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Psalm 4

For years I have been praying the daily office in the morning and evening, and I frequently encounter lines from Psalm 4 woven into evening liturgies. The last lines especially are prayed at the close of the day: “I will lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.” But even though this psalm signs off with a declaration of trust in YHWH and surrender to peaceful sleep, the rest of the psalm suggests that something has definitely kept the psalmist up at night. 

From the first line of the psalm we can sense the speaker’s tension between deep distress and deep confidence. In fact, this tension contributes to a significant ambiguity in translating the overall tone of the psalm. For instance, what is translated in some English versions as a plea, “give me relief from my distress” (the NIV and CEB, for example), is just as often translated in other English versions as a praise, “you have given me relief from my distress” (like the NRSV and ESV). Whether we read those opening lines as a plea for present deliverance or a praise for past deliverance, the distress itself remains lurking in the background as the speaker seems to be having several conversations at once– with God, with imagined others, with himself.

The speaker petitions God (verses 1, and possibly 6, 7, 8), addresses enemies / adversaries (verses 2, 3), and perhaps vocalizes his own thoughts and feelings in a kind of personal “pep talk” (verses 4, 5 and, perhaps, 6). Though the psalmist is clearly troubled, it’s significant to notice that this whole conversation exists within the dynamic life of faith, within the parameters of life-with-God. In the face of whatever distress is plaguing the psalmist and whatever keeps him up at night, he still professes a great faith and deep hope in YHWH. “This is a prayer that looks trouble full in the face,but doesn’t let the trouble diminish confidence in God… This is a voice of deep need, but a voice that fully expects God to come and be transformatively present in the trouble.”[1]

In this tension between distress and comfort, the psalm provides beautiful and compelling imagery for the saving work of YHWH. I especially love the way the NRSV renders verse 1, “You gave me room when I was in distress,” which poetically captures the idiomatic Hebrew expression of straits being enlarged, or paths being widened when it’s too narrow (we see similar expressions in Psalm 18:19, Psalm 31:5, Psalm 118:5). God is the one who widens the path when things get narrow, the one who makes a way when there was no way. The psalmist prays to the covenant-keeping God who sets apart the faithful, who listens and responds to them, and who shelters them with peace. God’s faithfulness has the final word in the psalmist’s passionate prayer; God puts joy in our hearts greater than an abundant harvest after a drought and we go to sleep in peace.

The psalm also captures the speaker’s angst and distress with beautiful language and imagery. Again, the idiomatic Hebrew proves rather difficult to translate, so notice the various ways verses 2 and 6 are rendered into English:

Verse 2:

  1. How long will you love delusions and seek false gods? (NIV)

  2. How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? (NRSV)

  3. How long will you continue to love what is worthless and go after lies? (CEB)

Verse 6:

  1. Many, Lord, are asking, “Who will bring us prosperity?” (NIV)

  2. There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!” (NRSV)

  3. Many people say, “We can’t find goodness anywhere.” (CEB)

  4. There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?” (ESV)

The psalmist echoes back the constant question of his day: “Who will bring us prosperity? Who will show us some good?” And he is deeply troubled by the ways his people love worthless, vain delusions, and distressed by the ways they go after lies and false gods in their search for answers. This cultural angst sounds eerily familiar; I think these are the questions about where to find real goodness and prosperity keep our people up at night too, and I think we too can turn to worthless, vain delusions instead of to God and God’s true shalom.

Walter Brueggemann claims the overarching script/story in contemporary Western culture is what he calls “therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism.”[2] By therapeutic, he means “the assumption that there is a product or a treatment to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without any inconvenience.” By technological, he means “the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right according to human ingenuity.” Additionally, this guiding story is fundamentally consumerist, meaning “we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all of its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor.” Brueggemann uses the label militarism in referring to “the myth of U.S. exceptionalism” that “serves to protect and maintain a monopoly than can deliver and guarantee all that is needed for the therapeutic, technological, consumerist society.” In other words, as people ask, “Who will bring us prosperity? Who can show us any good?” they look everywhere, to treat their pain, they look everywhere for a quick and tangible solution to their problem, they look everywhere to soothe themselves without regard to the resources they consume or the other people they affect, and they believe it all ought to be available to them right here and right now. In short, they look everywhere except to the covenant-keeping God who widens the path when things get narrow, the one who makes a way when there was no way.

Reading this psalm in this season, in this cultural moment, I can’t help thinking that in this season after Easter, perhaps the glimpse of resurrection we’re looking for is right in the middle of our own sleepless nights, plagued by countless anxieties and all the running after worthless, vain delusions. Perhaps the room we crave for God to make in our lives is a life outside this therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism which Brueggemann so aptly identifies. Perhaps the words we hear from the resurrected Christ, “Peace be with you,“ are exactly the antidote we’ve been looking for, exactly the thing to make us lie down and sleep in peace.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Charles Cousar, Beverly Gaventa, James Newsome (ed). “Third Sunday After Easter: Psalm 4.” Texts for Preaching, Year B. p 290.

[2] Brueggemann’s “19 Theses” are included in several of his publications, including: “Some Theses on the Bible and the Church.” Mandate to Difference. Westminster/John Knox Press: 2007. pages 191-204.