A Prayer for Tight Spots (Psalm 4)
We’re spending some time this summer going through some of the early psalms. Today we come to Psalm 4, and I’m going to call this one a psalm for tight spots. The reason why is because of what David says in the first verse of this psalm: “Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!” The middle phrase in this verse, “You have given me relief when I was in distress,” could literally be translated, “In a tight corner, you have made room for me.” We don’t know what situation David was facing when he wrote this psalm, but we do know that he was in a tight spot. In fact, it’s almost better that we don’t know what situation David was facing. In a way it doesn’t matter. This is a psalm for any of us who are finding ourselves in a tight spot of some kind.
You know what a tight spot is. I’ve driven through some tight spots recently. Have you ever driven through a narrow space, watching your side-view mirrors so that you don’t lose them? You know what it’s like to be in a tight spot. Maybe you’ve been stuck at some point in your life. You thought you could wedge your body through a space that turned out to be a little too small. Well, then, you’ve also been in a tight spot. I picture someone walking through a narrow rock formation that’s hardly big enough to squeeze through. There’s no room to maneuver or turn. There’s nowhere to go. I hate the feeling of being constricted and squeezed. But that’s exactly the situation that David faces as he writes this psalm.
Some of you know exactly what David is talking about. It could be that right now you’re in a tight spot in your life. I don’t know what that tight spot is, but you feel hemmed in and trapped. You don’t have a lot of options for getting out. You feel constricted, restricted, closed in, with nowhere to turn. You love the picture of being given room to move, as David says in this psalm.
So the question is: what do we do when we find ourselves in a tight spot? What do we do when we’re hemmed in with nowhere to turn and nowhere to go? David teaches us how to respond in this psalm. How do we respond when we’re in a tight spot? With confidence, honesty, and peace, he says. Let’s look at each one.
First, when you’re in a tight spot, respond with confidence to God.
Confidence is almost too tame a word to describe verse 1. You could call it gutsy confidence. You can call it audaciousness or boldness. Whatever you call it, David is incredibly bold in addressing God as he faces his tight spot. Read what he says:
Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!
You have given me relief when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!
What I find amazing about this verse is how David approaches God. He comes with a bold confidence in God. He’s bold in approaching God. He basically says, “Listen up! Hear me!” He demands an active response from God. He does not come as someone who is unsure of God. He comes with a bold expectation that God will hear and respond.
There are two concepts here. One is the expectation that God is willing to hear David’s prayers. David has no doubt that even when he’s in this tight spot that God can and should turn his ear and listen. Bill Hybels, a pastor near Chicago, talks about his father who was a very busy man. He traveled all over the world. To get through to him, you had to go through his staff first. But he had a private number that rang the phone right on his desk without having to go through any intermediary. Only a few select people, including his children, had that number. He still remembers the number to this day: 345-5366. No matter how busy he was, they could call him any time on that direct line.
Hybels says, “No one’s voice sounds sweeter to God than your voice. ‘Hello, Father.’ There’s nothing going on in the cosmos that would keep him from directing his full attention to your conversation or your request.” David got that. David had an bold expectation that God would hear him. He had the audacity to say, “Listen up, God!” and to expect that God would actually listen.
But there’s more. There’s also a confidence that God would not only listen but answer. He approaches the God who has made space for him in tight spots before and prays, “Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!” You know that there’s a type of listening that seems sympathetic but is anything but. If you tell me your problems this morning, I can nod and say “uh huh” as you speak. You might walk away thinking that I’m a great listener. That’s important, but I really haven’t helped you. David is approaching God. He definitely expects God to be a good listener, but he’s looking for more. He expects God to answer his prayer, to come through again and help him out of this tight spot. David has a bold confidence in God, that God would listen and that God would answer his prayer.
Tim Keller tells the story of Alexander the Great, who supposedly had a leading general whose daughter was getting married. Alexander the Great said that he’d be happy to contribute to the wedding. He said that he knew it would be expensive, so just ask for something. The general wrote out out a request for an enormous sum, a ridiculous sum. When Alexander’s treasurer saw it, he brought it to Alexander and said, “I’m sure you’re going to be cutting this man’s head off now for what he’s done. The audacity of asking for something like this! Who does he think you are?” Alexander said, “Give it to him. By such an outlandish request, he shows that he believes that I am both rich and generous.” He was flattered by it.
