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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 34

Introduction

Psalms 34

The Psalmist renders thanks to the Lord for a deliverance vouchsafed to him; and exhorts all the pious to join with him in the praise of the Lord, inasmuch as the Lord always manifests Himself as equally ready to help His people as He had been on the present occasion, Psalms 34:1-10. “In the second part, he turns to believers, addresses them, and says, that it is his design to teach them the art of leading a quiet life, and of being secure against enemies. This art consists in the fear of God, in keeping watch over the lips, in doing no evil, and in following after peace: the consequences of these are prayer heard, deliverance out of all danger, the gracious presence of God, communion with Him, consolation from Him, and the protection of person and life.” Jo. Arnd.

Both parts of this alphabetical Psalm contain an equal number of verses—a circumstance which must have been designed, as that number is exactly ten. Psalms 34:11 is as little to be considered as forming part of the second division, as the title of the Psalm is of the first: it has altogether the character of an introduction. And Psalms 34:22 is evidently the conclusion of the whole, summing up its contents, and not more specially belonging to the second than to the first division. Like the concluding verse of the (Psalms 25) 25th Psalm, which resembles still further the Psalm before us in having no verse allotted to Vau, it begins with פ , stands out of the alphabetical series, which terminates at Psalms 34:21 with the final letter of the alphabet. The first decade is divided, as it often is, into a three and a seven: Psalms 34:1-3 contain the determination of the Psalmist to praise God, and the exhortation to the pious to take part in that praise: Psalms 34:4-10, the basis of this determination and exhortation.

The occasion on which the Psalm was written is announced in the title: Of David, when he concealed his intellect, i.e. feigned himself mad (Luther, after the example of the Septuagint and the Vulgate, has erroneously given, “his behaviour”), before Abimelech; whereupon he drove him from his presence, and he went away. The history is related in 1 Samuel 21. Being persecuted by Saul, he betook himself to the land of the Philistines. There, he who had on former occasions injured the Philistines so grievously, was recognised, and brought into the presence of king Achish. For the purpose of saving his life, which at the time was in very imminent danger, he feigned himself mad; and God blessed this expedient, which, considered by itself, was one of a very doubtful character. The (Psalms 56) 56th Psalm also refers to the same occasion: there we have the prayer which David addressed to God in his extremity; and here, his thanksgivings for deliverance.

It is not, however, to be imagined that David composed the Psalm when immediately threatened by danger. In opposition to any such idea, we have the quiet tone by which it is pervaded; whereas all the Psalms which were immediately called forth by a particular occasion, are of a much more stirring character. Besides this, we have the decided predominance of effort to draw consolation and instruction for the Church from his own personal experience. Finally, we have the alphabetical arrangement, which never occurs in those Psalms which express feelings immediately called forth by a particular object, but always in those, in which the prevailing design is to edify others. The fact is, that David—when, on some occasion in the subsequent part of his history, his mind became filled with lively emotions arising from the recollection of this wonderful escape, in reference to which he even here says, “I will praise the Lord at all times, His praise shall be continually in my lips,”—made it the groundwork of a treasure of edification for the use of the godly in all ages.

