“How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame?” Psalm 4:2
Were I a writing teacher (which I am) and were I to be asked to grade Psalm 4—(which I’ve not been) I’d have to admit (maybe I shouldn’t) that in my estimation this song isn’t one of David’s greatest hits.
I like the fact that it follows Psalm 3, a psalm traditionally called “a morning Psalm.” Psalm 4 has been just as traditionally called “an evening psalm,” as we shall see. Creates a nice pattern. It’s somehow fits where it is.
But, just for a moment, let me make a case for what I see as its problems. The song begins with a demand (“Answer me”) that softens rather quickly into the heartfelt request of every human being who knows he or she has sinned (“be merciful to me’). Despite its in-your-face first line, it’s difficult to imagine that verse one could be written in any position other than on one’s knees. Read it again, if you think I’m wrong.
Suddenly, and without notice, the supplicant of verse one turns his attention totally on those who have no faith in Almighty God, seems drawn to his knees out of concern for what the KJV used to call “sons of men,” a term of respect.
Verse three uses a whole different voice. You should know, he says to those “sons of men,” that the Lord has chosen his own and, quite frankly, I’m one of them. Furthermore, he says, chin jutting, he’ll answer my prayers. Odd sentiment for a supplicant who wasn’t so sure about anything just a moment ago.
In verse 4 and 5, those pointy-fingered accusations about his enemies’ sins have melted away into a priestly blessing. Listen, he says, his tone lightening up, look into a mirror sometime. Once you’ve seen what’s really there (verse 5), offer good sacrifices to the Lord.
His enemies have disappeared altogether by verse 6, and verse 7 exudes joy at what seems to be the blessing he was demanding of the Lord at the outset. Sweetly, the psalm ends with a pledge and a testimony.
Really, the emotional life—what writers call “tone”—of Psalm 4 is all over the map. In this poem, David seems almost manic-depressive, like his predecessor, Saul. There is little continuity here, almost no unity. The major players in the drama—David and his vain enemies—are multi-faceted, and even God shifts in focus.
Ask yourself this: how many people do you know who list Psalm 4 as among their favorites?
So who reserved a place for it in the canon? Why is it in the anthology?
I’ll hazard an answer. Because, in the words of a retail chain, Psalm 4-are-us.
Who hasn’t, in times of dire distress, panted prayers that were as disheveled as this, as madcap in structure and form? Who hasn’t stuttered? Whose most deeply felt prayers honestly achieve beauty and grace?
Psalm 4, like so many other songs in this book, testifies of God’s love. Its emotions are out of control, its rhetoric all over the map. It’s the testimony of a man at wit’s end, a man who’s spent far too many nights tossing and turning. Psalm 4 is David’s way, really, of falling, graciously, to sleep.
Because it’s here, because it made the collection, because it does what we do, it’s very much ours.