I believe in God, but there are some uncomfortable realities in my life that might cause one to question whether I really do believe. A few weeks ago I had something that was really bothering me and I was so restless because of it that I hardly slept at all that night. I got maybe 3 or 4 hours of sleep. I know I am not alone because others have confessed to me that they sometimes have the same struggles to sleep. If I believe in God, why can’t I trust Him and fall peacefully asleep? I pray often, but many times I wrestle to pray. I ask myself, “Why pray?” When I pray it is a struggle to have confidence that God is really hearing my prayer. I feel as if I am working mightily to address a reluctant sovereign. How can I say that I believe in God when my praying is such a struggle? There are times when all I see is trouble and I wonder if God is active at all. I question whether God has done anything. I wonder where the miracles I read about in the Bible or in other stories are today. How can I say that I believe in God when I don’t see Him at work?
Sometimes these feelings are intense and other times I have hope and encouragement. Am I alone or are there others here who feel the same way and experience the same things?
Psalm 4 reflects this turmoil, but also suggests a path to peace. Let me read the Psalm for you.
Many writers identify this as a companion to Psalm 3 and suggest that Psalm 3 is a morning Psalm, whereas Psalm 4 is an evening Psalm. In Psalm 3 we read, “I lie down and sleep; I wake again…” In Psalm 4 we read, “I will lie down and sleep in peace…” As an evening Psalm, it provides great comfort in directing us to hope in God as we end the day, perhaps with turmoil in our hearts.
It is a little difficult to outline the Psalm and most writers admit that there is no clear outline. One thing that happens in this Psalm is that there are repeated words and it seems that these repeated words provide us with a picture of turmoil, a path out of turmoil and a picture of peace. In verses 1 & 3 we have the word “call.” In verses 4 & 8 we have the concepts of “being on our beds” and “sleep.” In verses 6, 7 we have the concepts of “good” and “abound.” These three words help us find peace in the turmoil of unanswered prayer, peace in the turmoil of sleeplessness and peace in the turmoil of hopelessness. Craigie says, ““…however strong the accuser or oppressor may be, ultimately it is only God who matters. And however deep the anguish and uncertainty may be, God can provide that inner peace which makes sleep possible.” This is the outline I would like to follow.
Let us read the Psalm together out loud and then think about these there concepts.
The first verse speaks of the turmoil of prayer. We see in this verse an expression of the wrestling which prayer often is and we hear the longing in it. In it we find four expressions of asking – “answer me,” “give me relief,” “be merciful to me” and “hear my prayer.” The first expression is, “Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God.” Here we find an appeal to God’s character, hoping that in His righteousness, God will answer. We see in this appeal a wrestling, a desire for God to answer prayer.
The second phrase is better translated, “make room in my distress.” The actual Hebrew word is “room” and is a much more vibrant picture than the word “relief” which we find in NIV. It indicates that the writer feels trapped by his circumstances and wants some space. The picture reminds me of the scene in one of the Star Wars movies when Princess Leah, Han Solo, Luke and Chewbaca find themselves in the garbage bin of the enemy spaceship and the walls start moving in to crush the garbage. Have you ever had prayers at times like that? They also represent a wrestling.
The next phrase recognizes that it is only by the mercy of God that we have any hope at all.
The final prayer is a request that God will hear the prayer of the one praying. The whole verse seems to me to represent a struggle in prayer. We know that we can go to God, we know that He hears prayer, we know that He is righteous and merciful; but in the time of prayer we are often just struggling to be heard, struggling to even know that God will answer.
How do we find a path from that turmoil of prayer to the peace of knowing that God will answer?
The second and third verses give us that path.
It is a little hard to know how to understand the direction of Psalm 4:2. I read two quite different interpretations. One interpretation was that this is the Psalmist speaking to his enemies and questioning their motives and actions. Another writer came at this from the perspective that this is God speaking to the Psalmist showing him the path to peace. I am taking it from that perspective.
Even though we may believe in God, we will not have confidence that He answers prayer if we engage in the actions mentioned in this verse.
First of all, we will not find peace if we turn His glory into shame. How do we turn His glory into shame? We do so if we treat Him with contempt and if we don’t recognize how glorious He is. God is creator and redeemer and if we diminish that hope in Him, we turn His glory into shame. If we forget that He is the ultimate and only one who can really bring relief and help we reject His glory
How often, instead of recognizing God’s glory, we “love delusions.” Another way to translate this is to speak of “loving emptiness.” In II Chronicles 28:16 it says that “At that time King Ahaz sent to the king of Assyria for help.” How often we go for help to that which cannot deliver. We find relief in a bottle or in a wrong relationship, or in spending money or in some other way. We try to make room for ourselves instead of asking God to make room for us. We will not trust Him if we love emptiness. I know exactly how I do that. Instead of praying, I talk to a friend. Instead of asking God, I search for answers within my own mind.