After thus limiting the sense in which to understand the title, it becomes an easy matter to defend it against the attacks of modern criticism. It has been said: 1st, “That it cannot be David’s, because the Achish of the book of Samuel is confounded with the Abimelech of the patriarchal times.” But this apparent contradiction disappears, when we observe that Abimelech among the Philistines was the title of rank given to all their kings, just as the kings of Egypt were called Pharaoh—of Jerusalem, Adonizedeck or Melchisedeck—of the Amalekites, Agag of Hazor, Jabin—of Jemen, Toba, etc.: compare Beitr. P. III. p. 306, on Balaam, p. 149. In favour of this idea we have three reasons: the first is drawn from Genesis 20 as compared with Genesis 26, where both Abraham and Isaac have to do with Abimelech, king of the Philistines; the second, from comparing the title of our Psalm with 1 Samuel 21; and the third, from the nature of the name itself. Abimelech means “father of a king;” and refers to the hereditary descent of the crown among the Philistines, in opposition to the practice of electing the sovereign, which obtained in the neighbouring nation of the Edomites. It is altogether natural that the proper name should be made use of in the books of Samuel, which bear the character throughout of very exact historical treatises; and that the generic designation should occur in the title of a poem, which, to a certain extent, must wear a poetical aspect. 2. “The title,” it is maintained, “is literally copied from 1 Samuel 21:14; and therefore cannot have been composed by David, or by any of his contemporaries.” But the title agrees with the passage referred to only in the single expression, “he feigned himself mad.” And if it will not be granted that this may have been accidental, it may at once be urged, that the author of the books of Samuel may have borrowed that expression from the title before us, as it undoubtedly has more of a poetical than a prosaic character. 3. “In Psalms 34:4 and Psalms 34:6, a deliverance from many dangers,” it is said, “is referred to, and in Psalms 34:10 the Psalmist speaks of want and privation.” But that one trouble consisted of many parts; danger threatened David in many forms; and Psalms 34:9 and Psalms 34:10 do not refer merely to the particular occasion, but contain a general affirmation, which points not merely to want of the necessaries of life, but also to want of whatever is good, to want of salvation. 4. “The language and the style,” it is maintained, “are different from the real Davidic Psalms.” We reply, they differ certainly from those which modern criticism has marked out as exclusively the Psalms of David, but not at all from a great number, which, from their titles, and from internal evidence, were likewise composed by him. The difference is perfectly accounted for by the difference as to occasion, tone, and object. We may here advert particularly to the expression, “Come to me, ye sons, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of God.” David had hence to do with the poor simple people, and directed his voice to them in love, and spoke so simply, that even a child might understand and participate in the blessing which God had given him.

In favour of the originality of the title, we have to urge, in addition to the general ground, that there is nothing in the contents of the Psalm to contradict it,—the more general the historical references in the Psalms are, the less likely is the title to be the result of combination,—first, that the manner in which personal experiences are applied for the benefit of the entire community of the righteous, is thoroughly characteristic of David; and second, that a title referring to the occasion in question, is what might have been expected, as David appears to have aimed at perpetuating in the titles of the Psalms, the remembrance of all the most remarkable incidents of his life.

First, Psalms 34:1-3. The Psalmist intimates his intention of praising God, and exhorts all the godly to join with him in the praise.

Verses 1-2

Ver. 1. I will praise the Lord at all times; His praise shall ever be in my mouth. The assurance of ever-during praise exalts the greatness of the benefit, and places it in contrast to the lesser protections of God which we daily experience. Ver. 2. My soul shall make her boast of the Lord: may the meek hear thereof, and be glad. התהלל with ב is “to boast of anything.” The meek (Luther, erroneously: the miserable) boast of what the Lord has done for the Psalmist, because it is prophetic of their own deliverance. Ver. 3. Magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together. As the ל cannot be the sign of the accusative, and as גדל יהוה , never occurs, but only “to make great the name of the Lord,” Psalms 69:30, and as גדל is never generally, “to praise,” but always, “to make great,” it is necessary to supply שמו in the first clause, from the second.