God desires prayer that is bold, even shameless, in coming to him. When you read the prayers of the Bible, they’re bold. They argue with God. Jesus talked about it as asking, seeking, and knocking. N.T. Wright says:
[Jesus] is encouraging a kind of holy boldness, a sharp knocking on the door, an insistent asking, a search that refuses to give up. That’s what our prayer should be like. This isn’t just a routine or formal praying, going through the motions as a daily or weekly task. There is a battle going on, a fight with the powers of darkness, and those who have glimpsed the light are called to struggle in prayer…
That’s the first thing we see in this psalm. Are you in a tight spot? The way to respond is first to come to God with a bold confidence and expectation that he will hear you and answer your prayer. Don’t come passively. Come boldly and expect God to hear you.
But that’s not all:
Second, respond with honesty to those who are in error.
So here’s the thing that I’ve discovered: most tight spots have to do with people. David begins by talking to God, but in this psalm he also turns his attention to the people who seem to be causing him grief. So he says in verses 2-5:
O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame?
How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah
But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself;
the LORD hears when I call to him.
Be angry, and do not sin;
ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah
Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the LORD.
This is kind of unusual. Many of us are used to psalms in which the psalmist speaks to God. You may not have realized that sometimes the psalmist speaks to others besides God in the psalms as well. By the way, the songs we sing in our corporate worship should do the same. It’s entirely appropriate to sing to God, but there’s also a time in which we should sing to each other. Paul called this “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Ephesians 5:19). There’s a place for singing to God; there’s also a big place for addressing each other in the songs we sing, and in the psalms.
So what people does David address? In verse 2 he says “O men.” The word that David used seems to refer to those of elevated social rank. So whatever situation David is facing, he’s not just talking to ordinary Joe. He’s talking to people who are in positions of influence and power.
And what does he say? Three things. First, he tells them off in verse 2. “O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame? How long will you love vain words and seek after lies?” “How long?” implies that David is running out of patience. They’re dragging his name and reputation through the mud, and David has had enough. But then he indicts them. He doesn’t just focus on the damage they’re doing to his name and reputation. He charges them with loving vain words and seeking after lies. They’re delusional. They love what is empty and worthless. They don’t just engage in worthless activity; they actually hate it. There is a time to look at someone and to tell them that what they’re doing is harmful and empty. David has no problem doing this in this psalm.
Second, he reminds them that God responds to the faithful. Remember that David’s name is being dragged through the mud. His honor has been turned to shame. It probably looks like everyone has abandoned him. But David reminds his enemies that God has not turned his back. He says, “But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him.” You may have heard about a couple driving down the street in Vancouver. They look to the side of the road and see a couple of hitchhikers. The guy is dressed like Bono of U2. They pull over, and sure enough it is Bono and his assistant. Turns out, he and his assistant had gone out for a walk when it started to rain, just before they happened upon them. Bono and his assistant sat in the back with the couple’s dog. Bono isn’t accustomed to sticking out his thumb at the side of the road, but no matter where he is he’s still Bono. Nothing’s changed even if he’s stuck on the side of the road.
Contrast this with a story from a couple of hundred years ago. Thomas Jefferson went to a Baltimore hotel to ask for accommodation. He was in working clothes and splattered with mud. The proprietor looked him over and said, “We have no room for you, sir.” Jefferson left. A friend soon came in and told the proprietor that he had just turned away Thomas Jefferson, the Vice President of the United States and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He thought he was dealing with a dirty farmer. But just because someone thought he was a dirty farmer didn’t change who he really was. “The weapon against slander is to remember how God regards you, to hold on to what he has said about you…Those who despise us may regard us as a step above scum but that does not alter the fact that we are covenant ones whom Yahweh has set apart for himself” (Dale Ralph Davis).
So David says to them, in essence, that he might not look like much to them. He may look like a hitchhiker on the side of the road, or like a dirty farmer. But God knows who he is. He is God’s. God has set him apart for himself. God hears his prayer.
But finally, David calls for repentance from his enemies. Verse 4 says, “Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.” It’s actually hard to translate the first part of verse 4. “Be angry” is actually “Tremble with fear.” I know this is hard to believe, but one time I got in trouble in school and was sent down to the principle’s office. I don’t remember trembling with fear in the school playground, but as I got closer to the principle’s office I became a little more concerned. Here David hauls them into God’s office and says that they should tremble with fear and stop sinning. They’re in an untenable position rebelling against God. He tells them to ponder their situation on their bed, to get right with God, and to offer right sacrifices to God, and to trust him.
