Our Afflictions Are So Many

A Strange Promise for the Strangest of Years

Cities Church | Saint Paul

Imagine a day when Christians are being increasingly marginalized. They are not yet being physically persecuted, but everywhere they turn, they are being insulted. They are maligned. They are regularly slandered. And the vitriol seems to be growing. Among the influential, Christianity is not trending; if anything, Christianity is being increasingly blamed for various problems perceived in society.

It’s not only a fitting description of our times, but also almost two millennia ago, the apostle Peter wrote to Christians in similar circumstances. They were not yet being physically persecuted, but they were facing the world’s growing disapproval: insults, slander, cold shoulders. And where did Peter turn, when he set his mind to put pen to paper and write them a letter? He turned to Psalm 34.

“When things are bad, taste and see that he is good.”

Twice 1 Peter quotes Psalm 34 — briefly in 2:3, and more extensively in 3:10–12. Which leads some scholars to think that Peter may have meditated at length on Psalm 34 as he prepared to write to these early Christians in their sufferings. And it makes sense. The key link between Peter’s day, and ours, and Psalm 34 is verse 19: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.”

Prepare for Affliction

Seeing how Peter uses Psalm 34 helps us see the richness of what David is doing in Psalm 34. As Peter saw, Psalm 34 prepares us to suffer. It is not only a call for God’s people to celebrate with David his deliverance from affliction, but also, as we do so, to prepare ourselves for our own afflictions, whether already present or coming. We see it in the very first line:

I will bless the Lord at all times;
     his praise shall continually be in my mouth. (Psalm 34:1)

Why say “at all times”? Because there are times when praising the Lord might seem unusual, or at least unexpected — times when we assume praise might cease. When would that be? Hard times. Afflictions.

And yet, David, having come through such an affliction (the superscript notes the time his life was under threat among the Philistines in 1 Samuel 21:10–15) he says, “I will bless the Lord at all times.” Not just in the good times, when praise is easy. Not just when all seems right with the world. Not just those times, but at all times. When under threat, when it’s hard, when it’s uncertain. When it’s painful. When I’m impatient and I just want the pandemic to be over and get back to normal life, and it drags on and on. Then — at that moment — in the downs of life, in the trials, in the pains, in affliction, there’s the all times David is talking about.

That’s the context in which we should read verse 8: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” When 1 Peter 2:3 alludes to it and says “if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good,” Peter is appealing to what these embattled believers themselves have experienced in affliction — the very thing David calls us to in Psalm 34: to taste and see, in affliction, in the bad times, that the Lord is good. To trust him against all odds. Lean on him, rest in him, when there seems to be no way out. When things are bad, taste and see that he is good.

So, with that help from the apostle Peter on how to read this psalm, consider four truths from Psalm 34 for us in our generation, and in this pandemic.

1. God’s people will suffer (verses 19–22).

The first part of verse 19 says, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous.”

Let that statement have its effect. Don’t move on too quickly. Jesus said to his followers in John 16:33, “In the world you will have tribulation.” And the apostle Paul went around to his church plants, as he gave them the basics of the Christian life, and taught them “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). And to the Thessalonians, Paul writes about their afflictions, “You yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction” (1 Thessalonians 3:3–4).

Being God’s people, “the righteous,” is no promise of earthly ease. In fact, with it comes promises of affliction. And not just “some” but “many.” “Many are the afflictions of the righteous.” So we might say, Well, that’s pretty poor treatment from an all-powerful God toward his people. Why, then, be his? Why bother being righteous?

Verses 21–22 make clear that affliction serves two contrasting purposes for the righteous and for the wicked, for God’s people and for his enemies. Verses 21–22:

Affliction will slay the wicked,
     and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
     none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

“Being God’s people, ‘the righteous,’ is no promise of earthly ease.”

