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July 2nd, 2018

“Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”  (D. T. Niles)

Psalm 34

 

Spread

“What would it look like to spread God’s love extravagantly?” That’s the question we’re raising this month at Corinth. What does it look like to spread?

One of the images we’re using to illustrate Spread is peanut butter. I’m a big fan. The odds are that you are, too. According to one web site I found, Americans average three pounds of peanut butter per person per year, much more than any other country. I still enjoy a peanut butter and jam sandwich on a regular basis, and you’ll also find a jar of peanut butter in my desk drawer and another one in the pantry over at the Mitchell House.

It’s appropriate to talk about peanut butter on the week before the Fourth of July, because the love of peanut butter may be more American than apple pie. In contrast to Americans, Europeans consume less than one tablespoon of peanut butter per person per year. Our love for peanuts started in the American South as a replacement crop for cotton, as you may recall from the story of George Washington Carver. Peanut butter became not only a national craving but a national necessity, with its inexpensive protein meeting a significant nutritional need during the Depression and World War II.

Peanut butter is designed to be spread. Yes, I can put a tablespoon in my mouth and enjoy it, but it’s so much better when it’s smeared across the entire face of a slice of bread, savored with a layer of sweet jam.

Like peanut butter, the Gospel is nutritious and filling, rooted in history and experience, saving and changing lives. But you don’t want the Gospel stuck inside a jar. It’s supposed to be spread.

My story (1-7)

The first Scripture for our month-long focus on Spread is Psalm 34. In almost all Bibles, this psalm (and many others) has a title. These titles are imbedded into the ancient manuscripts, not added by the translator or editor of your Bible. Sometimes it’s hard to tell much from the title, such as when the title gives us a tune name that is obscure to us. In the case of Psalm 34, the title is wonderful. In the NIV it reads, “Of David. When he pretended to be insane before Abimelek, who drove him away, and he left.” Now we want to know who Abimelek is, and why David pretended to be insane.

When we turn to the backstory in 1 Samuel 21, we find that David has sought refuge with the king of Gath, whose name is Achish. While there he pretends to be mentally ill, so that’s the connection with Psalm 34. The king’s name doesn’t match up, but that’s easily explained. “Abimelek” means “My father is king,” so this is probably a dynasty name, like “Pharaoh” in Egypt or “Caesar” in Rome. Achish is one of the Abimeleks in Gath.

If you’re like me, on first read you’re thinking, “Gath, Gath, that sounds familiar.  Where have I heard that?” Do you remember the story of David and Goliath? Goliath was a Philistine from Gath. The precise overlap between Philistia and Gath is a matter of scholarly debate, but it doesn’t matter for our story. You know that David defeated Goliath, the giant from Gath, which turned the tide in the conflict with Israel and the Philistines. Right after that, David was celebrated as a hero, with women dancing while they sang, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.”

That didn’t sit so well with Saul, and set into motion an increasing jealousy, rage, and even plot from Saul to kill David in order to secure his throne. David finally had to get out of Israel, and for some reason he thought it would be safe to hide out in Gath. He apparently thought he could go incognito, and just apply for a job as a servant. Quickly, though, the other servants of Achish recognized him, and asked the king, “Isn’t this David, who has slain ‘his tens of thousands’?” David now fears for his life, so in a quick response he feigns mental illness, drawing random graffiti and drooling on his beard. The ploy works. Achish doesn’t believe that could possibly be the famed David, and he expels him from Gath.

Safe but still very alone, David writes Psalm 34. I’ve been wondering this week whether David carried with him the ancient version of a briefcase, a satchel full of parchment and ink. He apparently wrote many psalms when on the lam, hiding in caves and other remote places to preserve his life.

Psalm 34 is one of those poems, and he now reveals to us that the crisis in Gath was terrifying to him. “I sought the LORD,” he writes, “and he delivered me from all my fears.” This is a rare word for fear in Hebrew, and is literally a “barn” or “granary.” He had a whole storehouse of terror inside him, but God delivered him. When you read 1 Samuel 21, it looks like David came up with a really clever ploy to save himself. Now that he’s out of the situation, he says, “This poor man called, and the LORD heard him, and delivered him out of all his troubles” (6).

