This evening we are starting a new series in the book of Psalms. Every year at this point of the summer we study the Psalms and so we are starting off, where we left off this time last year. That means we now look at Psalm 34 with my headings being first, Magnifying the Lord, secondly, Tasting and Seeing and thirdly, Fearing the Lord. And, as we shall see, this Psalm seems to have been a favourite of, or significantly influenced, the Apostle Peter.
So without any further introduction, first, Magnifying the Lord. Look at verses 1-3 and how the Psalm begins:
"I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the LORD;
let the humble hear and be glad.
Oh, magnify the LORD with me,
and let us exalt his name together!"
The Psalmist is praising God and he wants others to join him. But that is quite remarkable. You may not have realized how remarkable it is. Blessing the Lord, praising the Lord, boasting in the Lord, magnifying the Lord and exalting his name, individually or corporately, as the Psalmist is doing here and inviting others to do, is unique. Why? Because praise and singing is a distinctive feature of Jewish and particularly Christian worship. For example, Buddhism is not characterized by singing; nor is Islam. In Islam you have prayers, particularly of submission and request; but denying Jesus' death on the Cross, you don't have the joyful singing of those forgiven through Christ's atoning death for their sins.
And Christians have so much else to praise and thank God for. There is the wonderful fact that Christ has risen from the dead and given us the Holy Spirit for new life and power. Not surprisingly, a mark of being filled with the Holy Spirit, according to the Bible, is that you will be "addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart" (Eph 5.18 and19). So singing is a mark of the Christian and the church. When in prison in Philippi, we are told (Acts 16.25) "about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them." Then at the beginning of the next century, the Roman author Pliny wrote a now famous letter to the Emperor Trajan about the Christians in Bithynia who used "to meet before daybreak and to recite a hymn among themselves to Christ as though he were a god."
So psalms (from the biblical book of Psalms), hymns (more permanent songs) and spiritual songs (that come and go) were vital to Christian worship and Christian devotion right from the beginning of the church's history. And the reason for that praise is that God is not only great but also good, and good not only in those great acts of salvation history – the cross and resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit, but also in personal life. For look now at verses 4-7:
"I sought the LORD, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant,
and their faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him
and saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the LORD encamps
round those who fear him, and delivers them."
Verses 4 and 6 tell of God answering prayer and delivering you from worry and anxiety. Verse 5 suggests he makes you radiant with a deep joy that can even be seen in your face. Verse 7 says that "the angel of the Lord encamps round those who fear him, and delivers them." Whether that is the divine Son, the pre-incarnate Christ, or the angelic commander of the heavenly army of angels, the one God, who we know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, will protect you.
The biblical tradition behind this Psalm, as you can see from the heading at the beginning of the Psalm, is that David was on the run from Saul. He was desperate, having done some very foolish things. It is a Psalm for mixed-up people. On Friday evening I had just finished preparing for tonight; by apparently pure chance I then saw on TV the end of a dramatic presentation of the life of Whitney Houston – the singer. And there she was, a very mixed-up lady, reading aloud in her hotel room, the night before she died, this very Psalm 34.
So you are to imagine David now expelled from the court of a Philistine king or leader, called an Abimelech, named Achish. David seems to have thought he would be safe there from Saul, as David was hiding among the enemy. But he was wrong. He is now on the run from the Philistines and Saul, on his own but discovering his band of supporters was growing. And he can praise God for answering his prayers and for protecting and helping him at this time, even though he still had many problems.
So who, this evening, is going through a bad time at the moment, like David was then, with various needs – or you are very mixed up like Whitney Houston? Well, remember that the Lord is great and good as this Psalm reminds you. And you have far more evidence for that goodness than David had, in Jesus Christ's death and resurrection and the fact that risen and reigning Christ is today King of kings and Lord of lords and he promises to be with you. Remember his final words in Matthew's Gospel, "I am with you always if you trust him, to the end of the age" (Matt 28.20). So as we heard in our Gospel reading from earlier in Matthew: "Do not be anxious … your heavenly Father knows [your needs]. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (Matt 6.31-33). In his way and in his time he will meet your needs as you trust and obey him.
