Bible Commentary

A Bedtime Prayer (Psalm 4)

Today, many of us sink our weary heads onto our pillows and fall asleep staring at our smart phone screens, scrolling Facebook one last time, trying to clear our email inbox, or checking the newsfeed again. And studies keep revealing our tech habits are producing one of the most anxious and emotionally unsettled societies in history.

How different do we find the bedtime ritual of the ancient Hebrew psalmist! Psalm 4 gives us a window into the evening prayer and meditation of a man carrying a load at least equal to ours. Many commentators suspect he was a great leader such as a high priest. He is certainly fighting off anxiety as he lies down in search of some rest and peace.

Before I go further, let me suggest the following: I wonder if Jesus had prayed this psalm so many times himself that it enabled him to sleep peacefully through the storm out at sea while the disciples feared for their lives. More on that at the end.

One commentator says, “As Psalm 3 was the morning thanksgiving of a victorious warrior, so Psalm 4 is the evening meditation of a God-fearing statesman. We could wish that all who aspire to public leadership would think in quiet thus before they sleep.” Indeed!

Let’s eaves drop on him and watch how he moves from an anxious soul to a peaceful sleep.

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.

He knows God. He trusts that God knows him. Thus, he prays boldly to the “God of my right” and expects he will answer when he calls. He then celebrates God’s past faithfulness to him, recalling other times when he was in a “tight place”, when the pressures all around him were closing in on him and about to crush him. He has experienced firsthand the grace and power God that widens narrow places. 

Do you believe God can pluck you out of tight spot you’re in right now? Do you believe God is good enough and powerful enough to push back the waters that threaten to collapse on you like Pharaoh’s army? Put your phone away tonight, and lift a prayer up from your pillow to the God who wants to give you room to breathe.

When you are disturbed, stand in awe, and do not sin.
    Think about it overnight and remain silent.
Offer sacrifices in the right spirit,
    and trust the Lord.

Now, we see ancient wisdom displayed that should be tweeted to every person who has ever held public office, or a leadership position, or just any human who has ever been wronged and gone to bed angry or disturbed. When you are disturbed, resist lashing out with an angry tweet, rushed email, emotional Facebook message or shortsighted text!

Instead, “stand in awe” or “tremble at” the all-knowing God, and do not let your moodiness drive you to sin. Push pause on the argument. “Think about it overnight and remain silent” (v.4).  Next, turn your bed stand into an altar or your evening shower time into a sanctuary, and offer the sacrifice of a humble, contrite spirit. Turn the disturbing situation over to the Lord and trust him to begin working on it overnight while you sleep!

(By the way, in college I began the practice of lighting a candle and taking an evening prayer shower in a darkened bathroom. My 5 college roommates who shared my apartment thought I was strange, to be sure, but I miss that “steamy sanctuary” and “cleansing” ritual. In fact, I’ve done it again recently a couple times.)

Next the psalmist again cries out to the Lord, asking the Lord to bring better times in the future, and longs for God’s face to smile on him again.

Many people say, “Who will show us better times?”
    Let your face smile on us, Lord.

What we need most when our soul’s are disturbed and we find ourselves suffocating with anxiety and uncertainty  is some perspective. I know a guy who doesn’t have a lot, is dealing with many hardships, illnesses and some discontent. But he’s learned to tap into the power of perspective, so when I ask, “How’s it going today?” he often says, “I could be better, but compared with many people around the world, I can’t complain.” The psalmist taps into an inner source of joy and contentment, even though his outer circumstances may be less than ideal, and certainly not as well-off as others who seem to be flourishing materially.

You have given me greater joy
    than those who have abundant harvests of grain and new wine.

The Apostle Paul practiced and taught this as well when he said, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Phil 4:12-13).

If we were as connected to the Source of inner peace as we are to our smart phones and Facebook feeds when we hit our pillows, perhaps we would begin to experience the blessing of peace amidst the swirling storms all around us. What do you think?

Now, back to Jesus sleeping like a baby at the back of that storm-tossed boat while the disciples freaked out. Just as the songs of Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, and other worship songwriters are found on the lips of worshipers today, so the psalms were the songbook for worshipers in Jesus’ day. Jesus loved the psalms, and quotes them frequently as he casts his vision for the in-breaking kingdom. (Read my piece on the Psalms called “Israel’s iPod.”)

If we would internalize these words full of God’s promises and truths, they would begin to shape how we face our daily lives with all their ups and downs. Jesus could certainly say confidently: “I have hidden your word in my heart” (Psalm 119:11). Perhaps he heard the winds pick up, and felt the boat rocking wildly while lying in the back of that boat. But instead of letting it disturb him, he chose to “stand in awe” and let his heart, mind, soul and strength be swept up instead into to soothing rhythms of the lyrics of a song he had sung his entire life:

In peace I will lie down and sleep,
    for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe.

Yes, the one who would eventually say to the storm, “Peace! Be still!” first needed to have his own soul reassured by the words of the Psalmist.

Fast-Forward now to the end of his life. When his days of tribulation drew near, he would find himself in a “tight place”, hemmed in on all sides by his enemies (Ps. 4:2-5). He would imitate the psalmist and cry out to God in his distress. He would trust that his Father was able to bring him through the ultimate “tight place” of a cold-stone tomb, and out the other side into the wide-open space of Resurrection life in the Spirit!

Yes, go back and read this psalm in full again now (I left out a few verses) and marvel at how Jesus not only knelt down by his bed and prayed this prayer, but he actually lived it out — every part of it — in his own life experience.

Let’s make this our evening meditation this week, and praise the God who widens narrow spaces and helps us lie down in peace and sleep safely in His care! Now that I think about it, my parents taught me a similar prayer as a child:

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

Keep me safe all through the night

And wake me with the morning light.

Amen.

 

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