Our Afflictions Are So Many
A Strange Promise for the Strangest of Years
2 Part Article – Part 1
A message delivered by David Mathis, desiringGod.org
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.
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.
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. 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.
So 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.”
(Con’t tomorrow – Part 2)