Well, that brings us to my second heading, Tasting and Seeing. Look now at verse 8:
"Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!"
That verse is such an important verse. It is used in the New Testament to describe the first steps of faith in Christ. For example, the first letter of the Apostle Peter (2.2-3) says: "Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good." Do you see what this means – "to taste and see that the Lord is good"? It means that faith in Christ is not something that is mere believing without evidence or rationality. You hear people talking as though biblical Christian faith and rational thought were polar opposites. That is rubbish. For the mainstream Christian faith is significantly more rational than its alternatives, including secularism. For it is provable by testing in the real world. But that is through this process of "tasting and seeing". I need to say three things about this.
First, in all science and all searching for truth, what is needed for proof is an agreed method of testing hypotheses or claims appropriate to what you are studying. To demand the wrong sort of proof because it works, for example, in mathematics or logic, when a totally different sort of proof is required, is not rational but irrational. For you prove Peter loves Jane in ways that have nothing to do with mathematics or logic. Or - and another example - such a level of certainty as you can have in mathematics or logic is useless for someone at Kings Cross Station wanting knowledge about the next train home to Newcastle. For wanting such certainty, someone might ask a station official who tells them it is the 1700 hours (the 5 o'clock) train. But the person wants to make sure because officials can get things wrong. So they go back through the barrier to check the electronic board. And they see it says the same thing, but they have heard that electronic boards can fail. So they go to check at the ticket office to be absolutely certain. But there they see the clock says the time is now 5.01pm. So they have missed the train which moved off at 5.00 pm precisely. Such a person has been acting unreasonably. In many areas of life you have to have sufficient evidence for commitment. The action you then take is reasonable. That then results in further evidence that proves the wisdom and rightness of the commitment. So when you've left York you have near absolute certainty you are on the Newcastle train and not the Leeds train. Certainly that is the way things work in the Christian life where you need to "taste and see" and where obedience to God is essential for knowledge. Jesus said (John 7.17): "If any man's will is to do God's will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority".
But that brings me to the second thing I want to say. It is this. For many it is convenient to be over sceptical regarding evidence for the Christian faith, to avoid the cost of commitment to Christ. So there are people who are always asking for evidence but never open to conviction. The Pharisees in the New Testament were like that. Jesus called them "an evil and adulterous generation" because they were always seeking for "a sign". But they, and their successors today, had and have signs enough, supreme among them being the resurrection of Jesus with his tomb empty. So Peter could say without fear of contradiction in his Pentecost sermon: "Jesus of Nazareth [was] a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know" (Acts 2.22). So "tasting and seeing that the Lord is good" means our faith in the God of the Bible is reasonable. But some people will unreasonably reject any evidence. Some modern atheists have been quite open about that.
So thirdly a question - who tonight needs to "taste and see that the Lord is good" by committing yourself to Christ? Then you will realize that verse 8b is so true: "Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!" And then as you "fear the Lord", you will have further proof of the wisdom of your decision. For verses 9-10 say:
"Oh, fear the LORD, you his saints,
for those who fear him have no lack!
The young lions suffer want and hunger;
but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing."
And that brings us to our third heading Fearing the Lord.
What does "fearing the Lord" really mean? One commentator defines it as "that way of life which springs from a reverent acknowledgement of the holiness of God." But what does Psalm 34 say about "fearing the Lord"? Verse 11 says:
"Come, O children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the LORD."
And the lesson is in verses 12-22. But before looking at those verses I need to say three things about the background to this concept of "the fear of the Lord".
First, one of the great lessons God had to teach the people of Israel in Old Testament times by his prophets was about his holiness or his being set apart from what is unjust and unrighteous. It was vital God's people learnt that lesson and it is still vital to learn it. For unless you understand something of God's justice and righteousness on the one hand, and his wrath and holy judgments against sin and unrighteousness on the other hand, there can be little understanding of God's love and mercy and goodness, through the cross of Christ. Also the "fear of the Lord" is living in the light of this understanding of God's holiness.
