A Prayer for the Evening
My preparation for last week’s sermon was a dream come true. When I read Psalm 3 in light of 2 Samuel 14-19 as the superscript indicated, everything fell into place. The paradigm, the case study, the relevance and resonance for us today—all of it just fell out of the Bible into my very grateful lap and God was eminently gracious.
My preparation for this week’s sermon was basically the opposite. I had read something that gave me a hint about where I was going to go, and so I went to some commentaries to verify the connection that I’d read about. And the commentaries opened up a labyrinth of questions. I ended up at the Bethlehem College and Seminary library with a stack of commentaries, trying to figure a way out of the confusion. Because that’s what I ran into again and again—confusion. The more I read, the more difficult the psalm became. There were translation issues, context issues, structure issues, all of which created increasing uncertainty about what this psalm says. And I was growing increasingly frustrated because I hate preaching from uncertainty about what the Bible means. But God was gracious and I settled on a way to address the confusion, while planting our feet on the clarity. Because there is clarity here. So my outline is simple. I first want to walk through the psalm, highlighting the confusion and clarity (which, conveniently enough, basically alternates verse by verse). Then, I want to spend some time applying both the ambiguous and the clear aspects of the psalm to our situation today.
Confusion and Clarity
Psalm 4 is often called an evening song. In fact, Psalm 3-6 seem to give us an alternating sequence of morning and evening psalms. In the Middle Ages, these psalms were used that way in monasteries. Monks would pray Psalm 3 in the morning, and then Psalm 4 in the evening.
Psalm 3:5: I lay down and slept; I woke again; for the Lord sustained me.
Psalm 4:8: In peace I will both lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.
Psalm 5:3: O Lord, in the morning hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.
Psalm 6:6: I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears.
Psalm 4 also has a number of links to Psalm 3. The word for “distress” (4:1) is related to the word “foes” (3:1). “Call” and “answer” (4:1) are used in 3:4. “My honor” in 4:2 is the same as “my glory” in 3:3. And there’s the connection between lying down and sleeping because God sustains the psalmist in safety. This leads some commentators to argue that the superscript from Psalm 3 (when David fled from Absalom) governs Psalm 4 (and sometimes 3-6, or even 3-10). That would mean that we should read the Absalom story in the background, with David still fleeing Jerusalem, just like we did last week. It may even be that David wrote Psalm 3 in the morning and then Psalm 4 that same night.
Other commentators, however, argue that the setting is totally different. They claim that a number of the themes in the psalm suggest a drought in the background (perhaps 2 Samuel 21). People are blaming the king for the absence of rain and fruitfulness in the land (“who will show us some “good”?, and going after other gods, with David insisting that Yahweh still hears his prayers. Finally, others say that we just can’t know the setting, and thus we have to live with the resulting ambiguities and confusions in the psalm.
No matter which setting you think is most persuasive, there are still questions of structure. Like, who is being addressed at different points in the psalm? Where are the transitions? 4:2 seems to be addressing the psalmist’s enemies. 4:6 seems to be addressing his friends who might be doubting God’s goodness. But who is addressed in 4:4-5?
There are also a couple of minor translation issues in the psalm. In particular, are some statements indicative statements about what God has done, or imperative statements about what the psalmist wants him to do? Compare the ESV and the NIV.
4:1: “You have given me relief when I was in distress” (ESV) vs. “Give me relief from my distress.” (NIV)
4:7: “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and new wine abound” (ESV) vs. “Fill my heart with joy when their grain and new wine abound.” (NIV)
As I looked at this, I noted that most of my confusions were in the even verses (2, 4, and 6), but that there was solid clarity in the odd verses (1, 3, 5, and 7). Walk through it with me.
4:1 - This is clearly a request for God to answer the psalmist’s prayer. And it seems that it’s an individual request, not necessarily a corporate request (“Answer me; you have given me relief; Be gracious to me”). To me, that suggests the Absalom setting as a likely one, not the drought. David is in danger, not the people as a whole.