In Psalms 34:4-10, we have the basis of the determination, and of the exhortation to praise God. Ver. 4. I sought the Lord, and He answered me, and delivered me out of all my fear. מגורה is the object of the fear, the thing that is feared: comp. Isaiah 66:4. Ver. 5. They look at Him and are brightened, and their countenance is not ashamed. The Psalmist considers himself throughout as the representative of the meek. The transition, therefore, is easy from the singular of the preceding verse, to the plural here. He lays down a general position, which is anew confirmed by his own experience. Besides, the somewhat undefined description of the subject has been caused by the alphabetical character of the Psalm, which sufficiently explains the somewhat loose connection with what goes before and follows. On, “they look to Him,” Jo. Arnd remarks: “Just as, in great extremity, we look around for help, to see if any one will deliver us, or as a child in severe sickness looks mournfully upon its parents, and they are unable to help, so our heart in faith looks mournfully to God.” Of the two significations of נהר , “to flow together,” and “to brighten,” or “to be bright,” we cannot, with Luther, take the first, but must prefer the second: compare Isaiah 60:5, where “the being bright,” is in like manner used of the restoration of serenity to the countenance. The חָ פֵ ר “to be red,” viz. with shame at the refusal of the prayer, and is the opposite of “the brightening.” אל , the subjective negative, is stronger than לא . The Psalmist is horrified at the idea of being ashamed, as something altogether abnormal. Ver. 6. This miserable man cried, and the Lord heard, and helped him out of all his troubles. As the Psalmist had made a transition from the particular to the general, as brought to view in his own case, he now returns to the particular, which was the pledge of the reality of the general. שמע is the Preterite. Ver. 7. The Angel of the Lord encamps round about those who fear Him, and delivers them. As the word Jehovah is a proper noun, and thus a definite one we can translate, “the angel of the Lord.” Considered by itself, “the angel of the Lord” might be taken in a collective sense; as, for example, “the horse,” in Psalms 33:17. But yet there occurs no single passage in which מלאך יהוה is demonstrably used in that sense; and it appears that this designation of the angels is designedly refrained from, because מלאך יהוה was the common designation of the Angel of the Lord κατ εξ ., the Angel in whom is the name of God, according to the Pentateuch, the Angel of the presence, Isaiah 63:9: compare on this the treatise on the Divinity of Christ in the Old Testament, the Christology, I. 1. The reasons for excluding this sense here,—viz. the expression, “encamps round,” and the parallel passages, such as Psalms 91:11-12; 2 Kings 16:17, where angels are spoken of in a similar connection,—disappear when narrowly examined. The ANGEL OF THE LORD, as the Captain of the Lord’s hosts ( Joshua 5:14; 1 Kings 22:19), is to be thought of as attended by armies of inferior ministering angels. And חנה is applied not only to an army, but also to the commander; for example, 2 Samuel 12:28. Allusion is made to Genesis 32:2-3, where Jacob, on returning from Mesopotamia, and when afraid of his brother Esau, saw with the eye of the spirit a double encampment of angels, at the head of which, from comparing Genesis 28:13, and Genesis 32:25, we are to suppose the Angel of the Lord to have been, and between which his own encampment would lie. These circumstances, the memory of which was perpetuated by the name Mahanaim, given to the place, contained a prophecy embodied in action for the benefit of all who fear the Lord. Ver. 8. Taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed is the man that trusteth in Him. The “taste and see” invite, as it were, to a sumptuous feast, which has long been ready,—to a rich sight openly exposed to view. The imperatives are in reality not hortatory, but promissory: compare, “they have no want,” Psalms 34:10. Ver. 9. Fear the Lord, ye His holy ones; for they have no want who fear Him. The emphasis lies, according to the connection, more on the consequence than on the condition: “only fear,” or, “if you only fear.” A true and lively fear of God, which proves itself to be such by obedience to His commandments (compare Psalms 34:13-14), need never be afraid of losing its reward. On קדושים , as designating the true Israelites, compare at Psalms 16:3. Ver. 10. The lions are reduced to poverty, and are hungry; but they that seek the Lord have want of no one good thing. That by “the lions” here, as at Psalms 57:5; Nehemiah 2:12-14; Ezekiel 38:13, Ezekiel 19:2-3, we are to understand powerful and violent men, is evident, not only from the context, and from the “being reduced to poverty,” but also from the parallel passage, Job 4:10-11. Luther, after the Septuagint, gives, rather indefinitely, “the rich.” We have here no special Old Testament truth before us. This is evident from the petition dictated to us by our Lord Himself, and from the promise which that petition necessarily implies, regarding our daily bread. It is also evident from Matthew 6:32-33. The ( Psalms 34:19) 19th verse gives the necessary limitation, the reference to the manifold sufferings by which in this life the righteous are exercised.

There follows the second strophe, in which the Psalmist invites all to come to the enjoyment of safety through the sincere fear of God, which is intended for those only who thus come, but also assuredly for those.

