This is the fourth in the series of what the Holy Spirit shared with me concerning the Psalms.
Psalm 4< 4:1:“Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer.”
At first, this might seem to be another plea for help from God to deliver the psalmist from his troubling plight. There are, after all, many such psalms and God himself invites us to do this very thing, to turn to him in our troubles and seek his help: He wants to be our God, who helps us in our time of need:
“Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me” (Ps. 50:15).
But this psalm is somewhat unique in that the psalmist looks beyond his own, personal hardships and trials of the moment to the greater purpose God has in letting his children suffer at the hands of evil men. Yes, there are aspects of the situation and the psalm that do involve a plea from a distressed child of God to him to remedy the situation, but the psalmist also has the gift of God to see beyond himself to the grander vision of God. Is this not a precious gift from God to those children of his who have learned to get beyond themselves and to step into the wider and deeper purposes of God for their lives?
“Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Ph. 2:4).
What is it here in this psalm that distresses the writer? It is the unbelief of others, disrespect for God. He loves God so much that it hurts him to see his God defamed and treated shamefully. He voices his grief in verse two.
4:2“How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame? How long will you love delusions and seek false gods? Selah”
“How long . . . ?” He is deeply troubled by the lack of awe of God and unbelief that he sees in those around him. In this he is echoing the same sorrow and frustration of heart of the very One he so loves, his Lord, who, when he became flesh and dwelt upon this earth, once expressed the same distress of heart:
“‘O unbelieving and perverse generation,’ Jesus replied, ‘how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?'” (Mt. 17:17).
Those who love God are naturally distressed when those who don’t love God turn their glory, their God, into the shame of idols. Can’t they see how foolish and ignoble this is? It is all a delusion and falsehood. But that is what those who do not love the truth want; they want delusions, not the truth.
“They say to the seers, ‘See no more visions!’ and to the prophets, ‘Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!'” (Is. 30:10,11).
That is their cry. But the psalmist has a different cry, that their eyes would be opened and that their hearts would be opened to the truth and to reality, and that they would not live their lives in a fantasy world but in the real world where the one, true, real God rules over all.
But he is alone in this desire and view. They are not to assume, however, that just because he stands alone in this vision of reality that God is not real or that he has abandoned him. He sets the record straight in verse three:
4:3:“Know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself; the Lord will hear when I call to him.”
His aloneness is not a sign of abandonment, but, quite the contrary, is a sign of God’s blessing, and a great one at that: The blessing of the person of God himself. They misinterpret this aspect of the situation just as they totally misunderstand all other aspects of reality. More of their complete failure to comprehend life and reality and God is revealed in the rest of the psalm.
4:4:“In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. Selah”
So, apparently, they are angry about something. The psalmist cautions them, and us, not to let anger lead into rash words and actions and thereby sin. Rather, we should sleep on it, search our hearts for the true reason for our anger, and then be silent, rather than throw up bitter and rash words at God.
“Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few” (Eccl. 5:2).
The psalmist is confident that if this course of action is taken, those who are upset with God will find that the real problem lies within their heart’s attitude and not with God. Once this is realized, then angry words will cease and they will lie silent upon their beds. In fact, if they are really honest with themselves, they will see that their words against God have been sinful and they need to repent and seek his forgiveness. They should then take the action recommended in verse five:
4:5:“Offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord.”
This is what God told Job and his friends to do as well. For human beings are not the only ones who can become angry; God himself can show anger at our careless words about him:
“After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.’
“So Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite did what the Lord told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer” (Job 42:7-9).
But just what was it that had upset those around the psalmist and that had, in turn, upset him about them? What was this whole confrontation about? Apparently, from verse six, it was about a common attitude that many people in this world have about who is God. It can be expressed in many ways but perhaps the most easily understood is to say it like this: Whatever works is what I will follow and be my god.
This is an extremely dangerous philosophy to have about life–and yet it is easy to see why it is so popular: If something does not work, then it is out of touch with the true nature of reality and should be discarded. Reality, is, after all, that which is real and if we want to be real (and we should want this above all else), then we need to know reality as it really is. This applies to all religions, including Christianity, and all philosophies or worldviews. If Christianity did not accord with reality, suspicion that it is not true should arise in our hearts.
The problem, though, is determining what is meant by “what works”. Works in what way? According to how I think something should work? Then the individual becomes a god of sorts, determining what is real and true. And of course it is easy to see why such a viewpoint is so popular among self-focused, fallen man.
Or is it how something works in accord with the laws of physics and the material universe? Then evolution could become a god to be believed in and followed. Or maybe the criterion should be how something works in accord or not with society. Then government becomes the determiner of reality–which is why history is rife with dictatorships and repressive governments, because each one thinks it has the final, ultimate vision of what works and what doesn’t.