The third way in which we often look for help is in seeking what is false. NIV has “false gods” and that certainly was one way in which the ancients did it. The same King Ahaz who went to foreign leaders for help also went to false gods for help. In II Chronicles 28:22 we read, “In his time of trouble King Ahaz became even more unfaithful to the Lord. He offered sacrifices to the gods of Damascus.” The margin note on Psalm 4:2, however, shows us that the word “gods” is not in the original and so this is only one interpretation. The accurate translation is “seek lies.” How do we seek lies? How many of us believe lies in order to find relief from a situation? Last week Bryan talked about pornography. How many men believe the lie that pornography will give them fulfillment? How many women believe the lie that they are only worthy or attractive if they have a perfect body (whatever that is). How many of us believe the lie that if only we had a better job, or lived in a different place we would be happier.
As long as we turn God’s glory into shame, or love emptiness or seek lies we will not have the confidence that God is hearing and answering our prayers. The first step to peace about answered prayer is confession that we do seek help from other places than God.
The second step to peace about answered prayer is acknowledging the promise found in the first part of Psalm 4:3 and that is to “know that the Lord has set apart the godly for Himself.” When we have the confidence that God loves us, what a difference that makes! This verse gives us so much hope and encouragement. It tells us that God has taken the initiative to redeem us. When we come to God in prayer, we are not emerging from the darkness by our effort to look for the light that is at the end of the tunnel. We are responding to the one who has called us and redeemed us and who already cared for us before the world began.
The words “set apart” are loaded with wonderful promise about what God has done for us. We are not ordinary people who live without hope. We have been called children of God. God has set us apart for Himself. Those whom He has called, who have responded to His call have a special place not only in relationship with God, but in the entire universe. The church, the people of God, are the most important people in the world because of the special relationship they have with the living God who is the creator of the universe.
If we reject the path of delusion and know that we are set apart, we will have the great confidence expressed in the second part of Psalm 4:3. We will know that “the Lord will hear when I call to Him.”
This is confidence! This is peace!
Is the answer not apparent right now? That is OK because “the Lord will hear.” Does no answer present itself before our minds? That is OK because “the Lord will hear.”
The next section is connected by the mention in verse 4 about “when you are on your beds” and verse 8 which says, “I will lie down and sleep in peace.” It invites us to think about the peace which is possible in the turmoil of our sleeplessness.
Having already embarked on interpreting “O men” in verse 2 as referring to God’s address to the Psalmist, we will continue in consistency with that approach by looking at verse 4 as the turmoil which so often comes to us when we should be sleeping.
Although this looks like a wisdom saying about how to deal with anger and it could well be, I also noticed that it could be read as a reflection of the restlessness which is so often a problem when anger or difficulty are in our mind. The phrase, “when you are on your beds, search your hearts” seems to me to express that turmoil so well. The Hebrew could be translated “speak in your hearts” which expresses that feeling as well.
The Psalmist is so real. For me it happens this way. If the turmoil in my mind is intense when I go to bed, I will have difficulty falling asleep. When the turmoil in my mind is just in the background and I am tired, I will fall asleep well, but about 3 or 4 hours later, it will push to the surface at a time when I am not in a deep sleep anymore. Once the thoughts have pushed to the surface, they are hard to stop and I usually mull things over for quite a while. Sometimes it is anger that boils in my mind as I lie awake. Sometimes it is frustration or puzzlement. Whatever it is, I am not asleep when I should be asleep. I find that I “search my heart and am silent” because I cannot fix what is bothering me. The question I often ask myself is why don’t I just fall asleep and solve this thing in the morning, when I am fresh and alert and can actually do something about it, but the sleeplessness continues. When I have had one of those nights, in the morning, the sheet on my bed is often not in place anymore because of all the tossing and turning.
I have talked to enough people to know that I am not alone in this turmoil.
What is the path away from such sleeplessness?
Verse 5 answers that question when it says, simply put, trust and obey.
A better translation for the phrase “offer right sacrifices” would be “offer sacrifices of righteousness.” This means that we are to offer a sacrifice of obedience to God. In the Old Testament, people showed their obedience to God by offering animals for sacrifice. But God told them it wasn’t sacrifices he wanted, but their hearts. It was possible to bring a lamb every year and not be faithful to God. So also it is possible for us to obey a set of rules and not really be in tune with God. The phrase “sacrifices of righteousness” reminds us that it isn’t only a sacrifice, but a sacrifice of righteousness that God desires. It isn’t only obedience to rules that God wants. God desires our hearts, which means that we obey Him, but even more that we seek Him. If we are wrestling on our beds at night, it may well be that we are not offering sacrifices of righteousness. It may be that we are not obeying what we know to be God’s will. It may be that we are not seeking Him and really desiring to follow God. If we are doing Christianity as a religion not a relationship it is no wonder that we are then tossing and turning at night.
The other path to peace at night is trust. Sometimes the turmoil at night comes from fear. We don’t know what will happen: what will happen to us or what others will do to us. We are filled with questions and doubt. But when we trust God, when we know that He is the eternal God who has redeemed us, who has, as verse 3 said, “set apart the godly for himself” then we can put our trust in Him. If we trust then the unknown and fearful future cannot disturb us.