Affliction ruins the wicked. It’s the end of their story. But affliction makes the righteous, and is not their end. It reveals their true colors. It has a humbling effect, rather than a hardening effect. Affliction has a purifying effect for the righteous, while having a punitive effect for the wicked. The wicked will be condemned at the final judgment. The righteous, though afflicted — and through affliction — will not be condemned, but the Lord himself will redeem their life.

But we need to ask more about “the righteous” here. Who are “the righteous” in verse 15? Who are God’s people, his “servants” in verse 22, his “saints” in verse 9? I want to be in that number! Psalm 34 tells us far more about God’s people than that they are righteous, but also what makes them righteous:

  • Verse 2: they are humble: “Let the humble hear and be glad.”
  • Verse 5: they are “those who look to him.”
  • Verses 7 and 9: “those who fear him.”
  • Verses 8 and 22: “those who take refuge in him.”
  • Verse 10: “those who seek the Lord.”
  • Verse 14: they “turn away from evil and do good.”
  • Verse 18: he calls them “brokenhearted” and “crushed in spirit” (not the unbroken and uncrushed, but the broken and crushed).

So, as the whole psalm implies, and as verse 19 makes explicit, God’s people will suffer. The afflictions of the righteous are many. Cities Church, we take this with utter seriousness. We do not pretend that Christianity frees us from afflictions in this world. In fact, we assume it brings more, for now, not less. Many afflictions.

And so Peter tells his readers in 1 Peter 4:1, “Arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.” He says in 1 Peter 4:12, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Expect it. Prepare your heart for it.

Cities Church, let’s be armed. Let’s not be surprised. But let’s be ready to taste and see, in the bad times, how good our Lord is.

2. God’s people “do good” while they wait (verses 11–18).

The idea of waiting is implied by verses 11–18. The assumption is that deliverance from affliction does not come immediately. God is not the genie of the lamp who fulfills wishes the moment we ask. He is God Almighty. He rules the universe without our counsel. He freely chooses to rescue the righteous, and does so on his timetable — not theirs.

Verses 11–18 provide a dual clarification for the righteous in their many afflictions. First, the promise of divine rescue is not a promise of immediate rescue. Waiting in affliction is part of what makes it affliction. God means for his people to endure in suffering that doesn’t go away right away. And 1 Peter is explicit about this call to wait on God’s timing:

  • 1 Peter 1:6, “Now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials” — meaning, longer than you want, but small in relation to eternity.

  • 1 Peter 5:6, “Humble yourselves . . . under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.”

  • 1 Peter 5:10, “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”

So, first clarification: the promise of divine rescue is not a promise of immediate rescue. Second: affliction and suffering are no excuse for evil. Rather, as we wait for God’s rescue, Psalm 34 calls us to “do good.”

“There will be fears, troubles, afflictions, even death — and there will be resurrection on the other side.”

Psalm 34 has two big parts: Verses 1–10 is the call to worship and testimony time (I cried for help; God rescued me; rejoice with me). Then, verses 11–22 are the teaching time (he shares lessons). Verse 11 starts the new section: “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” Then, David appeals to us: to our desire for life (when death threatens) and for many days (when they seem few) and to see good (when facing evil), and he says — what? Find your way to cope? Lament? Grumble? Be authentic and air your grievances with God? He says in verses 13–14,

Keep your tongue from evil
     and your lips from speaking deceit.
Turn away from evil and do good;
     seek peace and pursue it.

In other words, the pains of affliction are no excuse for evil. The affliction of a pandemic, or unjust treatment at work, or childhood trauma, or being insulted because of your faith, is no reason for God’s people to act like the devil’s. Affliction is no excuse for gossip, or sinful anxiety, or sinful anger, or spiritual apathy.

In fact, affliction is a call, to God’s people, for precisely the opposite. A pandemic is no sign from God that we’re on a break and you have an excuse to be spiritually slack. Rather, affliction rings in the ears of the righteous as a call to “do good” all the more, to keep our tongues from evil, and our hearts from unbelief. Affliction is game time: Will our lights really shine and give glory to our Father in heaven, or not?

