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Psalm 4

“To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. A Psalm of David. 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! O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame? How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him. Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord. There are many who say, “Who will show us some good? Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!” You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” (Psalm 4, ESV)

The Psalmist prays God to deliver him from present as from past distresses, ver. 2 (1). He assures the haters of his regal dignity that God bestowed it, and will certainly protect it, ver. 3, 4 (2, 3). He exhorts them to quiet submission, righteousness, and trust in God, ver. 5, 6 (4, 5). He contrasts his own satisfaction, springing from such trust, with the hopeless disquietude of others, even in the midst of their enjoyments, ver. 7, 8 (6, 7). He closes with an exquisite proof of his tranquility by falling asleep, as it were, before us, under the divine protection, ver. 9 (8). The resemblance of the last verse to ver. 6 (5) of the preceding psalm, together with the general similarity of structure, shews that, like the first and second, they were meant to form a pair, or double psalm. For the reasons given in explaining Ps. 3:6 (5), the third may be described as a morning, and the fourth as an evening psalm. The historical occasion is of course the same in both, though mentioned only in the title of the third, while the musical directions are given in the title of the fourth. The absence of personal and local allusions is explained by the object of the composition, which was not to express private feelings merely, but to furnish a vehicle of pious sentiment for other sufferers, and the church at large.

  1. To the chief musician, literally the overseer or superintendent, of any work or labor (2 Chron. 2:1, 17, 34:12), and of the temple music in particular (1 Chron. 15:21). The psalm is described as belonging to him, as the performer, or as intended for him, to be given to him. This shews that it was written for the use of the ancient church, and not for any merely private purpose. That this direction was not added by a later hand is clear from the fact that it never appears in the latest psalms. The same formula occurs at the beginning of fifty-three psalms, and at the close of the one in the third chapter of Habakkuk. A more specific musical direction follows. In, on, or with stringed instruments. This may either qualify chief musician, as denoting the leader in that particular style of performance, or direct him to perform this particular psalm with that kind of accompaniment. A psalm to David, i.e. belonging to him as the author, just as it belonged to the chief musician, as the performer. The original expression is the same in both cases. Of David conveys the sense correctly, but is rather a paraphrase than a translation.

  2. (1). The psalm opens with a prayer for deliverance founded on previous experience of God’s mercy. In my calling, when I call, hear me, in the pregnant sense of hearing favorably, hear and answer me, grant me what I ask. O my God of righteousness, my righteous God! Compare my hill of holiness, Ps. 2:6, and his hill of holiness, Ps. 3:5 (4). The appeal to God, as a God of righteousness, implies the justice of the Psalmist’s cause, and shews that he asks nothing inconsistent with God’s holiness. The same rule should govern all our prayers, which must be impious if they ask God to deny himself. The mercy here asked is no new or untried favor. It is because he has experienced it before that he dares to ask it now. In the pressure, or confinement, a common figure for distress, which I have heretofore experienced, thou hast widened, or made room for me, the corresponding figure for relief. All he asks is that this may be repeated. Have mercy upon me, or be gracious unto me, now as in former times, and hear my prayer. This appeal to former mercies, as a ground for claiming new ones, is characteristic of the Bible and of true religion. Among men past favors may forbid all further expectations; but no such rule applies to the divine compassions. The more we draw from this source, the more copious and exhaustless it becomes.

  3. (2). Sons of man! In Hebrew, as in Greek, Latin, and German, there are two words answering to man, one generic and the other specific. When placed in opposition to each other, they denote men of high and low degree, as in Ps. 49:3 (2), 62:10 (9), Prov. 8:4. It seems better, therefore, to give the phrase here used its emphatic sense, as signifying men of note or eminence, rather than the vague one of men in general or human beings. This agrees, moreover, with the probable occasion of this psalm, viz., the rebellion of Absalom, in which the leading men of Israel were involved. To what (time), i.e. how long, or to what (point), degree of wickedness; most probably the former. How long (shall) my honor, not merely personal, but official, (be) for shame, i.e. be so accounted, or (be converted) into shame, by my humiliation? David never loses sight of his religious dignity as a theocratical king and a type of the Messiah, or of the insults offered to the latter in his person. The question, how long? implies that it had lasted long enough, nay, too long, even when it first began; in other words, that it was wrong from the beginning. (How long) will ye love vanity, or a vain thing, in the sense both of a foolish, hopeless undertaking, and of something morally defective or worthless. The same word is used above in reference to the insurrection of the nations against God and Christ (Ps. 2:1). (How long) will ye seek a lie, i.e. seek to realize a vain imagination, or to verify a false pretension, with particular reference perhaps to the deceitful policy of Absalom (2 Sam. 15:4, 7). As the love of the first clause denotes the bent of their affections, so the seek of this clause signifies the acting out of their internal dispositions. Compare Ps. 34:15 (14), and Zeph. 2:3. The feeling of indignant surprise implied in the interrogation is expressed still further by a solemn pause. Selah. See above, on Ps. 3:3 (2). The position of this word, here and in ver. 5 (4) below, seems to forbid the division of the psalm into strophes or stanzas of equal length.

