Perfect pleasure - Psalm 34

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 15th June 2008.

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It all began with a little girl called Holly. Holly had just started school and she was in Mrs Smith’s reception class. Mrs Smith had an excellent reputation as being the best teacher you could have for your child. She was a competent, friendly teacher with high standards and an obvious joy and delight in her job and her life. But Holly was concerned for Mrs Smith, because Holly saw that Mrs Smith was lacking something very important. Holly thought it would be lovely if Mrs Smith would come to church with her and her family, and she thought it would be even more wonderful if Mrs Smith could come to know Jesus like Holly did. So every Friday, Holly looked up with her big brown eyes into Mrs Smith’s and said: “Mrs Smith, will you come to church with me on Sunday?” “Well maybe,” she said. But every Monday, the same little girl came up to Mrs Smith with obvious disappointment, and said: “Mrs Smith, you didn’t come.” Well eventually with Holly asking her teacher every Friday whether she would come to church, and every Monday being disappointed, Mrs Smith promised to come. And sure enough the next Sunday, she was there in church, to the delight of Holly. And she didn’t just come once, but she came again and again, as she was hooked by the teaching about Jesus. Until eventually, she gave her life to Jesus Christ, having come to see that he is the King and the Saviour that she needed. And it all began with a 4 year old girl asking her to come to church.

            Personal recommendations are extremely powerful things. When someone is obviously so excited about something, then you will often sit up and take notice. That’s certainly true in life as a whole isn’t it? You need a plumber, and you’re reluctant to plough through the Yellow Pages and go for any old plumber. You want to know someone is trustworthy, so what do you do? Ask and friend- and it’s their personal recommendation that makes the decision for you. And interestingly, all the statistics show that it’s personal recommendation that ranks highest as to why an individual starts to come to church and investigate the Christian faith. Again and again the large majority of people who become Christians say that it all started because a friend talked to them about their faith. They seemed so excited and enthusiastic that they just couldn’t resist. Just as Mrs Smith eventually had to succumb to the persistent efforts of 4 year old Holly. Holly oozed enthusiasm!

            Now when we come to Psalm 34, we find that the author David is writing a personal recommendation. He is talking about how God has rescued him from a very difficult situation in life. And he is saying to the rest of us- “Look what God is like! He’s amazing! Why don’t you try him yourself? He won’t let you down, you know!” That’s why David writes this psalm. And it’s in contrast to the psalm we studied last week, Psalm 102. Because there we found that that psalm was about a believer expressing their deepest emotions to God in the midst of suffering. They cried out God in anger and frustration. But now we see someone who has come through the other side. David has been through the mill, and he’s survived, because God has brought him through. And he wants us to know all about it!

            But there’s something very interesting about the way this psalm is put together. It’s what’s known as an acrostic poem- that’s nothing to do with needlework. Rather it’s a poem where every verse begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It’s a bit like those games we used to play as children in the back of the car on a long journey, where you had to name animals using all the letters of the alphabet. So you began with aardvark and ended up with zebra, with x always causing problems, and fights with your brother. If only I knew then about Xanthippe’s Shrew, I’d have won hands down! But here David is writing a psalm which is an A-Z of a rescue by God. Everything you need to know about God’s rescue from a tricky situation. And it’s not just a personal testimony which is there for information’s sake. It’s a testimony that is meant to change the way we think and act. David intends to teach us things. He wants us to know the reality of what he experienced, so we too might feel what he felt. And he does that by laying down two challenges. He wants us to:  

1) Taste and See (Vv 1-10)

2) Listen and Learn (Vv 11-22)

1) Taste and See (Vv 1-10)

