My mouth filled with blessing: Psalm 34 as rule of life

I will bless the LORD at all times;
   his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the LORD;
   let the humble hear and be glad.
Oh, magnify the LORD with me,
   and let us exalt his name together!

What would it mean to take the first three verses of Psalm 34 as an individual and communal rule of life?

The superscript that was added in the Hebrew manuscript tradition and is included in many English translations says that this Psalm was written by David after the time he acted crazy so that the Philistine chieftain “Abimelech” would kick him out rather than execute him. (Apparently even ancient Philistine warlords were too civilized to use the death penalty on mentally deficient offenders.) But Rolf Jacobson (in the NICOT commentary on Psalms) suggests: “Rather than a prayer composed by one who has freshly passed through a crisis, it is more likely a poem composed on behalf of a community—written in order to instruct the community on how to move in and out of such crises.” Jacobson has no secret tradition or ancient records that tell him why this psalm was composed, but he’s not making a wild guess. His suggestion is an inference from the words of the whole psalm. You and I today, as people recently and currently in crisis, may consider this to be a psalm for us. Maybe even as an element of a rule of life for us. If I were to receive it as such, how would my (and our) behavior, speech, and mood change?

This is an acrostic psalm: it runs through the Hebrew alphabet, beginning each verse with the next letter. As Maria von Trapp said, “Let’s start at the very beginning—a very good place to start!” The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is aleph (‎א), and the word the psalmist choses to begin with is אֲבָרֲכָ֣ה, avarakah: I will bless.

So: what if the starting point of my rule of life—my decision about what to think, say, and do—were to be “I will bless”?

That might already be a good thing already, without further qualification, in a comprehensive sense. Bless whom? Why not everyone? Why not whomever I encounter? Why should my aim not be to bless everyone, be a blessing to everyone, call everyone blessed, pray for God’s blessing on everyone, recognize the ways in which everyone is a blessing to me?

But the psalmist specifies a direct object: אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה, et-Adonai, as a traditionally pious Jew would pronounce it, avoiding giving voice to the divine name, YHWH. This is not a generic “god” but the one whose name was revealed to Moses from the burning bush, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. English versions traditionally follow ancient Greek practice, translating Adonai rather than YWHW, Kyrios in Greek becoming “Lord” in English, so: I will bless the Lord. For Christians, when we call Jesus “Lord” this history of “Lord” in biblical usage is always on our mind. With this personal object, “Lord,” Goldingay tells us, “bless” means “worship.”

And the psalmist adds a further indicator: בְּכָל־עֵ֑ת, bekol et, “in every time,” or in more idiomatic English, I will bless the Lord at all times. This includes especially, perhaps, times of crisis, times of anxiety, times when the reflexive reaction might be something other than “I will bless,” much less “I will bless the Lord”—otherwise why bother saying it, so emphatically, as a firm resolution? It includes especially moments when my reflexive reaction might be to curse someone, might be to feel that someone, perhaps even God, is not a blessing to me right now, or maybe not ever; moments when I might feel that a very good place to start might be finding fault, or fearing, or fleeing, or alternatively sticking my head in the sand and saying nothing at all.

What if my (and our) rule of life were to be that even and especially at such times I (we) will start with “I will bless”?

In classic Hebrew style the Psalmist then repeats this resolution in a second colon, in this case with more concrete language, replacing and action that I will perform with a thing that will be sitting there—where?—in my mouth. This thing is labeled tehilla, in which you may recognize the same three-letter root from which is formed the word that comes into English as “hallelujah.” This thing is “praise.” Tamid: continually, or continuously, on a standing basis. Continually praise of that one (the Lord) (will be) in my mouth. What if that is my rule of life?

The concreteness of the image presents me with an existential difficulty. However big you may think my mouth is, I experience it as a place of limited capacity. If it is full of potato, I may have to wait before adding a spoonful of peas. If it always contains praise and blessing, perhaps some other things will not fit. Or maybe small amounts of them, but always only mixed into larger globs of praise and blessing.

Back from the crude physical image: from my mouth to my soul. But my soul does not take pride of place. The second verse must begin with the second letter, bet (ב), which also happens to be a preposition, “in,” so the Psalmist writes, In the Lord will glory my soul. The verb form, Hebrew tithallel, is a hithpael, which I was taught normally means reflexive. You’ll see the telltale letters again: this is once again a form of the root that gives us “hallelujah.” With no object the reflexive might suggest “I will praise myself,” which would be “I will boast.” But for the believer, as the old hymn says, boasting is excluded, so this tithallel is located “in the Lord.” Jacobson: “This boast is a nonboast, because [the psalmist] is boasting about her own inability to save herself, which is why she sought refuge in the Lord.”

Our rule of life is realistic: that natural human impulse to exult, to be filled under some circumstances with a combination of elation and pride, is not excluded. But it is located, apodictically, “in the Lord.” That is the only safe and good place for it. When it wells up within me—say, for example, when after a moment or season of crisis, things turn out OK, a danger is averted, the right side wins—I will deliberately take that impulse to boast, corral it, contain it, pen it up “in the Lord.” This is an action that will be taken by “my soul,” my basic life-force. This is how my attitude, my thoughts, will operate, prior to any speech or action. This attitude will determine my speech, my action, in such moments. There will be no high fives for my friends, victory dances in the end zone, and middle fingers for my defeated enemies. I will glory “in the Lord,” and bless the Lord, and in so doing seek to be a blessing to others, including especially the defeated enemies.