So, not only do the righteous face many afflictions, and wait in those afflictions, but they do good while they wait. The righteous are righteous in affliction. The righteous are righteous when threatened.

And this emphasis in Psalm 34 on doing good while we wait is what prompts Peter to reach for this psalm to encourage his readers. He says to insulted, ill-treated Christians, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (2:12). And then, he quotes verses 12–16 as support for saying, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless [do good], for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9).

So, David says to his people, and Peter to his, and now this psalm and 1 Peter say to us, affliction is no excuse for sin. In fact, affliction is a fresh call to do good.

A question for us all, in this moment, is: What good are we doing as we wait in the affliction of this pandemic? Have you let this affliction become an excuse or cause for sin, or spiritual apathy? Are you doing good to others as you wait? And if, let’s say, we’re at the halfway point of the pandemic, how has your first half been? Have you done good, rather than evil, as you’ve waited? And what might God be calling us to, in the weeks ahead, in our fatigue, as this affliction drags on?

3. God rescues his people resoundingly (verse 20).

Resoundingly — not barely, but fully and finally. This is verse 20, but includes all the seemingly over-the-top language in the psalm. Did you notice all the “alls” and “nones” of Psalm 34?

  • Verse 1: “I will bless the Lord at all times.”
  • Verse 4: “He . . . delivered me from all my fears.”
  • Verse 5: “Their faces shall never be ashamed.”
  • Verse 6: God “saved [David] out of all his troubles.”
  • Verse 9: “Those who fear him have no lack.”
  • Verse 10: “Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.”
  • Verse 17: “The Lord . . . delivers [the righteous] out of all their troubles.”
  • Verse 19: “The Lord delivers [the righteous] out of . . . all [their afflictions].”
  • Verse 22: “None of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.”

Delivered from all fears, all troubles, all afflictions — so we ask, Does God always deliver the righteous?

Life from Dry Bones

The answer in Psalm 34 comes in verse 20, with one final “all.” Start at verse 19:

Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
     but the Lord delivers him out of them all.
He keeps all his bones;
     not one of them is broken.

Verse 20 is probably the most obscure part of this psalm for us today, because we no longer attach much symbolic significance to bones. But in the Bible, bones have all sorts of figurative meaning, depending on context. We not only hear of “flesh and bone,” referring to the human body, or to kinship, or of bones being buried, bones being the last remaining part of the body once the flesh has rotted or been consumed. Seeing bones, through the skin of someone living, is a sign of starvation or sickness or wasting away. Bones also refer to the deepest part of humans (as in Psalm 6:2: “I am languishing . . . my bones are troubled”).

And in our studies in Genesis and Exodus, remember two strange mentions of bones. First, there are no more famous bones in Scripture than Joseph’s. The book of Genesis ends with Joseph making the sons of Israel swear to bring up his bones from Egypt to the Promised Land when God delivers them (Genesis 50:25). And when Israel makes its exodus, the pledge is fulfilled. Exodus 13:19:

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones with you from here.”

“Affliction rings in the ears of the righteous as a call to ‘do good’ all the more.”

And not just Genesis, but the book of Joshua also ends with Joseph’s bones. Joshua 24:32: “As for the bones of Joseph, which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt, they buried them at Shechem, in the piece of land that Jacob bought.” In the New Testament, Hebrews celebrates this as a great act of faith: “By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones” (Hebrews 11:22). How is it an act of faith?

In the very midst of it all, just breaths before the mention of Joseph’s bones in Exodus 13, comes instructions about the Passover lamb in Exodus 12: “It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones” (Exodus 12:46; also Numbers 9:12). There is something sacred, it seems, about the bones. But the picture is not yet complete.

Then we come to Ezekiel 37 and his vision of a valley of dry bones — the bones being the remaining part of bodies that once lived. The dry bones represent death, and yet not utter devastation. Something remains. Bones remain. And God tells Ezekiel to prophesy, and flesh returns to the bones, and then breath returns to the restored bodies, and an army of God’s people is raised from the grave.

