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Bible Study Guide

Psalms

Psalm 4 Commentary

This is our lesson studying the Psalms. We started last time studying a sub-set of psalms known as lament or complaint psalms. Last week we dealt with Psalm 3. Now we’ll move one psalm further onto Psalm 4.

Psalm 4’s Genre

We’re again talking about a lament Psalm. So we can expect a certain type of structure in this psalm. We can also expect to be able to sit and listen in while the Psalmist develops a strategy for mastering a crisis in his life.

Psalm 4’s Underlying Situation

Now, let’s talk about the situation underlying this Psalm. And it’s not nearly as easy to figure out the underlying situation in this psalm as it was in Psalm 3. In Psalm 3 we had the context given to us right in the superscription. David was fleeing from his son. And that story is well-documented in the Old Testament books of Samuel. So, that was easy.

But it’s really hard to figure out Psalm 4’s context. It’s not plainly stated. So we need to try to piece together details from this psalm to give us an idea of why exactly the Psalmist wrote this psalm. I’m aware of two good possible interpretations. I’ll tell show you both and give you the one that I prefer and why.

Here’s the first possibility of why this psalm was written. Look at Palm 4:1. What does David call God? “Oh God of my – what?” Righteousness. OK, then God is the one who can attest to David’s righteousness. But despite David’s righteousness and God’s willingness to back up the fact that David is righteous – look at what David needs to tell certain Israelites in Palm 4:2. How long will you guys make my honor a reproach? In other words, David is righteous and that’s his honor. But these guys are making it seem like David isn’t righteous. They’re reproaching him. They’re calling into question his integrity and righteousness. But it’s obviously all nonsense what these guys are saying. Why? Because, again, God will vouch for David’s righteousness. And so David tells these enemies in the 2nd line of Palm 4:2 that they’re loving what’s worthless and aiming at deception. Their accusations against David are worthless in reality. And the only way the enemies can make their accusations seem legitimate is to use deception – to aim at deception. Contrast what the enemies are saying of David to the reality presented in Palm 4:3. The Lord has set apart the godly man, no matter what these enemies are saying. And God hears David. So, to sum up, David is righteous. But some people are lying about him and making it sound like he isn’t. And that’s the underlying situation here in this psalm.

So, this interpretation of the underlying situation is plausible so far. And this is actually the way I was leaning at the beginning when I first started studying the psalm. But then you start into Palm 4:4 and really in my mind this interpretation just falls apart. Nothing else after Palm 4:4 makes much sense if the psalm’s context is David’s being slandered by enemies. Why would David tell the slanderers to tremble and not sin? Why tell them to meditate on their beds? He tells them to offer righteous sacrifices and trust the Lord. What does that have to do with slandering David? Then some of them are asking who will show us any good. How does that fit in with the rest of the psalm if it’s all about David being slandered? And on, and on. As I say – the rest of the psalm is still kind of a closed book if we’re trying to understand it as stemming from David being slandered by some bad guys.

So, that’s the first possibility for the underlying situation in this psalm – that David’s being slandered. One of the commentaries I purchased that comes highly recommended by conservative Christians is Peter Craigie’s book in the Word Biblical Commentary series on the Psalms. And in that book he endorses this kind of way to look at Psalm 4.

But I don’t think this is the best explanation for why Psalm 4 was written. I think there’s a scenario that better explains why certain things are said in this psalm. So, let’s try to discover the real underlying situation of Psalm 4.

