Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 19, 2015
Psalm 4 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
We’ve all said, if not shouted it in one form or another: “Help!” It’s the cry of someone who’s in the kind of distress that plagues Psalm 4’s author. While all sorts of distress may prompt such a call, in this psalm’s case it’s lies and falsehood.
Some scholars suggest Psalm 4 is a believer’s prayer for help she desires God send in the form of rain. They point, for example, to verse 7’s profession, “You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound [italics added].” In verse 2 the poet scolds those who have turned in their desperation to “false gods” (2).
Shauna Hannon compares Psalm 4’s movement to that of someone who’s trying to formulate a response to some sort of accusation. One moment that person may talk to God, another to himself and still another to those who have accused him. After all, one of this psalm’s interesting dimensions is that over half of it is addressed not to God, but to “men” (2).
Clearly the psalmist longs for his accusers to be in a faithful relationship with Yahweh. “Know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself,” the poet says in verse 3. “In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent,” the poet adds in verse 4.
Perhaps such a plea for belief is particularly pertinent in the Easter season. After all, the church professes, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” But on Easter Sunday morning some in our churches said that without believing it or simply refrained from saying it at all. After all, while some people still receive Yahweh with joyful faith, others remain skeptical or fearful. Still others simply reject any kind of faithful relationship with the Lord.
Echoes of their voices can be heard in verse 6 where the psalmist notes, “Who can show us any good?” “Where does our help come from?” people want to know. Must I rely on my own cleverness and abilities? Can I rely on my family members or friends? Can the broader community be counted on for my help? “Who can show us any good?”
Yet Hannon suggests Psalm 4 is also a close companion for God’s peoples’ seasons of doubt. We can see it, after all, not just as an address to God and skeptical people around us. It’s also a kind of “pep talk” the poet delivers to herself. The poet recalls all she believes to be true about God. The Lord, she professes, sets apart the godly for himself (3). God, the poet continues, has filled her heart with great joy (7).
Perhaps that recitation of God’s great works fuels the poet’s confidence that God will hear and answer his prayers. “The Lord will hear when I call to him,” he asserts in verse 3. We sense the poet’s accusers may have weakened his trust that Yahweh will provide what he needs. Yet he refuses to share his critics’ skepticism. The psalmist ends his prayer for help by professing the Lord will hear him when he calls out to God.
Perhaps Psalm 4 can offer a model for the kind of prayer that’s offered out of the fires of crisis. Cynthia Rigby suggests it parallels John Calvin’s four rules of prayer for the faithful. First, Calvin argues for what he calls a “devout detachment,” a kind of willingness to “come apart” and commune with God in prayer. In verse 3 the psalmist recognizes God has set her “apart.” She also speaks to worshipers who are on their beds (4), who are, in other words, alone. The poet invites them to then “search their hearts.”
Second, Calvin calls us to pray with a “sincere sense of want, and with penitence.” The poet clearly wants God to vindicate him. He longs for God to turn his “glory into shame” (2). He also wishes to be able to “lie down and sleep in peace” (8). The poet’s penitence is reflected in his pleas for God not to rebuke or discipline him for what he has done (1).
Third, Calvin recommends God’s people “yield all confidence in ourselves and humbly plead for pardon.” The poet displays no confidence in her own ability to rescue herself from her distress. She completely relies on Yahweh for help. What’s more, she begs not for her own pardon, but for her tormentors’.
Finally, Calvin suggests God’s people “pray with confident hope.” The psalmist reflects that hope when he says God has filled his heart with even greater joy than when the harvest abounds. On top of that, the poet is able to lie down and sleep in peace because God has made him to “dwell in safety” (8).
Yet perhaps even more poignant is the psalmist’s attitude toward her adversaries, as Rigby also notes. She doesn’t excuse their sinful actions. The poet calls her accusers to turn away from their sin and toward a faithful relationship with the Lord.
Yet the poet’s pleas are full of what Rigby calls “yearning.” He doesn’t long for God to destroy his tormentors. He doesn’t even want his accusers just to be proven wrong. He longs for God to draw them into the community of God’s adopted sons and daughters. The poet may even include his tormentors in the “us” on whom he begs God to shine God’s face (6).
Those who read this psalm through the lens of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ may hear echoes of Jesus’ expectations for his followers relationships with our enemies. He, after all, calls us to love and pray for them. On the cross, Jesus models such love by asking his Father to forgive those who in their ignorance crucify him (Luke 23:24).
The theme of the unbelief the psalmist’s accusers show runs through the other passages the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. In the Acts 3:12-19 passage Peter speaks to those who like him believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But unlike him, they refused to believe in Jesus. Peter uses the healing of the lame man as an opportunity to invite its witnesses to join him in that community of the godly God has set “apart … for himself.”
I John 3:1-7 celebrates God’s great love God has lavished on those whom God has set apart for himself. He begs those within that community not to let anyone or anything, including perhaps the kind of unbelieving opposition the psalmist is enduring, to draw them away from that love.
In Luke 24:36b-48 the risen Jesus addresses the issue of unbelief within the circle of his own disciples. They fear he’s a ghost when he appears to them after his resurrection. But Jesus invites them to move back into the community God has set apart for himself. He invites them into a faithful relationship with himself.
“When you are on your beds,” the psalmist says to worshipers, “search your hearts and be silent” (4). She also speaks of lying down and sleeping in peace (8).
Winston Churchill was one of the 20th century’s greatest leaders. However, while he spent prodigious amounts of time in bed, he didn’t spend most of it either in silence or peacefully sleeping. He generally awoke around 7:30 a.m. Yet he remained in bed to eat a large breakfast, as well as read his mail and the national newspapers. For the next few hours Churchill remained in bed while he dictated to his secretaries.
He would even discuss matters of great state importance while lying in bed. Churchill would summon military leaders for bedside conversations. It’s rumored he even had a special breakfast table to fit his bed so that he could have important discussions while he ate breakfast in bed.
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