Courage In The Storm: When God Is On Your Side—Psalm 4

I have a few friends I have to call every now and then so they can put my backbone back in place. Courage is one of those finnicky things where, even if we have it, the perfect storm—or maybe even a weak sprinkling—can make it shaky. At least that is true for me. So, when I am tempted to cave, even when I think I am going the right direction, I listen to counsel that will fortify my spine, put my legs back under me, and help me stick to my guns.

It is amazing how the right person expressing their support can get us back on track when we falter. Something about the empowering help of a confidant boosts our spirits back onto course. The Psalms know that our need for that sort of support is part of the human experience.

In Psalm 4, David was in the middle of a situation where his judgment and ability as king were called into question. People were speaking against him (we will consider who and why their identity is significant as we go), and David needed help as he processed and reacted to those criticisms. By following David as he prays through that experience in Psalm 4, we learn how the psalm comes to bear upon our lives too. This article argues that Psalm 4 instructs us to depend on what God has said more than to fear people.

Context

The most basic context for Psalm 4 is the whole Psalter, which aims at our instruction. That purpose of instruction includes many applications. As this book contains diverse kinds of psalms that express praise, lament, trust, despair, contentment, rejoicing, and so forth, one application of the Psalter is that it instructs us about the godly response to the spectrum of experiences and emotions that we encounter in the Christian life. The Psalms train us to rightly process and react to whatever this life throws at us, especially in how we bring all those things to God.

The next context we should consider is how Psalm 4 fits into the book of the Psalms. Despite the fact that each psalm can stand alone to teach important things about God and how to walk with him, the Psalter is a book that is about something, that begins somewhere, goes somewhere, and ends somewhere. What does Psalm 4 contribute to this developing book?

The theme of Book I in the Psalms (Ps 1–41) concentrates on the king facing opposition. Psalms 1 and 2 are the two-part introduction to the whole Psalter. Psalm 1 teaches us that the Psalter is about the law inasmuch as it teaches us to delight in God’s law. Then Psalm 2 teaches us that the Psalter is about the gospel; it is about the king who is God’s Son claiming the nations as his inheritance to give blessing to all who take refuge in him. Combined, Psalms 1–2 remind us that Christ is the truly righteous man who perfectly delighted in God’s law, and he is God’s king who will bless all who take refuge in him. The victory of Psalm 2 is sure because Christ is the true, ultimate Davidic king.

Psalm 4 is then a fitting companion to Psalm 3 about praying in distress. Psalm 3 demonstrates that the heavenly perspective in Psalm 2—God’s promise that his king will defeat the nations who rage against him—does not undermine the reality that, at the earthly level, we experience the real hardship of the nations raging against God, his king, and his people. Psalms 3 and 4 both concern that theme of Book I about the king facing opposition. Thus, we will look at Psalm 4 and consider the three questions that guide us in reaching a full sense of any psalm: 1) What caused the psalmist to write this psalm? 2) How does it apply in my life? 3) How does it take us to Christ?

Criticism

As is the case in many psalms, we cannot pinpoint with certainty the exact historical background behind Psalm 4. We can, however, discern one aspect of the situation. In verse 2, the interjection, “O men,” translates a Hebrew phrase that indicates men of status, namely, we would infer in this situation, the king’s own leaders.1 So, David’s own cabinet of counselors and officers are questioning his competence and ability to lead well. That informs his cry, “how long shall my honor be turned into shame?” They were turning his position as Israel’s king into a reason to deride him.

Strikingly, that means that both Psalm 3 and 4 are about the king’s concern about opposition within his own ranks.2 Thus, Psalm 4 fits well in the Psalter’s developing concern about the challenge against God’s king. It also furthers the shocking plot twist that the nation who rages most against God’s king is his own people. The king’s own servants turn his glory into shame.3

Commentators have varying suggestions about what might have caused David’s subordinates to question him. The remark in verse 7 about joy and the harvest has led some to understand the background as a lack of rain and a failing harvest.4 For example, we read in 2 Samuel 21 of a problematic draught. Since in the ancient context of agricultural societies people thought that the nation’s prosperity in harvest depended upon the king’s faithfulness and success, it may be that David’s servants presumed that a national draught indicated his failure as king.

This psalm may be less definite in its origins though. Maybe it was tied to that same situation which formed the background of Psalm 3, where Absalom stole the hearts of Israel away from David so that even many of its leaders came to question his kingship. Regardless of the background, David’s people have turned on him.

As always, the structure of a psalm helps us perceive its main point. Psalm 4 has three main sections as I understand it. In verse 1, we have the only plea in the whole psalm.5 Verse 1 is David’s request. He calls out for God to help him in distress, to hear his prayer, and to give gracious aid. Verses 2–7 comprise David’s reflection on the situation as he describes the problem and responds to his accusers. Then in verse 8, he states his conclusion. He asserts, after telling us all the things he needs to work through before the Lord, that he is at peace because God is on his side: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” Because God causes his well-being, David is happy to go to sleep at night and rest well. Through the psalm’s portrayal of David facing serious criticism, we are brought to reckon with times when we come under fire.

