Saturday, September 13, 2014

Psalm 34

Psalm 34
A psalm of David when he pretended madness before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he departed.

    It is not often that David subtitles his psalms with an exact account of his reason for writing it, and this particular account is rather of an unflattering nature. This has to be one the most bizarre stories in scripture, not because of an unbelievable miracle- (miracles are believable when you believe in God), but because of an apparent character lapse on the part of a Bible superhero. David, the giant slayer, (who famously slew Goliath of Gath, the Philistine champion and genuine giant of a man, at around 9 feet tall and wearing 200 pound armour, plus weaponry), is faking lunacy before an average sized Philistine king to escape death.
    To give you just a bit of background regarding David's dealings with the Philistines, and to reveal how out-of-character this appears, consider this: David's bride-price for Michal, the princess of Israel, had been 200 foreskins (I know. Gross, right?) of Philistine warriors, which he singlehandedly slew. And the young maidens didn't sing, "Saul has killed his thousands and David his tens of thousands!" for no reason. David was Israel's greatest war hero and champion, slaying Philistine warriors left and right.
       So why does David seem to suddenly act like a coward, slobbering and drooling all over his beard in front of the Philistine king?  Was he being cunning, relying on his own ingenuity to get himself out of a fix, or was he just terrified, acting on gut instinct to save his skin through deception?
      Fear can make you do strange things, but what is even stranger is that this experience actually inspired one of the most beautiful and well known of all the psalms! And to hear David tell it, it wasn't his own craftiness in playing the madman, nor his cowardice in hiding his identity, but God's hand that delivered him from certain death at the hands of the Philistines. Read on.

"I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth.  My soul shall make its boast in the LORD; the humble shall hear of it and be glad.  Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt His name together." (verses 1-3)

     David begins his psalm with both a declaration and an invitation: he will worship the Lord, no matter what happens to him, and he desires to do so collectively with like minded believers.
      To "bless the LORD" means to praise and glorify God in heart, word, or action, and David wills himself to do so "at all times", regardless of circumstances. While he may not be in continual song or speech, he declares that such praises are "continually" in his mouth, ready to be spoken. For words of praise and adoration of God to be on the tip of our tongues continually, the worship of God must be in our hearts at all times.
     Rather than glorying in his own strength or wisdom, David declares that his soul, his very inmost being, will "make its boast in the LORD," rejoicing in the strength and wisdom of God.  While the world may look on in confusion or contempt, those who share a humility of spirit towards God will "be glad" to know that David, the great leader and anointed future king of Israel, is humble before God.
      When we find our source of pride in our own achievements or character, we are but poor examples of Christ to the world. As Paul wrote to the Philippian church, to be earthly minded is to  glory in our shame! (Phil. 3:19) Yet when we find our confidence and esteem in Christ, we become a witness to the lost world of a great and good God who gave everything that we might have life in Him. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?" (1 Cor. 4:7)
     Our very lives are a gift of God's grace, and when we set our eyes upon that truth, all else fades away into the peripheral. My soul will make its boast in Jesus Christ and what He has done, not in my qualifications or expertise, my works of righteousness, or any good that I have done. He alone is worthy of my praise!
     As the humble hear of it and are glad, they long to join in David's continual worship, so he invites them to join him. "Oh magnify the LORD with me..." The idea of magnification is that of enlargement through intense focus. David invites all of us to focus intently upon the LORD with him, that He may become larger than all the other fancies, worries, or occupations of our hearts. When God rightly appears big and all consuming before us, all else will seem small and insignificant in comparison, as they are in reality.  God is magnificent, but we may not see Him as such because we become so intently focused on our small issues, like a child studying an ant with a magnifying glass who is unaware of the great elk who stands before him.
      "Let us exalt His name together" is a beautiful invitation to collective worship.  To "exalt" is to lift high, and a person's name is tied to their character. Some of us received names at babies that have nice meanings that we hope are indicative of our true character as we grow older. My sister's name means "graceful," and I bear witness that she is indeed a graceful person in both manner and in speech. One of my children's names means "peace," and that is my prayer for him, that he learns to be a man of peace.
     My name means "flowering shrub," so there's not much there to go on, but the point remains: God's name is God's character. He is who He says He is, and Who that is, I want to lift high in worship.  Will you join me?

