Psalms · Psalms Book 1

Stringed instruments, anger, and trust

Psalm 4 has been more difficult for me to process than the first 3. Maybe that was because I was processing other things, but part of it is the Psalm itself. There are some questions of who is talking to whom at different points which creates different meanings. The commentaries have some variation as well in their interpretation. One talked about fertility gods as being the problem here, which I struggle to find, but I’m not a commentary writer and I don’t know Hebrew. Also, what does verse 4 say? Pick a translation, get a different answer. And finally who is the audience of each verse? Are verses 4 and 5 addressed to the men of verse 2 or the godly of verse 3? It creates questions that I can’t answer. Then I struggle with how to share those with you. But here is my attempt.

The title has some phrases we have not encountered yet. First is “To the Choirmaster” or “To the Director of Music” or “To the Chief Musician”, depending on your translation. David had given people the job of musician for purposes of worship (see 1 Chron. 25), and this phrase probably refers to one of them. With stringed instruments implies this was sung with accompaniment from stringed instruments. So this isn’t just a prayer, but a song, probably sung in the congregation. I sometimes wish there was some musical notations so that we could know how it sounded. This (as almost all of the psalms in Book 1) is a song of David, which as mentioned before could mean he wrote it or he authorized it or it is about him.

Answer me when I call, O God of my right!
    You gave me room when I was in distress.
    Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.

Ps. 4:1 NRSV

This is a lament psalm. It is the first of many laments we will encounter over the next few months. Lament dominates the psalms. That seems ironic considering the books name, “Songs of Praise,” but lament is an important part of Jewish worship. They have had lots to lament over the centuries. Lament at it’s foundation is a conversation with God. We see that from the very beginning of this Psalm, where the psalmist calls out to God to answer him. God is the God of righteousness who is the giver of the psalmist’s righteousness. Depending on your translation, the next phrase is either a request (Give me relief) or a statement of past relief (You have given me relief). The words in Hebrew literally mean something like, he has given me room (widened) in a narrow, tight place. And based on that the psalmist asks for God to listen and to answer his prayer.

How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame?
    How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? Selah
But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself;
    the Lord hears when I call to him.

Ps. 4:2-3

Next, the lament psalms usually lay out the problem and the request(s). Here in Psalm 4, the psalmist is frustrated that God’s honor is suffering shame, and that the people are seeking vanity and lies over humility and truth. There is some question whether the “my honor” is God’s or the psalmists, i.e. the king’s. You could read it both ways. But as we discussed a couple of weeks ago, the anointed king is God’s representative. So the assumption is that if the king’s honor is suffering shame, so is God’s honor. Selah. Think about the pain all of that causes. Think about people you know who do that, who follow after false gods and put God’s name to shame. We should examine ourselves and let God speak to us to ensure that we aren’t part of this group. I want to be part of the next group that the psalmist talks about, the godly and the faithful. After his complaint, the psalmist then reminds the congregation that the Lord has set apart those people for himself (set apart for what? one likely understanding is for fellowship with himself), and as a result he hears their calls. The implication is that he also answers those calls.

When you are disturbed, do not sin;
    ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Selah
 Offer right sacrifices,
    and put your trust in the Lord.

Ps. 4:4-5

Some of you may have heard the first phrase of verse 4 in another context. Paul quotes it in Ephesians 4:26, “In your anger, do not sin, and do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Mostly I’ve heard that as marriage advice, but Paul wasn’t talking about marriage in that passage and the psalmist isn’t here either. This verse has some translation issues that mean your version may read differently. It may say, “tremble” (NIV11) or “stand in awe” (KJV) or “in your anger” (NIV84) or “be angry” (ESV, CSB), whereas the NRSV says, “when you are disturbed.” And then there is the question of who those words are addressed to. I think these words are addressed to the godly. There is reason to be angry at the men in verse 2. This is righteous anger. But in that anger, we should be careful that we aren’t sinning. Jesus says in Matthew 5:22 that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment just as those who murder. So we need to be careful that our anger against sin doesn’t cause us to sin. The second half of verse 4 also has some translation variations such as search your own hearts or commune with your own heart or reflect in your heart. I think that if we understand the first half to mean that we should be careful not to sin in our righteous anger, the second half points to a time of examining ourselves and then allowing God to be in charge of the justice (be silent) rather than ourselves. Selah. For me, I want God’s grace and mercy not his justice. But when I see God’s name being dishonored and the things I wrote about yesterday, I want justice for the perpetrators. But true justice is for God to give, not me, and I’m not even sure that it is possible here on earth. We need to leave it in his hands. Our responsibility is to continue to serve him (offering sacrifices was how they displayed that in those days) and to continue to trust him and his judgments.

There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!
    Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!”

Ps. 4:6

The response from the congregation is, “But we want to see good!” Apparently the evil that they are seeing (verse 2) is overwhelming. And all they want is the blessing of the Lord from Numbers 6:24-27: “‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.’ So shall they (the priests) put my name on the people of Israel and I (the Lord) will bless them.”

You have put gladness in my heart
    more than when their grain and wine abound.
I will both lie down and sleep in peace;
    for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.

Ps. 4:7-8

And what does God do? He gives them the blessing! Just like it says in Numbers. People are dishonoring him, his glory and his name. But to the faithful, he gives them his name. And he blesses them. He gives them joy and gladness greater than that of a harvest feast. He blesses them with security so that they can lie down and sleep peacefully. The end of the lament is trust in the Lord despite the circumstances.

In my interpretation above, I don’t fully agree with any of the commentaries. I “mishmashed” them. So if you don’t agree fully with my understanding, that’s OK. Maybe the psalmist really is telling the wicked men to do the things in verses 4 and 5. That could be because they should do those things. Rather than loving vanity and lies and false gods (as the NIV84 says), they should search their hearts and offer right sacrifices and trust in God. Amen. But then the Psalm feels distant from me. The psalmist is then speaking mostly to those who aren’t in the congregation, those who are not hearing the words. And so I understand it as I have written above. The words are for the people who know that God is their only source of righteousness, the faithful, the godly, those in fellowship with Him, those who have experienced his relief when they are distressed, those who understand his mercy. Those are the people lamenting and asking for God’s response. And from the response I received to yesterday’s post, there are many of you lamenting with me. I pray that the psalmist’s blessing will be yours today. That you will have relief from your distress. That your tight places will be widened. That the light of God’s face will shine upon you. That your joy will abound. That you will lie down and sleep in peace and safety. That you will know the righteousness and goodness and mercy of our God.

May you be blessed by God’s word today.

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