Other possibilities could be listed, but the point should be clear by now: Anything put forth by man fails the test of what works because man is not sufficiently large enough to be the determiner of such a profound thing as the true nature of reality. Only the infinite God, the creator of the reality in which we exist, and himself the ultimate expression of reality, is large enough to be the one criterion upon which “what works” should be decided or determined. He is absolute and ultimate and supreme, beyond which nothing can go or exist or even be imagined. It all ends with God, just as it all begins with him. He rightly calls himself the Alpha and the Omege, the beginning and the end. And the Christian faith through which he interacts with those who believe in him stands the test of what works because of who he is, “so that in everything he might have the supremacy” (Col. 2:3) and “so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).
Nevertheless, many in this world do not have such a view of God. To them, God must be someone who does their bidding, who provides for them, who “works” for them. This philosophy is expressed in verse six:
4:6:“Many are asking, ‘Who can show us any good?'”
That is another way of saying, “We want a god ‘who works’.” God is defined in this approach to life as whatever makes me feel good, provides for my desires, and anything else I decide upon. It is all wrapped up and around one’s self.
I have witnessed this pitiful, self-focused attitude first hand. When working with youth in our church, I once had a mother come to me over concern for her son. Though a believer, he was on the edge of abandoning his faith in God. When I asked her why, she said that as long as things had been going well, he had been content to continue in the faith. But now that something had come up, or actually broken up–his relationship with his girlfriend, as I recall (possibly erroneously; my memory is not what it used to be)–now he was not so sure he wanted to be a follower of Jesus. It was an attitude of “Yeah, you’ve helped me and given me good things in the past, Lord, but what have you done for me lately?”
Now, although I was appalled by this attitude, I could understand how it manifested itself in this young man and possibly allow for some leeway. After all, he was, I emphasize, a young man, a teenager, who had not yet come to know Jesus to the depth that is needed to stand by him. I say I could allow some leeway–not in any way meaning that I condone such an attitude, only that I understand that various levels of maturity must be taken into account when dealing with such situations. Jesus himself encountered a similar situation in his ministry when he began teaching his followers the deeper, more difficult aspects of following him.
“On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’
“Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, ‘Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.’
“From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve.
“Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God'” (Jn. 6:60-68).
Yes, many do abandon following Jesus when times get tough, because they expect God to fulfill their demands and expectations instead of them fulfilling his. They want a god who works for them instead of beings servants who work for God. This is a far cry from the God-centered declaration quoted previously from First Corinthians, where “what works” is that in which God is all in all. Anything else does not work; it just seems to work for a while, and those whose vision extends no farther than self fail to see the failure of their chosen path because they can see no farther than self and today. They fail to hear the warning of the prophet Isaiah against all such man-made plantings of other visions of reality:
“You have forgotten God your Savior; you have not remembered the Rock, your fortress. Therefore, though you set out the finest plants and plant imported vines, though on the day you set them out, you make them grow, and on the morning when you plant them, you bring them to bud, yet the harvest will be as nothing in the day of disease and incurable pain.
“Oh, the raging of many nations–they rage like the raging sea! Oh, the uproar of the peoples–they roar like the roaring of great waters Although the peoples roar like the roar of surging waters, when he rebukes them they flee far away, driven before the wind like chaff on the hills, like tumbleweed before a gale. In the evening, sudden terror! Before the morning, they are gone! This is the portion of those who loot us, the lot of those who plunder us” (Is. 17:10-14).
Those who do not look to God for the ultimate truth about life and reality are truly plunderers. For they take portions of the truth, as revealed in God’s Word, and mix it in with their own visions of reality and then claim that this is the way things really are; this is what works. But God says all who thus plunder the precious truth of God’s Word, though they may seem to create something that works for a while, will nevertheless come to a day when what they have plundered and planted will harvest nothing but the wind of God’s wrath and truth. “They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind” (Hos. 8:7).
It would be much better for such to see the truth now, before the day of reckoning of the Lord for their false visions of reality, their reliance upon what seems to work. But how are such blind people to see the truth before this happens? One way is for those who know the Lord and know that he is the one who truly “works” to be a living illustration of this principle in their lives. That is why the psalmist finishes verse six in this way: “Let the light of your face shine upon us, O Lord.”
Yes! Let these nearsighted unbelievers see your goodness on us, Lord. Let us be a light unto those who live in darkness. Shine your light upon us, Lord. They may trust in whatever works to provide for them the necessities of life, but I trust in you, O Lord; for you are the one who is able to work the miracle of growth in plants for food and in my heart for growth in knowledge of you. So the psalmist says:
4:7,8:“You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound. I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety,” ”
At last, the psalmist can rest in peace, for he knows that though his heart is troubled by the false view of reality that his opponents cling to, he can rest in peace and safety in the Lord. He will not fall into the same trap they have because the Lord upholds him; he is the true reality; he is the God that works.