A Psalm for Our Time
Psalm 4 has much to say to us in the circumstances and distresses that we find ourselves now experiencing—both as individuals and as a congregation, and certainly as a nation. Listen to the words of David; they are both a prayer to his God and counsel to his listeners—
“Answer me when I call to You,
O my righteous God.
Give me relief from my distress.
Be merciful to me and hear my prayer.
How long, O men, will you turn
my glory into shame?
How long will you love delusions
and seek false gods? Selah
Know that the Lord has set apart
the godly for himself;
the Lord will hear when I call to Him.
In your anger do not sin;
when you are on your beds,
search your hearts and be silent. Selah
Offer right sacrifices
and trust in the Lord.
Many are asking, “Who can show us any good?”
Let the light of Your face shine
upon us, O Lord.
You have filled my heart with
than when their grain and new
I will lie down and sleep in peace,
for You alone, O Lord,
make me dwell in safety.
There are some wonderful promises in this psalm. There are warnings and spiritual alerts that we need to heed. There are expressions of heart here that are so appropriate and fitting for where we are.
David cries out to the Lord, “Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God.” David has been in many dire circumstances — circumstances that are unfair, circumstances of betrayal, extreme danger, threats to his life. Sometimes David pleads to the Lord to have mercy on him. He calls on God’s faithfulness and God’s unfailing love. But here, David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, specifically prays, “O my righteous God.” Psalm 97.2 tells us that righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne. The foundation of God’s throne; that indicates to us that there is something fundamental about righteousness and justice in the character of God and the basis on which God interacts with humanity. It is because of the circumstance that he is in that David cries out to the Lord for His righteousness — for the God who does right, who knows what is right — the God who will execute right when there is wrong, and justice in response to unfairness. David is saying, “I need the God who is right in all of His ways, the God who sees what is wrong, to answer me out of His standard of rightness.”
“Give me relief from my distress, be merciful to me and hear my prayer.” We are in a time of great distress. In fact, Jesus told us that these last days would be times of unparalleled distress in the world. Unrelenting distress becomes untenable, unbearable. We are seeing the reaction to injustices experienced for so long by African-Americans, communities that have been in distress for generations, and that distress becoming unbearable. People in their humanness respond out of such unrelenting distress. People need relief. There were many times when David did not get physical relief from his distress and his circumstances did not change, but God gave him relief by lifting him emotionally, by lifting him spiritually. As David put his eyes on the Lord, the Lord gave him a song and the Lord encouraged him. Throughout scripture we find many people who are in difficult situations who did not necessarily experience physical relief from those situations, but God gave them relief through His presence, relief through His encouragement. He gave them peace and joy in the midst of their circumstances. We need the Lord’s help in our distress.
David makes a wonderful statement in the middle of the Psalm. It is reiterated in the New Testament so we know that it is true across the covenants — that it is fulfilled in Jesus, applicable to us as New Testament believers:
“Know that the Lord has set apart the godly for Himself. The Lord will hear when I call to Him.”
