It is easier so see in some Psalms more than others but many of the Psalms were written for two or sometimes three voices. Psalm 4 is clearly to be understood as having two speakers (at least two): the psalmist and Yahweh, the God of Israel. It’s pretty obvious that the psalmist is speaking in verse 1 and then again in verses 6-8. It is also pretty clear that God is speaking in response to the psalmist’s prayer in verse 2 and in verses 4-5. Verse 3, however, is a bit of a conundrum. The first part seems to be still God talking and yet the second part of the verse could be the psalmist but it’s not very clear that this is so. Perhaps it is God speaking from verse 2 all the way to verse 5 but if so, the inclusion of the line “the LORD hears when I call” seems an odd thing to be on God’s lips.
Or might that actually be a third voice? Could that be a line we are to imagine that God’s “faithful servant” utters? It’s not the psalmist but the faithful servant God set aside for his service. Probably there are as many theories out there as there are Bible commentators on the Psalms and probably it has been argued every which way but loose. You can decide for yourself whether to make too big a deal out of this in a sermon—it could be one of those scholastic distractions that is more interesting to pastors than to people who listen to pastors preach—but for sure we need to make clear that most of this psalm is dialogic. The psalmist prays and God answers.
As such, it is a curious exchange. Rather surprising even! The psalmist cries out to God from some situation of distress and seems really sincere about it. But when God answers, he comes at the psalmist with almost a snarl. The poet says “Help me, O God” and God replies, “Then stop deluding yourself with false gods!” Whoa! God then talks about his faithful servant and we have that oddity at the end of verse 3 just mentioned. But then it’s right back to talking about humbling oneself before God, reflecting on one’s life (and presumably taking a sober assessment on one’s life) while lying down at night. “Sober up and shape up!” seems to be God’s main message here.
The psalmist then comes back to talk starting in verse 6, asking a question he claims many are asking: When will God prosper us? He then asks for God’s face to shine upon him, to give him joy, and closes by thanking the Lord for giving him a sense of security.
Not to be too critical of the psalmist but did he even hear what God had said? It is as though God says “Repent! Shape up!” and the psalmist replies, “Yeah, OK, whatever. So when are you going to start being nice to us again?” It’s an odd response! Almost a juxtaposition. God just told the psalmist what had to happen if Israel wanted to prosper. But did the psalmist hear that or not?
Probably we should give the psalmist here the benefit of the doubt and assume he had not dismissed out of hand what God had said. A more charitable reading could be that he did hear what God had said and so when he responds with “Many are asking when will you prosper us,” he is saying in essence, “OK, lots of people are asking what’s wrong such that your face does not seem to be shining on us and now I know the reason why and am going to tell others what you said about delusions and false gods.”
In short: we will try to do what you said, O God, and then we hope your face will shine upon us once more.
If this way of reading Psalm 4 is correct, then it is instructive for all of us. No, this side of Easter and Pentecost we should not conclude that every time something goes wrong in life it is because God is punishing us. Indeed, we believe the punishment for all of our sin was already laid on Jesus. That fact, however, does not cut the nerve that connects actions with consequence. If we behave badly or take foolish risks or let our spiritual life lapse, we may find that life does not go as well as we might like it to go.
In this Eastertide season, we know that our God in Christ has given each of us the Holy Spirit to direct our paths. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, our job is to “Keep step with the Spirit.” If and when we fail to do that, we may not feel as good spiritually as we wish. Of course, the obverse of this particular coin is also true: plenty of Christians do just fine in their walk with Christ and still suffer cruelly in their lives. There are no simple formulas the likes of which Job’s friends tried to foist on him.
Still, when we lie on our beds and find ourselves having time to examine our hearts and lives, we should hope that the Spirit can help us to see where our discipleship is flourishing and where we have some repairs to make. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we know that God has made it so that we can dwell securely and in safety. But that means the shape of our entire living ought to form a giant Thank-You card to God for all God’s mercies to us.
I read a semi-snarky comment once that when you talk to God, it is called prayer but when God talks to you, it is called schizophrenia. In addition to the fact that we should never use a psychiatric condition in a cheeky way, the impulse behind this bit of snark is also wrong theologically. In Psalm 4 the psalmist prays and somehow God answers. Did the psalmist literally hear a voice? Probably not. But when we pray and meditate on God’s Word, we do properly expect that God will speak to us, reveal Godself to us, whisper by the indwelling Holy Spirit things we need to know and to apply from the Bible. So yes, it would be really unusual if during a time of prayer or meditation Jesus appeared to us or we heard an audible voice. But it is not at all unusual to hear God speaking “in accents loud and clear” as the old hymn once put it.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 18, 2021
Psalm 4 Commentary