Psalm 4 is a window into the struggle that is prayer.
1 Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!
2 O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame? How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah
3 But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him.
4 Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah
5 Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.
6 There are many who say, “Who will show us some good? Lift up the light of your face upon us, O LORD!”
7 You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.
8 In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety. (Psalm 4 ESV)
This psalm is difficult, as it appears to lack a specific context or specific request to God. The several verses appear disjointed, moving along in a somewhat jumpy manner. What is clear is that the psalmist is struggling and he presents God with his state of urgency.
The prayer opens with intensity that is immediate. The psalmist seems to be in an excited emotional state. He demands of God, “Answer me when I call, O God … hear my prayer!”
The reader can imagine that the psalmist has already been praying repeatedly over time. Time is running out now. “Answer me … !” God has helped the psalmist in the past, and he asks God to help him again (1). And yet, the psalmist acknowledges that for God to hear would be grace on his part. Nevertheless, the psalmist insists, “… hear my prayer!” There is an intimacy with God implied by these insistent requests.
While the speaker is not named, the reader knows from verse 2 that the psalmist is a righteous person. In verse 2 the psalmist speaks of his long-abiding honor, or glory, which his apparent enemies from the human race are turning into shame. That is, they are taking the Lord’s pearls and trampling them underfoot. John Barclay observes the similarity between Psalm 4:2 and Proverbs 1:22, “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?” Such speech befits God alone and God’s Son, his representative on earth. And just as Proverbs 1:23 presents God’s offer of blessing were the scoffers to repent, Psalm 4 holds out an olive branch encouraging repentance in verses 4-5. What greater call to second chances and a rewritten ending than Christ’s cry from the cross, “Father, forgive them … “?
The stability of this seemingly disjointed prayer is God. God in his righteousness is the stability of all the Psalter’s prayers. Prayer is a battleground for the one praying. It’s where the suppliant/worshipper brings an often jumbled set of emotions, turmoil, confusion, hopes, and fear. When the petitioner comes before God in prayer, they open themselves to change. The one praying changes–God does not change. To effect change is the purpose for prayers of supplication. As often as not, it is the one praying who changes, apart from any change to circumstance.
God is the settler in a suppliant’s prayer. Verse 6 is key to understanding the marvelous transaction that occurs in a worshipper’s heart as she bends her knee to the grace of God in earnest prayer. It is God’s light that heals.
Verse 6b in the Septuagint, the Bible Jesus would have used, reads differently than the Masoretic, or Hebrew text, printed above. Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint reads, “the light of thy countenance, O Lord, has been manifested towards us.” Notice the change from the Masoretic’s imperative, or second person tense of request, to past tense. This change of tense turns the tide of the prayer from supplication to accomplished encouragement. The speaker’s heart has already been strengthened as he focuses on the light that God has already manifested.
The Orthodox Study Bible goes a step further in its translation of verse 6b (7b LXE), “O Lord, the light of Your face was stamped upon us.” The Greek word for “stamped” is the middle verb ἐσημειώθη, which is of the verb family rendered “sign” in English. The reader will recognize this word from Revelation 12:1 and other verses, “And a great sign appeared in heaven…” John in his Gospel calls the miracles that Jesus performed “signs,” while God calls the rainbow he gave Noah and the act of circumcision he gave Abraham “signs.”
The idea in the Orthodox translation is that the light from God’s face has already shined upon the believer’s face, leaving its indelible imprint, mark, or stamp there. The idea (though not the exact word) is the same as in Ephesians 1:13, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” God’s light changes people. We hear this thought again in 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” Much of this transformation occurs in prayer.
The believer goes to God in prayer, bringing everything that burdens his or her heart to the God who cares in order that God may shine his light upon both the person and upon the issue. God’s light is what effects change. God’s light transforms the darkness of the human condition into the glory that always accompanies his presence.
Verse 3 of this same psalm confirms the Greek Bible’s interpretation, just presented, “But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him.“ The stamp, seal, imprint, sign, or manifestation of the believer’s having been set apart for God (verse 3) is the light of God’s face upon them (verse 6).
As already mentioned above, although the unbeliever assaults the psalmist in verse 2, verses 4-5 are a call to repentance, a welcoming entreaty to nonbelievers to join in as recipients of God’s manifest blessings. The blessings of verses 3 and 6 wrap themselves around the nonbelievers of verses 4-5. Christ came to save sinners, not to condemn them, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Verses 7 and 8 close out this short psalm on an entirely different note than its opening in verse 1, “7 You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. 8 In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.” This prayer has accomplished its purpose. Although there are no indications that the psalmist’s circumstances have changed an iota, his heart has made a complete turnaround. God heard and answered the psalmist’s impassioned plea for his divine response. Joy, peace, and rest, both physical and emotional, replace the distress and urgency of the prayer’s opening. This is what coming into God’s presence accomplishes. Yet, prayer is a struggle. It is like wrestling the enemy within one’s own heart, but in the healing light of God’s presence. God’s presence changes everything.
They came to Jesus and woke Him up, saying, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And He got up and rebuked the wind and the surging waves, and they stopped, and it became calm. (Luke 8:24 NAU)
Blessings to you, as we move forward in this prayer study of Psalms together. (On a personal note, please do not think that it is easy for me to comprehend and dig out the treasures of Psalms. This psalm gave me extreme difficulty, as I wrestled with it all week long. And yes, I did pray over it.)
1 English language does not currently have a neuter pronoun in reference to people. At times it is necessary to use the pronoun “he.” I hope that all the women reading this know and understand that God loves women as much, or even more, if that were possible, than he loves men. The Lord Jesus is a man, but his church, his body, is comprised of men and women, both of whom God welcomes to pray this prayer in Christ’s footsteps. This blog’s author is a woman, who writes these words.