Today’s Reflection
When You Are in Distress (Psalm 4)

1 Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.

2 How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words and seek after lies?

3 But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him.

4 When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent.

5 Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.

6 There are many who say, “O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!”

7 You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound.

8 I will both lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety. (NRSVUE translation)

This week I have studied many translations and many interpretations of Psalm 4, which is in the revised common lectionary for this coming Sunday. The translations are unusually various. The interpretations are exceptionally creative. Seeing and appreciating all this, I decided to share a strange interpretation of my own, since it is, for me, the most constructive and compassionate way I can find to make sense of the eight verses of this psalm.

It seems to me that in verses 1, 6, 7, and 8 the speaker in this psalm is talking (praying) to God, and that in verses 2 through 5, the speaker is (in the realm of his or her imagination) addressing members of the community who have acted unkindly toward him and caused him distress. Here is how I currently understand what is going on, verse by verse.

Verse one: the speaker asks God for help. The tone is somewhat demanding, but this person is hurt and angry, and even in their pain, they are able to remember a time when God helped them profoundly: "You gave me room when I was in distress." Remembering a time when God has come through for us can help.

Verse two: the speaker asks "you people" how long they will continue to act unkindly, to use words deceptively and perhaps idolatrously, and to lie. By critiquing these neighbors, the speaker may be able to begin to see more clearly what was done to him or her, and how the neighbors have betrayed the core values of the community. This lets the speaker re-affirm her or his most treasured values, which may also help to ease the distress.

Verse three: the speaker claims that he has a privileged relationship with God that puts him above "you people." The idea of being special to God and "having God's ear" is likely to feel comforting when one has been put down.

Verses four and five: from this supposedly superior place, the speaker instructs "you people" on how to improve their behavior: when you feel riled up, don't do violence or lash out. Take time to rest and "commune with your heart" (King James Version). It can be a relief to take up the tone of a teacher, even in one's imagination. These verses show that the speaker has been blessed by good teachers, perhaps as a child at home, as a member of the spiritual community, and/or as a reader of scripture. Maybe an "inner teacher" is helping with the speaker's attempt to commune with his own heart. The speaker also reminds all of us (including themself) that it helps to trust in God rather than rely on ourselves alone.

Verses 6 and 7: Here the speaker hints to God about how spiritually mature he is--unlike "the many" who are always asking for benefits or celebrating their own prosperity, the speaker is thankful for the superlative gift of the joy that God puts into our hearts. This too is a wise reminder from the speaker--to us, and to himself.

Verse 8: Now the speaker tells God, and us, and themself, how freeing it can be for us to let God's unwavering care be our safety in all circumstances, and what peace is ours when we allow ourselves to rest, each night, in the assurance of God's steadfast and eternal love.