And we need to start with Palm 4:7. Look at the mention of “corn and wine” abounding. That happens during a harvest time. And harvest time in ancient Israel would have been a joyous time. The food finally comes! Who wouldn’t be excited? And yet, look at Palm 4:6. These words don’t sound very joyful. Some were asking “who’s going to show us any good?” Well – what do you mean? I mean, it’s harvest time. There’s grain and new wine. Right? Well, there should be. And yet, those of us who live out in the country or who need to drive through the countryside on the way to work or church – we know what it’s like to drive past fields and fields of corn or beans. And if it’s been a particularly rainy summer and now it’s time for harvest, you might see a lot of produce that’s unusable because the fields have actually been too wet. Or if maybe we’ve had an unusually dry summer, the harvest in the fall isn’t going to be real satisfying. In fact, it’ll probably be pretty disappointing – especially to the farmers who depend on the crop to come in. And that’s what most of ancient Israel was – farmers. That wasn’t just their job, either. It was their life. If they didn’t have food they’d starve eventually. And this was one of the main attractions that ancient Canaanite fertility gods held out for disobedient and faithless Israelites. Sometimes it may have seemed like God didn’t care if the Israelites lived or died. Sometimes he’d withhold rain because of Israel’s sins. And instead of repenting of their sins, they tried to find a way to still indulge in their sins while also getting the rain they needed. Well, enter Baal – the Canaanite rain god. You pray to him and he answers you and you’re going to get your rain. Because that’s what he does, according to those nice pagan neighbors down the road – yeah, the ones Israel should have driven out of the land, but didn’t. They have a way for us Israelites to have success with our crops while also enjoying our sin.

Well now, where is there any mention of Baal or false gods in this psalm? Look at Palm 4:2. David is addressing these faithless Israelites in his mind and he asks them rhetorically how long they’d turn his glory into shame. Who was David’s glory in Psalm 3? It was God himself. So somehow these guys are shaming David’s God. How are they doing that? Next line. These folks are loving emptiness – in the Hebrew – and seeking a lie or a delusion. These men are turning from the Lord and are turning to empty delusions. One possibility is that these men are actually turning to these idols in order to make life work for them. They need rain. Yahweh ain’t giving it. Let’s see if Baal will do it for us.

So, what’s the underlying context of this lament psalm? A drought, probably around the time of harvest. And it’s providing a temptation for faithless Israelites to abandon the Lord and seek false gods whom they hope will help them overcome this drought and make sure they have food to put on the table.

This is the position held by Gerald Wilson’s book on the Psalms which is a part of the NIV Application Commentary series. Goldingay in the Baker commentary series also approaches Psalm 4 this way. And I happen to think it presents a more credible context for this psalm. I think it better explains the presence of the statements that we read in Psalm 4.

Psalm 4’s Structure

Now, with that understanding of the context of this psalm, let’s look at Psalm 4’s structure. Remember – lament psalms have five parts to their structure. Let’s find them.

Invocation

Psalm 4:1 serves as the invocation.

“Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness: thou hast enlarged me when I was in distress; have mercy upon me, and hear my prayer.”

Now, you might wonder if this verse also serves as the petition. But I don’t think it does. That part is yet to come. It’s true that the Psalmist is asking for something. But it’s simply that God would answer his prayer. Well, what is his prayer? We see that later in Psalm 4:6. So, I think this verse serves only as the invocation.

Lament

Then Psalm 4:2-5 serve as the lament. And it’s a strange kind of lament. David isn’t describing the faithless idolatrous Israelites to the Lord. Instead, David actually addresses them as if they were standing right there in front of him. He says,

“O ye sons of men, how long will ye turn my glory into shame? how long will ye love vanity, and seek after leasing? Selah. 3 But know that the LORD hath set apart him that is godly for himself: the LORD will hear when I call unto him. 4 Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah. 5 Offer the sacrifices of righteousness, and put your trust in the LORD.”

So, that’s the lament.

Petition

Psalm 4:6 – as I said – is a petition.

There be many that say, Who will shew us any good? LORD, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us.”

Confidence

I think Psalm 4:7 then is David’s statement of confidence in the Lord.

“Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than in the time that their corn and their wine increased.”

These idolaters are willing to abandon the Lord for some food. But David says – they can have their food, but I want the Lord.

Praise

And lastly, I think we can take Psalm 4:8 as the statement of praise.

“I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety.”

Just like in Psalm 3, we see the Psalmist praising the Lord for something that only he can do. In this case, it’s that the Lord alone can make David dwell securely.