So first of all David tells us to taste and see. That is, according to verse 8, to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” But why does he tell us that? Well because he’s experienced an amazing rescue. He begins in verses 1-3 by praising the Lord. “I will extol the LORD at all times; his praise will always be on my lips. My soul will boast in the LORD; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. Glorify the LORD with me; let us exalt his name together.” Notice in these verses how totally centred on the Lord David is. In fact in 16 out of the 22 verses he mentions God’s name. It’s crystal clear who David thinks is responsible for his rescue. And notice how joyful he is. I will extol the Lord, I will praise him, I will boast in him, I will glorify him. Clearly this is a man who thinks God has done something wonderful and David wants us to join in with his praise. “Let us exalt his name together,” he says. But why? Well in verse 4 he tells us: “I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.” Quite simply David prayed at a time of great need and God answered. He delivered me from all my fears, he says. Now that is quite something. What possible danger could David have been in that would bring about such an outburst of praise to God. It must have been something very serious.

Well in many of the psalms we are not really clear on the historical situation in which the psalm was written, but some have titles and take us back to stories in the OT. And this is one of them. So notice what David says in the title of the psalm: “When he pretended to be insane before Abimelech, who drove him away and he left.” Now this story is told for us in 1 Samuel 21, and it’s worth us turning there for a moment so we can understand the background to this psalm. Let me read to you verses 10-15 of 1 Samuel 21: “That day David fled from Saul and went to Achish king of Gath. But the servants of Achish said to him, "Isn't this David, the king of the land? Isn't he the one they sing about in their dances: " 'Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands'?" David took these words to heart and was very much afraid of Achish king of Gath. So he pretended to be insane in their presence; and while he was in their hands he acted like a madman, making marks on the doors of the gate and letting saliva run down his beard. Achish said to his servants, "Look at the man! He is insane! Why bring him to me? Am I so short of madmen that you have to bring this fellow here to carry on like this in front of me? Must this man come into my house?"”

 Now this episode represents one of the most terrifying passages of David’s life. Just a little while before this story took place, David had risen to great fame as the young man who killed the Philistine soldier Goliath with his sling shot. And he has become something of a celebrity in Israel. He’d become a very famous general in King Saul’s army, who was king at the time. And David had led the way in destroying a vast amount of the Philistine army. And there was even a pop song about David’s exploits which would have gone straight to No. 1 if they had pop charts in those days. And the song compared King Saul’s exploits with his more famous and successful general David’s exploits. You can see it there in verse 11 of 1 Samuel 21. “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands!” Perhaps not Robbie Williams, but catchy all the same! And gradually because of David’s fame and success, King Saul got more and more angry. In fact so angry and jealous and paranoid did Saul get that he tried to kill David on several occasions, and David was forced to flee the country. At first he went to the Temple of the Lord and was given some food and a sword which happened to be Goliath’s own sword that David himself had captured when he’d killed Goliath. And then David ran for his life. And where did he run to? Well think of the very last place you’d run to if you’d just killed off most of the Philistine army. He actually ran to Philistia and the court of the king of the Philistines, a man called Abimelech, or as he is called in 1 Samuel, Achish, probably his nickname. It just goes to show how desperate David was. He couldn’t stay in Israel because he was facing certain death! So he went to his other arch enemy, the Philistines! And worse than that he was carrying the sword of their great hero Goliath! Can you imagine anything so suicidal as that! He must have been on his knees and at his very lowest ebb to walk right into the court of the man whose army he’s decimated carrying the sword of their greatest ever hero! It would be like an American soldier walking into the Shi’ite area of Baghdad carrying Saddam Hussein’s personally engraved rifle and asking for a cup of tea and a place to stay! What madness! Think of all the Philistine widows baying for his blood! And we’re told in 1 Samuel that David was very much afraid! No wonder he was. In fact Psalm 56 gives us another take on this story, because Psalm 56 was written at this time and shows us David’s feelings in Philistia before he was rescued! He hadn’t been rescued when he wrote that psalm. So listen to what David says there: “All day long my enemies twist my words. They are always plotting to harm me. They conspire, they lurk, they are eager to take my life.” David was quite literally expecting to die at the hands of the Philistines! So what does he do? Well he decides to play at being insane. He drops all his dignity and self worth and plumbs the depths of depravity by pretending he is mentally deranged. See how 1 Samuel 21 v 13 puts it: “While David was in their hands, he acted like a madman, making marks on the doors of the gate and letting saliva run down his beard.” He’d made himself to look an utter fool and a pitiable wreck. And what does the King of the Philistines do? He says: “I’ve got enough mad men in my court! Get rid of him.” So they let David go! They actually had pity on him instead of killing him!