So David does three things here as he speaks to his enemies. He indicts them. He reminds them (and himself) that God hasn’t abandoned him; God knows him no matter what they think. And he calls them to realize they’re in deep weeds, and to get right with God.
Canadian humor writer Phil Callaway recently accepted the challenge to live for a year without telling a lie or fudging the truth. He chronicles his journey in his new book called To Be Perfectly Honest: One Man’s Year of Almost Living Truthfully Could Change Your Life. No Lie.
. He says:
I’ve always avoided confrontation. I golfed with a man for years whose marriage was falling apart and I didn’t once summon the nerve to say, “Hey, what’s happening?” Some of us are terrified of offending others, but I don’t know one single leader who can’t point to someone who offended them with the truth about themselves. It can be transforming.
In his Focus on the Family magazine article entitled “The Problem with Nice Guys,” Paul Coughlin insists Christians must avoid passive and aggressive extremes, opting instead for assertiveness. He offers the following example from pop culture to illustrate what Christian assertiveness looks like: “Three major personality types are found among the judges of the popular reality TV show American Idol. Passive Paula Abdul is gracious but not always truthful. Aggressive Simon Cowell is truthful but rarely gracious. Assertive Randy Jackson is often truthful and gracious. Be like Randy.”
When you’re in a tight spot, there may come a time for you to be honest with the people in your life who are problems. One of the best things we can do sometimes is to go to others and call them on their behavior; remind them of who we are in God; and call them to repentance. That’s what David does in this psalm. He’s in a tight spot, so he responds in confidence to a God who hears him, but then he also responds in honesty to the people around him.
Finally, when you’re in a tight spot, having spoken to God and others, find your peace in God.
David’s already reminded us of who he is in God. He finishes this psalm by contrasting two ways of relating to God. Read verses 6 to 8 with me:
There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?
Lift up the light of your face upon us, O LORD!”
You have put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and wine abound.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.
There are two ways of relating to God. The first way is dependent on circumstances. People say, “Who will show us some good?” There’s maybe a bit of crass pragmatism here. “What’s in it for me?” This way of relating to God is highly circumstantial. When things are good, then God is good. When things are bad, then things aren’t so good with God. This type of relationship depends on good times, when “grain and wine abound.” We’ve all been here, haven’t we?
But there’s a different way of relating to God. This way of relating to God doesn’t depend on circumstances. David says “You have put more joy in my heart than when they have their grain and wine abound.” He then says he’s able to go to bed at night and sleep well despite all the problems. Why? The end of verse 8 explains why: “for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.” David ultimately finds his safety in God. This is enough for him. He has a deep peace despite the circumstances. Ravi Zacharias said, “Faith is confidence in the person of Jesus Christ and in his power, so that even when his power does not serve my end, my confidence in him remains because of who he is.”
One of the most moving examples of this for me is the story of Nicholas Ridley. He was a British clergyman caught in controversy in England in the 1550s. The was scheduled to be burned at the stake in Oxford for his faith. The night before his execution his brother offered to stay with him in his last hours. But Ridley refused. He said he was going to bed, and that he was going to sleep as soundly that night as he ever did in his life. That’s exactly what David says in verse 8: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.”
Three applications for us this morning.
One: please realize who you are in Jesus Christ. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, then you can have the same confidence that David enjoyed no matter what circumstances you face. You can know that God has set you apart for himself; that God hears you when you call him. This will enable you to know for sure who God is even in the middle of horrible circumstances. You may want to even post some of this psalm where you can see it this week to remind you of who you are in Christ; to know that you’ve been purchased by his blood; that he has set you apart and that he cares about you. If you don’t know God through Jesus Christ, then I encourage you to pursue this. Make this a priority in your life. God invites you to come into a relationship with him. He’s sent his Son to provide the way for this to be possible. Pursue God as he pursues you. I’d love to talk to you about this if you’re interested.
Second: God may be calling some of you to a new level of honesty. It may be that you need to speak to some people in your life as David did in this psalm. Tell them the truth about what they’re doing and how this relates to God. You need to work through how to do this. I’m not saying to get all preachy. You can figure it out. But some of us are too scared to really speak honestly to others. David shows us that we can, and sometimes we should.
Finally, this morning, come to God boldly with whatever you’re facing. He wants to hear from you. And take confidence from the fact that he does, and then sleep well tonight knowing that God makes you dwell in safety no matter what’s going on around you.
How do we respond when we’re in a tight spot? With confidence in God, honesty to others, and then peace.