So, that’s the 5-part structure of this lament psalm. Its context is a drought that’s tempting Israelites to turn to idols.

Psalm 4’s Topic and Theme

So then, since we know all this now, finding the topic and theme of this psalm shouldn’t take too much more work beyond what we’ve already done. Remember – the topic is what the psalm is about. It’s brief – probably one or two words usually. The theme is then what the poet says about his topic.

Topic

So, what’s the topic? I think it’s about increase. Material provisions, something like that. Let me try to demonstrate that.

In Psalm 4:1 where David is invoking the Lord he says that the Lord enlarged him when he was in distress. I appreciate that the KJV used this word “enlarge”. Some translations say “relieved” or something else that’s fairly abstract and doesn’t give you a very good picture of what’s going on. But this verb translated as “enlarged” here means to make wide or to extend or to provide wide room for something.

And the Lord did this for David in the most impossible circumstances. Because the word translated “distress” can also be translated as “narrow place”.

So, in a very narrow-feeling spot in David’s life, the Lord extended David. He increased David in some way that we don’t know about yet. But that’s how David starts off this psalm – with a reference to increase.

And when David addresses the idolatrous Israelites in Psalm 4:2-5, he’s really taking them to task for going about seeking increase in the wrong way. They’re shaming the Lord – Psalm 4:2. They’re not seeking the Lord to provide the increase that they need. They’re seeking after leasing or deception or falsehood – false gods to help them attain the increase they’re looking for – to help them get some rain so that their grain and new wine can abound, as we hear about later in the psalm. And so David gives these faithless ones some counsel. And that’s what occupies him through Psalm 4:5. So, again, the focus is on increase – in this section, about how not to go about looking for increase.

Next in Psalm 4:6 David goes about seeking increase the right way. You want a harvest, as a farmer? Don’t seek Baal to give your rain so that your crops can increase. Seek the Lord and pray to him, like David does here. Ask the Lord to bless your efforts – to lift up the light of his countenance upon you.

And Psalm 4:7 gives us David’s heart about the matter. Just because David was godly doesn’t necessarily mean that God exempted David from the effects of this drought. His fields would have been suffering, too. And yet, here’s where David nuances what increase truly is. Is physical, material increase the only kind that a person ought to be interested in? Not in David’s mind. David derived more joy from the Lord himself than when idolaters got their crops in. And let me tell you, idolaters are really happy when their crops come in. That’s what they’re living for. It’s what they work for. It’s their main goal and primary end in life. And when it happens, they’re happy. But the Lord makes David happier than that – even when he’s being deprived of these things that make these other folks so happy.

So, where’s true increase to be found? Not in temporal things in and of themselves. But from the Lord.

And then lastly in Psalm 4:8, David praises the Lord for the security he knows. He won’t fear if the crop doesn’t yield. He knows the Lord who will provide for all his needs. No need to lose sleep. The Lord will give his people all the increase of every kind that they truly need.

Theme

So, again, the topic under discussion is “increase”. And we’ve basically seen the theme – what David says about increase. True Increase Comes from the Lord. Right? It doesn’t come from idols. The Lord might withhold the kind of increase we think we need. But don’t go turning to idols. They won’t help you. Keep serving and trusting in the Lord. And he’ll give you what you need when you need it. Not a moment too late. And not a moment too soon.

Commentary on Psalm 4

And speaking of things not happening too soon, we need to get to explaining the details of this psalm. We’ve dealt with overarching matters in Psalm 4. Now let’s go through the psalm one more time pointing out details that might help us understand the psalm better.

Psalm 4:1

Let’s read Psalm 4:1.

“Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness: thou hast enlarged me when I was in distress; have mercy upon me, and hear my prayer.”