Now what is David’s response to all this? Does he say: “What a clever guy I am for thinking up this cunning escape plan! I must tell the boys this one when I get back!” Not at all. Rather he says back in Psalm 34 verse 4: “I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.” It was God who rescued him. It was God who delivered him. And that is what David rejoices in! David was in the very bear pit staring death in the face, and God saved him. And what is even more staggering in Psalm 56, in a psalm where he doesn’t know the outcome, David can say: “In God I trust. I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” He was totally confident that God would be there for him and rescue him. And that is precisely what God did. So verses 6-7 of our psalm: “This poor man called, and the LORD heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.” David is quite simply overjoyed that God should choose to rescue him from this situation. It’s the Lord who has rescued him. And what is his challenge to you and me? Verse 8: “Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.” He urges us to taste and see that the Lord is good. Because God promises to rescue those who trust in him! He wants as many as possible to experience the saving hand of God as he did. Not just to know it in their heads, but to know that rescue in their own experience. Taste and see, he says. Because he knows, verse 5, that “those who look to God are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.” David really does rejoice in the rescue God provides for him! And he believes we can know this same rescuing God too!

            Now we might well be thinking in what sense can we taste this rescue that David enjoys. Should we expect God to save us from similar perilous situations? Will he always step in to stop bad things happening and going wrong? Well there is no promise in the Bible that God will protect believers from misfortune. We learnt that last week as we saw the psalmist’s despair in Psalm 102. But what David did know was God’s power in the trouble. See how he puts it in verses 9-10: “Fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing.

The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.” In the trouble, David can say that he lacked no good thing. God was there for him. And for those of us experiencing uncertainty or pain in any sense, that’s a great encouragement. As we saw last week, we might sometimes feel as if God is distant, but the truth of this psalm is that he is not. He will uphold you. He will stand by you. He will keep you. Taste and see, says David. See if God will not keep you in days of darkness.

            But of course for us Christians there is a far deeper fulfilment than ever David himself could see. For whilst David was in mortal danger, we are in far greater spiritual danger. He faced physical death, we face spiritual death and eternal condemnation. And yet when Jesus died on the cross in our place, he was taking all of our guilt and shame and wrong doing on himself. So that those who look to him are radiant. They can be forgiven and their faces need no longer be covered with shame! If David received a great rescue, then you and I because of Jesus Christ have received the greatest rescue ever. And we as Christians should be shouting from the rooftops the amazing rescue we have received! We should be saying to others, taste and see. Taste and see that the Lord is good. That there is great blessing in those who take refuge in him. But often we don’t. And the reason may well be that we have forgotten the wonder of being rescued. We’ve forgotten just what mortal peril we were in. The years have rolled on since we first trusted Christ, the worries of life have crowded in. And slowly but surely we have grown complacent. That first love and joy has grown cold. And we need to recapture that “taste and see” attitude of David.

Many years ago, as the story is told, a devout king was disturbed by the ingratitude of his royal court. He prepared a large banquet for them. When the king and his royal guests were seated, by prearrangement a beggar shuffled into the hall, sat down at the king’s table, and gorged himself with food. Without saying a word, he then left the room. The guests were furious and asked permission to seize the tramp and tear him limb from limb for his ingratitude. The king replied, “That beggar has done only once to an earthly king what each of you does three times each day to God. You sit there at the table and eat until you are satisfied. Then you walk away without recognizing God, or expressing one word of thanks to Him.” It’s an easy thing to do isn’t it, to grow thankless and complacent. And David’s attitude of joy and relief at being rescued, his desire to invite others to taste and see is a real challenge to us to recapture that first love. To ponder again our rescue and come back to God in profound gratitude for what he has done for us. For if David could say in verse 6 that this poor man called and the Lord heard him, he saved him out of all his troubles, then how much more should we. Saved not from mere physical peril, but the greatest peril of all. Hell itself. Taste and see, said David. He saved me. Can we say the same?

