Psalm 34 and Wisdom

[The Audio for this week’s sermon was accidentally deleted. Sorry about that!  Here is a PDF copy of the notes.]

When reading scholarly commentaries on the Psalms, there is a tendency to disregard the Psalm Heading as an interpretive grid for the Psalm since it is assumed that the header comes from an editor at a later date.  This is especially true for the psalms which relate the song to an event in the life of David.  Since the header is from much later date (usually post-exilic), in cannot contain historically valid information.  An editor is simply suggesting a context for the Psalm.

What I am proposing in this Sunday series on Psalms is that we take the header seriously and use the historical event as a lens through which we can read the Psalm.  Sometimes this is easy (Ps 51, for example), in other cases the connection to the historical event is thin at best.  Psalm 34, for example, the header to the Psalm says that it was written after David “changed his behavior before Abimelech.”  There are a few problems here.  First, in 1 Samuel 21, the king is named Achish, not Abimelech.  This is not a difficult problem, since the name “Abimelech” means “My father is king” and may very well have been an alternate name for the king of Gath (Dahood, Psalms, 1:205).   Second, in 1 Samuel David does feign madness, but it is not clear that David driven out of Gath by the king.  22:1 says he escaped, but the previous section does not say he was captured or imprisoned.  As I observed last week, the story in 1 Samuel 21:10-22:1 leaves out many details. All we know is that David escaped to Gath, was discovered and had to pretend to be insane, and eventually escaped from there.

Another problem is that Psalm 34 is clearly an example of Wisdom Literature.  It is an acrostic poem which invites the listener to “fear the Lord” in order to live a long and prosperous life.  This is more or less the theme of Wisdom Literature as found in Proverbs (Prov 1:7).

In this period of his life his family joins him for fear of Saul.  In 1 Sam 22:3-4 he petitions the king of Moab to give refuge to his family.  David then gathers people who are outside of normal society.  First, those who are “in distress” (ESV), although this noun (מָצוֹק) might be better translated as “outlaw.”  It is used three times in the Curses section of Deuteronomy to describe the ultimate suffering and distress the nation will face when they break the covenant (28:53, 55, 57).  Second, those who are in debt, the noun (נשא) refers to money-lenders and usury.  These are people who have found themselves in extreme debt because people have preyed upon them economically. Since usury was forbidden in the Law, it may be that these people were victimized by the law-courts, perhaps even the king himself.  Third, those who are “bitter in soul,” a phrase which only appears here in the Hebrew Bible.  This probably has the sense of “discontented,” specifically with King Saul. David builds up a small army of 400 men who have fled King Saul.  This army will continue to grow and will eventually be the core of David’s elite soldiers when he comes king.

In Psalm 34 David describes himself as poor and in grave distress, afraid and in need of rescue (verses 4-7).  The singer of the Psalm identifies himself with the lowest levels of society, perhaps like the men gathered by David in the wilderness.  David’s men need to be told that the Lord is good to those who fear him, but they also need some basic instruction on what it means to “fear the Lord.”  Verses 11-14 invite the listener to fear the Lord by speaking the truth, shunning evil, and seeking peace.  All three of these are Wisdom themes, but they are also the message the men described in 1 Sam 22:3-4 would need to be David’s “mighty men of valor.”

It really does not matter if David wrote this Psalm in order to instruct these men or a later psalmist wrote the Psalm using the story of David in Gath as a model.  Within the world of Psalm 34, David’s instruction to his men is to begin their life of service to the King of Israel by Fearing the Lord.