Secondly, God's Old Testament people were learning about holiness through their total culture as well as through their prophets. There were holy people (priests), a holy place (the temple), with holy objects, holy sacrifices, holy days and holy law, in a holy land (Canaan – which was conquered by holy war, and which we find so hard to understand because it was so terrible – like we find it so hard to understand aspects of the Second World War, like the atomic bombing of Japan). However, Jesus Christ taught that some of those practices and cultural details are no longer necessary because of his death on the Cross for sin. Also some are not necessary now because his first coming began this age of grace, or "day of salvation", in which we now live.
But, thirdly, the principles or assumptions behind so many Old Testament practices and teaching are still valid. Yes, Jesus said clearly, Matthew 5.17: "Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them." However, Christ's way was clearly not the way of holy war (as Muslim extremists believe is still justified). When his disciples wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan village and destroy all the inhabitants that rejected Jesus, like Elijah in the Old Testament had once done on his opponents, Jesus, Luke tells us, "rebuked them" (9.55). Nevertheless, he taught judgment will be fulfilled when he will return one day for a final judgment on those that reject him – reject him even in the person of his followers (in the parable of the sheep and goats).
So, holiness is still absolutely relevant for the Christian believer. Peter, after the resurrection, can write in that first Epistle: "As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy'" (1.14-16). Being "holy" doesn't earn your acceptance with God. You are accepted through faith in what Christ has done for you on the Cross. But that acceptance is so you can start to live as Christ wants you to live strengthened by the Holy Spirit in this life and live "fearing the Lord" and understanding his holiness. With that in mind, what practically do you learn from this Psalm about "fearing the Lord"? Actually it is very clear. Peter thought it was so clear that he quotes verses 12-16 from Psalm 34 verbatim in that first letter (3.10-12) without comment. And verses 12-16, as you can see, say:
"What man is there who desires life
and loves many days, that he may see good?
Keep your tongue from evil
and your lips from speaking deceit.
Turn away from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.
The eyes of the LORD are towards the righteous
and his ears towards their cry.
The face of the LORD is against those who do evil,
to cut off the memory of them from the earth."
So notice – practical requirements involved in fearing the Lord result in "human flourishing". For the fear of the Lord, according to verse 12, is tailor-made for the person "who desires life and loves many days, that he may see good". However, verses 13 and 14 teach that such "good" requires 6 things:
1) "keeping your tongue from evil" – not being unkind in what you say or not speaking maliciously
2) "keeping … your lips from speaking deceit" – being truthful (a fundamental need for today)
3) "turning away from evil" - positively rejecting all evil
4) "doing good" is key – making a positive effort in doing good
5) "seeking peace" (in every area of life – with God and in people's hearts, in marriage and the family, in the church, at work, in the wider community and world)
6) "pursuing it [peace]" - putting energy into the process (for a cessation of hostilities is not peace).
And then verses 15-16 state two essential facts to be grasped by those wanting the good life that comes from fearing the Lord:
1) "The eyes of the LORD are towards the righteous and his ears towards their cry" - God will bless and hear the prayers of those who try to obey God's will.
2) "The face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth" - God will eternally damn those positively committed to evil.
So Peter was using Psalm 34 to teach Christians in the early Church those six requirements and those two facts. How they still need to be taught and learnt today, if you "desire life and love many days, that you may see good" – if you want human flourishing!
I must conclude. I do so by reading verses 17-22. Many here tonight will be able to say, from their own experience, that they have "tasted and seen" that these verses are so true and therefore they should encourage others; but unlike people in David's time, through Christ's Resurrection and so the great hope of their own resurrection, they now know more fully of the possibility of a heavenly (and so better) fulfillment for some of the promises. So - verse 17-22:
"When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears
and delivers them out of all their troubles.
The LORD is near to the broken-hearted
and saves the crushed in spirit.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the LORD delivers him out of them all.
He keeps all his bones;
not one of them is broken.
Affliction will slay the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
The LORD redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned."