For those who want a change from the Gospel
All Saints Day – Psalm 34:1-10
Oh dear – I’ve got a real problem this week – the lectionary doesn’t give us an OT reading. So, in order to prevent myself being sued under the Trades Descriptions Act, I’ve decided to go with the next best thing – Psalm 34. After all, Psalm 34 is strictly speaking in the OT, even if that isn’t how it functions liturgically. So here goes.
This Psalm is what is known by Psalm scholars as an individual thanksgiving, one of 15 in our Psalter. It’s helpful, if you belong to that kind of a church, to think of it as a testimony. When I was a parish priest I learnt from a visit to a friend who was an Episcopalian Rector in Florida a great way to start a Sunday service: he sent a server out with a roving mic and asked the congregation ‘What has God been or done for you this week such that you have come to worship him today?’ A few people would then stick up their hands and briefly tell their stories of God’s goodness. When we started doing that back in Coventry it really lifted the worship. Other denominations make even greater use of testimony, and that is what is going on here in this Psalm.
The person testifying purports to be David, and his testimony is of a particular incident in his life, which you can read about in 1 Samuel 21. Whether David actually wrote this is a matter of dispute, particularly as the story as 1 Samuel tells it has David going mad in front of King Achish, not Abimelek as here, although of course it’s easy for anyone to misremember details.
The other interesting thing about this Psalm is that it is an acrostic, with each verse beginning with one letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order. We have seven such Psalms, as well as other parts of the OT. What this means is that this isn’t a speech someone thought up at the start of a service: it’s a clever piece of literary art which has been put together with great creativity to the glory of God.
So why this Psalm for All Saints’ Day? I confessed a couple of weeks ago that I am not all that keen on the celebration of Saints’ Days, because for all their stories are supposed to inspire us to greater things they often actually end up making us feel deskilled and useless. But this Psalm is different, for three reasons.
Firstly, it is a Psalm about God, and not merely the testifier. Every one of our 10 verses mentions the Lord, apart from v.5 which merely uses a pronoun. So many Saints’ stories, and so many of our more contemporary testimonies, tend to focus on what we have done, but this passage leaves us in no doubt at all that the Lord is the one to whom the glory is due. Some human testimony might be the better for a bit more of such an emphasis.
Secondly, though, where there is human activity, it is not exactly exemplary. In order to escape with his life David pretends to be mad, dribbling and raving until they sling him out. Hardly something to be particularly proud of. One big problem with testimony is that it can tell only the good bits, which again can be deskilling for ordinary people. I can remember when we used the words above at the start of our worship there were lots of good stories shared, and a few great ones, but what sticks in my mind is the occasions when someone said something like ‘I’ve had a dreadful week and God has seemed a million miles away but I’ve come to worship him this morning anyway’. We rarely hear the more negative aspects in our hagiographical preaching: this Psalm is real, and much more flattering to God than to the story-teller.
But thirdly I particularly like v.2-3, where the author gives his testimony but then invites all of us to join in with him in glorifying and exalting God. This is the exact opposite of the way much preaching on the Saints goes, where they are held up as heroes and heroines who are out of our reach. It invites us in, rather than merely inviting us to watch and dream. It expounds the biblical truth that all Christians are Saints, and rejects the double-decker approach which our twin festivals of All Saints and All Souls have emphasised, that there are ordinary Christians who feebly struggle while real saints in glory shine. Those saints who have gone ahead of us, according to Hebrews 11, are egging us on, waiting with bated breath for us to join them in exalting the Lord. They want nothing more than to see us joining in with their praise.