  4. (3). The pause at the close of the preceding verse expresses feeling. The connection of the verses, as to sense, is as intimate as possible. The and at the beginning of the verse before us has reference to the exhortation implied in the foregoing question. (See above, on Ps. 2:6.) Cease to love vanity and seek a lie, and know, be assured, that the Lord, Jehovah, hath set apart, the same verb used to signify the segregation of Israel from the rest of men (Ex. 8:18, 9:4, 11:7, 33:16), here applied to the designation of an individual to the highest theocratical dignity. The Lord hath set apart for himself, for his own service, the execution of his own plans, and the promotion of his own honor. It was not, therefore, an attack on David, but on God himself and the Messiah whom he represented. The Hebrew word חָסִיד, derived from חֶסֶד, love to God or man, may either signify an object of the divine mercy, or one actuated by religions love. If both ideas are included, which is altogether probable, neither godly nor any other single word in English is an adequate translation. The predominant idea seems to be the passive one, so that the words are not so much descriptive of religious character as of divine choice: and know that the Lord hath set apart for the accomplishment of his own purpose one selected in his sovereign mercy for that purpose. This is mentioned as a proof that their hostility was vain, and that the prayer of verse 2 (1) would certainly be heard and answered. This followed as a necessary consequence from the relation which the Psalmist bore to God, not only as a godly man, but as a theocratic sovereign. The Lord, Jehovah, will hear, in my calling, when I call, unto him. The terms of the opening petition are here studiously repeated, so as to connect the prayer itself with the expression of assured hope that it will be answered.

  5. (4). The address to his enemies is still continued, but merely as a vehicle of truth and his own feelings. Rage and sin not, i.e. do not sin by raging, as you have done, against me, the Lord’s Anointed, and indirectly therefore against himself. This construction of the Hebrew words, though not the most obvious or agreeable to usage, agrees best with the context and with the Septuagint version, adopted by Paul in Ephesians 4:26, where the precept, Be ye angry and sin not, seems to be a positive prohibition of anger, i.e., of its willful continuance, as appears from what the apostle adds, perhaps in allusion to the last clause of the verse before us. Some, it is true, have understood Paul as meaning, Be angry upon just occasions, but be careful not to sin by groundless anger or excess. But even if this be the sense of the words there, it is entirely inappropriate here, where the anger of the enemies was altogether sinful, and they could not therefore be exhorted to indulge it. There is still another meaning which the Hebrew words will bear. The verb strictly means to be violently moved with any passion or emotion, whether anger (Prov. 29:9), grief (2 Sam. 18:32), or fear (Isa. 32:11). It might therefore be translated here, tremble, stand in awe, and sin not. But this, although it yields a good sense, cuts off all connection between David’s words and those of Paul, and makes the explanation of the latter still more difficult. The English word rage not only conveys the sense of the original correctly, but is probably connected with it in its etymology. The command to cease from raging against God and his Anointed, is still further carried out in the next clause. Say in your heart, to yourselves, and not aloud, much less with clamor, what you have to say. The Hebrew verb does not mean to speak but to say, and, like this English word, is always followed by the words spoken, except in a few cases where they can be instantly supplied from the context. E.g. Exod. 19:25, "So Moses went unto the people and said (not spake) to them" what God had just commanded him. Gen. 4:8, "And Gain said to Abel his brother (not talked with him)," let us go into the field, as appears from what immediately follows. Compare 2 Chron. 2:10 (11). It might here be rendered, say (so) in your heart, i.e. say we will no longer sin by raging against David; but the other is more natural, and agrees better with what follows. Say (what you do say) in your heart, upon your bed, i.e. in the silence of the night, often spoken of in Scripture as the season of reflection (Eph. 4:26), and be still, be silent, implying repentance and submission to authority. The effect of this exhortation to be still is beautifully strengthened by a pause in the performance. Selah.

  6. (5). Before his enemies can be successful they must have a fear of God and a faith, of which they are entirely destitute. This confirmation of the Psalmist’s hopes is clothed in the form of an exhortation to his enemies. Offer offerings, or sacrifice sacrifices, of righteousness, i.e. righteous sacrifices, prompted by a right motive, and implying a correct view of the divine nature. There may be an allusion to the hypocritical services of Absalom, and especially his pretended vow (2 Sam. 15:7, 8). The form of expression here is borrowed from Deut. 33:19. As an indispensable prerequisite to such a service, he particularly mentions faith. And trust in the Lord, Jehovah, not in any human help or temporal advantages.

