Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. – Psalm 34:9-14 (NIV)
When was the last time a promise that had been made to you was broken? When was the last time you broke one? Why do we make promises in the first place? Typically to provide assurances that something specific will or won’t be done in the future. What is being promised may benefit both people, but a promise doesn’t have to benefit both people. It’s possible to promise something that makes you happy but makes me miserable.
How do you make promises? Typically, they’re made through legal contracts, but every now and then a promise is so important that a “pinky swear” is needed. Or an oath is invoked, such as, “I cross my heart and hope to die…stick a needle in my eye”. If you’re really serious about a promise, you may swear on a loved one’s life.
In the Hebrew Bible, promises were made and kept by both God and humans. If God promised something, that promise was trustworthy because of God’s nature. A person typically had to only keep living to find out if the promise would come true. If a person made a promise, the party promised to could either trust the promiser sight unseen, or they could require something that sealed the promise with a certain level of honor, like a handshake, a kiss, or even a sacrifice that brought with the promise certain assurances for punishment if the promise wasn’t kept.
I think the idea of broken promises serves as part of the foundation of Psalm 34, especially verses 9-14. In Psalm 34, I think that David may have been dealing with the feeling that God had broken a promise that was made to David, and David was struggling with how he should respond to that feeling.
“God made David a promise that David would one day lead God’s people as king, but God never gave David a timeline of when that would happen.”
Before David defeated Goliath, he was anointed as the future king of Israel by the prophet Samuel. For Samuel to anoint David as king was a big deal. The ceremony of anointing may not have been a grand display, but what the anointing process represented for David was huge. He would be the person to replace Saul as the leader of God’s chosen people. Not only that, the Hebrew people believed that a certain level of holy virtue and the Holy Spirit was being transferred to David through the anointing process.
With that act of anointing, David, ultimately, was no longer simply the son of Jesse or just a shepherd. He now represented God’s power and presence for God’s people. But, in day-to-day reality he was still a shepherd boy working for his father. God made David a promise that David would one day lead God’s people as king, but God never gave David a timeline of when that would happen. So, David, the future king, would have to wait for his opportunity to ascend Israel’s throne.
And David waited. He waited as he went back to tending his father’s sheep, and as he was invited to serve as King Saul’s harp player, and even after he defeated Goliath. David waited for God to fulfill the promise after David’s reputation began to increase substantially among the people of Israel, and after Saul became jealous of him, and after Saul attempted to take David’s life multiple times. David was waiting to become king while he sat in a cave, fearing for his life, and possibly penning the words to Psalm 34.
What does it mean to have a promise delayed or not fulfilled? Today, we have multiple ways to deal with a person who breaks a promise. We can enact legal action or try to embarrass them through social media. In David’s time, there were also ways to deal with a promise breaker. But, what could a person do when it seemed like God was the one failing to fulfill a promise? I think this is part of the background that David had to mentally and spiritually process as he wrote the words found in Psalm 34.
David decided the best way to handle the situation was to praise God and focus on the promise; not the delay. He committed to worship, serve, and obey God above all others, and to make God the focus of life, with the hope that God would respond positively to his actions. Ultimately, David doubled-down on trusting God to supply his needs, provide him protection, and fulfill what had been promised.
In Psalm 34, David uses the example of young lions and potential starvation to reinforce his decision. Lions, the kings of the jungle, are feared hunters in the wilderness. But not every lion can take care of itself. Every lion experiences a season of vulnerability. When does every lion experience vulnerability? When they are at the mercy of older, more experienced lions to provide them with food. According to David, God’s children don’t have to experience the plight of young lions. They don’t have to worry about being at the mercy of someone else or trying to be self-sufficient. They can rest in the promise that God would provide for them every day.
I think David recognized that trusting in God was a virtue that wasn’t always adhered to. I think that the idea of self-sufficiency, the thought that I no longer need God because I’m king, is what ultimately led to King Saul’s downfall. Yes, the Hebrew scriptures allude to the fact that Saul had something wrong psychologically and he may have experienced a legitimate mental illness. But, he also spoke and acted in ways that clearly showed that he was determined to do what he wanted instead of what God wanted. This, ultimately, is why God chose David to replace him.
Not only is David encouraging his readers to honor and fear God, and trust in God to supply their needs, he encourages them to not say evil things or do evil things, even when they may find themselves huddled in caves fleeing their enemies. He encouraged them to not say or do evil, even when it seemed like God had forgotten about them or what God had promised to them. Instead, they were to do good. They were to do the things that would bring God glory and reaffirm the promises they were waiting for God to fulfill. Although David is in one of life’s caves, he is still able to encourage others to hold their heads high and be confident that God is present and active.
I believe this is why David could praise God and write such a psalm/song after running for his life from Saul and hiding in a cave. He believed that God was big enough to fulfill the promise that had been made to David the day he was anointed as the future king of Israel. If God had promised him that he would one day become king, then God had enough time, power, and resources to make it happen.
David made the intentional choice to not focus on the negative fear that was surrounding his life, but instead to focus on the positive mystery that was inherent in the promise that God had given him and to be faithful until that mystery was revealed and the promise was fulfilled for God’s glory.
Today, we have the same privilege and challenge: to recognize that life will not always be perfect or go as we hope, but to still find and honor the hope that is inherent in the promises that God has made over our lives and to live according to that, instead of living from a position of scarcity and fear of what God may not do. Like David, even when we are in a cave, we can focus on what God has promised to do and to wait patiently for God’s promises to be fulfilled.