Psalm 34 is an acrostic—what the Latin Fathers called psalmi abcedarii. There are nine of these psalms total, and it is a pity that we can’t figure out a way to bring this across in translation.
I will bless the LORD at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul shall make her boast in the LORD: the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad. . . . (Psalm 34:1-22).
Charles Spurgeon rightly divided this psalm into two main portions—a hymn and a sermon. The first part is vv. 1-10, and the second is vv. 11-22. The hymn divides into three sections. The first has David blessing the Lord, and inviting others to join him (vv. 1-3). The second portion is where David relates his experience (vv. 4-7). And the third is an exhortation to remain constant in faith (vv. 8-10). In the second half of the psalm, we have more direct application to the listeners, particularly to children. The first half of this section is exhortation to live a certain way (vv. 11-14). The second half is more didactic—instruction on how God blesses those who fear Him (vv. 15-22). The occasion for this psalm sheds a great deal of light on how we are to understand it. This was written in the aftermath of one of the lowest points in David’s life (1 Sam. 21:10-15). Gath was Goliath’s hometown, and David has to take refuge there. Of course suspicion falls on him, and he escapes by feigning madness. “This poor man cried” indeed.
David resolves to praise the Lord all the time (v. 1). His praise should be continuous (v. 1). Boasting is good, but only in the Lord (v. 2). The humble could listen to this kind of bragging all day (v. 2). The apostle Paul teaches the same (2 Cor. 10:17). Let us join together to magnify the Lord (v. 3). Worship and praise are inexorably communal.
A major theme of this psalm is the willingness of God to answer prayer. God delivers—not just from our enemies, but also from our fears (v. 4). This was the result of David seeking Him. Those who look to the Lord find that their faces reflect His light, and they do not come to shame of face (v. 5). “This poor man cried” and God delivered him from all his troubles (v. 6). The basis for this wonderful provision is then given in the truth that the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him. This is the angel of the Lord (v. 7).
Knowledge of God is not an abstract or academic thing. Taste and see; God is like good food (v. 8). To complete the metaphor, the tasting is trusting. We are summoned to fear the Lord, and this is not abject, crawling fear, but rather the kind of fear that loves to fear God. Those who fear Him lack nothing (v. 9). Young lions, and the God-haters personified by them, come to hunger and want. But those who seek the Lord will not lack any good thing (v. 10).
The psalmist then summons children to gather around him, and so will I. This portion of Psalm 34 is also quoted by the apostle Peter (1 Pet. 3:8-15). I will instruct you in the fear of God (v. 11). This fear is not primarily an emotion—notice that it consists largely of actions. First the fear of God is not inconsistent with wanting to live a long time, loving many days, and wanting to see good throughout those days (v. 12). Do you want that? Now, remember, this is the fear of a holy personal God, and not a celestial vending machine. At the same time, the promises are there for a reason. You want a blessed life? Keep your mouth away from evil (v. 13). Keep your lips from lies (v. 13). Walk away from evil (v. 14), but that by itself is not sufficient. Also do good, seek peace, and chase it (v. 14). Chase goodness down the road. Run.
God is attentive. Think of it this way. His eyes and His eyes are for the righteous (v. 15). Have you ever seen a group of parents together, with kids playing in the basement or something? When a cry ascends from the basement, each parent turns. Is that mine? God is attuned to His children. But God also pays attention to those who do evil (v. 16), in order to cut them off. When the righteous cry out, the Lord makes a point of hearing them out (v. 17). Do you have a broken heart? Then lift up your head—you qualify (v. 18).
Following the way of righteousness is not for sissies. The righteous have many afflictions (v. 19), but the Lord is constant in all of them. God keeps all his bones, about which more in a minute (v. 20). Regardless of what covenant you live under, old or new, God is not mocked, and a man reaps what he sows. Evil comes to those who are evil, and desolation comes to those who hate the righteous (v. 21). This desolation does not come to the Lord’s servants, to those who trust in Him (v. 22).
John quotes this psalm as referring to the crucifixion of Christ, and the fact that Christ was dead already when they came to break His legs (John 19:36). Now, were Christ’s bones breakable? Yes and no. They were breakable in that they were made of the same substance as our bones are. They were not made out of some kind of steel alloy. So yes, they had a breakable nature. But no, in the sense that Scripture cannot be broken, and this psalm had prophesied that not one bone would be broken.
Could Christ have sinned? If He could not, then were the temptations He went through genuine temptations? If yes, then doesn’t that unsettle everything in the universe? It is the same kind of thing that we see with His bones. Christ’s human nature was such that sin was a possibility, and thus the temptations were genuine. But God (whose Word cannot be broken) had promised through His prophets that Christ would resist all temptations perfectly (Is. 53: 11). And so it was not possible that Christ would fall to His genuine temptations. Christ could have sinned the same way that His bones could have been broken.
And so sanctify the Lord in your hearts, as Peter applies it. Always be ready to give an answer to those who ask you. And what is that answer? Christ died for the wretched, and not one of His bones was broken. All the blessings promised in this psalm belong therefore to Him, and He has promised us deliverance. In Him, we shall have it.