Psalm 4

Psalm 4:1-8, ASV translation, as prose:

For the Chief Musician; on stringed instruments. A Psalm of David. Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness; Thou hast set me at large when I was in distress: have mercy upon me, and hear my prayer. O ye sons of men, how long shall my glory be turned into dishonor? How long will ye love vanity, and seek after falsehood? Selah.
But know that YHWH hath set apart for himself him that is godly: YHWH 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 YHWH.
Many there are that say, “Who will show us any good?”
YHWH, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us. Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than they have when their grain and their new wine are increased. In peace will I both lay me down and sleep; for thou, YHWH, alone makest me dwell in safety.

Psalm 4:1-8 ASV according to Hebrew parallelism (as marked in BHS):

A Psalm of David.
Answer me when I call / O God of my righteousness
Thou hast set me at large when I was in distress / have mercy upon me, and hear my prayer.
O ye sons of men, how long shall my glory be turned into dishonor? / How long will ye love vanity, and seek after falsehood? Selah.
But know that YHWH hath set apart for himself him that is godly / YHWH 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 YHWH.
Many there are that say, “Who will show us any good?” / YHWH, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us.
Thou hast put gladness in my heart / more than they have when their grain and their new wine are increased.
In peace will I both lay me down and sleep / for thou, YHWH, alone makest me dwell in safety.
For the Chief Musician; with the Nehiloth [or “flutes”].

Psalm 4 in the Scottish Metrical Psalter of 1650:

1 Give ear unto me when I call,
God of my righteousness:
Have mercy, hear my pray’r; thou hast
enlarged me in distress.

2 O ye the sons of men! how long
will ye love vanities?
How long my glory turn to shame,
and will ye follow lies?

3 But know, that for himself the Lord
the godly man doth choose:
The Lord, when I on him do call,
to hear will not refuse.

4 Fear, and sin not; talk with your heart
on bed, and silent be.
5 Off ‘rings present of righteousness,
and in the Lord trust ye.

6 O who will show us any good?
is that which many say:
But of thy countenance the light,
Lord, lift on us alway.

7 Upon my heart, bestowed by thee,
more gladness I have found
Than they, ev’n then, when corn and wine
did most with them abound.

8 I will both lay me down in peace,
and quiet sleep will take;
Because thou only me to dwell
in safety, Lord, dost make.

Psalm 4 as Poetry

Psalm 4, like Psalm 3, has a few parallel lines featuring amplification or restatement but primarily denotes progression in the petition. The psalm is for flutes (the Nehiloth) and features an A B A format: Address to God (Psalm 4:1), address to men (Psalm 4:2-5), and address again to YHWH God (Psalm 4:6-8); it could instead be read as a “dialogue” of “complainer moving to one trusting” (Psalm 4:1, 6-8) and “instructor” (Psalm 4:2-5). Each word of the appeal of Psalm 4:1 ends in the first person singular suffix and thus with the similar “i” sound. The “light of your face” in Psalm 4:6 is the closest thing in Psalm 4 to a metaphor and it is a way of requesting the return of favor and benefit from God (cf. Numbers 6:25). Nevertheless much in the Psalm is spoken of in elision or in generalities (“vanity,” “falsehood,” “good”), allowing for varied applications.

Psalm 4 in Context and Canon

The superscription of Psalm 4 identifies it as a psalm of David. Psalm 4 has the hallmarks of a psalm of lament.

There are many textual issues with Psalm 4, many of which may have some bearing on interpretation. The verbs of Psalm 4:1-2 in MT are imperatives but are perfective in the LXX and Vulgate (“answer me” vs. “you answered me,” etc.). “Tremble” or “be agitated” (MT rigzu) is translated “be angry” in the LXX (orgizesthe), and in Ephesians 4:26 as well; the MT makes better contextual sense. “Lift up” in Psalm 4:6 is rendered “make manifest” in LXX (likely in error). LXX, Syriac, and DSS read “their new wine and oil” in Psalm 4:7; “oil” may have dropped out of MT.

David begins by pleading with God to answer him when he prays and to give relief in distress (Psalm 4:1; “God of my righteousness” is either referring to God as righteous or God as the one granting righteousness, thus, success). An appeal is then made either to humanity or the nobility in particular to cease turning honor to shame, loving vain words and seeking after lies (Psalm 4:2). YHWH, on the other hand, sets apart His godly ones, including David, whose invocations YHWH hears (Psalm 4:3). Psalm 4:1-3 thus sets up an antagonistic situation which leads to the exhortation of Psalm 4:4-5: tremble (in fear) yet sin not, meditate in bed but be silent; offer appropriate sacrifices; trust in YHWH. Some people still want to see some blessing and favor from YHWH; David wants to be filled or has been filled with more joy in his heart from YHWH than the people have when they have grain and wine (and oil; Psalm 4:6-7). David ends the psalm with a declaration of confidence in YHWH: he can lie down and sleep in peace since YHWH is his safety, in contrast with the impious who tremble and must give thought in their beds (Psalm 4:8; cf. Psalm 4:4).

Psalm 4:7b seems to identify the context: a drought, or a period of less than optimal harvests. In that light Psalm 4:2 is most likely a comment from God to Israel chastising them for pursuing after Canaanite fertility gods in their distress and not giving Him the glory; Psalm 4:6 would thus be a petition to YHWH to provide rain and thus an end to the drought and famine. Some have associated the context of Psalm 4 with the famine of 2 Samuel 21:1 but there is no way to be sure of this.

