Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Fourth Psalm

Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!
You have relieved me in distress;
Be gracious to me and hear my prayer.

O sons of men, how long will my honor become a reproach?
How long will you love what is worthless and aim at deception?
But know that the Lord has set apart the godly man for Himself;
The Lord hears when I call to Him.

Tremble, and do not sin;
Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still.
Offer the sacrifices of righteousness,
And trust in the Lord.

Many are saying, "Who will show us any good?"
Lift up the light of Your countenance upon us, O Lord!
You have put gladness in my heart,
More than when their grain and new wine abound.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep,
For you alone, O Lord, make me to dwell in safety.

It seems strange to hear a man speak so boldly to the all-powerful ruler of everything: "Answer me when I call!" In the case of the psalmist, the phrase "God of my righteousness" reveals the kind of relationship that allows such boldness. The psalmist can approach boldly because he admits that his righteous position is God's gift, not his earned or deserved title. There is a history to this relationship that includes the psalmist being saved from distress. Faith built up over time helps the psalmist to trust that God will hear his prayers, though he does not deserve it.

The first two lines are quite straightforward, but the rest of the psalm seemed disjunct. This is because the audience changes abruptly. I also believe the speaker changes from the psalmist to God in two key spots. I came to this conclusion by asking the question, "If this was just a poem, how would I make the most sense of it?" I propose that the stanzas* be categorized the following way:

1) Psalmist speaking to God
2) God speaking to the psalmist and man in general
3) Psalmist's aside to mankind
4) God speaking to the psalmist and man in general
5) Psalmist's aside to mankind
6) Psalmist speaking to God

*The numbers correspond conveniently to the biblical verses, though this was not intentional. In the interest of total openness, I have separated the first five verses into their own stanzas which, while I believe it to be justifiable, is not how the NASB separates the verses. There are slight variations to poetic format when comparing translations, and I have separated them this way for the sake of clarity when referring to them in this post.

The opening stanza has already been established as a bold prayer. I believe the second stanza to be God's words for two reasons. First, it would be a marked change in attitude for the psalmist to start by appealing to the God who overlooked his offenses and suddenly accuse the rest of humanity, worrying about his personal honor. It is not that I think the psalmist is above a hypocrisy of this kind. Instead I see that the psalms reflect the clearest thinking about man's relationship with God, and this would not fit.

The second reason is the phrase "O sons of men." If this was spoken by a human, it would signal camaraderie, a sharing of station. We are all sons of men; you and I are similar. If this was spoken by God, it would signal stark contrast, a condescension. You are the created; I am the Creator. The tone of what follows lends itself much more to the idea of contrast. Also, God's concern for his own honor would be righteous in the eyes of the psalmist. Everything seems to fit.

If we accept that God is speaking, the second stanza is an indictment of the psalmist and all humanity, but the psalmist is quick to clarify the relationship for the benefit of the reader. The third stanza is an aside to let the reader know that, although God is rightly angry about the current human response to his glory, God hears the psalmist and he enjoys the title of "godly man." This is not because the psalmist is without fault, but because he trusts God (more on that to come).

In stanza four, the aside now over, God gives a series of commands. My assertion that this is also God is a bit trickier to present than the first. On my initial reading, I ascribed this portion to the psalmist, partially because the NASB lumped verses four and five into one stanza. On subsequent readings I noticed the term 'Selah' followed this passage as well as the first passage I attributed to God. While the exact meaning of the term is up for debate, most would agree that it is a convention designed to bring added attention to the preceding line or lines. I noted with interest that 'Selah' was used right after the only two places God wasn't addressed, meaning the only two places God could be speaking. This could be coincidence, but the skilled poet is very particular about form. I suggest that, in this psalm, the term is used to bring added attention to the words of God.

The following stanza brings us back to the psalmist who adds some of his own instruction, once again clarifying the relationship:
Offer the sacrifices of righteousness,
And trust in the Lord.
I am so thankful that 'sacrifices' is plural in this stanza. The psalmist is showing us that being righteous is not an all-or-nothing deal when it comes to relationship with God. We would be out of luck. I am not righteous, but I can and should continually strive to offer righteous behavior to God. Multiple sacrifices mean that I can not attain perfection, but God will accept my meager attempts. Then the psalmist comes to the all-or-nothing part of this relationship. Perfection is not required, but trust is. There are no individual trusts, just one. Trust is the faith of the Old Testament.* Even in the psalms we find the relationship between works and faith in God's plan of salvation. Yes, we are called to constantly pursue righteousness, but by faith we are justified.

*An interesting NASB tidbit: The word faith occurs four times in the Old Testament; all other occurrences are in the New Testament. The word trust occurs four times in the New Testament, all other occurrences are in the Old Testament.

The rest of the psalm returns to how it began. The psalmist prays to God. He tells God that humanity is searching for something good, but can't find it. The psalmist knows they are looking in the wrong place and asks God to show himself, a clear admission that only God is good. The psalmist testifies to the joy that this relationship has brought him. It is better than the most extravagant party, the most enjoyable earthly experience! In conclusion, he gives us a personal example of the kind of trust he is talking about.

The psalmist knows the way to relationship with God and he invites us to follow him. I can not refrain from pointing out that this psalm takes the very form of the gospel. It starts with a man crying out to be heard by God, but God rebukes the man for his sin. Then the man shares about his special relationship with God: "But know that the Lord has set apart the godly man for Himself/The Lord hears when I call to Him." Though the psalmist is considered a godly man, he is only a shadow of Jesus Christ. Jesus truly fulfills the role of the godly man who is heard by God and is set apart. He is not just a godly man; he is the god-man. Right in the middle of the psalm Jesus Christ is presented to all who would look! Then we are told to stop sinning and think about the proposition. True trust can not be given if it is not well-considered. After consideration, placing trust in Jesus Christ, God's plan for eternal safety, establishes the kind of relationship that the psalmist enjoyed so much. Even the people who said, "Who will show us any good?" were asking for Jesus. They just didn't know it. Now we can enjoy, not a temporal safety, but an eternal safety, and the fourth psalm showed the way before it was even revealed.

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