Verse 11

Ver. 11. Come, ye sons; listen to me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord. In “ye sons,” we find one experienced in the ways of God addressing the young: compare Proverbs 1:8, Proverbs 10:15. On, “I will teach you the fear of the Lord,” the Berleb. Bib. remarks: “And I will not only show you what it is, but will also, after that, give you the strongest reasons which will move you, and incite you.” As the author, in what follows, manifestly directs his attention exclusively to the second point, it is obvious that the first is to be kept out of view, although it alone has occupied the attention of most commentators.

Verse 12

Ver. 12. Who is the man that desires life, that loves days when he may see good? The Psalmist asks the question, Who desires to be happy? To him who desires this—and where is the man who does not?—he prescribes, in what follows, the only and unfailing means by which it may be obtained. The “life,” according to the explanation given in the second clause, is not mere life, which frequently may be rather called death, but a happy life. Days in which we see good, are happy days.

Verses 13-14

Ver. 13. Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips that they speak not guile. Ver. 14. Turn from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it. In giving the details of the fear of God, the duties toward our neighbour are, according to David’s usual way, dwelt upon with particular care, because there hypocrisy, which is so ready to appropriate to itself promises with which it has nothing to do, finds least scope for its exercise. Psalms 34:13 refers to words, and Psalms 34:14 to deeds. It is self-evident, that by “peace” here, we are not to understand “virtue,” or “goodness.” Jo. Arnd: “Hence must every man who desires to have a good life, take care not to cause disagreement. The devil and the world give many occasions of dispeace. But be thou wary, be silent rather, suffer somewhat, be patient, be gentle, be not easily provoked, be not revengeful. That thou destroy not noble peace, and God, with His blessing, depart from thee.” Compare Romans 12:18; 2 Corinthians 13:11.

Verses 15-16

Ver. 15. The eyes of the Lord look upon the righteous, and His ears upon their cry. Ver. 16. The face of the Lord is against those that do evil, that He may root out their remembrance from the earth. Properly, it is, “the face of the Lord is in the evildoers:” compare on ב used in the hostile sense, Ewald’s Kl. Gr. p. 521.

Verse 17

Ver. 17. They cry, and the Lord hears, and delivers them out of all their trouble. The subject, the righteous, is to be supplied from Psalms 34:15. This is less harsh than might be supposed: as the author, according to the announcement in Psalms 34:11, has to do only with those who fear God, what concerns the ungodly comes into notice only as the shade which is intended to relieve the light.. Thus in the ( Psalms 34:15) 15th and ( Psalms 34:16) 16th verses: “The eyes of the Lord, etc.; while His face, etc.”

Verse 18

Ver. 18. The Lord is near to those who are of a broken heart, and helps them who have a contrite spirit. Brokenness of heart, and contrition of spirit, designate the deep, yet soft and mild, sadness which is to be found only in the godly. Compare Isaiah 57:15, and the introduction to Psalms 6.

Verse 19

Ver. 19. The righteous man must suffer much, but the Lord helps him out of it all. The fact, that the righteous man must suffer much, shows how imperfect human righteousness is: for where there is still suffering, there is still sin; and where there is much suffering, there is much sin. That the Lord will deliver him out of it all, shows the greatness of the Divine compassion.

Verse 20

Ver. 20. He keeps all His bones, so that not one of them is broken, viz. without His will and gracious permission. Compare Matthew 10:30, where we are told that the hairs on the head of the godly are all numbered.

Verse 21

Ver. 21. Misfortune slays the wicked, and the haters of the righteous become guilty. The relation in which this verse stands to the ( Psalms 34:19) 19th, does not permit us to render רעה by “wickedness,” the term for which, in the Psalms, is always רע . There, the godly man is delivered out of all misfortune; here, misfortune is fatal to the wicked. To “become guilty,” is to be represented, or to appear guilty.

Verse 22

Ver. 22. The Lord delivereth the soul of His servants, and none of those who trust in Him become guilty. This is the sum of the whole Psalm. The soul is mentioned, because, as is obvious from the opposition to Psalms 34:21, and from the personal experience of David (compare Psalms 34:1), the subject of which the author is treating, is danger to life.

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 34". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-34.html.