Bible Commentaries
Psalms 4

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-8

Psalms 3:1-8; Psalms 4:1-8 are a pair. They are similar in expression (my glory, there be many which say, I laid me down and slept) in the psalmist’s situation, and in structure (as indicated by the Selahs). But they need not be contemporaneous, nor need the superscription of Psalms 3:1-8 be extended to Psalms 4:1-8. Their tone is different, the fourth having little reference to the personal danger so acutely felt in Psalms 3:1-8 and being mainly a gentle, earnest remonstrance with antagonists, seeking to win them to a better mind. The strophical division into four parts of two verses each, as marked by the Selahs, is imperfectly carried out, as in Psalms 3:1-8, and does not correspond with the logical division-a phenomenon which occurs not infrequently in the Psalter, as in all poetry, where the surging thought or emotion overleaps its bounds. Dividing according to the form, we have four strophes, of which the first two are marked by Selah; dividing by the flow of thought, we have three parts of unequal length-prayer (Psalms 4:1), remonstrance (Psalms 4:2-5), communion and prayer (Psalms 4:6-8).

The cry for an answer by deed is based on the name, and on the past acts of God. Grammatically, it would be possible and regular to render "my God of righteousness," i.e., "my righteous God"; but the pronoun is best attached to "righteousness" only, as the consideration that God is righteous is less relevant than that He is the source of the psalmist’s righteousness. Since He is so, He may be expected to vindicate it by answering prayer by deliverance. He who feels that all good in himself comes from God may be quite sure that, sooner or later, and by some means or other, God will witness to His own work. To the psalmist nothing was so incredible as that God should not take care of what He had planted, or let the springing crop be trodden down or rooted up. The Old Testament takes prosperity as the Divine attestation of righteousness; and though they who worship the Man of. Sorrows have new light thrown on the meaning of that conception, the substance of it remains true forever: The compellation "God of my righteousness" is still mighty with God. The second ground of the prayer is laid in the past deeds of God. Whether the clause "Thou hast in straits made space for me" be taken relatively or not, it appeals to former deliverances as reasons for man’s prayer and for God’s act. In many languages trouble and deliverance are symbolised by narrowness and breadth. Compression is oppression. Closely hemmed in by crowds or by frowning rocks, freedom of movement is impossible and breathing is difficult. But out in the open, one expatiates, and a clear horizon means an ample sky.

The strophe division keeps together the prayer and the beginning of the remonstrance to opponents, and does so in order to emphasise the eloquent, sharp juxtaposition of God and the "sons of men." The phrase is usually employed to mean persons of position, but here the contrast between the varying height of men’s molehills is not so much in view as that between them all and the loftiness of God. The lips which by prayer have been purged and cured of quivering can speak to foes without being much abashed by their dignity or their hatred. But the very slight reference to the psalmist’s own share in the hostility of these "sons of men" is noticeable. It is their false relation to God which is prominent throughout the remonstrance; and that being so, "my glory," in Psalms 4:2, is probably to be taken, as in Psalms 3:3, as a designation of God. It is usually understood to mean either personal or official dignity, but the suggested interpretation is more in keeping with the tone of the psalm. The enemies were really flouting God and turning that great name in which the singer gloried into a jest. They were not therefore idolaters, but practical heathen in Israel, and their "vanity" and "lies" were their schemes doomed to fail and their blasphemies. These two verses bring most vividly into view the contrast between the psalmist clinging to his helping God and the knot of opponents hatching their plans which are sure to fail.