I have heard people say that if we are awake there is only one of two reasons. Either God wants us awake because He wants us to pray about something or He wants to tell me something; or we am not putting our trust in Him. So when I am awake, I try, and I don’t say that I am always successful; but I try to listen to God, to pray about what comes into my mind and to remember all that God has done for me. Often, as I do this, sleep returns quickly, or I am able to spend a meaningful time with God in worship or discovery.
If we follow this path, then we will have the experience of verse 8. “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.”
I have sometimes thought about who wrote this Psalm and how personally and powerfully he must have experienced this truth. I think David didn’t come to this place of peace easily or quickly. I suspect that he knew what it meant to lie awake at night. But I also think that David learned how to trust and find the peace of restful sleep. When he was tending sheep, he was aware that he alone could protect the sheep from the wild animals. What turmoil that would be. Yet he was able to sleep peacefully knowing the Shepherd’s care of him. When he was sleeping on the ground in the presence of his enemies, he was able to sleep because he was able to trust that he was being guarded by God Himself. That is why he was able to write, “You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” He had discovered how in the turmoil of sleeplessness, he was able to “sleep in peace.”
Spurgeon wrote, “They slumber sweetly whom faith rocks to sleep.”
The final sets of words are “good” in verse 6 and “abound” in verse 7.
Once again we have the expression of turmoil in the question, “Who can show us any good?” The Psalmist declares that many are asking this question.
Many still are asking this question and we ourselves often also ask this question. The question reflects the turmoil of hopelessness and how often Satan tempts us with this turmoil! “Where is God?” he questions. “When has God ever done anything?” “Sure, in the Bible he did amazing miracles, but when was the last time you ever saw anyone come to church, ask for healing and walk home whole?
As we ask these questions, we discourage one another. We hear someone ask, “Does God do anything?” and we realize, “O, I am not the only one who doubts that God is active.”
Sometimes we find that the difficulty in life is urgent and we repeatedly ask God to act, but we find that nothing is happening.
This is the turmoil of hopelessness which we all wrestle with at times. How difficult it is for us to live with this turmoil and how real it is in our life.
What is the path away from this turmoil? The answer is God. The Psalmist writes, “Let the light of your face shine upon us, O Lord.” In this phrase the blessing of Numbers 6:24-26 is recalled. There we read the Aaronic blessing which Moses taught the priests to speak to the people and which we still use as a blessing, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” It is a reminder that God is active.
He goes on to write, “You have…” This once again points to God who has acted. When accosted by these temptations to doubt the acts of God’s goodness, we need to turn our face to Him once again and seek Him. Do not give up! Remember the people mentioned in Hebrews who were faithful even though they went through their entire life without seeing the answer to their prayers! Remember the call in Revelation to be overcomers! When beaten down by the turmoil of hopelessness, remember all the things which God has already done. Remember your place as His child in His kingdom. Remember His sacrifice on the cross. Remember His wonderful gift of a world which He continues to sustain.
This is not a path in the sense that if we look to God, He will change His mind and act. It is a path rather in the sense that He is the one whose gracious face does shine upon us and sometimes we just have to remember, to see, to persevere, to wait and to endure.
As we persevere and as we look to God, God does answer. The assurance to the turmoil of hopelessness is the promise, “You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound.”
The joy of harvest in is a great joy. Few people walk from the garden with a basketful of tomatoes without a great smile on their face. When the lid is shut on the last bin in harvest season and the combine is cleaned up and put away there is a smile on the farmer’s face. But Spurgeon says, “’Thou art with me’, is a far more blessed cry than ‘harvest home.’” “Christ in the heart is better than corn in the barn or wine in the vat. Corn and wine are but fruits of the world, but the light of God’s countenance is the ripe fruit of heaven.”
There was one day this week when I was wrestling with turmoil. I lost some sleep, I was wrestling in prayer and I was in turmoil wondering if God was really going to act. Then the morning when these feelings were most intense, I got a phone call from a friend. He was coming by and wondered if I had time to talk. He came and we had a great hour long conversation. He gave me some resources to help me. He encouraged me, prayed with me and the hope was restored. Before that I felt as if my heart was taken away, but after that I felt that my heart was restored once again. Joy that had dissipated was restored. I told him that he was God’s voice to me that morning.
That is what God does. The joy he gives is a great joy and the hope he gives is a certain hope.
I believe in God and…God shows Himself faithful.
This Psalm is real. It acknowledges our turmoil. I am so thankful that the Word of God knows how it is on this sin soaked soil and in this heart of mine. But I am also thankful that God is here, that He came to live on this soil, that He continues to relate to those who live on this soil and that He gives peace in our struggle with prayer, peace in our sleeplessness and peace in our hopelessness.
Let us give up loving delusions and seeking lies. Let us obey Him and trust Him and look to Him and find this peace.