Literary analysis of Psalm 34 – Who is the man who desires life, who loves days to see goodness?

rock shelter photoSong 34 is a praisesong that celebrates God Who offers shelter, not only to the holy ones but to the lowly and the broken-hearted. So that, while the song professes to be a means of teaching righteousness, it also emulates God by providing comfort. Though the 23 verses of the song divide easily into 2 parts, each part –especially the second– has within it several groupings, according to both tone and mood. The structure employs an alphabet form, but the 6th Hebrew letter, vav, is omitted. No explanation is given in the song for either the acrostic form or for the omission of vav, but, interestingly, it was on the 6th day, according to Genesis, that God created humankind. Could it be, then, that the entire poem –in its teachings about the relationship between God and humankind, and between one human and another– is, in effect, acting as the vav?

The song begins with mention of David’s pretended madness, described in 1 Samuel 21:14; a pretense that allowed him escape from the Philistines. Thus the song, beginning “For David” or “Of David” –either translation fits the Hebrew– would seem to have been composed upon his escape or later, as he recollected it. (That Abimelech is the name given in the verse to the Philistine king is not necessarily an error; the king’s actual name was Achish, but tradition holds that the generic name for the kings of the Philistines was indeed Abimelech, just as was Pharaoh the name for Egypt’s rulers. At any rate, the name of the king is not of significance; the story in the song is specifically David’s.) “Banished” by his enemies, because of his own banishment of “his good sense” (v. 1), David imagines the bodily senses of sight, hearing, and taste as providing him an intense and immediate awareness of God’s compassion. Since it is the beneficence of God that the singer extols in the song, the senses are the natural responders; the reason, in contrast –that faculty which David pretended to have lost– would, more appropriately, be aware of God’s judgement.
Verses 2 to 5 speak directly about the singer himself; “I” and “me” are the personal pronouns used. He begins by declaring what the theme or melody of his song will be:
                                                  Let me bless Adonai at all times,
                                                                          always His praise in my mouth. (v. 2)
And yet he extends his song to all the “lowly”, inviting them to “hear and rejoice” (v. 3). Thus they form a chorus:
                                                   Extol Adonai with me,
                                                                           let us exalt His name one and all. (v. 4)
Verse 5, ending with God’s having saved the singer “from all that [he] dreaded”, also ends his direct inclusion in the song. Though his is still the voice in the song, he turns from his own experiences to address his fellows –to those who “looked” to God and were uplifted (v. 6), who called to God and were rescued (v. 7); those, that is, who demonstrate his dictate,
                                                  Taste and see that Adonai is good,
                                                                           happy the man who takes shelter in Him. (v. 9)
Not only are such people “happy”, but, indeed, they become the “holy ones”, and, accordingly, they “know no want” (v. 10) — their senses are satiated, filled with the awareness of God’s blessing.
Verse 11 presents a jarring contrast: “Lions are wretched and hunger”. The Hebrew suggests “made”, rather than the English “are”, implying that the lions have made themselves wretched –and, consequently, hungry– because, unlike those who seek God, they “lack” all “good” (v. 11). In short, all who refuse to be aware of God –who refuse to taste, hear or see; refuse to experience fully– become, transform themselves into, wild beasts.
At this point, the tone of the song alters. The singer takes on the role of teacher to his people:
                                                  Come, sons, listen to me,
                                                                          fear of Adonai will I teach you. (v. 12)
Verses 13, 14 and 15 are precisely those teachings: he who desires long life must “see good” (v. 13); must “keep [his] tongue from evil” and from “deceit” (v. 14); must –and surely this is the dictate that sounds in the present moment as loudly as it did in its composition–
                                                   Swerve from evil and do good,
                                                                          seek peace and pursue it. (v. 15)
God is not mentioned in these 3 verses, the only verses in the song absent of God’s name. All 3 verses give rules governing an individual’s relationship with others –God is thereby implicit. Just as the verses preceding and following these 3 describe a bond of compassion between God and humankind, so these rules teach the individual to emulate God’s kindness.
Certainly in the verses that follow, 16 and 17, God’s response to those righteous who call out to Him is immediate —
                                                   Adonai’s eyes are on the righteous
                                                                          and His ears to their outcry. (v. 16)
But to those who turn from God, “Adonai’s face” is averted; moreover, their very names are “cut off from the earth” (v. 17): in denying God, they deny not only their very being but, indeed, their future. Perhaps for this very reason, the singer uses the image of lions in verse 11: the evildoers debase their own humanity.
Verse 18 re-iterates verse 7: “When the lowly calls, God listens” (v. 7) is restated, “Cry out and Adonai hears ” (v. 18); “and from all his straits rescues him” (v. 7) becomes “and from all their straits He saves them” (v. 18). The lines are all but identical; the difference is that the later verse is more inclusive –it expands “him” to “them”. To that plural pronoun is added not just the holy ones of verse 10, but also those who are “the crushed in spirit” (v. 19). They are rescued as surely as was the singer himself, who declares, in v. 5, “from all that I dreaded, He saved me”.
The last verses of the song gather together all of its themes or melodies: the bodily senses so vividly aware of God’s presence become the entire body itself–
                                                 [Adonai] guards all [the] bones [of those He rescues],
                                                                               not a single one is broken. (v. 21)
Rescue is granted to the righteous who are themselves without guilt: “many the evils of the righteous man” (v. 20); an ambiguous phrase suggesting that the righteous man suffers his enemies’ assaults, but also that he is himself not blameless. Nonetheless –so verse 22 recalls verse 11– the evil of the wicked will rebound upon themselves alone; only they “will bear guilt” (v. 11), while, in contrast, the righteous “will bear no guilt” (v. 23). The near repetition of the phrases marking the enormity of the difference between the wicked and those whom the singer calls God’s “servants” (v. 23).
The song closes with the sound of verse 9’s words of God’s “shelter”: the happiness of the man of verse 9 now becomes the guiltlessness –the absolution– of “all who shelter in Him” (v. 23). Begun in the pretense of madness and banishment, the song ends with the sureness of safety and blessing; in God’s shelter, the body’s senses and bones, the mind and the spirit, of the happy and of the broken-hearted, find refuge.
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