2) Listen and Learn (Vv 11-22)

But David doesn’t just tell us about his experience and challenge us to taste and see. He also has things to teach us from his experience. So in the second half of the psalm he says listen and learn. So verse 11: “Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.”  It’s as if David is asking us to sit down with him and learn from him as the teacher and master. So what does he want us to learn? Well there are two things.

            First, he says you need to learn greater devotion to God’s ways. And we see this in verses 11-14. So notice again what David says in verse 11: “Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.” And remember what he said in verse 9: “Fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing.” One of the key things that David has learnt in his near death experience is to fear the Lord. It seems like a strange thing doesn’t it? You would have thought that David would say he’d learnt to love the Lord more or pray more. Well it’s clear in the psalm he does love the Lord and he does pray. But the thing he says he does in the light of the rescue is to fear the Lord. “This is what I want to teach you, he says. I want you, like me, to fear the Lord. This is what I want you to do as a result of God’s rescue for you. This is how to live in the light of the rescue,” he says. So what does it mean to fear the Lord? Well it’s certainly not to be afraid of him. Rather in the Bible to fear God means to hold him in honour, to respect his awesome and glorious character. To revere him, as we might say. To realise that this God is Lord of all. In fact when you fear the Lord then you don’t fear anyone or anything else. So in verse 4, David could say that he sought the Lord and he delivered me from all my fears. When God is the one we truly fear and honour, then everything else is put in its proper perspective.

            But David wants us to see that fearing the Lord is not just an attitude of the mind. It’s a change of life. He’s saying to us, “Look, my rescue made me see God for who he is- the great Saviour and rescuer. But it also showed me that I must live in the light of that rescue. I needed to change my life as a result.” So what does fearing God mean in practice? Verse 12: “Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil
and your lips from speaking lies. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” Do you see what he is saying? He’s saying that a life lived in the fear of God means a godly use of our tongues. It means a rejection of all that is evil. It means a deliberate pursuit of all that is good. It’s another way of saying that if you have genuinely been rescued by God, if you have known the delight of forgiveness and a new life, then you need to walk in God’s ways, you need to be devoted to pursuing holiness, God’s standards of living. Otherwise that claim to have been rescued is a sham. A genuine desire to live God’s way is a good sign that you have been rescued. Not that we are perfect, not that we don’t have some serious ups and downs and find ourselves wrestling with sin. But that our hearts are devoted to him and it’s seen in real life. You will bite your tongue when you’re tempted to snap back. You will battle against lust in your heart. You will actively root out sin in your life. You will genuinely desire to grow more like Christ. All because you have been rescued and you fear the Lord. Your master is not self, or peer pressure, or family, or cultural expectation. It’s the Lord. You fear him and him alone, and it shows in your every day life.  

