Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 15, 2018
Psalm 4 Commentary
The superscription of Psalm 4 tells us that this individual prayer was always intended to be used with musical accompaniment in a service of public worship. That’s how the church has used it for centuries now. Long ago, the monastic movements noticed the references to sleep in both Psalm 3 and 4 and have bracketed each day with those two Psalms. Psalm 3 has been called the morning prayer (“I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me”), while Psalm 4 is the evening prayer (“I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety”). I’ll return to that theme of sleep at the end of my comments.
The larger church has chosen this Psalm 4 for this Third Sunday of Easter because it seems a fit liturgical response to the reading from Acts 3:12-19. That’s where Peter responds to those who question his healing of the crippled beggar. That was the first recorded miracle performed by the post-Easter church. Peter, of course, gives all the credit to the Risen Christ. The use of Psalm 4 in this setting reiterates Paul’s exhortation that we put our trust for healing, peace and security in the Risen Lord.
The person speaking in Psalm 4 prays with both deep distress and deep confidence. “Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God” is paired with “the Lord will hear me when I call to him.” Indeed, “give me relief from my distress” can be translated “you have given me relief from my distress.” That ambiguity of translation introduces us to the main preaching problem of Psalm 4. What is the distress about which the Psalmist prays? Or to put it in terms of the sleep theme, what is the problem that might keep the Psalmist awake at night, if he didn’t have such strong faith in the Lord?
The main issue is in verse 2. “How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame? How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?” Some commentators focus on the word “glory,” translating it legitimately as “honor,” and they translate “false gods” as “lies.” For them, the problem for the Psalmist is that he is being attacked by enemies who are besmirching his honor. They are telling lies about him. Read that way, this Psalm is a perfect text for a congregation steeped in an honor based culture, where losing your honor is the worst thing that can happen to you.
If you want to pursue that honor theme, I’d suggest that you focus on verse 3a, where the Psalmist reminds his enemies and the worshipers using this Psalm that “the Lord has set apart the godly for himself.” The word translated “set apart” is hasid, from which the strict Jewish sect, the Hasidim, derives its name. Those who are called by God to special holy living have always been persecuted by the ungodly, as Jesus said to his disciples in John 15:18,19. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”
Other scholars give an alternative reading of verse 2a, seeing it as a reference to God. “How long, O men, will you dishonor my Glorious One.” Picking up on the mention of the joy of “grain and new wine” in verse 7, they see the problem facing the Psalmist as a terrible drought that has left Israel in dire straits. In their distress, the people of God have sought the aid of “false gods,” like the fertility gods of their pagan neighbors. Think of Elijah’s contest with the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel after more than 3 years of drought. Thus, in verse 5, the Psalmist implores his idol worshiping opponents to “offer right sacrifices and trust in Yahweh (not Baal).” I can imagine a sermon on this Psalm entitled, “Sleepless Nights Under an Iron Sky.”
Though the “honor” reading of Psalm 4 fits better with the sense of personal distress voiced in verse 1, the “drought” reading makes more sense of the exhortations to the enemies in verses 4-6. When people are dealing with something as life threatening as drought, a natural response is anger, maybe especially at God. And that will result in many a sleepless night. So, in verse 4, the Psalmist urges them to be careful that their anger doesn’t lead them into the sin of rebellion against God or hatred and jealousy against their neighbor. When you lie on your bed, don’t grind with those negative emotions. Rather than trying to understand the ways of God or plotting against your neighbor, search your own hear and be silent. One thinks of Psalm 46. “Be still and know that I am God.” And Job comes to mind; though he suffered terribly and got very angry at God and his neighbors, he did not sin.
In a time of national catastrophe, people cast about for solutions, as verse 6 so perfectly puts it. “Many are asking, ‘Who can show us any good?’” Whether it’s the kind of drought that has reduced the American West to tinder and then fire and then mud, or the kind of storms that have inundated Texas and Florida and Puerto Rico, or the fanatic-inspired bloodbath of the Middle East, those who suffer are always casting about for someone to bring goodness into all the bad. Will it be neighbors helping neighbors, government agencies like FEMA arriving at the scene with miles of red tape, or NGO’s like the Red Cross or the multiple faith-based relief agencies riding to the rescue? “Who can show us any good in this mess?”
The Psalmist knows the Ultimate Who. It’s the God who taught his people to bless each other with the words of Numbers 6, which include the lovely line, “The Lord make his face to shine upon you.” That is what the covenant-keeping Yahweh intends to do always. But there are times when it seems that his face has turned dark or has actually turned away. In those times, God’s people pray as the Psalmist does here in verse 6b. “Let the light of your face shine upon us, O Yahweh.”
Anticipating a positive answer to that quintessential covenant prayer, the Psalmist sings for joy, a joy even greater than the people will have when the drought breaks and there is once again a bountiful harvest. Living in a society where grain and new wine is always available a short drive away, we can’t imagine the delirious joy of a starving people when, at last, there is food again. The Psalmist has a joy even greater than that, not because of food, but because he believes Yahweh always hears his prayers.
That confidence gives him not only joy, but also peace, peace that gives him sleep. “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Yahweh, make me dwell in safety.” We need to underline “you alone, O Yahweh, make me dwell in safety.” In a culture obsessed with safety and security, it is crucial to believe that only the Covenant Lord of Israel, the great I Am who became Immanuel, can give us those precious blessings. No amount of human effort can “make us dwell in safety,” as we learn every day from the headlines. Relying on human means will not cure our national or personal insomnia.
Here’s where your sermon can become uncomfortably personal. More than 60 million American suffer from some degree of insomnia, which costs the economy about $63 billion a year in lost productivity. (I don’t know the numbers for Canada or Europe or anywhere else, but they must be comparable.) The personal cost of sleeplessness is far steeper than dollars and cents: daytime fatigue, lack of focus, memory loss, moodiness, loss of motivation, depression, and accidents. Scientists are baffled by insomnia; what causes it and how can it be cured? Obviously, there might be physical causes that require a medical cure. And there are undoubtedly emotional causes that might yield to psychological treatment. Even with proper medicine and counselling, insomnia might be so entrenched in a person’s behavior that it is impossible to cure a life-long habit.
Does Psalm 4 suggest that there might be a spiritual component to sleeplessness? If one had overflowing joy because of the faithful provision of Yahweh and if one had abiding peace because of the security that Yahweh guarantees, one might “lie down and sleep in peace.” Of course, we need to be very careful not to suggest that insomnia is the result of a lack of faith. It’s more complicated than that. Psalm 4 is not a guarantee of a cure for insomnia, if you just have enough faith. It is one man’s confession of faith, designed to help God’s people make it through both personal and national crises. Preach it that way, and you just might encourage the sleepless to pray as the Psalmist does in Psalm 4. May “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:7).” And grant you sleep.
Walter Brueggemann offers an example of the most common answer given to the question of verse 6, “Who can show us any good?” He says that the dominant script/story in the U.S. is “therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism.” By “therapeutic” he means “the assumption that there is a product or a treatment to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without any inconvenience.” By “technological” he means “the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right according to human ingenuity.” The script is “consumerist” because “we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all of its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor.” And by “militarism” he is referring to “the myth of U.S. exceptionalism” that “serves to protect and maintain a monopoly than can deliver and guarantee all that is needed for the therapeutic, technological, consumerist society.” In other words, as people ask, “Who can show us any good?” they look everywhere, except to the God can “meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:19).”
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