It doesn’t take much to spoil a good day, does it? One slightly cross word from your spouse, stepping in some dog poo, being cut up by another driver on the way home from the supermarket, the internet not working one evening so you can’t watch any Netflix…
Judging by his prayers, David often had bad days. Psalms 1 and 2 are all about how God is in control, how the righteous person who follows the way of Yahweh is like a solid oak tree, tall and strong – and then we launch into David’s psalms, and he gets right to his troubles. In Psalm 3.1 David says, ‘Lord, how many are my foes!’ In Psalm 4.1 David says, ‘Give me relief from my distress!’
Psalm 3 was a morning prayer, said when David woke from sleep (see 3.5) – Psalm 4 is an evening prayer (see 4.4, 8). Morning and evening, David has troubles and cries out to God. So what can we learn from the way he prays?
Urgency and Confidence
Some things go together, don’t they? (On-screen)
In Psalm 4 you can hear some of the urgency in David’s voice, can’t you? At least, I think I can (v1):
Answer me when I call!
Give me relief from my distress!
Have mercy on me!
Hear my prayer!
Psalm 4.1 (NIV)
David is in a bad way, and he knows he needs God’s help, urgently. If you’re anything like me, those are probably the times when it’s easiest to pray – when there is an urgent need, when something is going badly wrong and you need some help.
But the fact of David’s prayer shows his confidence in God. God is his righteousness (1), the one who sets him right, who makes his way straight. In his book Dale Ralph Davis translates part of v1 as ‘in tight spaces you have made space for me’ – God has been there for David in the past and so his prayer is not only urgent, it is confident that his God will be there for him again.
Lies usually travel further and more quickly than the truth, don’t they – remember the infamous Brexit Bus? There it is, in a scrap heap where it and that bare-faced lie belonged.
I wonder if any of you have ever had anyone spread lies about you, or false accusations? It’s not a pleasant experience, believe me, and it can do untold damage. Here – assuming the trouble in Psalm 4 is the same trouble as in Psalm 3 – David was fighting for his throne. His enemies were seeking to discredit him.
What does David teach us about how we might handle lies?
First, focus on the truth. It may seem a little thing, but in v2 David reminds himself that these are lies, that these enemies of his love delusions and seek false gods.
Sometimes when people say stuff to or about us, it cuts right into our hearts, and we start to believe the lie. Am I really like that, we think? Perhaps they’re right, and I deserve to be treated like this after all, we say to ourselves.
Sometimes when things are said to us over many years, it takes a long time to break the hold that lies have over us. But the best antidote to a lie is – the truth!
Jesus said, ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (John 8.32). He meant a lot of things by that – not least himself (Jesus is ‘the truth’ and he sets us free). But one thing the truth does is combat lies, so when you feel yourself giving in and listening to the lie, remind yourself of the truth!
(If this is something you struggle with, please ask someone to pray with you after the service this morning.)
The second thing David teaches us is: remember who you are.
Did you hear about the forgetful bishop? He was a godly man, but extremely absent-minded, and would forget things all the time. One day, shortly after he had moved house, he was walking home and realised he had completely forgotten where his new house was. He walked up and down, up and down, hoping that something would jog his memory. But the more he looked, the more he realised he was completely lost.
Eventually he saw a boy riding towards him on a bike. He waved his hands and the boy stopped by the kerb. ‘I don’t suppose you know where the bishop lives, do you lad?’ he asked.
The boy replied, ‘Yes Dad, Mum thought you might forget where our new house is so she sent me to look for you.’
Hopefully none of you is quite that absent-minded – but there are often times when Christians can forget we are adopted into God’s family. It has been said that the greatest gift God can bestow upon us is to adopt us into his family. He gives Christians the same status as Jesus, his only-begotten Son, and treats us as his children – and if we are his children, we are also his heirs.
When people spread malicious lies about us, sometimes it shakes our confidence in who we are. The lies make their way into our hearts, and we start to believe them. Reminding ourselves that these things are lies is helpful – but so is remembering that we are kept safe, hid with God, that he has called us by name, that we belong to him, that nothing can separate us from his love for us in Jesus Christ.
David may not have known Jesus, but he knew who he was:
Know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself;
the Lord will hear when I call to him.
Psalm 4.3 (NIV)
‘The godly’ translates the word hasid, which is related to the word hesed, which means ‘unfailing love’. So we could translate it ‘the one whom God loves, and who loves God back.’
This is who David is. He’s talking about himself here.
