Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 14, 2024

Psalm 4 Commentary

Psalm 4 isn’t necessarily the cheeriest Hebrew poem to consider during the otherwise joyful season of Eastertide.  Though it ends on an up-beat note, it is also a plea, a lament, a rebuke, and a challenge.  But maybe we need to encounter such realities in the midst of this Eastertide season just as much as at any other time.

Although you cannot tell this from how Psalm 4 is typically laid out on a page, it certainly looks like this is a song for two voices.  There is the voice of the psalmist but then clearly there is the voice of God that comes in twice to respond to the psalmist.

Psalmist: Answer me!  Look at me!  Give me some relief from this distress in my life!

God: Well why do you and your people keep turning my glory into shame?  What’s with chasing after false gods who are not me!?

Psalmist: Yes but I know you have set your servant apart.  I know you hear me!

God: OK, so then don’t sin, think about good things, offer sacrifices pleasing to Yahweh.

Psalmist: Lots of folks are wondering “When will you bring prosperity?”  So make your face shine on us, give us a bountiful harvest, and then we will all sleep like babies secure in your tender care.

It is possible this dialogue is not 100% correct but it is how the psalm seems to read.  There is definitely some measure of back-and-forth here.  Pleas for some divine assistance are balanced with pleas from God’s side of things to shape up and fly right as his people, especially if they want God’s help.

That all makes sense.  Those of us who are parents have perhaps occasionally had an experience similar to the one reflected in Psalm 4.  Because sometimes children flaunt the household rules or find other ways to show a little disrespect for—or at least a little incredulity regarding—their own parents.  Teenagers in particular occupy that liminal space between being enmeshed in parental authority and starting to feel the pull of being independent, and the results as they live in that in-between space are not always pleasant.

But when you as a parent are on the receiving end of that kind of thing, it can feel a little galling when, after that same child gets themselves into a tight spot, they come to Mom and Dad to bray for help.  This is particularly true when the difficulty or the tight spot in question came about precisely because they had not listened to you as parents in the first place!  Most if not all good parents are still usually willing to help—though there is always the temptation to let the kid suffer their just deserts.  But the love of a parent typically supersedes that Schadenfreude-esque impulse.

The God of Israel was similar.  At any given moment in the history of that people, God had had it up to the proverbial here with those rebellious, wandering folk.  Still, when they turned to God for help, God usually gave it eventually.  It is the portrait captured to near pitch perfect precision that we see reflected in Hosea 11:1-11.  God in the first part of this passage has that rolled-up newspaper raised over his head ready to smack these people for the long litany of sins God details in Hosea 11.  But then out of the blue there is a full stop, a deep breath, and then out pours all the compassion and love.  If your child ever wandered away from you in a shopping mall despite your repeated injunctions they stay right with you, then you know that after the panicky, desperate, heart-in-your-throat search for the child, once you relocate them, you initially bark out in anger, “What did I tell you about not wandering off!!!”  But then relief overtakes your anger and you hug the child and shed a few years that they are OK after all.

Life goes like that sometimes.

In the actual text of Psalm 4, there is no indication God does come through for the psalmist.  There is that final plea for God to make his face to shine upon his people—an echo of the Aaronic Benediction—but then without further elaboration, the psalmist goes to bed and says he will sleep secure because he just knows somehow that he dwells within the safety of God’s providential and loving care.  It ends up being rather neat and tidy.  A package with a nicely tied bow on it.  Not all the Psalms of Lament (or pleading) end that well but most have some version of this hope-filled conclusion.

Again, the Year B Lectionary gives us this to ponder two weeks after Easter.  On the Gospel lesson for this same Sunday we are very near the end of the Gospel of Luke and the appearance of Jesus following his encounter with the two people in Emmaus.  That passage is about Jesus showing off his scars and giving his assurance that he was going to send the Holy Spirit to them soon enough.  It is a reassuring passage, of course.

And it is an assurance we all need now and then.  Because even in Eastertide we live in an uncertain and violent and unsettling world.  Wars in Gaza and Ukraine do not cease since it’s the Season of Easter.  Brutal political rhetoric and the deep divisions that split societies and whole congregations do not suspend operation since we want to spend 6 weeks thinking about the resurrection.  And neither do our own tendencies to wander from God’s ways take a holiday.  In also Easter we plead to see the resurrected Jesus, to ask him to shine the light of his Easter face upon us, to assure us sufficiently that he is with us such that we can find a way to sleep better at night.

God in Christ hears these pleas.  And even if it is true that now and then God has to shake his head a little and remind us that he will help us but on our end of the bargain, we need to lead Christ-like lives and not cave into all the pressures around us to engage in brutal power politics or things that only contribute to the already fractured nature of the church.  Still and in the end, we get that Easter reassurance from our Lord: I am with you.  Always.  Even to the end of the age.  In that promise, we rest.

Illustration Idea

I read a 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 maybe.

In the Spring Semester of my freshman year at Calvin College I was attending an on-campus worship service one Sunday morning.  The preacher that day was my pastor at the time and someone whom I had known and respected for a good four or five years by then.  In the middle of the sermon I heard someone (Someone?) say “Be a preacher.”  It was vivid enough I was tempted to turn around to see who had said that.  No person had.  I believe the Spirit had spoken.  I freely admit I have never had an experience like that ever again.

But when we pray and meditate on God’s Word, we do properly expect that God will speak to us somehow, reveal Godself to us in some fashion, 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 (at least it would be unusual if this happened on even a semi-regular basis).  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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