Thus David makes a petition to God and also rebukes the people for their lack of faith in both God and himself in Psalm 4 on account of a drought or famine. God promised to provide rain, dew, and fertility; the king was to pray to YHWH for this to be made sure (Genesis 27:28, Deuteronomy 11:11-14, 28:12, 1 Kings 8:35-36), and David has taken that responsibility seriously. Nevertheless the famine persists. Many have turned to the Canaanite gods for relief, and of course none is forthcoming. So it is that David’s petition implores YHWH to bring the rain while he chastises Israel for its unbelief, and in the end he expresses his confidence and joy in YHWH. Those who persist in pursuing useless false gods and undermine the king’s authority will experience the fear and humiliation due them on account of their error; they should take thought in private to how they have transgressed and make things right. In the end all ought to trust YHWH and His favor to His people.

In Psalm 1 the righteous were compared to a tree beside the waters, always prospering because they were rooted in YHWH. In Psalm 2 YHWH blesses the Davidic king and establishes his rule. Yet in Psalm 4 the prosperity is not there and doubt overshadows the Davidic ruler. Psalm 4, like Psalm 3, provides a realistic foil to the introductory Psalms: yes, YHWH has promised good to Israel and its Davidic ruler, and that promise ought to be trusted even when things are not going as well.

Psalm 4 Throughout History

While it makes sense to read the contest of Psalm 4 in the context of famine and drought, and thus whether to trust in the Canaanite deities or in YHWH, the way Psalm 4 is written is vague enough to allow for other uses even during the monarchy. Psalm 4 could give voice to any distressed Israelite who found himself opposed by people in general, and especially people in high places, who did not trust in YHWH but in other gods.

Whether in generic terms or in terms of fertility Psalm 4 would have continued to give voice to Israelites in later generations to affirm their faith in YHWH and to censure their own or the Gentiles who put their trust in idols.

One can read Psalm 4 in Christological terms: Jesus embodying the situation envisioned by David in Psalm 4, ultimately “laying down” His life in death in the confidence that God would raise Him from the dead in victory (cf. John 10:18, 1 John 3:16).

In the New Testament Paul quotes the LXX of Psalm 4:5 in Ephesians 4:26, exhorting Christians to truth and faithfulness in relationship with one another and not giving place to the Devil (Ephesians 4:24-26); thus Paul uses the text to warn against undisciplined venting of or meditation upon anger which can destroy relationships.

Much early Christian exegesis of Psalm 4 is based on a mistranslation of what is most likely the postscript for Psalm 3 that was formatted as part of the superscript of Psalm 4; Hebrew lamenatzeah, “to the choirmaster,” was rendered as eis tos telos in the Septuagint, meaning “unto the end” (and so in finem in the Latin Vulgate as well). This became the basis of all sorts of Christological speculation since they saw “the end” of the Law and all sorts of other things as embodied in Christ (Romans 10:4). With a few exceptions this line of interpretation continued until the Reformation.

Augustine notably used Psalm 4 as a cipher for his own existence; in the Confessions he writes of how he saw the progression of his own life in the Psalm, from loving the emptiness and falsehood of paganism and Manicheeism to faith and confidence in God in Christ. Many expositors made the same type of contrast between those of the world in paganism versus those who have found rest and safety in God in Christ.

As Psalm 3 was used in the monasteries in the morning prayer office on account of its emphasis on rising, Psalm 4 was used in the evening prayer office on account of the emphasis on meditating in bed in Psalm 4:4 and sleeping in Psalm 4:8.

Psalm 4 Today

For better or worse people tend to trust meteorologists and other scientists today when it comes to rain and finding ways to make sure we all have food. Nevertheless the essential contrast of Psalm 4 remains to this day.

As with Psalm 3, we all recognize God’s promises of sufficiency now and glory to come in Christ (Matthew 6:33, Romans 8:17-25). Yet all of us, at some time or another, have gone after what is truly “vanity and falsehood” (Psalm 4:3). In past days those were forces of nature divinized as idols; these days we often pursue “-isms” and various lusts, pleasures, and desires, from self to scientism to sex. In a real sense all of us have needed to move from service of vain things to service and trust in YHWH in Christ (Ephesians 2:1-18)!

Yet we can see even in our culture today the essential disconnect fueling Psalm 4. What happens when the story told by YHWH in Scripture no longer seems to conform to reality? It is tempting to try out other alternatives; as many wondered what the harm was to give a sacrifice or two to Baal, so people today wonder what the harm is in accepting a generically secular worldview, allow the scientific perspective to dominate how one envisions their environment, or to honor other ways of considering the world. Yet all such perspectives are vain and false; the day will come when all such persons will be given reason to tremble, and so they should right now consider themselves and what they are doing (cf. Acts 17:30-31, Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, etc.).

Believers are often afflicted with the same discomfort and “dis-ease” as seen so prevalently in our culture that has been abandoning the Christian worldview over the past two hundred years. Yet when those moments of distress and difficulty come we should turn to Psalm 4. YHWH is the Creator God of Israel; He has worked to save all who would come to Him through Jesus Christ. If we put our trust in Him we can rest peacefully, both at night and in the sleep of death before the resurrection. Even in the midst of trial we can have joy and peace in our hearts in Christ, but only if we turn aside from the vain falsehoods of this life and put our confidence in the power of God in Christ. True security can only be found in God in Christ; let us seek Him no matter what!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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