Let’s think a little more about the imagery in this verse. David pictures himself as one who was in a tight spot. Literally. He was in distress – which again can be translated as “narrowness”. He felt himself to be squeezed in some way. Isn’t that interesting? He’s experiencing a drought along with the rest of Israel. He’s suffering need and lack of material provisions. When money is hard to come by for us, don’t we say something like we feel pinched? Or what about this phrase – “money is a little tight right now”. That’s exactly what David is saying here. He’s in a tight spot with material provisions. And yet the Lord is going to enlarge him. The Lord is going to cause him to expand or increase or abound in the midst of his tight trial.

Psalm 4:2-5

And this consideration of God’s enlarging the righteous David leads David to a heartfelt admonition to his compatriots who apparently weren’t acting very righteously and were turning to idols for their increase.

“O ye sons of men, how long will ye turn my glory into shame? how long will ye love vanity, and seek after leasing? Selah. 3 But know that the LORD hath set apart him that is godly for himself: the LORD will hear when I call unto him. 4 Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah. 5 Offer the sacrifices of righteousness, and put your trust in the LORD.”

What should be the response to the questions posed in Psalm 4:2? Would we expect the idolaters to respond with something like “well, just a little longer” or “well, I intend to keep doing these things.” No, I think if the idolaters would have heard the questions posed this way they would have seen the obvious errors in their thinking. I mean, who thinks it’s a good idea to turn something glorious – like the Lord – into something shameful – like a piece of wood that one bows down to? Who thinks it’s a good idea to love worthless things? Who really thinks it’s a good use of one’s time to pursue “leasing” or deception? No one does. It’s like – come on guys! Can’t you see the utter foolishness of turning from God to idols in order to achieve what only the Lord can give you?

So, now that David has the idolaters seeing the folly of their way, he counsels them to change their course. By the way, do you ever find yourself confronting your enemies in your mind and heart? Do you ever feel a little embarrassed about doing that? Do you wonder if it’s ungodly? It can turn into ungodliness, for sure. But David here is doing it and it’s being modeled for us as a way to master a crisis that is pretty universal – not having enough material provision. So, anyway, feel free to address those who are troubling to you in your heart as you’re brushing your teeth or whatever else! It might help you master whatever crisis they’re causing in your life.

So, anyway, here’s what David reminds these idolaters of. The Lord has set apart the godly man for himself. The Lord has a special place in his heart for the man who is godly. That word translated “godly man” is related to CHESED – loyal covenant love. The godly – the righteous – have experienced God’s kind loyal love and they turn around and express it to others. God hears that kind of a person when he calls. David was such a person. And God heard him. And that’s the problem with these idolaters. They’re not being heard by the Lord. Why? Because they won’t embrace God’s loyal covenant love. Their lives are void of such love in their own hearts. And so they’re chasing after idols who can’t do a thing for them.

So, these guys are just hopeless, I guess. No, not really. David leads them to know how to remedy this situation. How should these idolaters react to this news that what they’re doing is completely useless? They should stand in awe and not sin. The phrase “stand in awe” is literally “tremble”. This trembling can indicate that the one who’s trembling is angry in some contexts. But in this case I think David is not counseling the idolaters to be angry. He’s telling them to tremble with fear. Why? Because they’re just now recognizing that they’ve offended the only true and living God. They’ve been completely wrong about how to approach attaining material provisions. Idols have no power. And so, they need to fear and stop their sinning – stop their idolatry.

Sometimes in the Old Testament, wicked people are pictured as plotting evil schemes in their beds. But David commands these men – if they find themselves in bed, they better not be hatching evil schemes. They better talk things over with themselves and reconsider their choices. Don’t sin. Be still, David tells them.

And ultimately, they ought not be sacrificing to false gods – to demons. They ought to be offering sacrifices to the Lord. And it’s not the mere form of offering a sacrifice that pleases the Lord. The Lord wants righteous sacrifices. Ones that are done right – with clean hands and a pure heart. Not with hands that shed innocent blood. And ultimately – even in the Old Testament – the Lord demanded that men trust in him. Sacrifice without trust was an affront to the Lord. He wanted both.

