Read: Psalm 34:1-22
“God is great, and God is good . . .” That brief phrase says just about all we need to know about God. But what exactly does it mean to say “God is good”?
In a previous message I looked at Psalm 139, a song about the greatness of God. Now, in the 34th Psalm, we have a song praising God’s goodness. Together these two truths tell us the essentials of the nature of God. All we really need to know about God, at least in principle, is summed up in the little prayer I first learned as a child: “God is great, and God is good.” Both parts of this prayer are important. It’s not enough for just one or the other to be true. A God who is great—all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present—but not good, would be a monster. A God who is good – kind, gracious, merciful, loving -but not great, would be helpless and pathetic. But the true God, the God of whom we learn in the Bible, is both great and good. He is the almighty Lord of the universe who is also our loving heavenly Father through his Son Jesus Christ.
Let’s spend some time thinking about his goodness. What does it mean to say that God is good, as the Psalms do over and over?
“Why do you call me good?”
Everyone has at least a hazy notion of what goodness is like. For example, we have all, at one time or another, described someone we know as a good person. But while examples of particular people might come to mind as illustrations, we might be hard pressed to put a definition of “goodness” into words. The New Testament tells how a man was embarrassed in just this way by Jesus. He was a wealthy and influential young man who rushed up to Christ one day and blurted out, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me ‘good’? No one is good except God,” Jesus replied—as if to say, “What do you mean by that? Do you even know what you are talking about? Do you realize what you are saying about me when you call me good?”
When we say that God is good we should really mean it, because it’s really true. To say that God is good is to say something crucial about him. But it also says something very important about goodness. “Good” is what God is; to be good means to be like God. Specifically, it means to treat people the way he does. That’s what it is to be good. It was this aspect of God’s nature which so excited the writer of the 34th Psalm. “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” he cried. “Blessed are those who go to him for safety” (v. 8).
The Lord is Good
But let’s try to probe a bit deeper. What exactly does this mean? Is the psalmist using the word good here loosely, the way we often do? Does he simply mean God is somebody nice, or pleasant to be with, or that he likes him? Not at all. When the scripture tells us that God is good, it is saying something basic about his nature. If we really understand this truth about God we will have both more to believe and also more to do. For, the more we know God, the more we will love and trust him. And, the more we know about God, the deeper our worship of him will be.
Psalm 34 is traditionally ascribed to King David, and it is connected to a particular incident in David’s life. Once, when David as a young man was on the run from King Saul, he tried to find refuge outside of Israel in the Philistine city of Gath (see 1 Sam. 21:10-15). But while he was talking to Achish, the king of Gath, David was recognized. Somebody realized that he was the great warrior of Israel, the deadliest enemy of the Philistines. As you can imagine, things suddenly got very sticky for David. Only quick thinking saved him. David immediately began to act like a madman, scratching on the doors and drooling down his beard, so King Achish sent him away in disgust.
This historical background illuminates the meaning of our psalm. David had been in one of those awkward situations where “Uh-oh” turns suddenly into “Whew! I’m safe!” But David’s reaction, the conclusion that he draws from this experience, is what interests me. He didn’t say he had been lucky to get away. He didn’t attribute his narrow escape to his own skill, cleverness or coolness under pressure. His conclusion was simple: It is that God is good. God had delivered him and in doing so had been especially good to David. The only thing David wants to sing about here in the 34th Psalm is the Lord:
I will thank the Lord at all times.
My lips will always praise him.
I will honor the Lord. . . .
Join me in giving glory to the Lord.
As far as David was concerned, his rescue came wholly from God. It was the Lord who answered (v. 4), delivered (v. 4), heard (v. 6) and saved (v. 6) him. No wonder he is so eager for everyone to join him in worship (v. 3), and to listen as he testifies to the wonderful goodness of the Lord (vv. 18-22).
All of this can help us to understand the nature of God’s goodness, of goodness itself. Often when we think of someone who is good, we define it negatively: we think that to be good means simply not to do wrong or break any of the rules. But when David talks about the goodness of the Lord, he is thinking more of God’s love and grace in action. Goodness is essentially relational. To be good means to be good to someone, the way God was good to David. And, says Psalm 34, the way he is good to his people (vv. 9-10), to the brokenhearted and crushed in spirit (v. 18), to the righteous (v. 19), to his servants and all who take refuge in him (v. 22).