Yahweh loves him, and Yahweh hears when [he calls] to him (3). David loves Yahweh back, and so love is his ultimately security. Although on one level it matters a lot when things go wrong, because it hurts – although that pain is real, it can never shake the foundation of who we are as God’s children: loved by God, loving God in return.
Once Thomas Jefferson, Vice President of the USA, went into a hotel to ask for a place to stay. He had been working in the fields all day, dirty and muddy, and the proprietor, having given him the once-over, decided he was the wrong sort, and said there was no place for him at that hotel. Jefferson tried again, but the man was insistent, so he called for his horse and headed off to find another place to stay.
Imagine how the proprietor felt when he discovered who it was that he had turned away! Just because he thought the man before him was a dirty farmer, did not change the fact that the man was actually the Vice President.
Remember who you are, because nothing can take that away.
I wonder if you have ever been angry? Anger is hard to handle for some of us. I was once described as ‘full of passion, which often boils over into anger’. Ouch – it hurt more because it was true. I have struggled with anger through the years.
In v4-5 David is speaking to the angry people around him who were on his side and wanted to right the wrong, to fix the injustice. He tells them, ‘In your anger do not sin’ (4) – that is, be angry, but don’t do something stupid.
My Mum used to tell me to ‘sleep on it’ quite a lot – to which I used to retort, ‘But the Bible says, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” ’ Which was the sort of backchat that used to get me in trouble.
But her advice came right from Psalm 4: when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent (4). In other words, don’t write that angry email, send that angry letter, make that angry phone call, but go to bed, sleep on it, and you’ll think more clearly in the morning. In other other words: lie down and shut up.
David was in a situation of war, where his friends could have got themselves killed by doing something stupid – it’s good advice!
David goes on: offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord (5). This is not about repressing anger, squashing it down, ignoring it – no! It’s about making the right choice, doing the right thing, and trusting in God to make things right.
I think by now most of you are aware that I love silence – and this is one reason why. Again, Mum used to tell me to count to ten – back then that was like a red rag to a bull (well, an angry teenage boy) – but now I understand. In the silence, in the stillness we can hand our anger over to God, and allow his peace to fill our hearts.
In your anger do not sin: lie down and shut up!
So we’ve had handling lies, and handling anger – what’s next? Handling discouragement. This is another one I struggle with! David was surrounded by people saying to him, ‘Who will show us any good?’ (6). Who’s going to sort out this mess we’re in? Their difficult circumstances were getting them down.
Goodness me, I’ve been there. Sometimes it feels like nothing is going right, like everyone else is fine but you’re not, like no matter what you do, nothing ever goes quite to plan. Sometimes you’re on an even keel and then – bam! – something knocks you off.
What is David’s response to that? Let the light of your face shine upon us, O Lord (6). Those words come from the special priestly blessing that God gave through Moses, in Numbers 6 – words which David turned into a prayer.
What’s going on here? Look in v7:
You have filled my heart with a greater joy
than when their grain and new wine abound.
Psalm 4.7 (NIV)
The people around him who are discouraged get their joy from the circumstances – like when there is a bumper harvest, or the new wine is ready, or when they’ve finished a big job, or done all their housework. (There’s nothing wrong with enjoying those things!)
But if we only find pleasure in circumstances, we will never know lasting joy, because we will always face difficult circumstances, when, let’s be honest, enjoyment is the last work we might use.
Instead, David knows a greater joy, which is not linked to his circumstances, but to the light of God’s face shining upon him.
If you’ve ever driven through France you’ll have seen the fields and fields of sunflowers, all pointing the same way: at the sun.
Like sunflowers gaze on the sun, so David gazes on God, and finds that God is looking back at him, and that his face is full of light. So although David is in the midst of troubles, he still knows the deep joy of God, which no-one and no-thing can take away.
But there’s one final thing David says, and it’s a prayer I long to see in my own life:
I will lie down and sleep in peace,
for you alone, O Lord,
make me dwell in safety.
Psalm 4.8 (NIV)
David handles lies with the truth, anger with silent trust, and discouragement with true joy. And so, in the middle of trouble, he can sleep peacefully, knowing and trusting that God will keep him safe. It doesn’t mean nothing will go wrong, but that, deep down, David is secure. David is secure, not in his circumstances, but in God, who is always faithful and always loving.
And that, I think, deserves an Amen. I hope some of Psalm 4 is helpful to you as you face life’s difficulties with God by your side.