In other words, intact bones, kept bones, unbroken bones, represent the hope of resurrection, that God, in his perfect timing, will reassemble the bones, and restore the flesh, and give breath, and bring dry bones back to full life with resurrection power.

Resurrection Promise

Now, to turn back to Psalm 34, God keeping the bones of the righteous is a promise of resurrection. He keeps them to restore them. And note well, resurrection does not mean no death. In fact, it requires it. You must first die to be brought back to life again. Just as deliverance does not mean no trouble. There must first be trouble before you can be delivered from it.

So, Psalm 34 does not say the righteous won’t die, that they won’t suffer in the flesh, and die in the flesh. But it does promise that God will raise them. All their bones will be kept; which is figurative, not literal. Not one will be broken. A righteous man may indeed break bones and even die with broken bones. The point is God will keep his bones — God will raise him; God will put him back together and give him flesh again and breath again. And affliction, even if it kills him, will not defeat the righteous in the end.

The reason Joseph cared about his bones is that he believed God would raise him back to life one day. And the reason God instructed his people not to break the bones of the Passover lamb is that one day God would raise the true Passover Lamb back to life. And so John 19:36 reports, at the death of Jesus,

These things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.”

And if we know the meaning of bones, we say at that point in John’s Gospel (if it hasn’t already been clear enough), Jesus is going to rise. He won’t stay dead. These unbroken bones are a sign. God is keeping them. God will raise them.

So, back to our question from the “alls” and “nones” of Psalm 34: Does God always deliver the righteous? And the answer is a resounding yes. From all fears. From all troubles. From all afflictions. God will keep all his bones. Not even one will be broken. Which means there will be fears, troubles, afflictions, even death — and there will be resurrection on the other side. And God will deliver his people not in their preferred timing, but his.

Cities Church, if we only knew, in our afflictions, however severe, what a resounding rescue we have coming, we’d be so much more ready to bear up under our momentary trials.

4. God’s people celebrate him together (verse 3).

In one sense, this is the whole first half of the psalm (verses 1–10), but look especially at verse 3: “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!”

What does it mean to “magnify” God? It does not mean to make him look bigger than he is — as if when we gather together to sing his praises, we make him look big, when in fact he is small. That would be to magnify like a microscope. A microscope takes tiny objects and makes them look bigger than they are so that our weak eyes can see them.

“We want to magnify the truth and beauty and worth of God in Christ to each other.”

Rather, when we join our voices (and lives) together in praise of our God, we magnify him like a telescope. Telescopes take massive objects that look small to our frail, human eyes and make them look more like what they really are: enormous beyond our capacity to comprehend. That is more like the magnifying we do when we gather in worship, and the kind of magnifying we do, for each other and for our world, through our words and our lives.

God is enormous beyond our capacity to comprehend. And glorious beyond our ability to fully appreciate. And powerful beyond our capacity to measure. But tragically, he often seems small to our frail and fallen human eyes. We do not see him as he is. We need help. From David. From Peter. From each other. And we gather weekly as a church for that kind of magnification: to remind each other what’s most real, what’s most precious, what’s glorious. And in our lives, and through our words, we want to magnify the truth and beauty and worth of God in Christ to each other, and to a world that does not see reality as it should.

Magnified in Our Gladness

There’s one last component here we can’t overlook. David is not just reporting the facts. Psalm 34 is not a detached, objective report. David is celebrating. He is boiling over. He has tasted God’s goodness in bad times. He is happy. He says in verse 2, “Let the humble hear and be glad.”

God is not so magnified in our words, and our lives, when we simply report the truth, as he is when we rejoice in him. When we are glad in him, he looks good. When we celebrate him and his goodness to us, and his goodness to all who look to him and fear him and seek him and take refuge in him, he is magnified — and especially when we taste and see he is good in the midst of many afflictions.