4:2 - Here the psalmist addresses “men of rank” or “wealthy men.” But are these the prominent men that sided with Absalom? If so, then David’s glory or honor or reputation has been turned into shame by Absalom’s rebellion. However, Loving “vain words” is literally loving “vanity” and combined with “seeking after lies,” seems to suggest idolatry. The Bible speaks of the idols of the nations as empty and vain, and Amos 2:4 describes idolatry as “walking after lies.” But idolatry doesn’t seem to be present in Absalom’s rebellion. That would suggest that the wealthy men have turned to idols (perhaps because of a drought) and instead of David’s honor being turned into shame, it’s God (“my glory” in Psalm 3:3) who is dishonored and insulted. So it’s a bit ambiguous how we should understand the problem David is facing.
4:3 - More clarity. Regardless of the problem in 4:2, David reminds these men of rank that God has set apart the godly for himself and that he will hear David’s prayer. David is confident in God’s election (God has set him apart), and because of that, he knows that God is listening. If you belong to God, you have his ear. He is open to your cry for help.
4:4 - More confusion. There are four commands here: Be angry/tremble/be agitated; don’t sin; ponder/speak to yourself; be silent. The ESV translates it as “Be angry” because that’s how the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament translates it, and Paul seems to quote this passage in Ephesians 4. However, the word is a broader word in Hebrew and refers to agitation or trembling. What does the “pondering” refer to? Some say there’s a parallelism: Be angry/ agitated = Speak to yourself on your bed; Don’t sin = be silent. In other words, it’s okay to be agitated internally, just don’t let it come out in your actions. Govern your passions. Or is it a progression: Be angry, but don’t sin. Instead, think about it on your bed; process through it with God in silence. And who is David talking to? The prominent men? Is he telling them to “be angry but not sin?” Why? Is he talking to his friends who are with him, telling them not to be angry at the traitors / idolaters?
4:5 - This is clearer about what’s being said (even if the audience is still ambiguous). “Sacrifice right sacrifices. Trust in the Lord.” But is David exhorting his enemies, basically telling them to repent? Is he encouraging his friends to not get worked up about the enemies but to continue to trust the Lord? If the setting is the flight from Absalom, how can they offer right sacrifices? They’re not at the temple. That makes us think of the drought context; David is encouraging the people to not sacrifice to pagan gods for fertility, but to offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord.
4:6 - More confusion. Who are the many who ask this question? Are these the prominent men still? Or are these David’s friends who are lamenting that they’re on the run? Where does the quotation end? The ESV includes all of 4:6. To me it makes more sense that the question is “Who will show us some good?” and David answers with the Aaronic blessing “Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord.” (“May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”)
4:7 - More clarity. Regardless of the adversity David is facing, he is clear that God gives more joy than his enemies have at their harvest festivals. God is better than every earthly good.
4:8 - Ends on clarity. In light of David’s psalm, he is able to lie down and sleep, because God—not the support of wealthy men, not earthly prosperity—God alone makes him dwell in safety. He can sleep in faith and hope.
To summarize, the original context that produced the psalm is not clear. The people that David addresses at various times is not clear. It’s not clear when the shifts happen in the psalm. And even some of the exhortations are ambiguous (“Be angry and don’t sin”). However, despite that ambiguity, there is a much that is clear. David pleads with God for relief from his distress. David knows that God has chosen him for himself and will hear his prayer. David exhorts others to offer right sacrifices to God and to trust in the Lord no matter what. And David knows that when God’s face shines on him, he has more joy than any earthly joy, and therefore he can sleep well.
Three applications, in increasing length.
1) Give Us Room, O God
The first is simple and is based on an image from 4:1. “You have given me relief when I was in distress.” The image underneath the words is about narrowness and enlargement. David feels trapped. The walls are closing in. He’s being suffocated. And God brings relief by enlarging David, by giving him room. And this can apply literally or metaphorically. God sometimes actually changes our circumstances, like last week when David was being pursued and was weary and discouraged, and then God answered his prayer through Hushai’s shrewd counsel to Absalom so that David was able to escape and find a wide open land. David was trapped, surrounded by foes, and God made a way for him to come into a land. And God can do that for us as well. When we can’t see a way out, God can make a way. So ask him to make a way, to make room.
But often, the literal “enlargement” is secondary to the spiritual enlargement. Often, we just feel trapped. Mentally, the walls are closing in. We can’t breathe. Our circumstances are difficult, but it’s our souls that are fragile and unable to bear the load. In those cases, we need God to enlarge us. My heart and mind are narrowing and shrinking and running in circles, and we need God to give us air. To let us breathe the sweetness of his bigness. And so we should ask God to bring that mental and spiritual relief, as we bring our challenges to him and remember who he is and what he’s done. So when you feel trapped and the walls closing in, go to Psalm 4 and pray, “Answer me when I call. Give me relief from this suffocating pressure.”
