Anxious thoughts, threatening opponents and impending danger all seem so much more real and insurmountable in the darkness of the night, so sleep doesn’t always come easy to human beings, even to believers. Psalms 3 and 4 both assert that the terrors of the night can be conquered through faith, however, and in psalm 4 the particular angle is the psalmist’s faith in light of the frustrating naysayers that surround him. They threaten to sap both his energy and his confidence, but the Lord can be his stay.
The first stanza presents the psalmist’s plea to God in a fairly conventional form, and the last stanza again returns to address thoughts to God (both of these sections address God in the second person (‘You/Thou’). The middle stanza is longer and takes a sidelong glance at the negativity of these time-wasters: the unconvinced and the onlookers who surround him. Now, in this middle section, it is they who are spoken to directly in the second person, while God is referred to in the third:
- [To the chief Musician on Neginoth, A Psalm of David.]
Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness:
Thou hast enlarged me when I was in distress;
Have mercy upon me, and hear my prayer.
- O ye sons of men, how long will ye turn my glory into shame?
How long will ye love vanity, and seek after leasing [= lies]? Selah.
- But know that the LORD hath set apart him that is godly for himself:
The LORD will hear when I call unto him.
- Stand in awe, and sin not:
Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah.
- Offer the sacrifices of righteousness,
And put your trust in the LORD.
- There be many that say, Who will shew us any good?
LORD, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us.
- Thou hast put gladness in my heart,
More than in the time that their corn and their wine increased.
- I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep:
For thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety.
The first stanza requires little comment; its three lines consist of a plea for help, an expression of confidence, followed by a reiteration of the plea. The content of the second stanza is more unique to this particular psalm. It is all about the actions and reactions of other people which impinge on one’s own faith and relationship with God. The ‘how long…?’ expression, often used by the psalmist to ask God why He has not already intervened, is here turned on other people. How long will they impugn and malign his character, dismissing and minimising what he values, mocking him and his beliefs, preferring to waste time on things that are not real and not true? One can hear the frustration in his voice: if only it were not for these naysayers, faith would be so much easier to practise and hold on to.
Hold on he will, however, as v3 asserts. He is not going to let the values and behaviours of others put him off his stride in terms of his own commitment to God; in fact, he is instead going to exhort and plead with them to take another look at themselves. This takes him into a series of imperatives addressed to these other people:
- know thou
- stand in awe (literally, ‘quake, tremble!’)
- sin not
- be still
- offer sacrifices
- trust in the Lord
This seems to be nothing less than a whole seven-step conversion program in which the pessimistic sceptic is turned around and encouraged to be a believer! He is instructed to get himself a proper sense of the scale of God and His purposes, to quit wasting time making so much empty noise so that he can actually be quiet, examine his conscience, and think about what is right and what is true. He has so much bluster, this doubter with his time-wasting life, but what he needs to do is retreat to the quietness of his own room and rethink his life: ‘commune with your own heart on your bed and be still’!
The term ‘selah’ is often used in the psalms to break them up into stanzas. Although scholars are by no means certain precisely what the term refers to, there is a decent likelihood that it marked a pause for reflection; it may indeed have signalled a point where a musical interlude was inserted to encourage that meditation and praise to take place. In this psalm the selahs do not break up the psalm into stanzas; instead they are both found in the second stanza – one of them two lines in, and the other two lines before the end. What they do is provide a moment of pause for the naysayer to reflect on his position after a particularly powerful rhetorical point has been made. It is a time to let the message sink in. ‘How long will you oppose me and waste your time with lies?’ < Pause for reflection, then the psalm continues… > ‘Commune with your own heart on your bed and be still!’ < Pause for reflection, while they imagine themselves doing just this! > The selahs are very appropriately positioned.
From time to time we will feel frustration, exasperation, disappointment and even anger at the scepticism, mis-belief and attitudes of others; we may feel like hiding away, banging our head against the wall, or wondering if there is perhaps something wrong with us and everyone else is normal! This psalm provides an excellent example of how to channel these feelings, particularly the feelings of frustration and impatience. We can take opportunities where we can to show people a better way, and we can bring these feelings to God as David does here. The very act of expressing such feelings – of acknowledging what people ought to do to align themselves with God and be acceptable to Him – is itself an act of praise.
Confidence in God
After this concern with others, the final stanza quickly brings things back to direct communication with God, but not before contrasting the many (‘they’) with the individual (‘I’). ‘There are many who say, “Who will show us any good?”’ Here, once again, are the words of the doubter, the words of those who prefer to throw their hands up in the air with no answer rather than actually take the trouble to look for one. The pessimists and sceptics who attacked his faith in the second stanza are apparently bankrupt in terms of their ability to propose an alternative solution, and this is part of the point: they’ve got nothing. By contrast, the psalmist’s faith is clear as he returns to beseech the Lord to lift up His countenance upon them. This is an echo of the priestly blessing (Num 6:22-27), and it also marks a brief switch from the individual to the communal (‘upon us’). As to his personal experience, David knows that the ongoing gladness of heart that permeates a life lived in relationship with God is greater, even in this time of adversity and personal attack, than the fleeting joy of a good harvest or a party that might be thrown to accompany the fleeting successes of fluctuating human life. Even the celebration of the plenty which humans are sometimes graced with is paltry when compared to the gladness of the faithful.
It is this confidence in God and the joy that follows in its wake that allows David to say ‘I will both lay me down in peace and sleep, For Thou Lord only makest me dwell in safety.’ The ‘both … and …’ expression is very powerful here. Those of us who doesn’t always sleep well (and David was sometimes among them) can admire the confidence of knowing that he will both do the one (lay himself down) and that it will be accompanied by the other (he will indeed sleep). For many the first can be a certainty, the latter a most uncertain thing indeed. But in this psalm David experiences a gladness, warmth and peace from His knowledge of God that enables him to sleep like a child.
In fact, it is interesting to compare the contrasting references to bedtime in stanzas 2 and 3: perhaps it’s not an accident that both of these occur in the scope of the same psalm. The sceptic needs to retreat to his bed for some private thinking time in the middle part of the psalm; in the latter David can retire to bed in order to take a peaceful rest since his faith is already in place. The one needs to think in his heart and force himself to be still so that he can re-appraise his position; the other can be glad in his heart and naturally be at peace. The one needs to ‘trust’ in the Lord, the other can dwell in safety (literally, ‘in trust’) because his relationship with God is already secure.
- The theme of sleep also provides a link between the neighbouring psalms 3 and 4. David’s joy in God and its impact on his ability to sleep comes out in different situations. It is there in the crisis of flight from Absalom in Psalm 3 (‘I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the LORD sustained me.’), and it is there in the face of the frustration and disappointment caused by the naysayers of Psalm 4. If Psalm 4 begins with an anxious ‘Hear me…!’ At its start, it ends with calm and comforting assurance and peaceful sleep.
- There is some merit in considering psalms 3 and 4 as a pair. The dual references to sleep have been pointed out in the last paragraph, but there is also an interesting play on words: ‘in peace’ (the last verse of psalm 4) consists largely of the same consonants (b-s-l-m) found in the name Absalom (b-s-l-m) found in the title of psalm 3, the two terms top and tailing the pair of psalms. Absalom did not bring peace for David, but David found it anyway in his relationship with God.