To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Psalm of David.
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? Selah
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. Selah
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.
A businessman from the East Coast was traveling in Texas, and quickly grew tired of hearing about how everything is “bigger” in Texas. The skies are bigger here, the trucks are bigger, the steaks are bigger, the cities are bigger, the buildings are taller, and so on.
In the hotel bar one night he orders a beer (which, of course it comes in a 32oz glass). The bartender proceeds to talk about how much bigger everything is in Texas. After downing a few of these giant beers, the businessman asks the bartender for directions to the nearest restroom. “It’s down the hall to the right.” The business man stumbles down the hall, and through the door…to the left. Which, of course, is the door to the swimming pool. Back at the bar, the bartender hears a giant splash, followed by a terrified scream: “Don’t flush, Don’t flush!”
That joke had absolutely nothing to do with Psalm 4, but today is Father’s day…and that was one of my Father’s favorite jokes. Mike Locke was a master of what we in the business refer to as the “Dad joke.”
My Dad was also a master of the “bedtime story,” and some of my earliest memories are of curling up next to him on the sofa while he read to me, usually something from J.R.R. Tolkien or Isaac Asimov. It didn’t take much before I was fast asleep, and he would pick me up and carry me to bed. Sometimes I pretended to be asleep just so he would pick me up and carry me to bed.
Today, my eldest son Grady is big enough to pick me up and carry me to bed. But I still remember when he was a newborn baby, and I would read to him, and sing to him, and recite poetry to him, walking up and down the hallway until he fell asleep. And then I would gently put him in his crib, and he would immediately wake up, and we would repeat the whole process until one of us passed out from exhaustion. I won’t say which.
My daughter Abigail has an elaborate routine that she goes through in order to go to sleep–which involves bedtime stories, the nightly drinking of sleepy-time tea, white noise from our smart speaker, and the placement of an entire army of stuffed animals carefully and precisely arrayed around her in bed.
About a week ago, my youngest son, Jonah, had a really bad nightmare, and now runs through a mental checklist with us each night before bed of every external door and window in our house, making sure all are shut and locked, and the appropriate contingency plans are all in place.
Sleep, for a family of five (or any size) is a really big deal. And whoever coined the phrase “sleeping like a baby” clearly did not have one.
Psalm 4 is all about sleep. Safe, peaceful, contented sleep, free from fear or anxiety about the future.
Of course, today’s sermon wasn’t supposed to be about Psalm 4. It was supposed to be Psalm 37. But it is the 4th sermon in our summer sermon series on the Psalms; last week was Psalm 3 and the week before that was Psalm 2. I had it listed in my sermon planning calendar as Psalm Sermon Series #4. And so Patty printed all 100 copies of the bulletin, with the scripture reading listed as Psalm 4. I didn’t have the heart (or maybe courage) to have her reprint them.
So today’s sermon is on Psalm 4. The sleepy-time Psalm. (We’ll get to Psalm 37 one of these days).
The attribution at the beginning of the Psalm reads: “To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Psalm of David.” In some English translations it is addressed “To the choir director” or “to the music leader.”
Now might be a good time to point out that this entire line hinges on the translation two tiny Hebrew letters, (לַ) lahmed and (בְּ) bet, which are Hebrew prepositions. Lahmed appears before the words “leader,” and “David” while bet appears before the word translated as “stringed instruments.”
Lahmed, according to the Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew Dictionary, means: “to, for, about, from, of.”
Bet, according to the same dictionary, means: “in, with, by, on, of.”
So the opening words of Psalm 4 could be:
1. To the leader, with stringed instruments, a Psalm of David.
2. From the leader, on stringed instruments, a Psalm to David.
3. From the leader of stringed instruments, a Psalm about David.
4. About the leader in stringed instuments, a Psalm for David.
The possibilities are endless, and the differences in meaning are actually quite significant. Translation of the Bible is not as easy, not as precise, and certainly not as helpful as we might sometimes think. So take all translations of the Psalms with a grain of salt.
Like several of the psalms we’ve already looked at, Psalm 4 begins with a cry for help in verse 1: Answer me when I call, be gracious to me, hear my prayer. This is followed by a complaint directed to the psalmist’s enemies in verse 2: How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies?
And then that word, Selah, (perhaps) indicating the change, the shift, that we see in verse 3–I like to think that this is where the lullabye (God’s lullabye) begins:
BUT…know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him.
With this assurance, the Psalmist turns back to the people, this time with advice. In the NRSV translation: When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent.” I like a an older translation of this verse from an old Presbyterian hymnal, “Stand in awe and sin not, let your heart be still. Through the silent watches, think upon his will.”
The idea is that when you are anxious at night, lying awake and thinking of all the things that disturb or frighten you, don’t let those things have the final word. Let God’s goodness and love occupy your last thoughts as the day passes into night. Selah.
One more Dad joke?
It’s the one about the man who couldn’t sleep because he was afraid there might be someone hiding under his bed at night. He went to a Psychiatrist, who told him “I can cure you in two months, if you come see me three times a week for counseling. Eighty dollars per visit.”
Six months later they run into each other on the street, and the psychiatrist asks the man why he never came back for treatment? “Well, Eighty bucks a visit three times a week for two months is a lot of money! My bartender cured me for $10.” The psychiatrist, with a bit of an attitude, asks the man how a bartender could possibly have cured him of his fear. “He told me to cut the legs off the bed – ain’t nobody under there now!”
Verses 5, 6, and 7 of Psalm 4 speak to our tendency to compare ourselves to other people–those whose lives seem better, more full of light or goodness than ours. To this, the Psalmist says in verse 5, “Offer right sacrifices and put your trust in the Lord.” In other words, do what you know is right, don’t worry about them. The best reward in this life is not (in the words of verse 7) more grain, more wine, more wealth, but rather the gladness, the hapiness that only God can provide.
And there’s one more reward, in the final verse of our bedtime psalm. The Psalmist says, “I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.”
That’s the end of Psalm 4, but it wouldn’t be quite right to end things here. The psalms were made for singing–especially those written by (or for, or to, or about) the director of music.
Psalm 4 is, naturally, a lullabye, and I’d like to teach it to you. The tune is mine, but the words are a paraphrase of this psalm that comes from an old Presbyterian Hymnal published in 1927. I’ll sing the first verse, and then you are invited to sing along with the rest. And if you fall asleep…that’s okay too.