Theme: A Psalm for Hard Times
This week’s lessons teach us of the need to praise and trust the Lord for his deliverance in the midst of difficult experiences.
Scripture: Psalm 34:1-22
The psalter contains fourteen psalms introduced by words linking them to incidents in the life of King David.1 These introductions are not always helpful for understanding the psalms they introduce, but sometimes they are, and that is undoubtedly the situation here. The title to Psalm 34 says that it is written of the time when David “feigned insanity before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he left.”
The incident to which this refers is recorded in 1 Samuel 21:10-15. David had been fleeing from his great enemy, King Saul, and his circumstances seemed to him to be so desperate that he left his own land and went down to the coastal area of the Philistines and sought asylum with Achish, the king of Gath.2 David must have felt extremely desperate, because Gath had been the home of Goliath, the Philistine champion whom he had killed years before, and he had gone there after having received Goliath’s sword from Ahimelech, one of the priests of Nob. The very sight of the sword must have been an offense to the Philistines. David seems to have been in danger too, because the story says that he was so afraid of Achish that he pretended to be a madman in his presence, making meaningless marks on the gates of the city and letting the saliva run down his beard. Achish took his acting at face value, and instead of arresting or killing him simply drove David away, saying, “Am I so short of madmen that you have to bring this fellow here to carry on like this in front of me” (v. 15)?
Most commentators believe that this was a sad episode in David’s life, since he obviously had failed to trust God to protect him from Saul in his own country and was relying on his own cunning instead. But whether that is true or not, David nevertheless did cry out for help and was delivered, as Psalm 34 makes clear. In 1 Samuel we are told that he escaped from Gath and fled to the cave of Adullam, where the psalm may have been written.
Psalm 34 is quoted twice in the New Testament, and may be alluded to in other passages also. Verses 12-16 are quoted by Peter as a promise of God’s blessing for those who live a godly life (1 Pet. 3:10-12). Verse 20 is quoted by John as having been fulfilled at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion: “He protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken” (see John 19:36, “These things happened so that the Scripture would be fulfilled: ‘Not one of his bones will be broken’”).
As far as an outline goes, the psalm is divided into two clear parts: 1) a testimony coupled with encouragement to praise and trust God; and 2) a set of wise observations or teachings based on the psalmist’s experiences. Charles Haddon Spurgeon called the first ten verses a “hymn” and the last twelve verses a “sermon.”3
Read 1 Samuel 21 and review the incident that is the context of this psalm. Why do most commentators assume that David showed a lack of trust in God?
How is this psalm used in the New Testament?
What is the general outline of the psalm?
1Psalms: 3, 7, 18, 30, 34, 51, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142.
2Some scholars find difficulty in the use of the word “Abimilech” in the title of Psalm 34, since the king of Gath is called Achish in 1 Samuel. They imagine an editor’s blunder in confusing this man with the king mentioned in Genesis 20, 21, and 26, though it is hard to imagine any writer or scribe so foolish as to make such an obvious error. Actually, there is an easy explanation for the change of name. As Peter C. Craigie says, “It is more plausible to assume that ‘Abimelech’ (literally, ‘my father is king’) was an official title for Philistine kings, just as Pharaoh was an official title for Egyptian kings. The word ‘Abimelech’ in the psalm title, in other words, presumably refers to the Achish of 1 Samuel 21:10.” (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 19, Psalms 1-50 [Waco, TX: Word, 1983], p. 278). Support for this reasonable assumption is found in the fact that the time span between Genesis 20 and Genesis 26 probably indicates that two different individuals are involved in these accounts, though given the same name, and that the name is therefore more accurately a title.
3C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 1b, Psalms 27-57 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968), p. 122.