Confidence

If David’s concern in Psalm 4 was about how his seemingly closest allies were bringing into question his ability, dependability, and calling as the nation’s leader, how does that prayer come to bear upon our lives? Psalm 4 teaches us how to take our distress to God every time we feel undermined in our callings. In our marriages, how quickly can we go from feeling confident in how we serve our spouse to feeling like they think we have let them down seriously? For parents, it does not take much for our kids (maybe especially if they are teenagers) to call our wisdom into question. How many of us have had some great idea at work only for it to be shot down before it got off the ground? Perhaps we are our own antagonist as we question ourselves in our walk with Christ, our confidence in what he has called us to do, and in countless other matters where we feel inadequate.

Some of those situations should not lead to a Psalm-4-level of distress. Nonetheless, this psalm applies to comparable situations when the exact thing that should honor us is flipped to shame us. People believe false things about each one of us and use those lies against us. There is no doubt that the fear of man—the inclination to crumble before critical human opinion—is an easy impulse to indulge.

David’s response in verse 3 helps us. He responds to opposition: “But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him.” I think that he was talking to himself foremost. His point was that God is the one who called him unquestionably to his role as king.

Christian, God has called you to your marriage, to your family roles, to work roles, to your way of serving in his church, to any vocation—paid or not. Sometimes people prove themselves to be truly disqualified, by which I mean they have demonstrated some obvious moral fault. Apart from that, we must remember that God gives us the callings that we have. To put it more bluntly, when God is on your side, when God wants you in the role you have, you will find surer footing as you press ahead amid criticism.

David sends his critics to consider that point more fully. They can be upset about the situation insofar as it disappoints them, but they cannot let that anger stray into sinfulness. They should think long and hard about their criticisms before letting them fester into real resentment. They should attend to the means of grace (the sacrifices, mentioned in verse 5, were sacraments of the Old Testament era), especially in conjunction with true trust in God. They should call on the Lord and look to him to grant peace.

Considering the means of grace highlights another key aspect about this psalm’s use. In the scope of the Psalter, Psalm 3 is a morning prayer framed by God’s preservation of David through the night so that he woke up in the morning. The end of Psalm 4 reveals it is an evening prayer offered by David in trust before he went to sleep. In other words, Psalms 3 and 4 show us the pattern of seeking the Lord morning and evening, which Reformed churches try to instill through the means of grace by practicing morning and evening worship on the Lord’s Day.

We should imitate David when he reminds himself of how the Lord regards him. Irrespective of whether the situation was a literal draught, David concludes that God’s disposition toward him is better than when the full harvest is gathered. Even as his critics assail him, he goes to bed and rests at ease. Calvin put it: “The sum is, that he had more satisfaction in seeing the reconciled countenance of God beaming upon him, than if he had possessed garners full of corn, and cellars full of wine.”6 In other words, God’s favor upon you ought to outweigh and outshine criticisms. We find our confidence when we listen to what the Lord says of us more than when we listen to our fear of others’ opinions.

Contentment

How do we see Christ in Psalm 4? It becomes obvious when we realize that we are the people who so often question the leadership of the true and ultimate David—king Jesus Christ. When he does not give us what we want, we can be quick to ask why he would withhold the good things we need. When he does not answer our prayers in the way that seems so obvious to us, we can doubt that he even heard us. We are the king’s citizens who turn against him. We call his care for us into question when things do not go just our way.

In that respect, we ought to be moved to thankfulness that Jesus valued his Father’s approval in his calling more than what even his people said. He was committed to do what the Father gave him to do, setting aside all the criticism that he received as the people pushed him to cater to their desires rather than to fulfill his divine mission.

Christ took satisfaction in the joy of doing what the Father tasked him to do, so that for the joy set before him he endured the cross even while despising the shame. His glory as the Son of God was turned into his shame as his own people crucified him.

But he laid down to that sleep of death because he knew that the Lord would restore and vindicate him. He knew that his sacrifice transcended a temporary loss and that he would redeem his people by his saving work. He found contentment in distress by assuring himself of the Lord’s approval. We find contentment in distress in the Lord’s approval given to us in Christ Jesus.

Notes

  1. Bruce K. Waltke and Fred G. Zaspel, How to Read and Understand the Psalms (Wheaton: Crossway, 2023), 62–63; Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic Press, 2011–16), 1:230n3, 235; John Goldingay, Psalms, 3 vols., Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006–8), 1:116nb.
  2. Bruce K. Waltke and James M. Houston with Erika Moore, The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 193–94.
  3. Waltke and Zaspel, How to Read and Understand the Psalms, 63.
  4. Waltke, Houston, and Moore, Psalms, 225.
  5. Goldingay, Psalms, 1:118.
  6. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 4.2:48–49.

© Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.

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