He’s full of God right now. Listen to verse 1 in The Message:

I bless God every chance I get;
            My lungs expand with his praise.

But he’s not content to keep this news to himself. He wants to share it. As I’ve thought about Linda’s and my 40th wedding anniversary, I’ve been pondering ways to trumpet it. God did this for me, for us, and I want others to know about it. David, too, is going to share the story. This is too good to keep it to himself. It’s his peanut butter, and he wants to spread it. Verse 3, again in The Message:

Join me in spreading the news;
        Together let’s get the word out.

Why? Verse 2 tells us why. “Let the afflicted hear and rejoice.” If you hear my story, David is saying, and you’re still in Gath, you’ll be encouraged. You might start shouting for joy because you thought there was no way out.

My orders (8-14)

“Taste and see that the LORD is good,” David continues. It’s an invitation for you to get in on the peanut butter. Try it, David says. Test the Lord. How do you try him? By following the commands that fill this second section of his psalm –

“Fear the LORD” (9).

“Listen to me” (11).

“Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies” (13).

“Turn from evil” (14).

“Do good” (14).

“Seek peace and pursue it” (14).

The word picture in the middle of this scene is verse 10:  “The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.” One of my boarding parents in elementary school in Pakistan, Uncle Jim from Great Britain, taught us this verse in a chorus we’d sing at meal time:

The lions they may hungry be and they may lack their food,
            But they that wait upon the Lord shall not lack any good.

We’re delving into a subject I need to tackle, and to which I will return. Is David really saying that if you honor God and do the right thing that nothing bad will happen to you? My first answer is don’t dismiss him too quickly.

While we rightly resist the idea that always doing the right thing results in long life and good things happening, we all agree that doing the wrong thing increases your chances of dying early. Smoking, overeating, drinking heavily, unhealthy sexual practices, physical inactivity – these all greatly increase the likelihood of reducing your life span.[1] This is David’s point here. Living an upright, God-fearing life is key to surviving better and longer.

The problem is, of course, that we don’t listen. That’s what David tells us to do in verse 11. “Come, my children, listen to me,” he says. “I will teach you the fear of the LORD.”  At this point in his life David doesn’t have any biological children. He’s speaking to spiritual children, which includes us. This is a warning and an encouragement to do the right thing with a right heart, centered in the Lord.

My teaching (15-22)

Having related his story (first person) and then told you how to act (second person), David now puts it all together as a statement of faith. Specifically, it’s his approach to theodicy, or the problem of evil. No more personal testimony, no more commands, just reflections about God and suffering.

First, good people suffer. They “cry” (15), they have “troubles” (17, 19), they are “brokenhearted” (18) and “crushed in spirit” (18), they have “foes” (21), and they need to be “rescued” (22). So if your first read of this psalm was that the psalmist says the better you behave the fewer problems you have, you didn’t read it right.

Second, God will be there. “The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and his ears attentive to their cry” (15). “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted” (18). Almost everyone has a story – I have a story and you have a story – about going through some of the worst situations and realizing, usually later, that these were moments where God was closest. This is the contrast with “the wicked.” They have no one to turn to.

Third, your frame will endure. Look at verse 20, which says of the righteous, “[God] protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken.” I was privileged to begin this week of study with a Bible study that includes two radiologists – Ed Pearce and Adrian Holtzman. We got a little diverted talking about Wilhelm Rontgren, who invented, or we might say accidentally discovered, the first x-ray. But it was Adrian who noted verse 20 and said, “Is the point here that the basic structure of your life is intact?”

I dismissed Adrian’s insight too quickly. My mind went more literally to John 19:36, where the gospel writer quotes Psalm 34:20 in reference to Jesus’ bones not being broken. With a few more days to think about it, I think Adrian is exactly right, and Jesus is the supreme example. He was whipped and mocked and bloodied and nailed and even killed, but the “bones” are a graphic illustration that who he was, was unaltered on the cross. He was still Jesus, still the Son of God.

