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Psalm 4

Answer me when I call to you, my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer.

How long will you people turn my glory into shame? How long will you love delusions and seek false gods? Know that the Lord has set apart his faithful servant for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him.

Tremble and do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. Offer the sacrifices of the righteous and trust in the Lord.

Many, Lord, are asking, “Who will bring us prosperity?” Let the light of your face shine on us. Fill my heart with joy when their grain and new wine abound.

In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.

In the 2015 Spielberg movie The Bridge of Spies a Russian spy named Rudolph Abel is convicted of anti-American espionage in 1957 and then held in reserve by the Americans in case trade with Russia for agents ever came up. To assist in the negotiation of the trade American lawyer, James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), is assigned the case. The movie, situated firmly in the tensions of the Cold War, is generally based on a true story.

One part of the movie that I will always remember is an exchange between Abel and Donovan. Donovan is outlining the complexities and the dangers of the case before them and he asks Abel, “Aren't you worried?” To which Abel responds in wry, fatalistic tone, “Would it help?”

Abel’s character repeats that apothegmatic question whenever he is asked about concern or worry for what lies ahead.

In my first hearing, I remember thinking that I was appreciative of the realism of Abel's response. I found the truth of his perspective to be compelling in light of the reality that our individual worry does not solve the problems we face. Instead, often worry is paralyzing. Worry doesn't motivate us to action; rather, worry gets us stuck in the impossibilities of what's in front of us. After all, I reasoned, didn't Jesus say, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” (Lk. 12:25-26)

However, what I have come to see is that there is a distinct difference between the “Do not worry” of Jesus and the, “Would it help?” of Abel. Abel’s is fatalistic and hopeless; Jesus’ is full of hope based on the sovereignty of God. The telos of Abel's position is apathy; whereas the telos of Jesus’ is trust.

Similarly, in contrast to the fatalism of a Cold War era spy movie, the confidence David shows in Psalm 4 is an operation of trust based on the sovereignty of God and the hope that comes with it. 

Most scholars agree that this Song of Prayer was offered by David during the rebellion of his son, Absalom. It is considered a companion song to Psalm 3; with the first being prayed in the morning when you wake (cf. Ps. 3:5) and the second being prayed at the end of day when you go to sleep (cf. Ps. 4:8). While it is considered a Psalm of lament, it also has aspects of a Psalm of trust and confidence. “Although David aches with hurt, he expresses confidence that the Lord will not abandon him in his distress. The Lord will restore him and bless him.”[1]

In the rebellion, Absalom and his followers have usurped the kingship of David (Cf. 2 Sam. 15), such that “The hearts of the people of Israel are with Absalom.” (2 Sam. 15:13) and he must flee the palace and the city of Jerusalem. And so he challenges, “How long will you people turn my glory into shame?” (vs. 2) What the NIV translates “you people” is literally in Hebrew “sons of a man” and refers to “men of high degree… distinguished and influential people.”[2] It is the powerful people, the elite, who have challenged God’s anointed king. People who were once propped up by the king and the systems that supported him have now usurped those systems and the king that stood on top. In his place – and in the place of the God who has anointed him – they have propped up other systems: false gods and delusions of their own power and making.

David calls them back from this false hope. The call requires confession and atonement (vs. 4-5). And the call requires a turning to the Lord: “Let the light of your face shine on us.” This is what my old pastor, Rev. Howard McPhee, used to call “the two-sided coin of repentance.” On the one side, you have confession and forgiveness; and on the other side you have a turning away from the sin, you have a changing of behavior, a returning to the Lord. Genuine repentance must involve both: confessing and turning.

Trusting that genuine confession will lead to turning in the hearts and minds of the people, David has true hope in the provision of God. And that is why he will lie down and sleep in peace (vs. 8). David’s shalom, his “do not worry,” comes from the truth that “You alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.” (vs. 8) David knows that worry will not help because our help is in the name the Lord (Ps. 124:8; cf. 28:7; 54:4; 118:7).

In The Bridge of Spies, Abel’s “Would it help?” ends in fatalistic apathy, come what may. As we see from Psalm 4, David’s trust and Jesus’ “do not worry” – come what may – ends in a good night’s sleep.

Heavenly Father, In the day-to-day struggles of life, worry comes so easily. In repentance, I confess my sin. Help me now to turn to trust. Whatever comes my way may I know your peace. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

[1] Smith & Akin, Exalting in Jesus in Psalms 1-50, 30.
[2] Ross, Psalms 1-41, 235.