its status as part of the text.” Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975), p. 391, fn. 1.
107 Some may find it perplexing to note that Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:3-4 and Mark 2:25-26 seem to suggest that David was not wrong to ask for this consecrated bread. I believe that our Lord was saying that David was right in asking for that bread and that Ahimelech was right in giving it to him. The principle involved here is that the Sabbath was given for man’s benefit, not for a detriment. To “break the Sabbath” by healing a man was to keep the spirit of the law, for the purpose of the law was to benefit man. God intended for man to rest from his labors and to have time for worship, but this did not forbid picking a few heads of grain (Matt. 12:1). All of this deals with the principle of the purpose of the law, which was to be a blessing to man. The matter of David’s deception is not the question debated here, nor does Jesus minimize David’s sin by failing to bring up this issue, which would only weaken His argument. To sanction the eating of the consecrated bread is not to sanction David’s deception.
108 It is an interesting aside to observe that while Saul lacked the diligence and commitment to wholly obey God’s command by putting to death Amalek and all he possessed (1 Sam. 15:3, 9), he zealously slaughtered those he felt were disloyal to him at Nob (1 Sam. 22:16-19). How diligent we can be in the pursuit of our own selfish ambitions, and how slothful we often are in the pursuit of God’s revealed will!
109 As I have considered David’s decisions during his flight from Saul I have come to a tentative conclusion, which I share with you for your study and meditation. Many of David’s “bad” decisions were made with the counsel of those who were wise and godly. Abigail was able to persuade David to exercise better judgment (1 Sam. 25). Gad, the prophet, instructed David to get out of Moab and to return to Judah (1 Sam. 22:5), yet David seemed to decide on his own to leave Judah and flee to Gath (1 Sam. 21:1). In 1 Samuel 19:18 David fled to Samuel, where he is not said to act violently or deceitfully, yet after Samuel died David seemed to make some serious mistakes (cf. 25:1ff.; 28:3ff.). Later on, the prophet Nathan helped to keep David in line. Truly “no man is an island.” Many of our mistakes are the result of decisions made independently, rather than with godly counsel (cf. Prov. 11:14; 12:15; 13:10; 15:22; 24:6).
110 You will understand this to be my personal opinion, but I think it is difficult to dispute. The problem which underlies our thoughts to the contrary is that we tend to glorify biblical characters too much. We want so much for them to be models that we close our eyes to the weaknesses, character flaws, and sins of these “giants of the faith.” But remember that all of those listed in the “Hall of faith” in Hebrews 11 had skeletons in their closets—skeletons, I might point out, which God told us were there. God does not glorify sin, but neither does He minimize or glass over it. In the words of the New Testament, these were truly men “with a nature like ours” (James 5:17).
111 Kidner, Psalms 1-72, p. 140.
112 The verb rendered “O magnify…” is an imperative which may not have the force of a command here so much as an exhortation. Cf. James M. Van Dine, “An Exegetical Study of Psalm 34” (unpublished Master’s thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas, 1974), pp. 29-30.
113 It is possible also to interpret verse 5 to mean that the righteous Israelites in the congregation look to David (rather than to the Lord) and are radiant and not put to shame since God has delivered him. Cf. Van Dine, pp. 33-38.
114 “… but the word for man here is a different one. It means properly a strong man, and suggests the thought that be he ever so strong in himself, man’s only true happiness is in dependence on Jehovah.” A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House [reprint], 1982), p. 172.