Halloween! So let us look at the psalm, not for this Sunday (Proper 26 in the jargon) but for 1 November — All Saints’ day, which happens to fall on Sunday. [For Proper 26, see the page on Psalm 107.] Some say that years ago, the winter frosts coming on, All Hallows day absorbed Celtic rituals spawning the festival for All Hallows E’en.
In any event, there are no pumpkins, lanterns or scary figures in Psalm 34. It is a positive acrostic poem, probably, as seen in verse 11, for educational purposes: “Come children and listen to me; I will teach you the way of God.”
David draws on a particular occasion when he avoided disaster (see 1 Samuel 21) to encourage praise and trust in a more general sense: “Many are the troubles … but God will deliver”.(19) So he urges exaltation (3) and invites listeners:
Taste and see that God is good; happy are those who take refuge in God. (8)
The song refers frequently to divine care, guidance and protection for ‘the righteous’, those who seek (and sometimes even achieve!) justice, love and equity. The mood is far from passive satisfaction. Who among you loves life? (v. 11, just outside 1 to 10 that we hear in this selection.) Then, says David, ‘… do good, seek peace, pursue it!‘
Besides verse 8 above, the final verse is one of the hooks into All Saints’ Day. It celebrates the many recognised and unknown everyday saints around us:
22 God redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in God will be condemned.
Most settings in handy psalmodies home in on verse 8, quoted earlier; ‘Taste and see that God is good.’ However any celebration of All Saints will naturally lead to a preference for a refrain referring however indirectly to saints. This we find in the New Century Hymnal which provides two antiphons by Jane Marshall, one for the Proper and one for All Saints. The latter, which will be presented online at South Woden, combines the sense of thanks from early verses with the acknowledgment of people in all ages who have found and offered succour:
Happy are those who find refuge in God. (v. 8b)
This verse is surrounded by references to people who seek and serve divine goodness in personal and societal life — the saints.
Turning briefly to the early music and classical scene, the psalm has been used as text for many musical settings, including several specifically written as a Gradual or psalm antiphon for All Saints Day observances. The entry in the tenor voice for one such, by William Byrd, is shown below: