Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones, not one of them is broken.
In times of primitive medical technology, a broken bone was a very serious problem. It usually meant permanent damage. Consider Mephibosheth- his nursemaid fell with him and he was injured in both feet, with the result that he was crippled for the rest of his life. Some ancient cultures would set bones so that they would heal after fractures, but the practice was very limited.
I think this gives us the key to this passage in Psalm 34, when looking at it from a modern perspective. The Psalm has as one of its themes the truth that God protects and cares for His people. Sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. We certainly go through many trials and sufferings. The Psalmist himself says so- “Many are the afflictions of the righteous.” But even though we suffer, we do not suffer permanently. We come out of our trials stronger than before, by God’s gracious deliverance. None of our trials do permanent damage.
I have had various accidents in my life, as most of us have. Falls from trees, accidents on bikes, roughhousing with my brother, things like that. When the hit comes there’s that moment of shock, and then you start evaluating- what is the degree of my injury? Am I bleeding? Am I bleeding a lot? Is anything broken? Can I just walk this off or do I need some additional help (a band-aid, mom, an ambulance)? The Christian life feels like that a lot to me- some new blow comes and after the initial shock, you take stock of the situation- can I walk away from this? Is this going to do permanent damage?
Certainly the Christian experiences traumas like divorces, deaths of loved ones, falls into sin and so forth that will have permanent consequences. I have made mistakes that have permanently cost me friends. I have wasted time in sin that I will never get back. But by God’s grace I know that every loss I have experienced will be more than made up in God’s time. Some of those losses may not be recovered until eternity, but they will be.
This is a great example of a prophecy that has multiple levels of interpretation. We have to be careful not to allegorize and read hidden spiritual meanings behind everything, but sometimes we know that we should, since the Bible shows us the way. In John 19:36 this Psalm is quoted as a prophecy of the Messiah. When He was on the cross, the Roman soldiers broke the legs of the other prisoners to speed up their deaths, at the request of the Jews (since the next day was the Sabbath). But when they got to Jesus, He was already dead. So John says that this fulfills the prophecy in Psalm 34.
Unless you see the bigger picture, this can feel like a pretty trivial way of interpreting Scripture. For one thing, the original Psalm doesn’t appear to be about the Messiah at all. It’s clearly about God’s people in general. Further, Jesus’ bones were not broken because he was already dead. That certainly doesn’t seem like avoiding permanent damage.
But of course, we know the whole story- by the power of God, Jesus was delivered even from the bonds of death. Even His death was not permanent. The fact that His legs were not broken was not in any way necessary to this whole process- the God who raised Jesus from the dead certainly could have healed broken bones. But the larger point is that Jesus escaped unharmed and stronger than ever even from this most calamitous trial.
And He is the head of His people. We share in His life. It is precisely because Jesus rose from the dead, that He conquered death itself, that we can have the confidence that the Scriptures calls us to in Psalm 34. We can know that not one of our bones will be broken. We share in Jesus’ life, and therefore we can have complete confidence that we can walk away from anything life throws at us, even if it knocks us down for a while. When we walk by faith, not by sight, we can have that confidence. When we believe the promises of God and put our trust in Christ, nothing that life can throw at us can do permanent damage. We will stumble, but not fall. We will bend but not break. We will walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but the Lord will lift us up, for He lifted up Jesus Christ from death, and all Jesus’ people are lifted up with Him.