For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 34 and its interpreters. I have two items for today.
1. I read an excellent article by evangelical biblical scholar Karen Jobes, “Got Milk? Septuagint Psalm 33 and the Interpretation of 1 Peter 2:1-3”, which appeared in the Spring 2002 Westminster Theological Journal. I will not detail every element of her argument, but I will talk about her main idea, as well as the thoughts in her article that I found profound.
The King James Version of I Peter 2:1-3 states: “Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings, [a]s newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious.” Many interpret the “milk of the word” to be the Gospel or the word of God, for I Peter 1:23-25 discusses regeneration through the hearing of the word, plus “milk” elsewhere in the New Testament is a metaphor for elementary doctrines (I Corinthians 3:2; Hebrews 5:12-13). Another thing to note is that “If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious” seems to imply that the people in the audience need to prove that they are saved by ceasing from evil and desiring the milk of the word.
But Karen Jobes’ interpretation of the passage overlaps more with what the New International Version has: “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” The phrase that the KJV translates as “pure milk of the word” is to logikon adolon gala. Logikon, which the KJV translates as “of the word”, is actually an adjective, which Karen Jobes argues can mean “spiritual” or “rational”. It is the same word that appears in Romans 12:1, where Paul exhorts the Roman believers to offer their bodies as spiritual sacrifices to God, which is their reasonable (logiken) service, or worship. Jobes believes that I Peter 2:1-3 is encouraging Christians—who have already experienced God’s goodness—to continue to feed on Christ, and an essential aspect of participation in this new reality is forsaking such things as malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander. The word of God is important in Jobes’ scenario, but experiencing the living Christ is even more significant.
And this particular interpretation of I Peter 2:1-3 actually overlaps with the passage with which I Peter 2:1-3 interacts, namely, Psalm 34:8, which exhorts people to taste and see that the LORD is good. As Jobes notes, Psalm 34 here does not refer to the word of God, but rather to experiencing God—in terms of God’s deliverance from shame (v 6), affliction (v 7), and want (vv 10-11). (I Peter 2:1-3 diverges from Psalm 34:8, however, in that I Peter 2:1-3 says that the Christian audience has already tasted that the Lord is good, whereas Psalm 34:8 encourages people to do so.) Moreover, I Peter appears to interact with other aspects of Psalm 34. Both talk about the fear of the Lord (I Peter 1:17; Psalm 34:9), as well as the importance of forsaking evil, especially wrong speech (I Peter 2:1; Psalm 34:13-14). Jobes also shows that I Peter uses the Septuagint of the Psalm. Psalm 34:4 in the Masoretic Text says that the LORD delivered the Psalmist from all of his fears, megurotai, whereas the Septuagint translates that as “sojourning” (paroikion), since it sees the root g-w-r (“dwell”) in the Hebrew word. The Septuagint may have in mind David’s various sojournings in his flight from Saul, for the Psalm itself is linked in the superscription to the time when David was in Philistia, or it may be speaking of the Jewish Diaspora. But I Peter 1:17 uses the same Greek word as what the Septuagint uses for “sojourning”, as it exhorts Christians to live out their sojourning in the fear of God.
I enjoyed Karen Jobes’ article (as well as wrote her a message telling her so) because it demonstrates that the New Testament’s interpretation of the Hebrew Bible is not always arbitrary eisegesis that disregards the contexts of passages. Rather, there is a system and a logic in I Peter’s use of Psalm 34, and, in a sense, I Peter is faithful to what the Psalm is actually saying, even as I Peter applies the Psalm to a new setting. Regarding the message of I Peter, according to Jobes’ interpretation, there is a part of me that likes it from a religious standpoint, and a part of me that dislikes it. I identify with the notion that there are things that can hold one back from intimacy with God—such as malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander—and that I should let go of those things, not in order to earn God’s favor, but because I am already loved by God, who is good. I have problems, though, with prioritizing experience of God over Scripture, for I do not know how to experience God; I can, however, try to trust the Scripture’s message that God is good. At the same time, there are plenty of things in Scripture that appear to contradict God’s goodness, and I would feel better interacting with a living God rather than an inflexible book.
