The title of Psalm 4, like the title of Psalm 3, tells us that this is a psalm of David. Unlike Psalm 3, though, the title does not give any clues to what the historical background or the setting of this psalm might be. However, it’s a lament in which David cries out to the Lord because he’s in trouble. And it’s also what the scholars call a psalm of confidence, because David expresses his confidence in the Lord and trusts in him to help him. And it can be divided into four parts which we’ll look at now.
In the first part — verse 1 — David prays to the Lord. He describes the Lord as ‘the righteous God’. In other words, he’s the God who always does what is right. And since God has entered into a covenant with his people — by which he promised to be their God and to treat them as his treasured possession — then doing right means — in the context of the covenant — caring for his people and protecting them and providing them with the help they need. Therefore David turns to the Lord, the righteous God, with four requests in verse 1:
Answer me when I call;
Give me relief from my distress;
Me merciful to me; and
hear my prayer.
He mentions his distress from which he needs relief. What is causing his distress becomes apparent in verse 2 where he mentions men who are standing against him. And because he’s in distress, he now calls on the Lord to be merciful to him. However, a better translation of what David wrote is ‘be gracious to me’, because the word David uses refers to God’s kindness to those who don’t deserve it. Though he’s God’s Anointed King, he knows he’s a sinner who deserves nothing from the Lord but condemnation. Nevertheless, since God has bound himself to his people by a promise, and since he’s revealed himself to be merciful and gracious and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, who doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquity, David now turns to his God and appeals for help.
In the second part of the psalm — verses 2 to 5 — David calls on his enemies to trust in the Lord. This is a call to repentance.
And so, he addresses his enemies in verse 2 and complains that they have turned his glory into shame. Glory refers to his position as king, because the Lord has bestowed glory and honour on him by making him the ruler of his people. But instead of honouring the Lord’s Anointed King, these men have despised him. According to the NIV, they have loved delusions and have sought after false gods. A better translation is that they have loved ‘vain words’ and sought ‘lies’. We can imagine his enemies spreading false reports about him; and in that way, they have dishonoured the King and ruined his reputation among the people. If you remember the story of Absalom, David’s rebellious son, you might recall how he turned the hearts of the people away from David, because whenever they came to Jerusalem for the king’s help, Absalom would lie and tell them that the king would not hear their complaints. Psalm 4 is not necessarily about that, but the story of Absalom is an example of how one of David’s enemies used lies and deceit to undermine his position.
In the following verses, David addresses his enemies with seven imperatives or seven instructions. Firstly, there’s something for them to know:
Know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself….
In other words, he’s telling his enemies that the person they’re attacking with their lies has been chosen by God; and the Lord will hear his chosen one when he calls to him for help. The second and third imperatives are obscured by the NIV, which translates the first line of verse 4 as:
In your anger, do not sin.
The word translated ‘In your anger’ is an imperative, an instruction, and it can refer to any strong emotion. And so, some commentators suggest is should be translated:
That is, tremble with fear. Tremble with fear, because you’re attacking the Lord’s chosen and anointed King. So, tremble with fear and do not sin. Fourthly and fifthly, he instructs them to search their hearts and to be silent. So, he’s saying to his enemies that they should think about what they’re doing and how they need to repent of their sins. And sixthly and seventhly, he commands them to offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord. Since they’re sinners, who have sinned against the Lord by attacking the Lord’s chosen and anointed King, they ought to offer to the Lord the right sacrifices to cleanse them from their guilt. And, of course, they should trust in the Lord, because sinners are pardoned and accepted by God by faith alone.
And so, in the second part of the psalm, David addresses his enemies with these seven imperative: know; tremble; do not sin; search your hearts; be silent; offer right sacrifices; and trust in the Lord. By means of these seven imperatives, he’s calling on his enemies to repent and to turn to the Lord for forgiveness, trusting him to be merciful.
In the third part of the psalm — verse 6 — David once again addresses the Lord in prayer. Many were saying to him:
Who can show us any good?