2) A Model for Mission
Spurgeon, in his notes on this passage, highlights that this psalm is a good model for winning the ungodly to Christ. As David addresses these men of rank, note how he speaks to them. First, he upbraids them, communicating his disapproval of their actions, and lamenting their decisions. “How long will you turn my glory into shame? How long will you love vanity? How long will you seek after lies?” There’s a place for a holy provocation and consternation and frustration with those who have rejected God, and David gives voice to it in prayer. But David doesn’t just vent to them; he instructs them. “Know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself.” He teaches these ungodly people what God offers us. God makes us his own, and because we belong to him, he hears our prayers. David doesn’t just vent about their idolatry; he teaches. “Why are you seeking vanity? God himself will hear you.” Third, he doesn’t just teach; he exhorts them. “In your anger and agitation, don’t sin. Stop and think about what you’re doing. Get right with God. Trust in him.” Expressing disapproval for sin is necessary. Teaching about Christianity and the blessings that God offers us in Christ is important. But we also must exhort and call people to repentance. If we tell them the bad news (“you’re seeking after lies”) and then we tell them the good news (“God hears those who belong to him”), we must be ready to tell them what to do with that knowledge. Ponder, repent, believe. Fourth, we offer our testimony to God’s goodness. Many people want good. Few people seek their good in God. But we testify that when God’s face shines upon us, our joy is greater than any worldly party. Earthly goods are only truly good when they are enjoyed in God. So we testify with our words to the hope and joy we have when God’s face shines upon us. But we don’t just testify, we live it out. We practice what we preach. Which means, even in the face of hardship and adversity, we lie down and sleep because we trust the Lord. We actually embody in our lives the truth that we love.
Communicating disapproval. Instructing about the truth. Exhorting to respond. Testifying to our own experience. Practicing what we preach. According to Spurgeon, this psalm offers us a model for mission.
3) Our Social Media and Entertainment Habits
This may seem like an odd application, but I actually think this is the most important thing that I’ll say today. This psalm is very relevant for our social media and entertainment habits. As I wrestled with this passage, I kept seeing connections to the temptations we feel in the modern world when it comes to the things that we watch, listen to, and consume. (And let me preface my remarks here by accenting the “we.” In one sense, I’m inviting you into my own wrestling, and I don’t have all of this sorted out. But I have been reading some thought-provoking articles, which I’ll include in the sermon notes.) For example, the psalm exhorts us to ponder in our own hearts and be silent. In other words, it presses us to contemplation and reflection on our lives and our emotional states so that we don’t fall into sin. But today we don’t ponder on our beds in silence; we binge Netflix on our beds in silence. We don’t ponder on our beds; we scroll Twitter and Instagram on our beds. We don’t seek to rein in our agitation; we follow people on social media or television or the radio that stir up our agitation. We willingly subject ourselves to influences in our social media and entertainment habits that awaken in us agitation, anxiety, anger, envy, covetousness, and discontentment.
Or consider the lament for “loving vanity and seeking after lies.” Is there a better description for much of our entertainment consumption? Isn’t much of it vanity and emptiness? Isn’t much of it filled with lies and falsehoods and idolatries? In Screwtape Letters, Lewis describes the dim uneasiness that many Christians feel when they are drifting from God. This reluctance to sit and ponder and think about God and engage with him. As a result, we practically beg for opportunities to avoid such silence and contemplation. We look for distractions lest we be alone with our thoughts. Our uneasiness and reluctance cuts us off from real happiness (from the light of God’s face) and our habits make the pleasures of vanity and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to resist. Lewis says that the devils then get us to waste time not only in conversations that we enjoy with people we like, but in conversations with those we care nothing about on subjects that bore us. Forget conversations; we just scroll. Screwtape says, “You can keep him up late at night staring at a cold fire in a dead room.” Today, Lewis would write, “staring at a bright box (large or small) in a dead room.” In this way, our best years are stolen away, “not in sweet sins, but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them…in whistling tunes [or watching clips of videos] he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries (daydreams) that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association (and our social media habits) has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.”
