When was the last time you watched a soap opera? My stepmother used to watch them faithfully every day. My twin brother and I used to make fun of her for it. We thought they were nonsensical, until we watched an episode with her. We learned that they were nonsensical, but they also enthralling and kept us guessing about what would happen next.
Have you ever noticed that some of the stories in the Bible read like prime-time soap operas? They have twists and turns and plot devices that make daytime soap operas look like children’s books. The story behind Psalm 34 is one of those types of stories. It’s a weird story that gives us insight into why David wrote the words that have come to mean so much for many people.
I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul shall make its boast in the Lord; The humble shall hear of it and be glad. Oh, magnify the Lord with me, And let us exalt His name together. (Psalm 34:1)
The history behind Psalm 34 is found in I Samuel chapters 17-22. In I Samuel 17, the nation of Israel and the Philistines were facing each other, preparing for battle. The Philistine army was taunting the army of Israel because the Philistines had Goliath, their warrior who had never been defeated. All of Israel’s warriors were afraid to face him. That was until David arrived. Only armed with rocks and a slingshot, David, the youngest son of Jesse, accepted Goliath’s challenge to fight. And, as we all have heard, David won that showdown. David not only defeated Goliath, he beheaded him and then helped the Israelite army defeat many of the remaining Philistine soldiers.
Saul, the king of Israel, was impressed with David’s bravery and skill, and made David a part of his inner circle. And as time went on, David continued to show bravery and skills as a warrior. So much so that Saul made him a leader over military divisions. Jonathan, Saul’s son, even became one of David’s personal allies. It was very clear that God was with David and that God was blessing and protecting him. Everyone recognized this and began to praise David for his bravery. But the good times would not last very long.
I Samuel 18:6-9 reads:
“David had killed Goliath, the battle was over, and the Israelite army set out for home. As the army went along, women came out of each Israelite town to welcome King Saul. They were singing happy songs and dancing to the music of tambourines and harps. They sang: Saul has killed a thousand enemies; David has killed ten thousand enemies! This song made Saul very angry, and he thought, ‘They are saying that David has killed ten times more enemies than I ever did. Next they will want to make him king.’ Saul never again trusted David.”
Saul was jealous and fearful of David and could see that the young man was destined to become the future king of Israel. But David didn’t want to replace Saul. He was faithful to Saul and didn’t try to unseat him. David only wanted to serve him. But, Saul turned against David and sought to kill him. That became Saul’s all-consuming desire: to kill David. If this was an episode of “The Young and the Restless,” the television screen would fade to black and the credits would start rolling and we would have to wait for the next episode to see what was going to occur.
The next episode continues in I Samuel 18. David wanted to marry Saul’s daughter, but Saul didn’t want it to happen. So, Saul tried to set David up to be killed by the Philistines. He sent David on a suicide mission to kill a group of Philistines, hoping that David would be slaughtered. But, God was with David, and David prevailed against them. Saul was stuck with allowing David to marry one of his daughters, Michal. But Saul’s anger and envy toward David continued to grow. One day while David was playing his harp for the king, Saul threw his spear at him, barely missing his target. Out of fear, David fled and spent the next several chapters trying to avoid being captured and killed.
The next few chapters of I Samuel tell us that every time Saul would get close to capturing David, someone who could see God’s hand on David’s life would provide him with assistance. Over time, David’s reputation grew, and so did his following. People saw David’s faith and military skill and wanted to be a part of what God was doing. Unfortunately, multiple people were also killed by Saul because they assisted David.
In I Samuel 21 and 22, Saul was getting closer than ever to capturing David. David fled to a town called Gath that was filled with Israel’s enemies. The king of the town didn’t know what to do. He heard that David was a mighty warrior and that Saul wanted David’s head on a platter. David, thinking that the king was about to take him into custody and turn him over to Saul, began to act crazy. I don’t mean act goofy. David acted like he had a mental illness. He walked around like he was confused, scratched on doors and walls, and drooled into his beard. Thinking that David was crazy, the king of Gath let him go, allowing David to escape to a series of caves, continuing to allude Saul.
David, who had only done what was right in God’s sight, defend God’s reputation from God’s enemies, and serve King Saul faithfully, was at the end of his rope. He could see his life ending, either by Saul’s hands or by another enemy’s hands. This is the background to Psalm 34. David didn’t know what was going to happen. For all he knew, he could wake up the following day surrounded by Saul’s army. Or, he may not even make it out of the town he was currently in. He may never get to see his parents or his wife again. It is believed that Psalm 34 was written by David after he safely returned to one of the caves he used as a hiding place.
We would typically think of caves as dark, dirty places that don’t offer much opportunity to have hope. But that day, I imagine David celebrated the fact that he was there and not in the hands of one of his enemies. That cave, which at any other time served as a reminder of his exile from Saul’s kingdom, suddenly served as a symbol of refuge and protection that only came from his God. The words of praise that are offered in the psalm are not directed toward some god far off in the sky who wasn’t connected to the person that called out for help. Those words were directed to David’s God, whom he believed was present, listening, and active in helping him get out of the series of traps that he had experienced.
Do you ever feel like your life is a soap opera? Do you ever feel like you have an arch-enemy that is always working against you? Be it an actual person that you work with or someone who you regularly disagree with. Or maybe your arch-nemesis is a disease that has taken over your body and you just can’t seem to fight it. What are your options for dealing with the dramatic things that are going on in your life?
When David realized that he couldn’t overcome his challenges on his own, he retreated to a cave and spent time reflecting on who God was and how God was protecting him during his toughest season in life. That doesn’t mean that David didn’t get angry, or that he didn’t question God, or that he didn’t struggle with his faith. It means that, despite what David was dealing with, he intentionally took time to express his appreciation for how God was caring for him, even though his life wasn’t perfect.
Doesn’t that sound counterintuitive to our natural inclinations? When life is not going how we wish, we typically choose to spend our time telling God how disappointed we are. I think that it’s okay for us to vent our emotions to God and I believe that God is big enough to deal with our emotions when we reach that point in life. But, what if when we reach the height of our emotional frustration, instead of allowing it to flow out in anger, we channeled that emotion and instead expressed it as thankfulness? What if, instead of seeing the challenges we face in life as only bad things, we could see them as moments where our faith was not only being allowed to grow, but that they were new pages to the testimonies that we will one day give of God’s faithfulness and God’s ability to overcome anything on our behalf?
If we were able to do that, we could write our own songs that could serve to strengthen future generations, as David did.