Psalm 4 - And Still a Need for Reassurance
1. For the leader, with stringed instruments. A psalm. Of David.
2. Answer me when I call, my righteous God. You freed me from distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer.
3. You men, how long will my glory be mocked, will you love illusions, seek out lies? Selah.
4. But know that the LORD singles out the faithful for Himself; the LORD hears when I call to Him.
5. So tremble, and sin no more; say it in your heart when you lie down on your bed and be still. Selah.
6. Offer sacrifices in righteousness and trust your security to the LORD.
7. Many say, "Who will show us good?!" Lift up the light of Your countenance upon us, O LORD.
8. You put joy into my heart when their grain and wine abound.
9. Safe and sound, I lie down and sleep, for You, alone, O LORD, make me repose in trust.
Psalm 4, sometimes called a poem of confidence, sometimes a lament, is neither. It would seem to be, to borrow a term from a Broadway musical, a “puzzlement,” but only if one seeks within it the kind of unity that makes for a good story - or a manual! If one allows the speaker to express his or her own complexity, then the poem reveals itself. I proceed by first reviewing the poem as it initially unfolds in a first reading, then discuss, in turn, the structure, the problems in the background and two multivalent verses (7 and 8). I then offer a final overview.
After verse 4:2, the reader has every expectation of hearing of great distress, with a moving prayer for help. This impression is only heightened by 4:3, addressed to the “men.” The reader is prepared to encounter (what in Psalms will prove to be) a classic duality, the righteous as opposed to the evil, with the righteous presently suffering.
The rest of the speech to these others, however (verses 4–6), seems inappropriately mild. They are (re-)informed of God’s care for His righteous and given a lesson in how to behave! These others, clearly members of the People, elicit no message of bitterness or revenge, but rather a lesson.
Proceeding, the reader encounters a difficult verse, 4:7. It is hard to understand, both in terms of who the “many” who speak the first half are and what is the nature of the request in the second half. The reader looks forward to the last two verses for clarification, only to find there instead an unadulterated statement of confidence!
It is at this point that the reader, confused, returns to view the poem as a whole, hoping to find a unity or comprehensive picture, perhaps one that will elucidate verse 7 at the same time.
Four Sections, Two Structures, One Psalm
Psalm 4 is subdivided, though not by word play (enclosures, repetitions, or the like). Its four sections are clearly defined by those involved and the types of statements. All statements are by the speaker:
1. Verse 2: To God, in prayer.
2. Verses 3–6: A statement to “men.”
3. Verse 7: Speaker cites “many” and their words, with a prayer.
4. Verses 8 and 9: To God, a statement of confidence.
This outline reveals a dual structure. In terms of the framework, at the beginning and at the end, the speaker addresses God (4:2, 7b-9). In terms of tone, there is a different structure, a-b-a1-b1, in which “a and a1” (4:2, 7) include at least a hint of desperation, with prayer, whereas “b and b1” (4:3–6, 8- 9) are spoken from a position of great confidence.
The sections are joined into a unity by terms that flow from one section to another.
1. The speaker’s “call” to the God of “righteousness” (4:2) is echoed in his profession to these men that God hears his “call” and that they should sacrifice in “righteousness” (4:4,6).
2. Words in his confident statement to them (4:3–6) are echoed by terms in his statement of confidence before God (4:8, 9). (The repetitions are “lie down,” “heart,” and “trust”)
3. "Say" of 4:7 echoes an earlier "say" (4:5)
4.. “Many” is echoed, verse 7 to 8 ("abound" in verse 8).
The poem thus holds together formally.
The Problematic Situation
Armed with an understanding of a structure that bespeaks unity, we return to the problematic situation as it is described in the psalm.
The problems faced by the speaker are quite mild (certainly compared to those in other psalms). His present suffering is broadly stated: how long will my glory be mocked? The implication is that these “men” have a role in that derision, for why would he question them if not? Still, the principal detail revealed regarding his problematic situation is the fact that these “men” trust in falsehood and have yet to accept the righteous life! The speaker takes this very much to heart, as he does the second problem, reflected in 4:7, that “many” question the availability of hope. (As to symptom of his suffering, it may be sleeplessness, reflected in the double reference to lying down, verses 5 and 9, the second specifically referring to sleep.)
By any measure, we would have to say that the challenge is not extreme. We find no persecution, no marked suffering. Rather, we have the confusion of one who both sees that not all is right and yet insists to others that he, not they, understands the workings of the world, even as he turns to the LORD to ask for His mercy.
