On first reading, Psalm 4 seems disjointed, as though several melodies were being sung, one after the other. The one common chord throughout, however, is the constancy of the singer’s faith in God.
Verse 2 begins with the singer’s plea to God to answer him. The verses that follow, 3 to 6, are the singer’s answer to those who mock him (v. 3) and his instructions to the devout (v. 4, 5, 6). Thus the song is, on more careful reading, actually consistent, and voices the singer’s growth from lament and despair to confidence and certainty, as he affirms his trust in God. The last two verses, 8 and 9, culminate in his joy and his sense of complete safety as he lies down to sleep (and is thereby physically so vulnerable to attack). He acts out, in these last two verses, his instructions, in verses 4 to 6, to the faithful –- that they should lie still, in utter calmness, in their beds, entrusting their safety to God.
Two repetitions – one, a word; the other, a phrase—connect the Psalm, ensuring its wholeness: the word, “righteousness”, first forms part of the phrase, “God of my righteousness” in verse 2, and occurs again in verse 6’s “sacrifices of righteousness”; the phrase, “secure trust’” in verse 6’s counselling of the faithful, echoes in verse 9 as the singer affirms God’s care of him. The two repetitions are the key to the song, as though two chords sounding its theme of affirmation.
However, the song does present several problems in interpretation, in that four of the nine verses imply two equally valid possibilities. The first double-meaning phrase is in verse 2, “God of my righteousness”: The pronoun “my” gives a power and complexity to the phrase, which itself can mean that the singer’s God is one of righteousness, or that God is the source of and the inspiration for the singer’s own righteousness. Neither reading contradicts but, in fact, reinforces the meaning of the other.
Verse 8 similarly poses two ideas: “You have given gladness to my heart, from the time [when] their grain and their wine was bountiful.” The pronoun “their” disallows the reading that the singer’s joy began with the procurement of food and wine; were that the case, no pronoun would have been necessary, or, if so, it would have been the personal “my”. Accordingly, the singer is contrasting his own joyfulness with that of his foes, either to declare that his joy is independent of theirs — indeed, existing despite their bounty they enjoy — or to assert that his is a spiritual joy; his foes’, a mere physical satiety.
Verse 7, “Miraculously lift up upon us the light of Your face, Adonai”, seems a straight-forward plea to God to show mercy. But this verse as well offers two readings, one much more nuanced and complex than the other. The simple declaration is that God will shine light on the faithful, by favouring them or even by enlarging their understanding (an affirmation of the singer’s declaration in verse 2 that God has “expanded’ him). More beneficent, however, is the implication that the light shone by God will illuminate the faces of the faithful so that they are not only enlightened, both physically and spiritually, but that their very countenances become reflections of God’s.
Verse 2 presents a problem in translation from Hebrew to English, stemming from the different connotations inherent in each language. Thus it is obviously a problem that does not exist in the original Hebrew but one that English readers should be aware of: “Whenever [I am] in distress, you have expanded me. “ In the English, God enlarges the singer; that is, gives him the strength to endure distress. The Hebrew adds a connotation of actual restriction, of physical danger, to the singer’s imperilment. “Distress”, in Hebrew – בַּ֖צָּר — has as its root, “narrow”— צַר. The description in Hebrew, then, is of the singer’s being freed from any sense of being closed in, of being isolated. The physical element inherent in the Hebrew makes vivid the contrast between expansion and restriction, between enlargement and confinement; “distress” and “expanded” act as opposite states.
The last verse of the song resolves any ambiguities or conflicts. The singer fears neither distress nor foes’ enmity. Alone, confined in his bed, he is not isolated. On the contrary. The singer is safe and at peace;
With wholeness I will both lie down and sleep, for You, Adonai,
in solitude, in secure trust, will set me down. (v. 9)