Psalms For Life
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Yahveh Elohim hear our prayers

Psalm 34

God of the helpless and hopeless

A David psalm. About the time he pretended to be insane before Abimelech, causing the king to send him away.

I will worship YHWH nonstop—
his praise will continually be on my lips!
2 I’ll boast about what YHWH has done.
Let the downcast hear and take heart.
3 Proclaim YHWH’s greatness with me.
Let’s give his good name all the airplay we can.
4 I asked YHWH for help and he answered me
and saved me from all I feared.
5 Look to him and you will beam with joy—
not hang your head in shame.
6 This wretched soul cried out
and YHWH heard him
and rescued him from innumerable troubles.
7 The angel of YHWH stands on guard
for those who fear him and saves them.
8 Taste and see how good YHWH is.
How happy are those who take refuge in him!
9 Revere YHWH, all you who belong to him
because those who revere him lack nothing.
10 Even strong young lions fail in the hunt
and are racked by hunger
but those who seek YHWH lack nothing good.

11 Come, my friends, and listen to me
and I’ll teach you what it means to revere YHWH.
12 Who wants to enjoy the best life has to offer
day after day and year after year?
13 Then don’t let an evil word escape your lips
and keep your tongue from twisting the truth.
14 Shun evil and do good
strive for peace—pursue it resolutely.
15 YHWH keeps an eye on all who seek him
his ear tuned to their every cry.
16 But YHWH is dead set against evildoers
to erase all trace of them from the earth.
17 Whenever anyone seeking YHWH cries out
he hears and saves them from all their troubles.
18 YHWH is close to the broken-hearted
and delivers those crushed in spirit.
19 Countless troubles beset the God-seeker
but YHWH rescues them from them all.
20 He protects all their bones—
not a single one gets broken.
21 Evil deals the wicked a deathblow
as those who hate God-seekers
incur his judgment.
22 But YHWH redeems his servants’ lives.
No one who takes refuge in him
ends up condemned.[1]

Israel’s neighbors saw their gods as arrogant, haughty, contemptuous of underdogs. This rendered religion an anxiety-ridden effort to impress the gods with one’s worth. By contrast, David insists that YHWH is more than ready to rescue us when we reach the end of our self-sufficiency.

With laugh-out-loud humor, the psalm’s backstory tells how all David’s best efforts at “looking good” reduced him to a wretched, slobbering lunatic. Only then did he rediscover the freedom that comes from trusting the God who loves helping the helpless. That’s why he boasts about God alone.[2]

But David doesn’t glibly promise us a trouble-free life if only we trust God. Rather, he plainly says God-seeking and trouble go hand-in-hand, though we can walk this rocky road confident that God redeems his servants’ lives. Revering him demands kindness, truth-telling, doing good, seeking peace—all hard work. But they’re ultimately far more rewarding than costly since they lead to the good life Deuteronomy 28:1-14 promises. Especially compared to self-sufficient evildoing, which is the evildoer’s own undoing and which God adamantly opposes. David thus urges his hearers to do two things: celebrate God with him and taste and see for themselves that trusting in God’s all-sufficiency is the way to blessing and true joy.

Lord, you call me to a life of doing good, speaking truth, seeking peace. Yet you promise to stay close, redeem me and protect me from danger. Deliver me from all my vain efforts to impress you or anybody else. Help me to trust you wholly and discover how truly good you are. Amen.

 

[1] David may have given this psalm an alphabetic acrostic form to suggest the A-to-Z breadth of its teaching on revering God.

[2] David was young when he shot to fame as Israel’s national hero. Becoming so famous and popular at such an early age, he likely became overly self-assured (cf. Psa. 30:6). His sudden fall from King Saul’s favor badly shook his self-reliance, but it didn’t demolish it. Then came the episode that ended his brief stay in Gath and gave birth to this psalm (1 Sam. 21:10-15). David knew the Philistines’ stated reason for dragging him before their king—wariness of his loyalty—wasn’t their main reason. They wanted to settle old scores. From an honor-shame perspective, David’s deranged performance before an enemy king was the nadir of his life up until then. This psalm testifies to the fact that God, not David’s acting skills, saved him that day.

While 1 Samuel names the king Achish, he’s referred to here as Abimelech, which seems to be a Philistine title like Caesar or Pharaoh; Craigie (2004) 278. Using the king’s title suggests parallels between David’s story and those of Abraham and Isaac; Goldingay (2006) 478. Both patriarchs similarly deceived a Philistine Abimelech to save their skin, only later learning that God wanted them to trust him, not their own inadequate resources (Gen. 20:1-18; 26:1-11).

Why YHWH?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH or YHVH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and sometimes transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Likewise, all modern translations either translate or transliterate it. Some other options for translating it are “the Eternal,” “the Almighty,” or “the Sovereign Lord.”

While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it seems to me more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. This roots it more firmly in the biblical story as the name God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Meaning “the self-existent One who answers to no one,” the name YHWH set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. I’ve chosen to transliterate only YHWH’s consonants since the earliest Hebrew manuscripts contain only consonants, the vowels being added much later. My aim in doing so is to honor God’s name and set it apart, as unique.

One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it out of reverence. (They read Adonai instead whenever they come to YHWH in the text.) I take the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard, who advocated pronouncing it as Yahveh (Yah·vay). He favored that over the standard Yahweh since the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish. It also makes it sound more robust, period.

Finding strength in the ancient psalms

May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.