Verse 7: One Verse, Three Levels, and a Uniform Need
Verse 4:7 reads: "Many say, 'Who will show us good?' Lift up the light of Your countenance upon us, O LORD."
It is unclear as to who these “many” are and who speaks the prayer. The options are:
1. The many are the men to whom he spoke (verses 3–6), who mockingly say here that they will not receive enlightenment from Above. The speaker then answers with a prayer to God for them and for himself (“us”).
2. Many good people are cited, and it is their prayer that is cited.
3. Many good people are cited, and the speaker offers the prayer for them and for himself, both as a prayer and as an answer to their desperation, which he implies that he shares.
We can abandon the idle effort to find which of these options is the “true” meaning and assume instead that the poet had at least a sense of all three (and that all are implied to a degree). The prayer of the end of the verse (inherently metaphoric and broad) would then come against a background of a very widespread need: of the general population (good people), the men to whom he spoke (the “others”), and the speaker himself. All need the LORD to lift up His countenance on them. Thus, the strong tone of the opening prayer of request resurfaces, but now in the plural, as the speaker moves beyond himself.
Verse 8: A Dual Assertion
The speaker’s final expression of confidence is delightfully two-sided, as reflected in two contemporary translations (both fitting the Hebrew) of 4: 8: (1) “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” i.e., the verse reasserts his primacy over those others, the “men,” as he declares that his joy is greater than theirs; or (2) “You have put joy into my heart when their grain and wine abound,” i.e., I take delight in their success, that of the evil ones, just as I prayed for them (in verse 7). Verse 8 thus can be read as a continuation of either of the two possible meanings of "many" in verse 7!
There is, however, an even more complex possibility. Could the one speaker hold both sentiments vis-à-vis the evildoers, both that his happiness is greater than theirs, but that, nevertheless, since he prayed for them (in the first suggested interpretation of verse 7), he will feel joy if they receive God’s blessing? It seems somewhat far-fetched, particularly in light of the great tension one finds in psalms between the speaker(s) and the unrighteous "others," but is it not the very glory of poetry to stretch and challenge one’s imagination? Can one person hold two such opposite reactions (if not simultaneously, perhaps at different times)?
Psalm 4 as a Unit
Life is complex, but it is a whole. The structure of Psalm 4 along with the multiple meanings of the verses together paint a portrait of differing moments, attitudes and acts, which nevertheless coalesce into a unified image, as implied by both the repetitions of words and the echoing structure.
A single speaker, a person of faith and commitment, at times expresses to others and at times to God a total confidence in the path he has chosen and in God’s support. However, at other times he has a need for reassurance and succor, feeling very strongly that something is missing from his own life as well as from the lives of those around him. There is no hint of a change of circumstance. On the contrary, the repeated words and the framework of his speaking give the poem a unity and a certain set or fixed air. Nor is there any hint of bipolar movement. As each section carries over into the next, we see an honest, complex person speaking to both man and God, trying to correct the world in which he lives, while reassuring others and himself at the same time.
Psalm 4 is the low-key drama of everyday struggle. Presumably, the poet tried to create a speaker to whom the reader could relate from his or her own perspective. In this, the poet has succeeded. One can almost see that speaker, relate to the words, and wonder how similar the reader is to him. Thus, the psalm can be appreciated as a fine piece of contemplative religious poetry.
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1. The term that begins verse 3, often translated “men,” is literally “sons of a man,” an otherwise unknown phrase. As it is unusual, some commentators suggest a narrower or unique implication: nobility, leaders, the rich, or the like. Given the lack of certainty, I have maintained the general term “men” (so NJPS and RSV). Malbim cleverly suggests an implication that these are individuals who trust in man, not in the Lord, hence the use "sons of man." If the reference is to a privileged class (the principle argument being that the unusual usage must have same special implication, for otherwise the poet could have used a more direct phrase), the psalm would join others (e.g., Psalm 10) in which the righteous speakers see themselves as a less (financially) successful class.
2. A number of commentators (e.g., Hacham) have noted that a few of the terms in this psalm also appear in the priestly blessing (Numbers 6:24–26). While it is true that only a few terms are borrowed, and while possibly both are drawn from some other text, it could very well be the psalm does recall rhe priestly blessing, thus partially responding to verse 7 ("Many say, 'Who will show us good?!'") with a reassurance drawn from the earliest of sources.
The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin J. Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at email@example.com.