The superscription identifies Psalm 34 as a Psalm that emerged out of David’s life when he feigned madness before King Abimelech. The story reaches back for 1 Samuel 21:10–14. During the period of time when Saul was still king but David was rising to power, David fled from Saul into the Philistine region of Gath. He was recognized in Gath and they detained him (see “in their hands,” 1 Samuel 21:13). They probably intended to use David as a bargaining tool. David pretended to be insane and the King dismissed him. First Samuel calls the King Achish but the superscription calls him Abimelech. Abimelech was King of Gerar when Abraham and Sarah were alive (Genesis 20).
It is a personal Psalm with a public purpose. The Psalm spoken in first person—“I” but is intended for the benefit of others—the humble (Psalm 34:2-3). The Psalm has an element of wisdom literature introduced by a calling of children to him for instruction (Psalm 34:11-22). “Fear of the Lord” or reverence, is a common theme in wisdom literature (see Proverbs 1:7-8). Fear of the Lord is a troubling thought to many Christians. However, notice the relationship between fears—fear of the world vs. fear of the Lord. If we think of “fear” as the emotion of having one’s attention completely consumed by something, fear of the Lord isn’t so much dread or terror as allowing the awesomeness of God to overwhelm the anxiety we have over stressors in life. A final element in which the Psalm resembles wisdom has to do with speech. Psalm 34:13 says, “keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies.” This resembles the instructions given in Proverbs and James 3:1-12 concerning the proper use of our lips and speech.
The Psalm looks back at times of distress. Unlike a simple Psalm of praise, the Psalmist remembers the fears. However, unlike a lament, the Psalmist’s deliverance has come and he praises the Lord. Notice the contrast between vs. 15 and vs. 19. David does not suggest that the righteous never experience affliction. Instead they experience deliverance. The reward of righteousness during times of trouble is felt in the nearness of God through adversity.