Psalm 34: Taste and See

Fire Island Lighthouse

I sought the Lord, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.

–Psalm 34:5 ESV

When I returned from my college choir’s three-week international tour at the beginning of June, I was already anticipating fatigue, jetlag, and the general malaise that accompanies any experience of such magnitude. However, I was not prepared for a strange set of lingering psychological side effects from the anti-malarial medicine that had been administered to the choir members for our trip. For several weeks I experienced lightheadedness, confusion, sleeplessness, bouts of depression, and sometimes even hallucinations. Investigating these side effects revealed that they are indeed known to occur when taking this particular medication, and the only remedy is to wait; the drug takes weeks or even months to dissipate out of one’s system.

I share this affliction not to elicit pity—I’m already feeling much better—but because this experience opened my eyes at least in a small way to the daily battles faced by those who struggle with depression or other psychological ailments. Depression is a strange animal that appears in a variety of ugly manifestations, but it is perhaps most palpable simply as a dark cloud hanging over one’s head. Going about everyday activities becomes as difficult as trying to breathe through a wet towel. Thought patterns become tangled up in irrational knots of anxiety, guilt, or despair. Life looks bleak. I knew this from the accounts of others, but never before had I experienced it myself.

As humans, our coping mechanisms for mental ailments aren’t that good. We try to bury our affliction under gaudy layers of distractions and amusements, we try to coach ourselves to feel better, or we resort to that disgusting cliché, “It’s all in your head.” The statement is true, of course; mental illness is “all in your head” just as much as a broken arm is “all in your arm” or blindness is “all in your eyes.” But if you can’t command your arm to heal itself or your eyesight to return, you shouldn’t expect success in telling your brain to fix itself either. And so dealing with the problem of depression degenerates into a downward spiral of futility, marked chiefly by a desperate and often hopeless longing to once again be in control of one’s thoughts and emotions.

As I sought to process this temporary new reality, the Old Testament story of David’s encounter with the king of Gath came to mind. I Samuel 22 relates how David, in flight from Saul, went to the court of Achish (or Abimelech), the king of Gath, and there feigned madness to save his life. I had to wonder how David felt. His situation had little in common with mine, to be sure; medical side effects and pretended insanity are very different things. But surely he too felt that desperate desire to escape from circumstances out of his control that were forcing him to act out of his mind.

One day in the midst of these ponderings I happened to turn to Psalm 34.  As I began to read I was astonished to find this inscription: “Of David, when he changed his behavior before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.” Here was the answer to the very question I had been asking; David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, had recorded his thoughts and emotions for me here. With a new sense of awe I read statements like the following:

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted
and saves the crushed in spirit.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the LORD delivers him out of them all.

–vv. 18, 19

The LORD redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

–v. 22

Here was the song of a man whose situation had become so desperate that insanity seemed the only option left to him, and here was his record of how the Lord delivered him. Here was his response to his many afflictions: not a cry of despair, as one might expect, but a song of praise. Here was a proven remedy to broken hearts and crushed spirits!

For one thing, Psalm 34 taught me a lesson in pride and humility. The world tries to comfort the depressed by pointing out what good people they are (think of how Clarence saves the suicidal George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life). The Bible, however, teaches that not a boosted ego but a broken heart obtains God’s favor, and that those who possess it will be blessed. This psalm is addressed to the humble, not the proud (v. 2). And strength or confidence or what we think of as inherent goodness will prove powerless to deliver anyone from the gnawing pain of life and the lurking presence of death. David writes that even “the young lions”—the very symbol of virility and vigor—“suffer want and hunger.” In contrast, “those who seek the LORD lack no good thing” (v. 10). In Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

Another lesson I gleaned from Psalm 34 was the reminder that suffering for the believer in this fallen world is neither abnormal nor shameful. “Many are the afflictions of the righteous,” writes David in verse 19. Not every evil is a punishment for sin or a symptom of demonic oppression. God in his providence uses the suffering we undergo for many purposes, but the source of it all lies in the curse that was laid on this universe as a result of Adam and Eve’s sin. But there is hope. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, yes. “But the LORD delivers him out of them all” (v. 19). Christ came, the truly Righteous One who “keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken” (v. 20; see Jno. 19:36), and suffered the ultimate penalty to redeem us from the power of sin and death. It is through him that “the LORD redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned” (v. 22).

Finally, Psalm 34 emphasized to me the futility—no, the sheer stupidity—of trying to combat a problem within ourselves with a solution within ourselves. David did not merely acknowledge that there was a problem in his head; he knew there was a problem in his heart—a deep and impenetrable problem that could not be alleviated except by divine intervention. “This poor man cried,” says David, “and the LORD heard him and saved him out of all his troubles” (v. 6). He boasts not in his self-sufficiency but in his utter dependence on God: “My soul makes its boast in the LORD” (v. 2). Navel-gazing can only prove fatal, but “those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed” (v. 5).

Have you experienced the bitter frustration of mental ailments, the biting pain of depression, or simply the dull despair that accompanies living in a fallen world? David would not be surprised. Our minds are stained by sin just as much as our bodies; even the best of us cannot trust our senses or emotions. But Psalm 34 offers the troubled soul one thing it can sense and know with certainty: “Taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (v. 8).

May you, too, taste and see that the Lord is good, and through all the joys and struggles of life may you be able to confess with the psalmist,

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.

–MRK

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