The Selah indicates a pause in the song, as if to underscore the question "How long?" and let it soak into the hearts of the foes, and then, in Psalms 4:3-4, the remonstrating voice presses on them the great truth which has sprung anew in the singer’s soul in answer to his prayer, and beseeches them to let it stay their course and still their tumult. By "the godly" is meant, of course, the psalmist. He is sure that he belongs to God and is set apart, so that no real evil can touch him; but does he build this confidence on his own character or on Jehovah’s grace? The answer depends on the meaning of the pregnant word rendered "godly," which here occurs for the first time in the Psalter. So far as its form is concerned, it may be either active, one who shows chesed (lovingkindness or favour), or passive, one to whom it is shown. But the usage in the Psalter seems to decide in favour of the passive meaning, which is also more in accordance with the general biblical view, which traces all man’s hopes and blessings, not to his attitude to God, but to God’s to him, and regards man’s love to God as a derivative, "Amati amamus, amantes amplius meremur amari" (Bern). Out of His own deep heart of love Jehovah has poured His lovingkindness on the psalmist, as he thrillingly feels, and He will take care that His treasure is not lost; therefore this conviction, which has flamed up anew since the moment before when he prayed, brings with it the assurance that He "hears when I cry," as he had just asked Him to do. The slight emendation, adopted by Cheyne from Gratz and others, is tempting, but unnecessary. He would read, with a small change which would bring this verse into parallelism with Psalms 31:22, See how passing great lovingkindness Jehovah hath shown me; but the present text is preferable, inasmuch as what we should expect to be urged upon the enemies is not outward facts, but some truth of faith neglected by them. On such a truth the singer rests his own confidence; such a truth he lays, like a cold hand, on the hot brows of the plotters, and bids them pause and ponder. Believed, it would fill them with awe, and set in a lurid light the sinfulness of their assault on him. Clearly the rendering "Be ye angry" instead of "Stand in awe" gives a less worthy meaning, and mars the picture of the progressive conversion of the enemy into a devout worshipper, of which the first stage is the recognition of the truth in Psalms 4:3; the second is the awestruck dropping of the weapons, and the third is the silent reflection in the calm and solitude of night. The psalm being an evening song, the reference to "your bed" is the more natural; but "speak in your hearts"-what? The new fact which you have learned from my lips. Say it quietly to yourselves then, when forgotten truths blaze on the waking eye, like phosphorescent writing in the dark, and the nobler self makes its voice heard. "Speak and be silent," says the psalmist, for such meditation will end the busy plots against him, and in a wider application "that dread voice," heard in the awed spirit, "shrinks the streams" of passion and earthly desires, which otherwise brawl and roar there. Another strain of the "stringed instruments" makes that silence, as it were, audible, and then the remonstrance goes on once more.

It rises higher now, exhorting to positive godliness, and that in the two forms of offering "sacrifices of righteousness," which here simply means those which are prescribed or which are offered with right dispositions, and of trusting in Jehovah-the two aspects of true religion, which outwardly is worship and inwardly is trust. The poet who could meet hate with no weapon but these earnest pleadings had learned a better lesson than "the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn, the love of love," and anticipated "bless them which curse you." The teacher who thus outlined the stages of the way back to God as recognition of His relation to the godly, solitary meditation thereon, forsaking of sin and hushing of the Spirit thereby, and finally worship and trust, knew the discipline for rebellious souls.

Psalms 4:6 seems at first sight to belong more closely to what follows than to what precedes, and is taken by those who hold the Davidic authorship as addressed to his followers beginning to despond. But it may be the continuance of the address to the enemies, carrying on the exhortation to trust. The sudden appearance of the plural "us" suggests that the psalmist associates himself with the persons whom he has been addressing, and, while he glances at the vain cries of the "many" would make himself the mouthpiece of the nascent faith which he hopes may follow his beseechings. The cry of the many would, in that case, have a general reference to the universal desire for "good," and would pathetically echo the hopelessness which must needs mingle with it, so long as the heart does not know who is the only good. The passionate weariness of the question, holding a negation in itself, is wonderfully contrasted with the calm prayer. The eyes fail for want of seeing the yearned for blessing; but if Jehovah lifts the light of His face upon us. as He will certainly do in answer to prayer, "in His light we shall see light." Every good, however various, is sphered in Him. All colours are smelted into the perfect white and glory of His face.

There is no Selah after Psalms 4:6, but, as in Psalms 3:6, one is due, though omitted.

Psalms 4:7-8 are separated from Psalms 4:6 by their purely personal reference. The psalmist returns to the tone of his prayer in Psalms 4:1, only that petition has given place, as it should do, to possession and confident thankfulness. The many ask, Who? he prays, "Lord." They have vague desires after God; he knows what he needs and wants. Therefore in the brightness of that Face shining on him his heart is glad. The mirth of harvest and vintage is exuberant, but it is poor beside the deep, still blessedness which trickles round the heart that craves most the light of Jehovah’s countenance. That craving is joy and the fruition is bliss. The psalmist here touches the bottom, the foundation fact on which every life that is not vanity must be based, and which verifies itself in every life that is so based. Strange and tragic that men should forget it and love vanity which mocks them, and, though won. still leaves them looking wearily round the horizon for any glimmer of good! The glad heart possessing Jehovah can, on the other hand. lay itself down in peace and sleep, though foes stand round. The last words of the psalm flow restfully like a lullaby. The expression of confidence gains much if "alone" be taken as referring to the psalmist. Solitary as he is, ringed round by hostility as he may be, Jehovah’s presence makes him safe, and being thus safe, he is secure and confident. So he shuts his eyes in peace, though he may be lying in the open, beneath the stars, without defences or sentries. The Face brings light in darkness, gladness in want, enlargement in straits, safety in peril, and any and every good that any and every man needs.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 4". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".