So God’s goodness is expressed in his generosity in providing for all our needs. Even young lions may lack food and suffer hunger, says David, but those who trust in the Lord lack for nothing (v. 10). What else do you need beside the physical necessities of life? Deliverance from anxiety and fear? “I looked to the Lord, and he answered me. He saved me from everything I was afraid of” (v. 4). Help out of some kind of difficulty or trouble? “This poor man called out, and the Lord heard him. He saved him out of all his troubles” (v. 6). Protection in a dangerous situation? “The angel of the Lord stands guard around those who have respect for him” (v. 7). It’s all there in Psalm 34, and the main thing to remember is that these promises can be just as much for you as they were for David 3,000 years ago.
Now, while all this is true, I have to say that it’s not the only truth about God and faith. If we listened only to these wonderful words, we might conclude that those who trust in God would never have anything go wrong in their lives. Just believe in Christ, and nothing bad can happen to you. If that were so, Christians would never go hungry, let alone starve, as many are doing right now in Sudan. Believers would never get sick or have accidents. Whenever a Christian had a cancer biopsy, the results would always be negative. Whenever a Christian’s car crashed, they would always emerge without a scratch.
We all know that isn’t true. Even here in Psalm 34, with all its lavish praise of God’s goodness and deliverance, David acknowledges the whole truth. This Psalm, for all its talk of help and deliverance, has an awful lot of hurt in it. David seems to be writing especially to those who are fearful, poor, needy, troubled, threatened, emotionally broken. There’s no triumphalism here, no easy escape every single time we pray.
The Lord is close to those whose hearts have been broken.
He saves those whose spirits have been crushed.
Those who do what is right may have many troubles. . . .
There is the truth. Believers too can have their hearts broken and their spirits crushed. The righteous may have many troubles. “But,” David goes on to add, “the Lord saves them from all of them.” Now that’s the whole truth. Though we may have many problems and troubles, though we sometimes suffer very badly, though our hearts may be broken, God is still good. He’s still with us—even when it seems like we call for help and God doesn’t answer. In the end, he will save us. “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned” (v. 22, NRSV). There’s the final truth. Even if he does not deliver us right now, the Lord Jesus will save us in the end from death, sin and hell. And so we say, no matter what happens, no matter how we’re feeling, “God is good.”
Taste and See
One last point needs to be addressed. It has to do with the question of proof. How do we know that God is good? This isn’t something people could naturally guess on their own. It is not self-evident from looking at the world that there must be a good God. There’s too much evil and pain and suffering in life for that to be an obvious conclusion. There is no philosophical necessity which demands that, if there is a God, he has to be good, kind, benevolent. The gods of the ancient world, the gods of the nations that surrounded Israel, were not good. Their attitude toward humans ranged from indifference to outright cruelty. Nor is it necessary that God should be good to sinful people. Indeed, logic and justice would seem to dictate that he only punish them. So where and how do we learn that God is good?
One answer is that he tells us so. That’s what scripture is all about. We learn that God is good from his Word, which is written in the Bible. A prime example is the testimony of David in this wonderful 34th Psalm.
But there is an even better way to learn of God’s goodness – try him for yourself! Listen to the beautiful invitation of Psalm 34:8, “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” In the end you cannot learn about God’s goodness just by hearing or reading about it. You can only learn about it by knowing him, by tasting and seeing. Almost as if to say, “God is delicious. Try him and you’ll see.”
That is so true. You have to try God, by faith. You have to put your trust in him to find out what he’s really like. Have you ever tried to get a small child to sample a new kind of food? What do you say? “Go on, just try a little.” If she’ll only take that first bite, she might discover that she likes it. But she’ll never know unless she tries it. And neither will we. Jesus Christ may look good to you. He may sound good. Others may recommend him highly, but you can never know what he’s really like by hearsay. You can never know that Jesus Christ is good until you give yourself to him.
This is the great biblical invitation: not just to listen to the truth about God, not simply to think a little bit about him, but “Taste and see.” Come to God and experience the incredible joy and pleasure of knowing him. He is exceedingly good!