What a wonderful statement! The apostle Paul, at the end of his ministry, wrote his second letter to Timothy. He knows that soon he is going to be executed for proclaiming the gospel. He wrote to Timothy, his protege, to encourage him, exhort and motivate him. In chapter 2 he tells Timothy a number of things: “Timothy, study the word diligently so that you can preach it in all of its truth.” Later on he told Timothy that in the last days people will not want sound doctrine, and they will not put up with sound teaching. They will look for the kind of teaching that pleases them, but “Timothy, preach the word.” He tells Timothy to run from the evil desires of youth. And he reminded Timothy that “the Lord knows those who are His. The Lord has set apart the godly for Himself.” But then he also told Timothy that “everyone who names the name of the Lord should depart from unrighteousness.” So there’s a two-fold aspect to what David is saying here and we see it unfolded for us in the words of the apostle Paul: The Lord sets apart the godly for Himself, and the godly should set themselves apart for the Lord. Peter said, “In your hearts, set apart Christ as Lord.” As we set ourselves apart from this world, as we set ourselves apart from the wickedness that is around us, as we keep our hearts from being corrupted with the spirit of this age — a spirit that will cause many to fall away, cause the love of many to grow cold, a spirit that will cause many to be weighed down with the anxieties of life and be unprepared for the Lord’s return — as we keep ourselves set apart, the Lord keeps us set apart for Himself. The Lord knows those who are faithful, those who are walking in humility, those who are walking righteously. The Lord knows those who are His, and He will keep those who are His! What a strong incentive, what a great motivation! As I keep myself set apart for the Lord, the Lord will keep me set apart for Himself. Joseph kept himself set apart. Shadrach, Meshach, Abendigo, Daniel — they all kept themselves set apart for the Lord despite the pressure that was on them to conform, and the Lord kept them set apart for Himself and for His purposes.
“In your anger do not sin.” This is another verse of scripture that we find repeated in the New Testament. There is so much anger in our world, our society, in social media. Studies have found that the more critical, the more negative one’s posts are, the more responses they get, the more followers they have. This world seems to thrive on anger, on criticism, on condemnation. And we are in a time when there is so much anger. Anger is an inevitable human emotion, but David warns, “don’t let it lead to sin.” The writer to Hebrews says, “don’t let a root of bitterness spring up in you, it will defile many” (Hebrews 12.15). How we need to guard our hearts from the spirit of this age! From what would be the normal human reaction to our circumstances, so that our hearts cannot be manipulated by our spiritual adversary. The apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians and quoted these words from Psalm 4: “In your anger do not sin,” He continued, “Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry and give the devil a foothold. (Ephesians 4.26-27)” Anger may have a very valid reason, and yet scripture tells us that our anger does not lead to God’s righteousness. Not handled the right way, anger is terribly destructive.
“Many are asking, ‘Who can show us any good?’ Let the light of Your face shine upon us, O Lord.” Paul told Timothy that the last days would be perilous times. (2 Timothy 3.1) He wrote to the Thessalonians that there would be a spirit of lawlessness that would rule over the hearts of people, and out of all the distress of the last days, it would provide the platform for the emergence of the antichrist on the world scene (2 Thessalonians 2). In their distress, people will be looking for answers and nations will be looking for a leader. It will pave the way for the antichrist who will seem to be the perfect leader with all the answers — bringing blessing, security, peace, and prosperity — until his veneer as an angel of light falls away and his true nature of evil is revealed. “Many are asking who can show us any good?” We are in that kind of place; we have such a loss of effective leadership at almost every level of our society, such a crisis of leadership. But David says, “It is the light of Your face, Lord, that we need; it is your blessing that we need; it is your help that we need; it is your peace, your protection that we need. You fill our hearts with greater joy than the joy of those who have all of the external things that they want, all the material things that they might desire.”
“I will lie down and sleep in peace for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” David wrote this psalm out of emotional distress and warned us, “In your anger do not sin.” So we know that when he lies down to sleep in peace, it’s not just physical peace; it’s also emotional peace because he has found a place of rest in the Lord—a place where he can surrender everything to the Lord, where he can experience the Lord’s peace in control of his heart. But there is also physical safety that David is experiencing: “for You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” The Lord keeps us no matter how dire the circumstance, no matter how great the danger. He is greater and He is more than able, no matter what we are experiencing.
May our eyes always be on Him. The pull of circumstances, the spirit of this age — those things tug at us so strongly. But may we keep our eyes on the Lord. For He alone can keep us safe — physically and most especially, spiritually. “To Him who is able to keep us from falling and to present us blameless” (Jude 24). “May God Himself the God of peace sanctify you—set you apart—through and through. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The One who calls you is faithful and He will do it” (1 Thessalonians 5.23-24). May you be encouraged in His love for you.