This is David’s meaning in Psalm 34. He had been in a situation where he had to pretend to be someone/something he wasn’t in order to survive. But his “bones” were not broken. His frame was intact. He’s saying what we heard the Apostle Paul saying in Philippians 1 – “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” It doesn’t matter even if I die, my “bones” will not be broken. We sometimes refer to this as a “worldview.” We see the world through a God-lens, and for the person who really believes in who God is, no suffering clouds the God-lens.

Finally, evil will not win. No matter what the evil is, it is not the end of the story for the one who puts his trust in the Lord. The problem of evil is ultimately solved by the Gospel. This psalm ends with a preview of the Gospel – “No one who takes refuge in him will be condemned.” Again, to connect with what Paul said, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed” (Philippians 1:20). There is definitely a sense in which the ultimate Christian answer to suffering is not only that Christ accepted such suffering on himself but that he will bring us to glory.

And, like we said with Paul in Philippians, you can’t say that David’s just writing this out of an easy life. He almost died in Gath, and he’s still running for his life. He’s writing this poem from some God-forsaken cave without knowing the outcome.

I have been wondering if the problem of evil – the question of why bad things happen to good people – is primarily a first-world problem. It’s mostly western Christians who wrestle hard with this question. American Christians read Psalm 34 and say, “But what about people who die young or suffer with cancer or lose their jobs?” It’s because we think we deserve better, and we don’t understand why God doesn’t cooperate with our right to have a happy, healthy, long life.

Maybe it’s not just a western thing, but a wealthy thing. Job, the one book of the Bible written to combat the problem of evil is written about a rich man. The Apostle Peter used Psalm 34 as an encouragement to suffering Christians. The top 5% of the world, economically speaking, in any culture or time, worries about why life isn’t better. Christians around the world and through the ages who live with the daily reality of suffering and poverty and death often seem more content than we are. In our well-connected world, more and more people know the discontent of comparison to others who have more than they.

Your story

Here’s why we chose Psalm 34 for the first Sunday of Spread. God is calling us to live and speak in such a way that makes Jesus attractive. Part of that is telling our God-story, telling how God has been real to us, how in Jesus we are loved unconditionally, how he meets us in our time of need, how everything that happens to us we turn into an opportunity for thanks and praise.

The fact that this is an “acrostic” poem is powerful. Each successive verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet, kind of like Dr. Seuss’ “Big A, little a, what begins with A? Aunt Annie’s alligator, A, a, A.” A book like that takes careful thought to write. David’s sitting in a cave wanting to write a poem that will be remembered and shared.

I wanted to write a song for my wife that was personal and memorable, with rhymes and themes that she and I could hold on to. It’s a “Hallelujah” song. As I was thinking Friday about singing that song, I started to wonder if it might be a painful song for people to hear who have been widowed or divorced or never married. And the truth is that “the boundary lines have fallen for (Linda and) me in pleasant places” (Psalm 16:6). Without the God-factor, you’d say we “lucked out” with lots of areas that helped our marriage go the distance.

But we would never eliminate the God-factor. Our marriage is a God-story, but that’s not to say that someone else who didn’t marry or whose marriage ended early in death or divorce was let down by God or was not righteous. Our marriage on this 40th anniversary is just our version of David’s deliverance from the king of Gath. There were very human circumstances involved, but we choose to tell the story as a God-story, because it’s about the spread.

I heard another God-story from Pastor Lori’s cousin, Kim Harris, last night at the celebration for her parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. We prayed for Kim several years ago as he battled cancer, and his is a story of miraculous healing that could only have been God. He loves to share that story, and he should. But not everyone who battles cancer gets to tell a story of healing.

The point is that you have a God-story, and it probably doesn’t match up with my story or David’s story. Where has God met you? It could be in a dramatic turn to Christ or it could be in a consistent life committed to him. It could be in a long and durable marriage or in healing from divorce. It could be in a contented life of singleness and service. Whatever your God-story is, think about it, write it out, craft it, and be ready to share it when God gives you the chance to spread His story. Amen.

 

[1] Here is a summary of many studies.

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