The Politics of Fearing God—Psalm 34:9-14 (Richard Davis)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

The psalmist calls us to the fear of the Lord, offering us the secret to its pursuit. Straightforward though it may be, the psalm’s challenge to avoid evil-speaking, deceit, and to depart from wickedness and pursue peace would have seismic effects for our political landscape were we to commit ourselves to it.

9 O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
for those who fear him have no want. 
10 The young lions suffer want and hunger,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

11 Come, O children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the Lord
12 Which of you desires life,
and covets many days to enjoy good? 
13 Keep your tongue from evil,
and your lips from speaking deceit. 
14 Depart from evil, and do good;
seek peace, and pursue it.

I expect that this section of Psalm 34 is not very popular in the West since it contains several off-putting ideas. Messages of evil, want, and the fear of God are not those that people want to hear today, even in the Church. For this reason, these few verses of Psalm 34 are enough to make it a countercultural psalm, which runs counter to societies where people ignore God, seek wealth, and are prepared to lie to get rich and powerful.

Of these six short verses, the first three are devoted to the reasons for fearing God. The first reason is that “those who fear him have no want.” Want was most likely a problem among the people the psalmist was addressing. We know this as poverty and want is universal. Want is still with us, and poverty remains a killer. With growing inequality and income stagnation in the West, signs are that it might get much worse. To be free from want is also a universal human desire and one that politicians grapple with. “Freedom from want” was one of the four freedoms advocated by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his famous 1941 State of the Union address. Together with freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom from fear, Roosevelt promoted freedom from want as a universal freedom that all peoples should enjoy. Other politicians do not mind the fear of want among the poor, as in their minds it encourages the unemployed or underemployed to free themselves from want.

To reinforce the point that the defeat of want and the fear of God go together, the Psalmist writes in verse 10 that “The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” Who are the young lions here? Scholars have debated who they represent, with some believing them to be models of young wealthy people who have everything but the fear of God, preferring to trust in their own ability to provide for themselves. For this reason, the psalmist suggests, they suffer want.

Sometimes preachers spiritualize such descriptions of want, claiming that the rich and powerful have a spiritual longing despite their material wealth. No doubt, it is true that this is true for some who find that material wealth leaves them still hungry for something else. But is this really the kind of want these lions suffer from? The rich can usually put food on the table, so they do not suffer from the deprivation that the poor do. However, the rich suffer another form of want, that of greed. Some wealthy people want more and more, and just like lions, they are prepared to prey on the poor and defenceless to get more. Whether the lions got rich from wanting more, or whether being rich creates extra wants, they still suffer from want. The lions should serve as a warning to those who believe that once they have enough they will want no more.

Having made the point that fearing God is where our attention should be, the psalmist offers the secret to the fearing of God. We should be encouraged that this is human knowledge and not hidden from us by God. Further encouragement comes in verse 12, where we have a rhetorical question, which is essentially, “Do you want a long life?” Who doesn’t want to live a long life? Especially when a long life is traditionally linked to God’s favour! To live a long life, however, one must fear God.

The psalmist then links fearing God with avoiding the evil of deceitful talk in both lines of verse 13: “Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.” Speaking deceit is not simply speaking evil, it is deliberately setting out to deceive and defraud others. It is the manipulation of speech for evil ends. It is also the corruption of the creative act of speech exemplified in God’s original creative speech act. Telling the truth is not simply a divine command for God’s sake, but as Immanuel Kant recognised, a duty to the other. While Kant pushed this point to its extreme, in a softer form the duty to truth-telling is about a love for the other that recognises their human dignity.

Regrettably, we live in an age of systemic political deceit. Politicians fearlessly lie every day, treating citizens with utter contempt. As the joke goes about politicians, “We know you are lying because we saw your lips moving.” In calculated tongue-twisting, they believe that they get away with their deceit. A complicit media repeats the lies—dignified as “opinions”—usually balanced with lies from the opposing side of the political debate. The public is ill-served by a media that no longer seeks the truth, but provides “balance” through repeating the lies of both sides of any political debate. Such opinions may seem cynical, but repeatedly they are borne out. As surveys of trusted professions often reveal, politicians the world over have a lot of ground to make up to become trusted again.

Verse 14 urges us to depart from these and other evils and to do good, as part of fearing God. Finally, the psalmist urges us to seek peace and pursue it. Peace doesn’t come from mere waiting and hoping. We must pursue and win it through human effort. True peace comes from God, but God also says that we must pursue peace as though it depends on us. Based on this psalm we may assume that it comes from avoiding evil and doing good.

It should be obvious that dragging nations into wars though lies and deception will not bring peace, but to politicians it is not. Iraq over the last decades has proven that beyond a doubt. True peace in Iraq—or anywhere else—will not come with the simple absence of hostilities. The Hebrew word for peace is ‘shalom,’ which refers to something akin to social harmony and well-being extending across society. Peace is for all of us to pursue through sharing this vision in love and in truth.

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