            Now I have to say I find that deeply challenging. David is asking me to show my fear of God in every day life. He’s effectively asking me, “How different is your life from your non Christian friends? You say you fear God, but where’s the evidence?” That’s the challenge. Not to drive us to guilt, but rather honest assessment about how we are doing in the light of the glorious rescue that we have been given. By way of illustration, we men were thinking last Monday in Time Out about Eric Liddell. Eric Liddell is famous for having won the 400 metres gold medal at the Paris Olympics in 1924, and he became more famous recently through the film Chariots of Fire. But what I found staggering as I investigated Liddell’s life was his absolute commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. He was in fact a very normal guy, yes a great athlete, but in every other way, a normal person like you and me. Same struggles, same fears, same problems. But he took God seriously and his fear of the Lord revealed itself in practical every day life. He sought to live whole heartedly for his God. For Liddell it was very simple. You claim to follow Christ, then give him everything. Listen to what one man said of Liddell at Liddell’s funeral: “What was the secret of his consecrated life and far reaching influence? Absolute surrender to God’s will, as revealed in Jesus Christ. His was a God-controlled life and he followed his master and Lord with devotion that never flagged and with an intensity of purpose that made men see both the reality and power of true religion.” I don’t know about you, but I would love for someone to say that at my funeral. That my life was one of absolute surrender to the will of God. And that is what David meant by fear of the Lord. An attitude of submission to God in all his holiness and majesty. And a life lived in practical obedience to him. And that’s David’s first lesson to us that we need to have a greater devotion to God’s ways.

            But there is a second lesson as well, and with this lesson David concludes his psalm. And it’s that we need a greater understanding of God’s perspective. And we see this in verses 15 to the end. See what David says in verses 15 and 16: “The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry; the face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth.” Do you notice what David says about the difference between the righteous and the evil doers. The righteous are saved, and the evil doers perish. The righteous are not the self righteous, the do gooders. Rather they are those who have received God’s gracious offer of rescue. The evil doers are us, if we have not accepted God’s rescue. You see, God’s perspective on life is that humanity is heading for judgement day. And we will all stand before the living God to receive the just penalty for our wrong doing, our rejection of our maker. And there are only two types of people in the world. Those who bow the knee before God willingly. And those who oppose him. And we need to make up our minds which category we are in, before we meet him face to face. But for David, being in the camp of the righteous, those who cry to the Lord for rescue, is a wonderful place to be. Because God will guard and keep his people. God will vindicate his people. There will be an end to their suffering and pain. So see how David ends his poem in verses 21-22: “Evil will slay the wicked; the foes of the righteous will be condemned. The LORD redeems his servants; no one will be condemned who takes refuge in him.” That’s the perspective we are to have, especially when we are going through the mill, that there is an end. That this life is just a brief shadow. The reality is yet to come. And if we find our refuge in him in this life, then we will find that God will not let us down in the life to come. We will not be condemned. And in the meantime, when life is hard and we feel like David did in greatest need, then we can claim the wonderful promise of verse 18: “The LORD is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” What a fantastic promise to take into this week. In the midst of trial God will not abandon us. And if you are feeling broken hearted and crushed in spirit, as I guess a number of us will be feeling this morning, then take this truth to heart- God is close to you, even if you don’t feel it. And he will save you and bring you through.

           

And how do we know God will keep his promise? Is God like the advertisers offering something beyond our wildest dreams which proves to be just that? Is he a politician promising more than he can deliver? Well no, because God has already proved he can do it. He has already shown in this world that he can sustain the righteous through suffering and finally bring them to heaven, because he’s done it already in Jesus Christ. Because Jesus is the fulfilment of this psalm of David. He is The Righteous one, the anointed King, as David was the forerunner. King Jesus was despised and rejected, he suffered unjustly at the hands of evil men. He was thrust into the very darkest night of the soul. And yet God kept his promise and sustained him and saved him. He protected his servant and not one of his bones was broken. And then on the third day he rose again defeating death, triumphant and victorious. For the Lord redeems his servants; no-one will be condemned who takes refuge in him. And as we follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus, our Saviour and our example, we too can have absolute confidence that God will never ever leave us or forsake us. It’s actually Jesus who asks us to taste and see that the Lord is good- who urges us not to grow weary or complacent of the Lord’s goodness. Because he’s experienced it himself. And it’s actually Jesus who says listen and learn. Because he feared the Lord and he found the Lord to be true to his promises. All the remains is for us is to taste and see and listen and learn. Then truly we will be able to say: “The LORD redeems his servants; no one will be condemned who takes refuge in him.”  

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