For the director of music. With stringed instruments. A psalm of David.
NBC characterises this psalm: ‘praying, knowing, trusting, resting’. It is an evening psalm (v8) (cf. the following psalm, which is a morning hymn.
Some commentators see the occasion of this psalm as having to do with the failure of crops due, perhaps to drought. Yahweh seemed to have failed in his faithfulness and there was a temptation to run after other gods. Others trace the psalm’s origin to David’s troubles with Absalom.
1 Answer me when I call to you,
O my righteous God.
Give me relief from my distress;
be merciful to me and hear my prayer.
2 How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame?
How long will you love delusions and seek false gods? Selah
3 Know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself;
the LORD will hear when I call to him.
Verse 2-5 are unusual in that they address the psalmist’s enemies, rather than God.
How long…will you turn my glory into shame – Mays remarks that although not prominent in Western society, honour and shame are hugely important in many cultures, just as they were in OT times. The psalmist seeks, and finds, dignity in his relationship with ‘God of my right’ (v1). What matters, in the end, is God’s estimation of us, not the opinions of others. Let us be honoured by God, and their dishonour will not matter. See Isa 50:8f; Rom 8:31.
‘We might imagine every syllable of this precious Psalm used by our Master some evening, when about to leave the temple for the day, and retiring to his wonted rest at Bethany (v. 8), after another fruitless expostulation with the men of Israel. And we may read it still as the very utterance of his heart, longing over man, and delighting in God. But, further, not only is this the utterance of the Head, it is also the language of one of his members in full sympathy with him in holy feeling. This is a Psalm with which the righteous may make their dwellings resound, morning and evening, as they cast a sad look over a world that rejects God’s grace. They may sing it while they cling more and more every day to Jehovah, as their all-sufficient heritage, now and in the age to come. They may sing it, too, in the happy confidence of faith and hope, when the evening of the world’s day is coming, and may then fall asleep in the certainty of what shall greet their eyes on the resurrection morning.’ (A.A. Bonar)
By men in v2 the psalmist may well have meant those in positions of influence and authority. According to Wilson (NIVAC), ‘it was these residents of the Israelite upper class—often wealthy, often descendants of the royal family, usually members of the ruling establishment—who set the tone and standards of Israelite life. They were the legal authorities responsible for the administration of justice. They were the guardians of culture and values.’ They were, in other words, the ‘movers and shakers’ of society. But they have abused their rank, and led the masses astray. Wilson adds: ‘The books of Samuel and Kings offer much confirmation for the psalmist’s view. It is the kings who were regularly condemned for their adoption of Canaanite religious practices and for leading the people astray. The prophets certainly agreed that Israel’s failure of commitment to her covenant with Yahweh could be traced to the highest levels of the ruling classes: kings, nobility, sages, and even priests.’ The psalmist resists, almost alone, this pressure. Rather than giving in to them, he speaks out against them.
How long will you love delusions? – ‘They that love sin, love vanity; they chase a bubble, they lean upon a reed, their hope is as a spider’s web.’ (The Treasury of David)
Know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself – ‘ Therefore, it is no excuse for him to say, “I do but as others do.” He is to reckon his hours by the sun, not the town clock.’ (Thomas Manton)
‘We set apart things that are precious; the godly are set apart as God’s peculiar treasure (Psalm 135:4); as his garden of delight (Canticles 4:12); as his royal diadem (Isaiah 43:3); the godly are the excellent of the earth (Psalm 16:3); comparable to fine gold (Lamentations 4:2); double refined (Zechariah 13:9). They are the glory of the creation. (Isaiah 46:13). Origen compares the saints to sapphires and crystals: God calls them jewels (Malachi 3:17).’ (Thomas Watson)
4 In your anger do not sin;
when you are on your beds,
search your hearts and be silent. Selah
5 Offer right sacrifices
and trust in the LORD.
V4 is regarded as difficult to translate. Following the LXX, Eph 4:26 quotes as, ‘Be angry and sin not’.
Steve Chalke (The Lost Message of Paul ch. 12) regards this verse as an important guide to the meaning of anger (especially divine anger) in Scripture. Chalke points out the in the 1984 NIV the first clause was translated, ‘In your anger, do not sin’; whereas in the 2011 edition, advances in linguistic understand lead to the translation, ‘Tremble and do not sin’. Broyles understands ‘tremble’ as equivalent to ‘tremble with dread’. Craigie paraphrases: ‘tremble with anger and rage.’ Either way, the verse is understood as referring to to the human response to the divine anger.
Craigie (WBC) notes that this is a difficult expression to translate and interpret. He suggests the following paraphrase: ‘You can tremble with anger and rage, but don’t sin by doing anything!’
Search your hearts – ‘”Commune with your own hearts;” when ye have none to speak with, talk to yourselves. Ask yourselves for what end ye were made, what lives ye have led, what times ye have lost, what love ye have abused, what wrath ye have deserved. Call yourselves to a reckoning, how ye have improved your talents, how true or false ye have been to your trust, what provision ye have laid in for an hour of death, what preparation ye have made for a great day of account.’ (Swinnock)
Verse 5 urges faithfulness to Yahweh.
6 Many are asking, “Who can show us any good?”
Let the light of your face shine upon us, O LORD.
7 You have filled my heart with greater joy
than when their grain and new wine abound.
8 I will lie down and sleep in peace,
for you alone, O LORD,
make me dwell in safety.
“Who can show us any good?” is a pragmatic question addressed to the pantheon of gods. Modern consumerism (which affects many aspects of life, including church life) asks a similar question: “What’s in it for me? Who will give me what I want? Him (or her) will I worship.” One thinks, in this connection, of the title of the 1968 book, ‘The God I Want’.
These verses teach the value of ‘practising the present of God’ (Wilson). In contrast to seeking God for what he can do for us, let us seek him for who he is, and rejoice in the light of his presence.
V7 teaches the vital truth that ‘a person receives greater joy from one’s interior peace than from abundant material resources (Pss. 17:15; 84:11).’ (Harper’s)
‘The gift of trusting God transcends the value of any material good. That gift brings with it shalom, a sense of completeness in relation to God, self, and others. No sleepless anxiety erodes the night. The psalmist is content to find security in God.’ (Mays)
‘Lest riches should be accounted evil in themselves, God sometimes gives them to the righteous; and lest they should be considered as the chief good, he frequently bestows them on the wicked. But they are more generally the portion of his enemies than his friends.’ (William Secker)
‘What madness and folly is it that the favourites of heaven should envy the men of the world, who at best do but feed upon the scraps that come from God’s table! Temporals are the bones; spirituals are the marrow.’ (Thomas Brooks)
‘There is as much difference between heavenly comforts and earthly, as between a banquet that is eaten, and one that is painted on the wall.’ (Thomas Watson)
I will lie down and sleep in peace – ‘Verse 8 has prompted believers through the ages to use Psalm 4 as an evening prayer or hymn. Whether or not one’s honor has been injured by misunderstanding, lack of appreciation, scorn, or lie, it is good at the close of the day to repair to the marvelous vindication given to faith in the sign of Jesus Christ and to know with Paul that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).’ (Mays)