  7. (6). Many (there are) saying, Who will shew us good? This may be in allusion to the anxious fears of his companions in misfortune, but is more probably a picture of the disquiet and unsatisfied desire arising from the want of faith and righteousness described in the foregoing verse. Of all who do not trust in God it may be said, that they are continually asking Who will shew us good, who will shew us wherein happiness consists, and how we may obtain it? In contrast with this restlessness of hope or of despair, he shews his own acquaintance with the true source of tranquility by a petition founded on the ancient and authoritative form in which the High Priest was required to bless the people (Num. 6:24–26). "The Lord bless thee and keep thee; the Lord make his face shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee; the Lord lift up his countenance upon thee and give thee peace." Two of these solemn benedictions are here mingled in a prayer. Lift upon us the light of thy countenance, O Lord, Jehovah! The light of the countenance is a favorite figure in the Psalms, for a favorable aspect or expression. See Ps. 31:17 (16), 44:4 (3), 80:4 (3). The lifting up may have reference to the rising of the sun, or be put in opposition to the act of looking down or away from any object, as a token of aversion or displeasure. Upon us extends the prayer to his companions in misfortune, or to all God’s people, or to men in general, as if he had said, This is the only hope of our lost race. The plural form may be compared with those in the Lord’s Prayer, as indicating the expansive comprehensive spirit of true piety.

  8. (7). The faith, of which his enemies were destitute, he possessed in such a measure, that the mere anticipation of God’s favor made him happier, in the midst of his distresses, than his foes in the actual possession of their temporal advantages. Thou hast given gladness in my heart, not to my heart, but to me in my heart, i.e. a real, inward, heartfelt gladness, more than the time, or more than when, i.e. more than they ever enjoyed when their corn and their wine abounded, or increased. The original nouns properly denote the new corn and wine of the passing year, the fresh fruits of the field and vineyard. The reference may be either to the proverbial joy of harvest and of vintage, or to the abundant stores of David’s enemies contrasted with his own condition when dependent on a faithful servant for subsistence (2 Sam. 16:1, 2).

  9. (8). With this faith in the divine protection, he has nothing even to disturb his rest. In peace, tranquility, composure, at once, or at the same time, by the same act, I will lie down and will sleep, or rather go to sleep, fall asleep, which is the meaning of the Hebrew verb in Gen. 2:21, 41:5, 1 Kings 19:5, and elsewhere. Nothing could be more natural and beautiful, as a description of complete tranquility, than this trait borrowed from the physical habits of the young, the healthy, and those free from all anxiety, to whom the act of lying down and that of sleeping are almost coincident. The ground of this security is given in the last clause. For thou, Lord, Jehovah, alone in safety, or security, wilt make me dwell. The future form, though not exclusive of the present (see above, on Ps. 1:2), should be retained because it indicates the Psalmist’s assured hope of something not yet realized, and is thus in perfect keeping with ver. 8 (7). Alone may be connected with what goes before: for thou Lord, and no other, thou, even though all other friends and advantages should fail me, art sufficient to protect and provide for me. Or it may be connected with what follows: alone, in safety, thou wilt make me dwell. There is then an allusion to the repeated application of the same Hebrew word to Israel as dwelling apart from other nations under God’s protection and in the enjoyment of his favor. See Num. 23:9, Duet. 33:28, 29, and compare Micah 7:14, Jer. 49:31, Deut. 4:7, 8, 2 Sam. 7:23. What was originally said of the people is then transferred, as in ver. 4 (3) above, to David, not as a private member of the ancient church, however excellent, but as its theocratic head and representative, in whom, as afterwards more perfectly in Christ, the promises to Israel were verified and realized. This last interpretation of alone is so striking, and agrees so well with the other allusions in this context to the Pentateuch, e.g. to Lev. 25:18, 19, and Deut. 33:12 in this verse, and to Num. 6:24–26 in ver. 7 (6), that some combine the two constructions, and suppose alone to have a kind of double sense, as if he had said, Thou alone wilt make me dwell alone. Although the form of this verse has respect to the particular historical occasion of the psalm, the sentiment is so expressed as to admit of an unforced application to the case of every suffering believer, and to the distresses of the church at large, for whose use it was not only left on record but originally written.

Alexander, J. A. (1864). The Psalms Translated and Explained. Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot; James Thin. (Public Domain)

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