What response am I hoping for from those around me? Let the humble hear and be glad. I am aiming to inspire joy. (Goldingay: the object “is not merely to transmit teaching but also to see teaching have its fruit in joy. Perhaps that is why teaching such as this appears in the Psalms rather than in a teaching book such as Proverbs.”) I am realistic: the ones who I expect to hear and be glad are the anawim, the poor, the weak, the lowly, the humble. What about the strong, the rich, the proud? They are not my audience. They are not my problem. They are not my people. I am—seeing myself as God sees me, and as I know myself to be because of my failures and fears—from the poor and the weak. Perhaps I am hoping that the rich, the proud, the strong, will come to see themselves as poor and needy, and perhaps some will, perhaps even because they hear the good news that comes to the poor and weak, and see the joy that it gives them, and come to want that joy for themselves. If so: “Praise is a way of rehabilitating the reputation of one who may have fallen under a cloud of doubt when she was in crisis. In a word, to join one in praise is to welcome her” (Jacobson). Or perhaps the self-reckoned strong will not come to see themselves as weak, and they will remain excluded. At any rate, according to my rule of life, they are not the focus of my attention. My attention is on the humble, and I hope for a response from them. Let us exalt his name together.

The third verse must begin with the third letter, gimel (ג). The psalmist chooses the word גַּדְּל֣וּ, a plural piel (intensive) imperative: “make great,” or “declare to be great,” traditionally “magnify.” Magnify the Lord with me. This is not just telling others to do something, it is inviting them to do it “with me.” It is saying: I am already doing this. I am magnifying the Lord (right? am I?—this is prerequisite). Everyone and everything else will look small next to the greatness of the Lord, and the Lord knows that there are some around us who need to be shown to be small, perhaps the strong/rich/proud. But my central aim, my direct object, is not to minimize anyone, to blame or denounce or curse. Some blaming, some showing to be small, even some cursing, may ultimately be implied in my magnifying of the Lord, but the thing on which I (we) must be focusing if we take these verses from Psalm 34 as a rule of life (thought, speech, action) is: Magnify the Lord with me.

The second colon of this verse makes clear: I am out to constitute an “us,” a “we.” So my focus is not on some “them/they” or even a “you” except insofar as I invite “you” (and “them”) to join “me” (and “us”) in praise and blessing. The final word of this little three-verse rule of life (attitude, speech, action): יַחְדָּֽו, yakhdav: together, at the same time, in unity, in unanimity. Same word (well, slightly different form) as in another psalm which exclaims, Hine ma-tov u ma-nayim shevet akhim gam yakhad: “How good and pleasant it is for siblings to dwell together in unity.” My (our) rule of life, if we can accept it as such, begins with blessing the Lord—always—and ends in the blessed unity of all God’s people.

Can we—can I—follow such a rule? I do not know. I am not confident. The record (including my record) is not promising. Precor vos, fratres et sorores, orare pro me (et pro nobis) ad Dominum Deum nostrum. (Nostrum! The Lord our God.)

At any rate I will not agree with those who say there is never a time for calling sin by name, and for calling out sinners by name, and especially for naming sins and sinners within the household of God, which is where the apostle tells us judgment must begin. But any such naming and calling out must, I now think, be subordinated to and subsumed within a larger, more constant program of blessing and calling into unity. And it must partake of a humility that invites and allows others also to help me to recognize my own sin.

Nor will I agree with those who want to be apolitical, as though that were a virtue; who want to abandon “politics” to those who will treat “politics” not as constructive cooperation and compromise but as endless partisan yammering and hammering. Rather, as believers we must insist that these verses from Psalm 34 will define the essential core of our politeia, of our walk in the world, and that they must and will characterize our attitude, our words, and our actions not only behind the closed doors of the house of worship but also in the public spaces where we voice our opinions on all kinds of questions of public policy, and respond to the opinions of others, regarding matters that concern us all in the larger, mixed “us” not of the household of faith but of the civic order within which we dwell not only as resident aliens (as if we American Christians were Israelites in Babylon or early Christians in the Roman Empire!) but also as fully empowered citizens. The rule of life of our Christian politeia must tincture and leaven the politics of our neighborhood and our nation until the whole loaf is leavened—and not the other way around, which is what ends up happening with those who naively or self-deceivingly claim that they can isolate the two spheres from each other while nevertheless continuing to inhabit both. True bilocation is a rare skill, but there are many pretenders.

So watch me, my sisters and brothers, and see whether the praise of God is always filling my mouth (and my Facebook feed!). See whether my criticism of others is enfolded within a larger program of blessing. Join with me in trying to make it so. Encourage me to make it so, and remind me (gently?) when I do not. We do have good news to share. The praise of God always means the sharing of good news, and vice versa, and with the good news comes also (as throughout the remaining verses of Psalm 24, letters dalet through tav) good instruction in the good life.

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