Saturday, January 19, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 4

Let's take some time to look closely at the structure and vocabulary of Psalm 4, the second Selah psalm. 

The first verse offers a plea, an identification of Who God is, a statement of God's past action toward David, and two petitions. 

First we have a plea. “Answer me when I call...” “Answer” comes from the Hebrew word ‛ânâh, which means to pay attention and, by implication, to respond. “Call” is from qârâ', to cry unto, to address, and/or to utter a loud sound. There is a desperation here, an urgency. David is pleading with God in a loud voice to answer him. We can also catch a glimpse of the intimate personal relationship between David and God. David is confident in his plea. He use of ‛ânâh suggests that he believes that his prayer will be heard and that God will respond. 

Why is he so confident? There are two reasons: Who God is and what He has done in the past. David first identifies Who God is. Several translations are possible here: “O God of my right” (NRSV-CE); “my saving God” (NAB revised); “O my righteous God” (NIV and ISV); “O God Who declares me innocent” (NLT); “O God of my righteousness” (ESV and KJV); and “the God of my justice” (Douay-Rheims). From this we can discern two facts about God: 1. God is righteous, perfectly just, perfectly right, perfectly perfect; and 2. God is the One Who bestows righteousness on His people. Our righteousness comes from Him. We are made right, just, perfect, innocent, and saved only by God. We cooperate, certainly, but it is only by His grace that we are righteous. So the God Who is righteous by nature that bestows that righteousness on us by grace.

David also recognizes what God has done for him in the past. “You gave me room when I was in distress.” This seems a bit strange. What does it mean that God gave David room when he was in distress? Let's look at the Hebrew for some clues. What the Hebrew text really says is “You have enlarged me when I was in a tight place.” The word for enlarged or gave room is râchab. The word for distress or tight place is tsâr. Distress, then, according to this verse is to be too narrow, to be enclosed, to be crowded. What might we be crowded by? Physical enemies, certainly, but also spiritual enemies like sin, temptations, distractions, pride, greed, too much emphasis on material things, unhealthy relationships, and the messages of this world. All these things can crowd their way into our minds and hearts and close us up, narrow us, make us enclosed within ourselves. Then there is no room for God or His message or His love or His will. But David says that when this happened to him, when he was enclosed and narrow, God enlarged him. How? Probably by helping him get rid of all the stuff that was clogging him up as well as by pushing back his physical enemies to give him more room for action. 

So David is confident that God will answer him because of Who God is and what He has done in the past.

The king goes on to offer two more petitions: 1. Be gracious to me; and 2. Hear my prayer. Again we will turn to vocabulary to help us understand. The word for “be gracious” here can also mean “have mercy” or “show favor” or “have pity” or “be compassionate”. David is asking God to pour out His grace and all that entails, all the mercy, all the compassion, all the favors of the spirit and perhaps even of a physical nature. David also asks, once again, “Hear my prayer.” The word for “hear” this time is shâma‛. It connotates a certain intelligent hearing and the fulfillment of a request. David is asking God for a favorable answer to his prayer. 

In the second verse, David turns his attention to the people, to Israel. He pleads with them by means of two rhetorical questions: “How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame?” and “How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies?” These two questions suggest that Psalm 4 was written at the same time as Psalm 3 and deals with the same historical circumstances, the betrayal of David by his son Absalom, who turned the people's hearts away from their true king. David is grieving here. His people have turned their backs on him. They are misidentifying his honor, his glory, as shame. Yes, David sinned. But then he repented, and God forgave him. Will his people continue to see only his shame even after God has returned his honor? How long will they insult him and reproach him for a sin long since forgiven? Further, Absalom has been speaking vain, empty words to the people, and they eat them up, allowing them to take root in their hearts and minds. They even want more. They seek after lies. The Hebrew word for “seek after” is bâqash, which can mean beg, desire, or strive after. This word even has overtones of worship and prayer. The people are committed to hearing and believing the worst about David with an almost religious devotion! 

Verse 3 begins with a “but.” Circumstances may be bleak at the moment, especially if David is in exile at the time he is writing this psalm, but there is more in store for him. Still addressing the people, he says, “But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for Himself; the Lord hears when I call to Him.” God has made His faithful ones distinct and wonderful (from the Hebrew pâlâh for set apart). They belong to Him. They are marvelous in His sight. Further, David seems to say that he belongs to that group of faithful. He belongs to God. How does he know? God hears whenever he calls upon Him. The word for “hears” is shâma‛, which again suggests a favorable response. God always answers David's prayers. They are in a relationship. They communicate. David prays; God answers. This is constant. Whenever David prays, God hears and responds. Not just sometimes. All the time. David is confident. He knows he has something special with God, and he wants the people to know it, too.

Then David goes on to offer some good, solid, fatherly advice to his people. “When you are disturbed,” he says, “do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent.” The king understands that his people are disturbed. The Hebrew word here is râgaz, which suggests trembling, quaking, raging, and agitation. The people are all riled up, to the point of shaking with rage. So David warns them, “ not sin.” This, of course, suggests that they are likely doing just that, sinning by refusing to forgive David, by maintaining their disrespect for their rightful king, and by allowing Absalom's words to influence them. In rejecting David, they are also rejecting God. What should they do instead? They must think before they speak. David tells them to ponder on their beds and be silent. Take some time out. Think hard. Weigh the facts. Find the truth. Look into the heart and see what God might be saying. To do all these things, one needs quiet, both external and internal, and privacy (hence the reference to the bed). 

In the next verse, David gives further guidance. He tells the Israelites, “Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.” In David's day, worshiping God involved sacrifices of various kinds, usually animals, grain, and wine. David is instructing his people to turn their attention to the proper worship of God. Focus on Him, David insists. Worship Him in the way He wants to be worshiped. What's more, put your trust in Him. At this point in Israel's history, the people are trusting in Absalom, not God. They think Absalom will solve their problems. David redirects them. 

The king goes on to note, however, that many people have been saying, “O that we might see some good!” Sometimes this is translated as a question: “Who will show us any good?” The people are becoming dissatisfied with their lot. Perhaps they expected more from Absalom's leadership. Again, David has an answer for them...and a prayer: “Let the light of Your face shine on us, O Lord!” He includes himself in his plea, identifying with the people in their need for God's blessing, for His light to shine down on them, for Him to look their way and see them and, seeing, bless them. 

After this excited exclamation, David continues his prayer to the Lord with praise. “You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound.” This is the greatest blessing, the joy of God in one's heart. It means more than all the material prosperity in the world. Even in the midst of his hardship, David can rejoice. He can be glad. He can sing God's praise. For God has given him the ability to do so by placing within him a deep-down joy that no one can take away. 

David ends the psalm on a peaceful note. Even though his enemies plague him, he lies down and sleeps in peace each night. Why? Because God, and God alone, makes him safe. He trusts in the Lord completely. He is safe in His arms. 

Selah. Spend some time this week reading and meditating on Psalm 4, discovering in it God's message for you, His beloved child.

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