A reader was struggling through Psalm 34 and sent this insightful cluster of questions:
I was reading in 1 Peter 3 and Peter quotes a scripture from Psalm 34:12-16. It starts out good but by verses 15-16, David starts to develop a different picture of the Lord than what I’m used to.
God is “attentive” to the righteous but His “face is against those who do evil.” And the verse even closes with, “…to cut off the memory of them from the earth.”
If the writer is trying to develop a contrast between the godly and ungodly, I get it. Still, I want to believe that even in the depths of my sin, God is still there. And maybe my heart is meant to grow until I don’t ever want to do anything that would ever cause God to have to “turn His face from me” (metaphorically speaking).
But that last bit—cutting off the memory of them from the earth”—makes me think that Hitler proves the verse wrong. I can’t help but remember that evil doer!
Also, Psalm 34 throughout seems to repeatedly be “in your face” and hard to believe.
Verse 4: “He delivered me from all my fears.” Really?
Verse 6: “…saved out of ALL his troubles.” Really?
Verse 9: “… those who fear Him lack nothing.” Really?
Verse 10: “… those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” Really?
You get the idea. I think where I need to go with this may be, “even IF I never see any of this come true in my lifetime, I will never stop trusting in Him.” What are your thoughts?
My thoughts begin with your conclusion. Your “even IF” faith sounds a lot like Habakkuk 3:17-18, where the prophets says,
“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”
But back to the Psalms and 1 Peter:
Remember, the Psalms of David are poetry and prayers that express both his desires and disappointments, often in hyperbole or even in the face of circumstances that suggest the opposite. They are not straightforward teaching or Christian theology. He composes them, often under duress, as broken-hearted laments and angry demands and wishful thinking, not to reveal the nature of God, but to demonstrate that our raw honesty in the presence of God is welcome and a first step towards transformation. Most of all, they are cries of faith that await ultimate fulfilment in Christ while living in the penultimate and broken world…a deliberate act of raising one’s eyes to the Deliverer, even when deliverance is not yet in view. We pray these Psalms in the church because the same swirling thoughts cloud our own minds and hearts, and then we welcome the light of the gospel and drama of redemption to cleanse and clarify our vision at the foot of the cross.
Remarkably, Peter’s epistles are somewhat similar to the Psalms. Modern readers tend to expect the New Testament epistles to offer un-nuanced didactic teaching, when in fact, epistles are artful examples of 1st-century preaching that use every rhetorical device available in that era. Just as poetry is rich with truth delivered between the lines of poetic prayers, so the epistles are a treasury of revelation drawn from the mines of rhetorically-rich sermonizing. Interpreting them rightly requires a love for the text that refuses crass literalism or sloppy proof-texting, and instead, takes seriously the need for spiritual discernment and careful study of that difficult genre.
Important helpful work is being done these days by biblical scholars, such Matthew Lynch (rhetorical critiques of the sacrificial system in the Old Testament prophets), Meghan Henning (Gospel’s moral rhetoric in Christ’s parables and apocalyptic speeches), and the important examination of rhetorical strategies in the epistles as sermons (e.g. Ben Witherington III and David deSilva). They are showing us that a “Bible says it—I believe it—that settles it” approach is sloppy and does not demonstrate faithfulness to the Scriptures. To take the Bible seriously means understanding its various genres, how they were used and what the authors communicated.
I’m so pleased that this reader is giving the Scripture the kind of faithful scrutiny it invites and models. Well done and have at it!