Commentary on Psalm 4
Psalm 4 is good for what ails you.1
People are troubled about many things, but God ‘puts gladness in our hearts.’ Psalm 4 makes a good preaching text any time of year because it offers wisdom and imparts faith. But on the Third Sunday of Easter, it has a special job to do.
Psalm 4 deals honestly with unbelief: outside the church, inside the church, or even within preachers. At Easter time, the words “Christ is Risen!” are answered with “Alleluia, he is risen indeed.” But unspoken responses might include: “Oh really?” or “I doubt it;” or “I wish I believed that;” or even “You’ve got to be kidding.” Even preachers may privately wonder if Easter is too good to be true.
But God has heard all this before. In the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter, Jesus tells his frightened, doubting disciples, “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36). Likewise, Psalm 4 offers peace to troubled hearts and trust to doubting minds.
To use Psalm 4 on the Third Sunday of Easter, it is helpful to note that the other texts for this day all address the problem of unbelief. Preachers would like the message, “Christ is arisen!”, to prompt a worldwide chorus of Alleluias. But from the first Easter down to the present, the good news that Jesus lives brings different responses – even among his followers. Some people receive the message with joy. Others are skeptical or fearful, and still others reject the message out of hand.
The epistle lesson, 1 John 3:1-7, draws a sharp line between believers and unbelievers, with no middle ground. Believers are to have nothing to do with unbelievers.
Things get messier in Acts 3:12-19. Here Peter preaches to people who, like him, believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But they rejected Jesus. They killed “the Author of Life” (Acts 3:15). Peter’s hearers have just seen a lame man healed in the name of Jesus. They are amazed to see the formerly lame man leaping and praising God. Peter seizes the moment to confront them with their sin. He preaches Jesus as the fulfillment of all their hopes, based on the prophets. Thus in the Acts 3 text, Peter invites his own people to believe in Jesus and come into the household of faith, and a great many believe.
The Gospel lesson addresses the problem of unbelief within the inner circle itself. The disciples have just heard two of their own members say that Jesus is risen, yet they are “startled and terrified” and “doubts arise in their hearts” when Jesus appears (Luke 24:37-38). Even some of the disciples find it hard to believe, yet Jesus offers peace.
In this Easter context of faith and doubt, and hoping against hope, Psalm 4 begins with a prayer for help. “Answer me when I call, O God…” (4:1). And it ends with a statement of faith. “You have put gladness in my heart…You alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety” (4:7-8). Beginning and ending with God – always a good idea for the preacher.
But the middle part of the Psalm addresses other people, and these people have various responses to God’s grace. Some believe in God, and some do not. Among the believers, some are so anxious they can’t sleep at night, even with a “Sleep Number” bed. Still others seem to be wondering what God has done for them lately: “There are many who say, ‘O that we might see some good!'” (4:6). Thus, the Psalmist has some choice words to each of these groups of people.2
- To the unbelievers: (4:2) “How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words and seek after lies?” This sounds like Peter’s sharp rebuke of his listeners in Acts 3:14-15. But quickly Peter changes his tone and calls these people “friends,” so that they might listen to his proclamation. Psalm 4 is a good vessel for this proclamation. Verse 1 says that ‘God gave us room when we were in distress.’ Easter means that God sets us free from the fear of death – God ‘gives us room.’ In the Psalms, this language means that God lifts us out of a tight spot. What could be tighter than the grave! To the unbelievers (and we all have our moments), God gives “room.” Room to rise from the grave of unbelief, room for faith.
- To the sleep deprived believers: (4:4) “When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent.” The fear of death, our own or a loved one’s, is enough to keep anyone awake at night and tempt us to find relief anywhere we can. But the Psalmist exhorts us to pray and trust. For insomniac believers, who believe but have trouble trusting, the Psalm ends up with these wonderful words: “I will both lie down and sleep in peace” (4:8).
- To the folks who wonder if God has done anything good for them lately: (4:6) the Psalm says that God’s life giving power is our true wealth. It’s Easter, but we’ve been in one of the worst economic slumps since the 1930’s. People in the congregation might be thinking, “Okay, so Jesus rose from the dead, but can you say the same for my pension?” Perhaps this is irreverent talk, but it gets at the issue of where we put our trust. Verse 7 says that God’s presence puts gladness in our hearts “more than when their grain and wine abound.” A preacher might have a bit of fun coming up with current versions of ‘grain and wine abounding.’
The Psalm ends on a note of peace and confidence. “I will both lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety” (4:8). In an Easter context, combine Psalm 4 with the hymn “All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night:”
“Teach me to live that I may dread the grave as little as my bed.
Teach me to die, that so I may rise glorious at the awesome day.”3
1 Commentary first published on this site on Apr. 26, 2009.
2 New Interpreter’s Bible, 696.
3 Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #565 verse 3.