It’s not clear who the ‘many’ are? They might be his enemies. They might be his own friends, who have become disillusioned and downcast. It’s not clear who they are, but they’re clearly disappointed and frustrated, and while they were expecting great things from David’s reign, now they’ve become disheartened. And so, David turns to the Lord in prayer and asks him to let the light of his face shine upon them. We can tell someone is angry with us by looking at their face, because instead of smiling at us, there’s a dark scowl on their face. And so, here’s David, asking the Lord to look at them, not with a dark scowl, but with a warm and bright smile. He’s asking the Lord to look upon them with his favour and to bless them. Notice, of course, that he’s not asking for the Lord to bless him only; he’s asking the Lord to bless all the people. So, turn to us and smile upon us. David’s request in this verse is based on the Aaronic Blessing which is found in Numbers 6 and which the Lord commanded the priests to use when blessing the people:
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
Since the Lord commanded the priests to use this blessing, then that tells us that this is his will for his people: that they will know his grace and favour in their lives.
And so, we come to the fourth part of the psalm, which is verses 7 and 8. And in this fourth part, David expresses his faith in the Lord. He remembers how in the past the Lord filled him with joy. In fact, the joy he received from the Lord was greater, far greater, than the joy people have at the time of the harvest. Yes, there was great joy and happiness, when the harvest was finished, and they knew they had grain and wine for another year. But the joy the Lord gives is even greater than that. And so, since he’s experienced God’s goodness in the past, and since he trusts in the Lord for the future, he’s able to lie down and sleep in peace, because you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety. He trusts the Lord to watch over him through the night. As we read in another psalm, the Lord does not slumber nor sleep. And so, we can trust in him to watch over us through the day and through the night. And knowing that, believing that, means we needn’t be afraid, but can sleep in peace.
Like Psalm 3, Psalm 4 is a psalm of David. And David — who was God’s Anointed King in the Old Testament — points us to Christ, who is our Great King.
And, of course, while the Lord was on the earth, there were enemies who told all kinds of lies about him. Think of the false witnesses who falsely accused him at his trial, because they wanted him to be killed. And think of all those who, instead of bowing before him and honouring him as their king, opposed him. They refused to believe in him. They tried to trap him in his words. And they plotted together against him. And think of how they mocked him when he was hanging on the cross. And even after he was raised from the dead, they still did not believe in him or give him the honour he deserves. Instead of giving him the glory and honour he deserves, they turned his glory into shame.
And just as David in the psalm called on his enemies to repent, so the Lord Jesus called on sinners everywhere to repent. And even as he died on the cross, he asked his Father in heaven to forgive the soldiers who crucified him.
And just as David trusted in the Lord to help him, so the Lord Jesus on the cross committed his spirit into the hands of his Father in heaven. He knew that his Father would not abandon him to the grave, but would raise him up from the dead. And so, for the joy set before him, he endured the cross, despising its shame. And having suffered so much, he is now seated at the right hand of the Father.
And so, as we read this psalm, we can read it from the perspective of the Lord Jesus, who is our great King, who suffered so much at the hands of his enemies, but who trusted in his Father in heaven to help him.
But the psalm is also an encouragement to us and to all who are united with Christ by faith. While we go on living in this world, we will suffer at the hands of Christ’s enemies who hate the Lord and his church. The natural person — who does not believe — will mock and despise us. They may even speak all kinds of lies about us. And among Christ’s people, many will become disheartened, asking one another: Who can show us any good? But this psalm shows us that we can always turn to the Lord and appeal to him:
Answer me when I call;
Give me relief from my distress;
Be merciful to me;
Hear my prayer.
And the Lord answer our prayers, because the Lord has set apart the godly for himself; and will hear when we call to him. And so, in our distress, we must turn to the Lord, believing that when the time is right, he will once again turn to us with his favour and smile on us with his grace. We can sleep at night in peace, because we know we can trust in him. And so, instead of abandoning the faith, and turning to the pleasures of the world, we should remain faithful to the Lord, who — when the time is right — will fill our hearts with joy. And just as David prayed, not only for himself, but for all of God’s people, so we can pray for our fellow believers who are in distress, asking the Lord to grant them relief and to let his light shine on them.
And as well as praying for our fellow believers, we can pray for those who don’t yet believe, asking the Lord to enable them to tremble before him, and to turn from their sin and rebellion, trusting in God to forgive them, for the sake of Christ, who offered himself as the true and perfect sacrifice for sins.