Psalm 34 extols the goodness of God. David gives testimony to a time in which YHWH delivered him out of his afflictions–in particular, he is referring to the time when he changed his behavior before the Philistines so that he appeared to be mad, and they did not kill him. From his experience, he urges the righteous to depend heavily on the goodness of YHWH: “Oh, taste and see that YHWH is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Psalm 34:8).
After urging the faithful personally to depend upon YHWH’s goodness, he then offers a theological meditation on the goodness of YHWH in v. 15-22. I was most intrigued by what David says in v. 19-20:
19Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but YHWH delivers him out of them all.
20He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken.
In these two verses, David describes the frequency and extent of YHWH’s good deliverance: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but YHWH delivers him out of them all” (34:19). The frequency with which YHWH delivers the righteous is 100% of the many times that they undergo afflictions. Then, “He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken” (34:20). YHWH’s deliverance is never a halfway job, as though his many deliverances require him to cut corners here and there. Not at all—YHWH will not allow his righteous to under a single broken bone.
This is the point at which we need to grapple with the larger question in this passage about how David can speak such high, glowing things about the deliverance of YHWH, when we know it to be the case that YHWH’s people do undergo bad things. It isn’t just that tough situations present themselves and then Bang! YHWH delivers us again! Sometimes cancer wins. Sometimes sin takes down long-time, faithful believer. Sometimes believers are forced to choose between their lives and their faith. How, then, can David say that YHWH “delivers them out of all their afflictions”? How can David say that “not one of their bones is broken”? How could he not know the grim reality that believers actually face
Interpreting 34:20 as a direct prophecy concerning Jesus, then, is crucial to a right understanding of the entire passage. John the Evangelist takes it as such:
31Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. 32So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. 35He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. 36For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” (John 19:31-36)
Something fascinating is happening in John’s interpretation of the Scriptures here. On one level, there is a direct fulfillment of prophecy: Jesus does not have a single bone broken in his crucifixion. Yet, at another level, we are forced to scratch our heads a little. Isn’t this kind of a technicality here? How helpful is it if you avoid breaking a bone, yet nevertheless undergo a Roman crucifixion and the full brunt of the wrath of God against sinful humanity? Doesn’t that miss the point a little?
We see here, then, a more complicated picture of “goodness” than we might otherwise expect from passages like Psalm 34. Where the prosperity crowd might run with a passage like Psalm 34, insisting that we only need to have enough faith to believe that YHWH will save us out of every last affliction, the Scriptures themselves do not permit such a simplistic interpretation.
In the crucifixion of Jesus, we see all of the following happening at once:
- YHWH’s perfect servant is not delivered from, but fully given over to, the most horrific punishment that any human has ever known. Not only is Jesus physically tortured, but he is forced to drink to the dregs the full cup of YHWH’s wrath against human sin.
- In the midst of this torture, however, YHWH preserves the bones of Jesus, so that not one of them is broken. The thinnest of silver linings appear in the darkest of storm clouds.
- After three days where Jesus was held firmly under the power of death, his heavenly Father raised him up triumphant over the grave.
- We are told that Jesus was able to endure the cross “for the joy set before him,” and that because of his humility he was exalted to the right hand of his Father and given the name that is above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
- By sending Jesus to the cross for us, YHWH promises that we ourselves will not have to undergo the same punishment for all eternity. Jesus was condemned in our place for our sins so that we could be forgiven.
- Jesus insists, though, that to follow him we must take up our own cross.
- Moreover, Jesus promises that just as we have been baptized into his death, so we will be raised up with him to newness of life.
- We are promised, moreover, that we can share in the glorification to become fellow heirs with Christ, “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17).
The picture of God’s goodness toward us, then, does not always look like this:
Threat –> Deliverance –> Glory
But very often rather like this:
Threat –> Suffering –> Element of Preservation within Destruction –> Glory
Spurgeon writes this concerning v. 20:
David had come off with kicks and cuffs, but no broken bones. No substantial injury occurs to the saints. Eternity will heal all their wounds. Their real self is safe; they may have flesh-wounds, but no part of the essential fabric of their being shall be broken. This verse may refer to frequent providential protections vouchsafed to the saints; but as good men have had broken limbs as well as others, it cannot absolutely be applied to bodily preservations; but must, it seems to me, be spiritually applied to great injuries of the soul, which are for ever prevented by divine love. Not a bone of the mystical body of Christ shall be broken, even as his corporeal frame was preserved intact. Divine love watches over every believer as it did over Jesus; no fatal injury shall happen to us, we shall neither be halt nor maimed in the kingdom, but shall be presented after life’s trials are over without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, being preserved in Christ Jesus, and kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation. (Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. I, Psalms 27-57 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1963), 127.)
We will absolutely be preserved in the essential fabric of our being (our bones), yet we will also certainly undergo many flesh-wounds.
Several verses come to mind to give fuller explanation of this truth:
- Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” One of my seminary professors, Dr. Allen Ross, always insisted that the keyword in this verse was “together,” so that we would never imagine that we could look at all the events in our life in isolation. If we did, we might think “This event was for good,” and “That event was for evil.” God does not look upon our lives that way, but rather works the “bad” and the “good” together for genuine, real, lasting good.
- Genesis 50:20: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Joseph went through a great deal of evil from the hands of his brothers, and yet he evaluated all of it in light of the kind providence of God. What others mean for evil in our lives (or, merely what seems like evil in our lives), God means for good. This is not always as obvious in the middle of the “evil” as it will be in eternity, but it is true.
- 2 Corinthians 4:16-18: “16So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” This light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. Where we may see pure suffering and agony (e.g., the cross), God is not only preserving us (e.g., so that not a single bone is broken), but using that suffering to prepare us for an eternal weight of glory. In God’s economy, not a single bit of suffering goes to waste for the glorification of his people.
So, is God good to you? If you are in Christ, then the answer is yes.
Is God always good to you, working all things together for your good? If you love him and are called according to his purpose, then yes–without a doubt. Many will be your afflictions, but YHWH will deliver you out of them all. You will keep all your bones, and not one of them will be broken.
But will his goodness always be manifestly apparent in your life? Absolutely not. Sometimes, God’s goodness will seem as insignificant as the preservation of your skeletal structure while you are pierced through, pouring out your life on the cross that Jesus has appointed for you as you follow him.
Only when we learn to “taste and see that YHWH is good” now will we be able to trust him through the times that he does not seem to be good.