Psalm 4:6

And yet, at the present time in this Psalm, there were many that sought idols for help with this drought. David testifies — “There be many that say, Who will shew us any good?”

It’s as if the idolaters are trying to justify their faithless acts. They’re going around saying – well, we tried the Lord. But he ain’t workin’ for us anymore. He won’t send rain. We need rain. And so if we’re not allowed to seek Baal for help – who’s going to help us? The Lord won’t. We’ll starve! We’ll die! What’s the solution?

Here’s what David suggests. He prays to the Lord. This is his petition to the Lord. And at the same time it’s an example to the idolaters of what they need to be pursuing. He says, “LORD, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us.” This phrasing should remind us of Numbers 6:22-27. David is using what we call an allusion – an indirect reference to something. In this case, David is calling to mind the priestly blessing in Numbers 6. Let me read that for you.

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 23 Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel, saying unto them, 24 The LORD bless thee, and keep thee: 25 The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: 26 The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee [there’s the familiar part], and give thee peace. 27 ¶ And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them.”

That’s it! That’s what these idolaters needed. That’s what David needed. These folks all needed God’s blessing. Not the supposed blessing of idols. They needed the Lord to bless – and the Lord to keep – and the Lord to shine – and the Lord to be gracious – and the Lord to lift up – and the Lord to give peace – and the Lord to bless. Idols won’t do it. Israel needed the Lord. And so David prays that the Lord would indeed do these things for his people.

Psalm 4:7

And at the same time, David is filled with peace that God will provide him all the increase he needs. He testifies, “Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than in the time that their corn and their wine increased.” The source of gladness for those who don’t know the Lord – it’s stuff. Corn/food, wine/drink, money, clothes, houses, land, vehicles, whatever else. And that’s the extent of it. When those things pass – or in this case – they never come – then the gladness leaves, too. But the Lord never leaves us and the joy he gives is unending. And it’s better than the joy that anyone can derive from stuff.

Psalm 4:8

And so what more can the psalmist do than to praise the Lord? He says, “I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety.” In Psalm 3 David said he could lay down and sleep as well. But circumstances are different here. In Psalm 4, David isn’t fleeing for his life and afraid that someone will kill him. But his life is still in danger. If that rain doesn’t come and he doesn’t eat, he will die. But he’s just not worried about it. The Lord – not the idols – the Lord alone makes David to dwell securely. He won’t fear famine and drought. Because the Lord is with him. And so, he can praise the Lord for doing what only he can do – provide increase to sustain David’s life.

Conclusion

So, that’s Psalm 4. True Increase Comes from the Lord.

Is that your conviction? In the midst of lean times – tight times, are you going to seek the Lord and his blessing and his provision? Or are you going to go along with the crowd and seek expedients to provide the increase you think you need? The Lord sets apart the godly for himself – didn’t you know that? And if you are one of the godly – one who has experienced God’s loyal covenant love and as a result shows that kind of love back to God and to others – if that’s the case, then you know that the Lord will hear when you call to him and provide for you whatever you need when you need it. And he’ll give you gladness that surpasses anything this temporal life has to offer. So, don’t lose sleep in lean times. Let the Lord cause you to dwell securely.

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Comments

  1. Awesome job explaining this Psalm. I knew there had to be a better explanation of this Psalm than the common approach which you challenged at the start of your article. I kept running into this same explanation, but it always left me feeling that the prayer was a patchwork of differing ideas. Thanks for the clarification.

      1. I am a pastor. I was preparing a funeral message for a woman who found constant encouragement from this Psalm in the course of a lifetime filled with many difficulties. Your explanation helped a lot.

        1. Praise the Lord. And thank you for the encouragement.

          It looks like you’re in Edmonton? I taught a few semesters of Greek online to some students at Foundation Baptist College up yonder. My brother-in-law is also a pastor a few hours from there in Athabasca.

          Small world. :)

  2. Praise the Lord, Abundantly blessed with your explanation of Psalm 4 and it has become more meaningful for me.
    Thank you and stay blessed.

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