On a related note, E.W. Bullinger has a gem. Psalm 34:5 says that people looked to the LORD and were radiant. Bullinger says that the radiance did not come from looking at oneself or one’s surroundings, but from looking to the LORD. This is something that I have heard for years, so, in a sense, it’s old news to me. And yet, there is a degree of reason to it, and I should try to follow it, since I know that looking at myself and my surroundings can lead me to despair!
2. Another good article that I read was Anthony Ceresko’s “The ABCs of Wisdom in Psalm 34”, which appeared in the January 1, 1985 Vetus Testamentum. Psalm 34 is an acrostic, which means that its lines are arranged alphabetically. Psalm 34 is missing a vav, however. Ceresko wrestles with the question of why Psalm 34 was arranged according to an acrostic format. Was it for the purpose of helping people (such as students) to memorize the Psalm? Was it to demonstrate skill? Was it to imply completeness? The answer on which Ceresko settles is that arranging thoughts according to an acrostic format allowed one to wrest order from the disconnectedness of life. Indeed, Psalm 34 is about affirming the existence of a righteous order even though the afflictions of the righteous are many, and it’s also about how God takes care of those who need him, even when the most self-sufficient animals on earth, lions, are struggling to find food. And, as John MacArthur and others note, Psalms 25 and 34 close with a line that begins with peh, which is not the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The Psalms do so because peh is the first letter of the root p-d-h, which means appears in Psalm 25:22 and 34:22, and means “ransom”. These Psalms close by affirming God’s ransom of those who are in trouble.
Ceresko is not the only person to seek a spiritual meaning in an acrostic. E.W. Bullinger says that broken acrostics occur in certain Psalms that are about tribulation, in order to highlight the vicissitudes of life. Maybe Bullinger has in mind that the world makes a degree of sense, and yet there is just enough evil to sully the natural and moral order of things. Other scholars, however, have attributed broken acrostics to scribal errors, or, in some cases, to an incomplete stage of the Hebrew alphabet.
The orthodox Jewish Artscoll on Psalms says that the acrostic in Psalm 34 communicates that everything God has made is good, from A to Z (or, actually, from aleph to tav). Both the Artscroll and the Midrash on the Psalms bring up the story of David pretending to be a madman before the Philistine King Achish, which is the setting that the superscription applies to Psalm 34 (only the superscription calls Achish “Abimelech”), and which appears in I Samuel 21:12-15. According to a Jewish legend, David was struggling to understand the place of madness in God’s beautiful creation, for he could not see anything valuable in insane people ripping apart their clothing and being mocked. Then David ran into a situation where he was in Philistine territory, and the Philistines knew that he was the David who killed a lot of Philistines. David was afraid, and so he pretended to be insane so that King Achish would send him away rather than capturing or killing him. The Jewish legend says that, at this point, David understood that even madness could have a place in God’s creation, for pretending to be mad is what saved David’s life! The lesson here may be that there is order in God’s creation, even when we do not see it.
Do I believe this? A teaching in twelfth-step recovery groups is that nothing and nobody are in God’s world by mistake. The purpose of this teaching may be to give alcoholics or addicts peace-of-mind from their worries, which can easily drive them to their addictions. Such a teaching is valuable because it says that we don’t have to run the entire show. But such a teaching can also have its drawbacks. I think of the scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which the slavemaster’s wife is telling her household about her pastor’s sermon, which affirmed that God placed everything in its proper order. Her idea was that God was the one who instituted slavery. A belief that everything in God’s universe has a purpose can lead to the trivialization of evil. The Psalmist in Psalm 34, however, does not trivialize evil, but he hopes that God will deliver him from it.
I listened to some sermons that waxed eloquent on Psalm 34’s statements that God is good, and that we should bless and praise the LORD at all times, not only when things are going our way. A pastor was saying that, if we don’t have a significant other, then that’s because God knows that it’s not the right time for us. This is appealing, but I’m not sure if I buy this. I see plenty of people who have significant others, and the time is obviously not right for them! How else would you explain the existence of divorce, or men who pick up women and then dump them like yesterday’s garbage? Moreover, why should I assume that there is a great cosmic reason behind why I don’t have a girlfriend? Perhaps I don’t have a girlfriend because I have difficulty socializing, as a person with Asperger’s. But maybe God has a reason for Asperger’s. I do not know.
At the same time, I think that it’s important for me to be grateful for what I do have. And, I will admit, right now may not be the right time for me to have a girlfriend. But I am not ruling out ever having a significant other!