Reaching into the Psalms 1 to 4: 18. Warning about Anger
Psa 4:4 (ESV) Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.
This is another of those verses that translators have struggled with. I have used the ESV which is the same as the NKJV and some older versions, but even they have a footnote attached to ‘be angry’ that suggests an alternative as ‘be agitated’ or ‘tremble’ (NKJV) and “Tremble and do not sin” is the NIV.
Anger? Let’s take the thought of anger first of all. In the New Testament the apostle Paul uses this verse: “Be angry, and do not sin”: do not let the sun go down on your wrath.” (Eph 4:26) The truth is that anger is an experience we all have at some time or other. David spoke of this more fully in a later psalm: “do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.” (Psa 37:7,8) We may get angry when we are offended and that is more of a defence mechanism. However we may rightly get angry (because God does) when we see wilful wickedness in the world around us. Habakkuk, we noted in the study of the previous psalm, was obviously angry when he cried out, “How long, O Lord, must I call for help? But you do not listen! “Violence is everywhere!” I cry, but you do not come to save.” (Hab 1:2) It is right to be angry about things that are clearly seriously wrong.
The Danger: The problem with anger is that it can flare up, burst forth and cause harm and upset. As David said, “it leads only to evil.” Not only can it cause harm to others as you may inflict your emotions on them, but it may in turn inflame them and cause them to retaliate and both might well be unrighteous. So the version above says, “Be angry (BUT) and do not sin.” I have inserted the ‘but’ there to imply that anger may be right but if it is carried on it may lead into sin.
Complexity: On the other hand there is a case to be made for suggesting that David is almost instructing us to be angry so that we do not sin. The challenge in verse 2 had been about godless unrighteousness in the land (and maybe in those bringing about these circumstances) and it is right to be angry about such things, in fact complacency almost becomes sin (“forgive us the things we have not done.”) What a complex things this anger is. Sometimes it is sin not to be angry but when we do become angry it becomes sin if we hold on to it.
Wrong and Right Responses: Why might that be? Why does it become sin to hold on to it? If we hold on to anger it means we are revelling in it, relishing it almost, using it, but it is never meant for that. I conclude that anger is meant to highlight injustice and wrong, but once we have observed that, the righteous ongoing response is to give it over to the Lord. Why? Two reasons. First, we may be wrong, we may have wrongly understood or only partially understood the situation and so we need to hand it back to the Lord for His assessment of it – “Lord will you judge this.” But second, more often than not, in reality you and I are incapable of really changing that evil, only God can, and sometimes we have to give it to Him and submit to His wisdom over it. He may want to deal with that person, here and now, or He may leave them for His greater purposes and only deal with them at the Final Judgment. Whichever it is, He knows best and we would be wise to simply submit it to Him. Perhaps part of our ongoing praying might be to ask, “Lord, is there anything you want me to do about this situation?” Merely because we say ‘submit it to the Lord’, does not imply passivity; it is simply suggesting we present the situation to the heavenly court for the will of God to be worked out in respect of it.
Ponder it: “Ponder in your own hearts on your beds” or as the NIV puts it, “when you are on your beds, search your hearts.” i.e. we need to check out what we are feeling and thinking. Why I am feeling like this? What has caused me to react like this? Is there an element of self-centred, self-interest in my response? What is the truth about this situation? What does God feel about it? I wonder how many times we let things fester in our minds because we do not submit our feelings and thoughts to rigorous examination. Do I need to hold scripture up before me? “I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:44,45)
Am I perfect? Do I always get it right? What is my ‘offender’ going through? What has brought this about? Could I have prevented it? Was I the cause of it? The more I ask such questions of myself the more I silence and quench the anger.
I am aware that in these paragraphs I have veered away from anger that arises from observing general human iniquity (such as human slave trading) to anger that arises when I am dealing with another person, and I have done that because I don’t believe most of us get angry about the big sins of the world – we duck them because they seem too big for us to do anything about – but we do often encounter trying circumstances that involve others and it is within those that we hear words spoken, things said and done, that raise our ire.
So yes, when I start asking the questions of myself that challenge my honesty and integrity, then I find I go silent. Thus David’s last words of this verse: “be silent”, and they come as a result of the pondering in bed. In bed? Yes, in line with Paul’s words, “do not let the sun go down on your wrath.” i.e. don’t go to sleep in a state of agitation. If you go to bed still angry, get up and sort it, don’t let it drag on. If there is an unrighteous situation, do what we said above, commit it to the Lord with the option of being told what part He might want us to play in changing things.
Can I insert a word of wisdom here before we finish? If you are angry within yourself because of something someone else has said or done, it may be that it is your sensitivity or your misunderstanding of the situation and nothing to do with the other person. If we have contributed to the situation then it may be appropriate to apologise or even ask for forgiveness but if your anger is one of these other things, then can I counsel you not to dump it on that other person with an apology, especially if they know nothing of your wrong reaction. The other thing today is don’t go public with your unrighteous indignation, certainly not on social media. If someone has offended you, you confront them lovingly in private and with humility. If you are out for blood, you are acting unrighteously. Don’t do it. If you genuinely want to be godly, then seek reconciliation with grace, wisdom and humility and only after you have paused, slept on it for a night and been open before the Lord. Such a simple verse but with such profound potential.