The amazing thing is that our shows and our social media feeds can shape us even when we know that they are lies. You know that those instagram feeds and facebook pages give a heavily curated, selective, and therefore skewed view of your friends’ lives. You know that, in your conscious mind. But your unconscious mind is still being shaped and formed and steered by what you see. Even if you know that’s not an accurate picture of their life, you still fear missing out. You still look at their grain and new wine abounding and think “Why not me?” It breeds that low-grade dissatisfaction and discontentment that goes searching for a cause. “I feel off, and I don’t know why” and so we invent reasons and blame others and soak up more toxins. To put it in biblical terms, we are conformed to the pattern of this world. This is how worldliness creeps in. It shapes our desires and forms our habits and instincts. We read articles and news stories and become outraged and angered, and that emotion stamps us. And then we seek it again. And again. Day after day. Hour after hour.
That’s why I eventually came around to welcoming the ambiguity of the agitation and trembling in 4:4. It could be agitation in anger. It could be agitation in anxiety. It could be agitation in envy. It could be agitation in covetousness and discontentment. It could be some combination of all of these. But the common thread is that, in the modern world, our entertainment consumption and social media habits are affecting us in deep and unpredictable ways. They make us agitated. They’re making us reactive, not responsive. They’re making us combustible, not stable. Or, in order to stress our responsibility here, by virtue of our habits, we are making ourselves reactive, volatile, discontented, and combustible.
So how does the psalm help us? Consider a number of the things that we’ve seen.
1) Pray for God to enlarge us, to take us outside of the little prisons that we’ve built for ourselves. And as one commentator put it, he often uses suffering to enlarge us, more than prosperity.
2) Know that we belong to God, that he has set us apart for himself and his purposes, and that therefore, we have his ear. This helps to stabilize us in our agitation and turmoil. You have God’s ear, so go to him, not to your phone. Go to him, not to your television. And let me just highlight one important dimension of this. David says, “Know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself.” This is David—adulterous David. David the murderer. And yet he has confidence that God has set him apart for himself. Because in the Bible, godliness is not fundamentally about what you’ve done, but about what God has done. It’s not about your past, but your posture to God. David repented; he acknowledged his sin; he turned from his iniquity, and therefore, he was numbered among the godly, among the faithful, not the faithless. And you can be too.
3) We offer right sacrifices to the Lord. The New Testament applies the sacrificial language in particular to what we do with our bodies. Paul says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). Offering our bodies as living sacrifices means that we put down our phones and go to bed. It means we wake up and go to the Lord, not to our accounts. (Again, I know the gap between my ideals and my own habits here). It may mean that we quit Netflix, or that we delete our facebook account, or that we ditch the smartphone. It may mean that we need to recover greater degrees of asceticism. This from the guy who wrote the book on enjoying God in creation and culture. I know that it’s good to want to be informed about the world, and to be connected to friends by technology, and to be knowledgeable about good things and bad things in the world, and to have some degree of cultural literacy for engaging with our neighbors. I know that technology is good, and culture is good. But I also know that the world is bent, and that I can be conformed to its pattern. I read an author say recently that we live in an age in which ordinary virtue takes heroic effort. Ordinary virtue from previous centuries requires a rigor and a degree of effort that is above and beyond.
4) Romans 12 continues: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” We don’t just offer our bodies as living sacrifices; we renew our minds by putting our trust in the Lord. We ponder in our own hearts. We speak to ourselves. We preach to ourselves that God is the God of my righteousness. He is gracious and merciful. And he is better than every earthly good. He is the good that makes every good truly good. Without him, nothing is good. With him, we have every good. And so we have more joy in our hearts with him than they have in their enjoyment of earthly goods. Better is one day in his courts than thousands elsewhere. Better to be a butler in God’s house than a lord in the tents of wickedness. His face makes all goods truly good, and he is the one who enables us to lie down and sleep in hope and safety.
This brings us to the Table. Here the face of God is lifted up to shine upon you with grace. Here the ear of God is open to your cry. Because Jesus offered the ultimate right sacrifice of his body and blood on our behalf, because his glory was turned into shame for three days, and because God has highly exalted him and given him the name above every name, you are welcome to this Table to feast upon this grain and this new wine abounding. Come and welcome to Jesus Christ.