"I sought the LORD, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.  They looked to Him and were radiant, and their faces were not ashamed.  This poor man cried out, and the LORD heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.  The angel of the LORD encamps all around those who fear Him, and delivers them." (verses 4-7)

      David now begins his account of what happened that infamous day in Gath, but he does not begin at the beginning, but rather jumps right into the moment of danger when he feared for his life... the moment he "sought the LORD."
     It says in 1 Samuel 21:10-12, "Then David arose and fled that day from before Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath.  And the servants of Achish said to him, “Is this not David the king of the land? Did they not sing of him to one another in dances, saying: ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands’?”Now David took these words to heart, and was very much afraid of Achish the king of Gath."

     The whole scenario begs for answers. Why did David flee to Gath, and how did the people there recognize him?  It wasn't like today where we have photographs, internet, and Facebook. You would have to know someone personally to recognize them. Why did they call him the "king"of Israel, and if the king, why is that so dangerous for him? Needless to say, what had transpired in the days before this event are significant in understanding what took place with David before the king of Gath.
      Saul, the king of Israel, had been rejected by God for disobedience, and the prophet Samuel had prophesied to him of the man who would replace him. Saul clung to his throne, and tormented by his sin, God's judgement, and his anxiety over the future, he developed a form of psychosis, calmed only by the harp playing of a local shepherd boy by the name of David.
      Unbeknownst to Saul, David was chosen by God to be king, and remained unknown to both Israel and Saul, until the day he killed Goliath of Gath in a dual. Israel and Philistia were at war with each other during this time, and David became a national hero overnight. It was apparent to all, including Saul, that God was with him.
     Fearing that David was the prophesied king to replace him, Saul became even more disturbed.  Regretting having promised his daughter, the princess, to the man who killed the giant, Saul sought to have David killed in battle before the wedding. He sent him out again and again against the Philistines with impossible odds, but David would come back victorious and more popular than ever.
     When Saul finally gave up attempts at secrecy and openly sought to kill him, David fled, making a pit stop with Ahimelech the priest to grab some food and the sword of Goliath. He then directly made a run for the border, hoping to hide out incognito amongst the Philistines until his friends within Israel could shelter him from the king.
    Things went horribly wrong, however, when he entered Gath, the home city of Goliath.  His sword gave him away. All at once, men recognized him as their greatest enemy, David of Israel. They had no doubt heard of his fame amongst his own people and knew personally of his success in battle, and perhaps even had heard whispers of his anointing as king, for they call him "the king of the land." Imagine that! They were more in tune with David's true destiny than his own people.

    So here we are, back at the verse. David is surrounded by his enemies, and is terrified. Saul and his army are seeking to kill him and all of Philistia now has him in their grasp. What does he do? According to Psalm 34, he prays.
     He calls himself "this poor man," and says that he "cried out" to God in the midst of all his fears and all his troubles.  Note that he does not say, "Vindicate me, O God, from those who persecute me wrongly!" nor does he say, "See my innocence and come speedily to my rescue," but rather, "Oh, God! I am a wretch. Have mercy on me!"
    In fear, David had twice acted in faithlessness and folly on the journey to Gath, first lying to the priest, and then foolishly taking Goliath of Gath's sword with him to Gath, of all places, but Psalm 56 reveals what took place once he got to Gath.

"A Michtam of David when the Philistines captured him in Gath.  Be merciful to me, O God, for man would swallow me up; fighting all day he oppresses me.  My enemies would hound me all day,
for there are many who fight against me, O Most High.  Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in You." (Psalm 56:1-3)

