Six Weeks with the Psalms
The word ‘praise’ appears more often in Psalms than in any other book of the Bible (100 times, apparently), but I think it would be hard to establish how many times it’s implied. You could argue that there’s a praise element in all of the Psalms, in fact just reading scripture – any part of scripture – is a form of praise.
I think before we look at the Psalms we’ve been reading this week, it’s maybe worth thinking briefly about what praise is. Express approval? Admiration? Thanks? To simply thank God isn’t necessarily to praise him because that’s more about how we feel, about our feelings for God, and I’m not so sure that’s what praise is about. I think we praise God when we acknowledge how powerful He is, or how good, or what He does. Psalms that speak about God’s attributes and his actions are psalms that praise Him. In 1st Chronicles 16 (which is a song of praise from David, itself a psalm even though it’s in a different book) it says: ‘Oh give thanks to the Lord, call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples! Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of his wondrous works.’ And I like this definition: Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology says, ‘To praise God is to draw attention to His glory.’
On first reading this psalm there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of praise in it – in fact, it can also be seen partly as a lament – ‘Hide not your face from me, turn not your servant away in anger’, partly thanksgiving. Maybe I could have picked an easier one to start off with!
A wee bit of background. We can’t know for sure exactly when it was written, some commentaries say it was when David was being hunted down by King Saul – ‘adversaries and foes,’ ‘though an army encamp against me,’ ‘enemies all around me’ but there were quite a few times when David was in danger. And it’s been said that it’s actually two psalms stitched together. There’s a shift in emphasis at verse 7 – until that point David speaks about God, and after that he speaks to God. And something I find interesting - although reading it in English as we do, this is lost on us – is that, in the original Hebrew, the first two lines have five words each, the second two have six and the third two have seven. To those who read it originally, this would have meant something – the number 7 meaning completion in Jewish numerology, an indication of God.
Anyway, where is the praise?
‘The Lord is my light and salvation.’ This is the first time in the Bible that light is used as a metaphor for God, by the way – in fact it’s the only time in the Old Testament.
‘The Lord is the stronghold of my life.’
I think most of the praise comes in the first couple of statements, because it is these that give David the strength to face everything that’s comes after. He’s not talking about himself, he’s praising God for what he does for him. Looking at the book of Ephesians (6: 10-13), I think Paul and David are saying much the same thing? ‘Whom shall I fear?’ ‘Of whom shall I be afraid?’ The odds are all against me, but I’ve got God on my side.
What other elements of praise are there?
‘To gaze upon the beauty of the Lord’
‘He will hide me in his shelter.’
This is what God does, and by speaking of that, David is praising Him.
This an acrostic Psalm, where the first letter of each verse starts with the corresponding letter of the Hebrew alphabet (which has 22 letters in it). In English translations we miss this, but looking at the original Hebrew it becomes clear: http://destinyenglish.weebly.com/acrostic-psalms.html
The psalms were mainly passed by word of mouth, so this is probably a way to help remember it. We probably all learned phrases or poetry this way. I remember the lines on a stave of music – EGBDF, Every Good Boy Deserves Football.
I think we established last week that the Psalms are poems, or songs. Just a word or two on Hebrew poetry. As I say, it doesn’t use rhymes, instead it mostly relies on parallel lines, where one complements another or emphasises it. ‘I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips.’ I think Psalm 34 is a good example of this, every verse has two clauses, two separate but linked sections – they might complement each other or they might contrast with each other.
Where our poetry would link these by rhymes, Hebrew poetry links the thoughts together. There’s a rhythm to it. Rarely in the Psalms do you see a single line without two thoughts in it.
Sometimes the whole psalm is symmetrical - it’s called a chiastic structure. Looking at Psalm 33 (which is actually more of a praise Psalm than 34), you’ll see five reasons to praise God (v4, 6, 10, 13, 18) with three verses either side – a call to praise, the praise itself, then a kind of call to action. You see the symmetry in it?
The incident that’s described in the sub-heading to Psalm 34 is seen in 1 Samuel 21: 10-15, when David had had a dangerous experience with the Philistines. Abimelech is Achish, incidentally.
So where is the praise in Psalm 34? The first three verses? Bearing in mind what I say above about praise being an acknowledgement of what God does, do the first three verses reflect this? Or are they more about what David does, rather than what God does? You could see the first three lines as a call to praise, or a call to worship, rather than praise itself.
I think the praise starts after that, because it’s only then that David starts to speak of what God actually does for him, and does for those who look for him. Maybe we’re guilty of that? I know I sometimes am in my prayers, my words will say ‘I’m praising you, Lord,’ but for what? I think we’ve got to acknowledge what He does for us.
I think this psalm is quite evangelical. David was writing it to the men who were hiding along with him, but this could be a man or a woman giving a street sermon. When you read it again, try to picture it like that. The Enduring Word commentary online says ‘When one genuinely praises God, he or she wants to draw others into the practice of praise.’
‘Taste and see that the LORD is good.’ David wants to show that God is good, and he’s inviting others to try for themselves. He wants others to experience what he has experienced so they can know what he has come to know.
‘Come, O Children, listen to me.’ He’s gathering people to him.
‘Keep your tongue from evil.’ He’s giving implicit instructions.
Not only is David praising God in his words, he’s encouraging those who hear to praise too.
So is the psalm telling us simply to believe and everything will be okay? (Look at verses 4, 6, 17, 19). I think these lines are saying that we will have our troubles, our problems, but that God is always with us and he’ll see us through whatever troubles we have. ‘He keeps all his bones, not one of them is broken.’ Some say this is a prophecy of Jesus (I’m not sure) but ‘keeps’ really means ‘takes care of.’ When we say ‘The Lord bless you and keep you,’ we mean ‘bless you and take care of you.’
If I was to be asked for a favourite Praise Psalm, or even a favourite Psalm altogether, I think I’d probably choose this one.
Alamoth, in the introduction, is likely to be a musical instruction, the same way as in our CH4 hymnbooks there’s a note saying which tune the hymn can be sung to?
One commentary I read says that this psalm was intended to be sung by women, and the Alamoth were women awaiting the Messiah.
Or that Alamoth means soprano. I think that’s maybe helped lead to some misunderstanding of verse 5.
And Selah? We see this a lot in the Book of Psalms and the word itself has no actual translation, but it probably means something like ‘pause’, an instruction to stop and think about what’s just been said or sung. I think Selah is praise, very much so – it’s an opportunity to pause and think about what God does for us.
So what does this psalm say to us? Where is the praise? Even the first couple of lines is enough for me – ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.’ You could almost just leave it there. Like the other psalms we’ve talked about, it says what God is, what He does – and what He does for us.
“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.’ The city of God is usually thought of as Jerusalem, but Jerusalem doesn’t have any rivers. Does it matter?
I think it’s just poetic, to contrast with the lines before, about waters roaring and foaming, and mountains trembling.
‘While the ocean rages, and foams, and dashes against the mountains as if it would overturn them, the state of Jerusalem, the city of God, was well represented by a calm and gently-flowing river; a river of full banks, diffusing joy and fertility and beauty wherever it flowed.’ (Albert Barnes).