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Now I Know My ABCs

Date: July 28, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
random letters from the alphabet

Scripture: Psalm 34

Any time you run into a psalm that has exactly 22 or 44 verses, you can be pretty sure it’s an acrostic psalm. It’s totally lost in translation, of course; because it’s impossible to translate such a psalm so that each line begins with the letters of the English alphabet in order—for one thing, we have more letters in our alphabet than there are in Hebrew.

(If you want a challenge during your devotional time this week, try writing your own acrostic psalm or prayer. Write the letters of the alphabet down the left side of a sheet of paper, and then write your prayer so that each line begins with a different letter. It isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do, but in doing that you might get some idea why some of the psalms are written this way.)

There are seven acrostic psalms—including Psalm 119, which is an acrostic on steroids.[1] Psalm 119, along with Psalm 112, are Wisdom Psalms; Psalm 145 is a hymn of praise of God’s compassion and providence; three (9, 10, and 25) are Laments; and then the one before us today, Psalm 34, is a psalm of thanksgiving. So “acrostic” isn’t about subject matter; it’s just a poetic style; these psalms are written according to this very specific form—just like sonnets are written using another very specific form.

The result of writing in this form, though, is a sense of completeness. It’s similar to what is implied when Jesus is described in Revelation as the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the first and last. The acrostic form conveys that God’s steadfast love and faithfulness are from everlasting to everlasting, and also, in a way, places the faithful person’s life within an orderly framework.

The content of Psalm 34 is mainly thanksgiving. The psalmist has been in trouble, but God rescued her when she cried out for help. Now, in addition to giving thanks, the psalmist urges his readers to depend on God as he has done. And then at the end, she does what the writer of the 51st Psalm promised to do in response to God’s mercy: “Then I will teach…your ways.”

Starting with verse 11, this psalm begins to sound a lot like a wisdom psalm—“I will teach you the fear of the LORD,” he says, and then outlines how one can live a righteous life: Keep your speech truthful and good; do not do evil; pursue peace.

If you live in the fear of the LORD—and keep in mind that when the psalms talk about the fear of the LORD, they’re not talking about literally being afraid of God, but having respect and awe for who God is, letting God, and no one or nothing else, be God—then God will watch over you.

It doesn’t, of course, say the righteous never face any trouble in life: The righteous cry for help and God hears and rescues them; The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves those whose spirits have been crushed; “Many are the afflictions of the righteous,” but God brings them through all of them.

But the centerpiece of Psalm 34 is something that I think most of us mainline Christians aren’t terribly comfortable with: testimony.

In some Christian traditions, it’s customary for people to get up during worship services and talk about what God has done for them. We generally prefer things done, in the language of our Presbyterian brothers and sisters, “decently and in order,” and testimonies can sometimes run long, or ramble, or be very emotional. That makes us sort of uneasy.

Plus which, a lot of us like to pretend, at church, like our lives are perfect: we never make mistakes, never struggle, never have burdens so great that we cannot bear them alone. Testimony is like confession, which I talked about two weeks ago: it helps keep us from deluding ourselves into thinking we’re okay when we’re not.

But when we speak from the reality that God has come to us in the midst of our trouble and helped us find our way out, our exhortation to others to call on and trust God carries a great deal of weight. You can trust God, testimony says, because I did and you can see how God helped me. So yes, I do think it’s helpful for us to talk a great deal more, publicly and privately, about what trusting God has meant for us; about how God has brought us through trouble; about how God came to us in the form of a friend or fellow Christian or total stranger to help us bear our burdens.

Do we want it to be a part of our worship service? That’s something we could consider, and if we believe it’s important, the worship committee can discuss how to make it happen.

But even if it doesn’t become part of worship, it can still become part of our life together as a church. We can talk one-on-one with our friends here. We can tell about God’s goodness to us in small group gatherings. We can call on our brothers and sisters to give thanks with us for what God has done—and our brothers and sisters can see what God has done for us, and be encouraged as they face their own times of trouble.

We Americans like to say our faith is a private matter. But should it be? How can we encourage others to trust in God and follow Jesus, if we don’t talk about what trusting God and following Jesus have meant to us, in good times and bad, in the choices we make, in the ways we act on the job or at school or wherever we might be? Maybe we’re not too comfortable with testimony, but maybe we should step out of our comfort zones, stretch a little bit, and learn to talk about our faith and what God has done for us—after all, it’s when we are uncomfortable that we grow.

It’s something to think about, anyway.

[1] Psalm 119 is made up not of 22 verses, but of 22 stanzas of eight lines each; the first letter of each line in a stanza begins with the same letter.