      David was captured immediately upon entering the city. Seeing at once his folly, he cries out to God for mercy, all at once declaring also his confidence in God's protection. By the time he is brought before Achish, he is in a right state of heart and mind before God.  Still afraid, but no longer terrified, he is trusting in the LORD to deliver him now.  How does God deliver him? As a madman.
     Was it not crazy of David to flee to his greatest enemies for shelter while yet in possession of the chief article of evidence against him, the sword of their champion?  Was it not approaching lunacy to enter their capital city thus armed, silently proclaiming himself the most infamous villain of their time? David was Philistia's greatest national threat, and yet here he is: alone, in their capital, with Goliath's very recognizable sword. Was he insane? David's escape to Gath was nothing short of an act of madness. How fitting that God should have delivered him through acting the part of a madman!
     David is released by the king in disgust, as he drools on his beard and claws at the gate.  Never did David appear so undignified. God's deliverance was powerful and effective, humbling His servant while yet saving him from certain death... God's justice and mercy working together for David's salvation.
      "They looked to Him and were radiant, and their faces were not ashamed.  The angel of the LORD encamps all around those who fear Him, and delivers them."  Verses five and seven speak of those who, like David, looked to the LORD in their time of distress and found acceptance and deliverance. When you look into another person's face to discover their feeling towards you, and are met with a broad smile of acceptance, a sense of peace and joy will wash over your soul.  To onlookers, you may appear to almost glow from within. True acceptance is wonderful. In spite of his failings in the previous days, David looked to the LORD and found acceptance. Radiant with God's forgiveness, he was unashamed.
     As it turns out, David was not alone in Gath. The angel of the LORD was with him, his forces encamped all around David.  Like Elisha of old, who did not fear the army of Israel's enemy because the army of heaven surrounded him, David was safe in God's care all along. God was with David to deliver him.
     Returning to our original question, was David's escape by his own cunning? Was this a lapse in faith? No. God saw it fitting to deliver David through feigned madness and David rejoiced in His mercy.

"Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him! Oh, fear the LORD, you His saints! There is no want to those who fear Him.  The young lions lack and suffer hunger; but those who seek the LORD shall not lack any good thing." (verses 8-10)

    To "taste" is to sample something personally. The food must be brought into the mouth where it comes in contact with our special flavour receptors, the "taste buds." If it discovered to be pleasant, the natural response is to swallow it.  Others may report their findings and counsel us accordingly, "You should try the mocha cheesecake; it's delicious!", but until we try it for ourselves, the food experience remains impersonal. Should someone ask you which food to eat, you may only say, "Well, I have been told that the cheesecake is delicious," and can offer no recommendation from personal experience. Once, however, that cheesecake has entered your mouth, you have a personal testimony as to it's quality and flavour.
    It is the same with "seeing."  You can hear it told hundred times, but until you personally bear witness to it with your own eyes, you cannot truly say you know something.  God has given us these senses that we may accurately comprehend the world around us in a personal way. Each sight, sound, smell, texture, and flavour becomes in some way "ours" when we experience it through our five senses.  What are a remarkable gift God has given us!
     David tells us to "taste" and "see" that the LORD is good.  It has been said that Faith is our "sixth sense", by which we can apprehend the realities of the spiritual world, most specifically God. And verily there is truth to that, for "faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen", according to the writer of Hebrews. (Hebrews 11:1) Those realities of the spiritual realm, such as the promises of God, are accessed by faith alone. We cannot see, feel, smell, hear, or taste them physically, but by faith we can still know without doubt that they are real and tangible.
      God is spirit and is thus beyond the realm of our five senses.  To know Him, to experience His power and provision in this life, we must come to Him by faith. It is entirely reasonable to believe in God; it is not illogical nor fantastical, but it is mystical. He is in another realm outside of our physical three dimensional world.  He has designed it so that men may know Him, but they must come to Him by faith, not sight.
     David completes his invitation to experience the reality of God's goodness with a blessing upon anyone who "trusts in Him." To trust is to actively believe in something or someone. It is faith with response. Thus when David invites us to "taste" and "see" God's goodness, he lets us in on the secret of how to do so: trust in Him.
David is essentially saying, "I was in need and cried out to God in faith, and He came through for me.  Why don't you do the same! Trust Him. Try Him. See if He doesn't come through for you, as He did for me!"
   Choosing provision as a starting point for a walk of faith, David suggests that we look to God to provide for our physical needs.  He ties in his invitation to "taste" with his declaration that God will provide food for us when we are hungry.  Unlike the lions, who must hunt down their own food, and experience lack, those who try God in the area of provision will find Him faithful to meet their needs.  As David said in another Psalm, "I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his descendants begging bread." (Psalm 37:25)
     We can trust in the LORD for all our needs. 

"Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.  Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. "  (verses 11-14)

     David invites the next generation to learn from his mistakes and develop a healthy fear of God. God is righteous and holy; we are born in sin and depraved by nature. When we understand the great gap between us and God, only then can we fully appreciate His mercy in sending His Son to redeem us to God. David knew the promise of the Saviour, and lived his life in faith towards that promise.
    Yet, like us, he occasionally slipped. When he lost sight of God, everything else appeared out of proportion. The fear of God puts everything back in its proper place. When God is big, all else is small.
     Beginning with a leading question, (for who does not desire life, love many days, and want to see good?), David then gives the answer. If you want to have a long and happy life, here is what you do, or rather don't do: don't lie or deceive. Flee from sin, and instead do what is right; in fact, pursue it. Run away from evil and run towards peace.
   David writes this practical bit of counsel immediately following his incident with Ahimelech the priest at Nob.  What actually happened there? It is a tragic story.  David flees from Saul to the priest, who has not yet heard of Saul's intentions. He lies to Ahimelech, saying he is on an errand from the king and needs a sword. Famished from his hasty escape, he eats the holy bread from the Table of Showbread, which is appointed only for the priests to eat, takes the sword of Goliath, and departs. It is only upon his return to Israel that David hears the rest of the story.
      After he left, Saul went to Nob and accused the priest of conspiring with David against him. Of course he knew nothing of it, having thought he was serving the king in helping David. Listening to no reason, Saul mercilessly commanded that all the priests, and their whole families, be executed that day. An entire city of innocent men, women, children, and babies were put to death by a paranoid king, all because David's lie had put them in danger.
      The guilt must have indeed weighed upon David, for this is the one morsel of advise he will pass along to the next generation: fear the Lord and don't deceive, if you have any desire to have a full life. David connected his disaster in Gath to his deceit in Nob, and knows that apart from God's mercy, the chastening for his lie would have been fatal.
    Now, when we lie, it doesn't often result in the deaths of hundreds of families, but it is equally sinful. We would do better to suffer the consequences of whatever we are trying to avoid by lying, than to compromise our integrity and invite the chastening of God. Seeking peace often involves giving up our own rights, whether that be the right of ownership or the right to express our own opinion.
     In David's case, it was giving up his right of reputation and God given right to be king, to live at peace with Saul. As Paul said, "If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men." (Romans 12:18). As you will see, if you follow David's life from this point onward, he took his own advice. He chose, again and again, to let God be his vindicator and refused to lift a hand towards Saul. He was truthful and just, and rightly earned the nation's respect. When he was finally crowned king at Saul's death, he had a reputation of honesty and integrity to stand upon.
    The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the source of integrity.

"The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry.  The face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.  The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles. The LORD is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit."  (verses 15-18)

     Although David is speaking of the "righteous" (those who trust in the Lord for His righteousness) in general, it is easy to read his own story into his words. David had stumbled his way out of Israel, leaving a wake of destruction and lies behind him, and upon walking into Gath, found himself awake in his worst nightmare. He cried out to God, first in repentance and then in petition, for God to forgive his sins and rescue him from his awful situation.
    David knew that his righteous standing before God was entirely due to his dependence upon God's mercy towards him. In this context, and in this moment of repentance, David declares his confidence in the Lord's deliverance. He does not cite his own merits as the reason for asking God to deliver him, but rather his standing before the Lord as a humble sinner made righteous through faith.
In contrast, he speaks of those whose righteousness is in themselves, whose evil works are not forgiven. When they meet disaster, there will be no help for them, as those who trust in themselves have only themselves to turn to. Pride goes before a fall.
     Verse eighteen describes the heart condition that God is looking for in all people who turn to Him in their hour of need. "The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart..."
     Although we are familiar with this idiom in our culture, David is not speaking about romance gone awry. The "broken heart" he speaks of is more akin to what we might call a "broken spirit"; someone who has had their human spirit and vitality so battered and bruised by life's circumstances that the person appears to be "broken" in their innermost being. Do you know someone like that? Is it you?
    Going back to the verse, who is the LORD near to? Those whose spirits have been shattered by the hard things in this life. All else may have forsaken them, but not the Lord. He is there with them, waiting for them to simply turn to Him and receive a new Spirit, full of life and love.  If life has ripped your heart to shreds and you feel like a broken person, take this promise to heart. The Lord is near to you, and has a plan for healing just waiting for you to receive it. He calls His Spirit the "Comforter" and assures us in His Word that He will send this comforter to all who need Him. For Him to begin His work of healing and restoration of your broken heart, you first have to invite Him to do so.  Take a moment right now and ask Him. He's been beside you all along just waiting for you to open the door of your heart to Him.
     "... and saves such as have a contrite spirit." Contrite means: "feeling or expressing remorse or penitence; affected by guilt." Here is the reason why most people, broken or whole, do not receive the healing offered to them through Jesus Christ: our pride.  To acknowledge our own sin and error, our own imperfections and misjudgments... our own guilt, is the essence of humility. Contrition is the state of humility before God that enables Him to show mercy to mankind. It says in James 4:6  "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble."
     Humility is the foundational virtue of Christianity! Without it, faith is merely presumption, and all other virtues become but extensions of our pride. To imagine that I can unconditionally love or forgive anyone, apart from humility, is foolishness. Pride makes all virtues simply outlets for my own self righteousness, as I deceive myself into believing that out of my own store of "goodness," rather like a god, I can grant pardon to someone else's offences.  Humility, however, approaches the offences of others from the opposite direction, the right direction.
     With a healthy grasp of my own offences before a perfect God, and His vast mercy and forgiveness that He has extended to me out of unconditional love, I am able to truly forgive and love my fellow human being. For what right do I have to hold anything to their account when my own has been mercifully cleared?  Jesus taught this in the parable of the two servants in Matthew 18, ending with the admonition to forgive others even as we have been forgiven by God.
     The offender and offended are now on level ground, neither one more inherently good than the other, and thus, neither one more inherently bad... the offences are equal. We become simply two sinners, in need of the forgiveness of God, freely offered to all.
     Humility is the foundation for all forgiveness, whether we are seeking it, or we are offering it.

"Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all. He guards all his bones; not one of them is broken.  Evil shall slay the wicked, and those who hate the righteous shall be condemned. The LORD redeems the soul of His servants, And none of those who trust in Him shall be condemned."  (verses 19-22)

    Why does God allow bad things to happen to those who trust in Him? It is a question many have asked, including Asaph, another psalmist, in his famous complaint recorded in Psalm 73.

"For I was envious of the boastful, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no pangs in their death, but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, nor are they plagued like other men.... Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocence.  For all day long I have been plagued, and chastened every morning." (Psalm 73:3-5, 13-14)

    Asaph questioned the benefits of serving God when he compared his troubles with those who only lived to serve themselves. According to him, "they are not in trouble like other men, nor are they plagued like other men,", whereas Asaph was plagued "all day long," and "chastened every morning."
     In time, Asaph realizes that his understanding was too shortsighted. Those who avoided earthly trouble by living selfishly would pay dearly in eternity, while those who trusted in God throughout their troubled life on this earth would inherit all goodness forever in the presence and abundance of God.
     Thus David declares, "many are the afflictions of the righteous," himself not excepted, but also declares his hope: The Lord will deliver him out of them all.  Whether in this life with a literal deliverance like the one in Gath, or in the next, as Asaph contented himself with, God will preserve those who trust in Him.
    David reiterates his confidence from verse sixteen that those who choose to trust in themselves will perish in their own sins, condemned by their own choices. However, in conclusion, those who "trust in Him" will face no condemnation, and their "souls" God Himself will redeem.
    Clear as day, the gospel is in the Old Testament. Although David faced earthly dangers and prayed often for physical deliverance from them, he also understood that the greatest danger mankind faced was that of eternal condemnation of soul. He also grasped the "New Testament" principle of repentance and faith towards God. David was, at heart, a Christian, even before Christ came. This is the reality we will find throughout the Bible.
     Those who lived before Jesus came, lived in expectation of His coming. They understood how to be saved, and died in faith that God would accept them for their trust in the Saviour not yet born. Hebrews 11:13 says, "These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them,fn embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth."
   The reality is that people have always been saved the same way: through humility and faith. Jesus began His public ministry crying out, "Repent and believe!" and David spoke of a contrite heart that trusts in God's mercy. God's "formula," if you will, has not changed since the beginning. Abraham was justified by faith, and so are we.
   If you have not yet set aside your own attempts at morality and virtue to embrace the forgiveness and righteousness freely offered by Jesus Christ to those who trust in Him, then why not do so right now? There is no better time.

“Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Hebrews 4:7)

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