Reaching into the Psalms 1 to 4: 15. Continuation (start of Psalm 4)
Psa 4:1 Answer me when I call to you, my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer.
Look again! At first sight this first verse is just another of those cries of David that become so familiar in these psalms, and perhaps because of that I know it is another of those verses that in the past I have just skimmed over without giving it any real consideration. If that is true of you, let’s slow ourselves down and chew it over, meditate upon it and see what is behind it.
Urgency: It comes at the beginning of a psalm that may well be a continuation of the previous psalm for there are similarities, so it may be still on the occasion of David being on the run from Absalom. Having said that there do seem to be some stronger spiritual elements in it, but that may just be because David is thinking more about the nature of the people who are ousting him. In the middle of Psalm 3 we read, “I call out to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy mountain,” (3:4) but now there appears a stronger urgency, not merely a testimony: “Answer me when I call to you.” This has that feel to it of, “Lord, I’m crying out to you, I need you to hear me, I need you to respond to me.” It is a strange thing but unbelievers may pray but without any conviction. It takes a firm, committed believer to suffer frustration with God, because we believe in Him, we believe He has given us a channel to Him in prayer, and we believe He is a communicating God and so we expect Him to hear us and answer. For these reasons it is the committed believer who puts urgency into such praying.
God’s Righteousness: But then we come to a phrase which produces a variety of translations. The ESV and NKJV both have “O God of my righteousness,” while the NLT has, “O God who declares me innocent,” while the NRSV has, “O God of my right.” Now although there may be some cause for the translators to take this uncertain phrase in this direction, I think theologically, from what we know of David, in this instance he is relying upon what he knows about God and is not appealing to his own righteousness (which he does do elsewhere) because if this is what we think, a continuation of his appeal on the run from Absalom, he knows he has not been righteous and is indeed under God’s discipline because of two acts of extreme unrighteousness, so he would not be appealing on that basis.
Now this is an important and significant point. I am maintaining that the NIV that we are using here conveys most accurately what David is thinking and saying when he says, “my righteous God.” He is affirming his belief in God, not in himself. God does all things rightly – including bringing discipline and including delaying in answering specific prayers sometimes – that is what is behind this prayer of this man described as a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14, Acts 13:22). He will not blame God! He will not make himself out to be righteous and blame God either for his circumstances or for the apparent slowness in seeing an answer to his prayer.
And us? I believe our circumstances sometimes present a test for us, there to see how we will respond under trying circumstances. I believe I have been and still am facing such a trial, such a test at the present time and I watch others and see similar tests. Such trials make us grow up and mature, and they reveal to us (as well as to the Lord who already knows!) just where we are at in God’s redemptive process in our lives. It is only with His grace, apprehending it, taking hold of it and applying it by an act of will, that we remain righteous in our outlook and attitudes and subsequent thinking, words and behaviour. Part of our changing (2 Cor 3:18) is learning to trust God and not apportion blame for what appears to be happening to us. As I said, an important and significant lesson.
Relief? “Give me relief from my distress.” This takes us into the area of relief ‘from’ or relief ‘in’. At the moment of writing at least, David’s mind is in turmoil. David could be delivered ‘from’ his present circumstances if, say, someone back in Jerusalem had assassinated Absalom and changed the mind of his followers to repent and call back to Jerusalem the Lord’s anointed, David. That would have meant David being delivered out of them. But if the circumstances are going to carry on, then David needs a deliverance from his sense of turmoil, the anxiety he has within him. That would come about when the grace of the Lord imposes in his mind a sense of security, a sense of peace, and that so often comes when we pray (see Phil 4:6,7). Deliverance ‘from’ means a change of circumstance, deliverance ‘in’ means an inner heart and mind change.
A Need for Mercy: “have mercy on me”. Mercy is undeserved compassion, forgiveness and blessing. Note the key word – undeserved. An appeal for mercy is saying, “I recognize I have no grounds to ask you to do this and so I plead with you to do this, just because you can.” For David, he is saying, “I realize I am in this mess because I deserve it and you are bringing discipline on me – and I deserve that – but in the midst of this I know you are the same righteous God who does all things well and so I plead with you that I may still experience something of your loving goodness towards me. Even asking for such a thing is in fact an expression of praise towards God, acknowledging something about His greatness that exists entirely independently from us; He IS known as a merciful God, a God who responds positively towards us, even though we don’t deserve it.
Let mercy listen: “hear my prayer“. There are times when we have messed up so badly that those who have been affected by our actions will just not listen to a word we say. If God had been us, if we had seen David’s adultery and murder-plans, and that in the face of all the things we had done for him, the human response would have been to write him of, give up on him, cast him aside. But God isn’t us – thank goodness! – He is merciful because He is love (1 Jn 4:8,16), and because we have learned that, it can give us hope that He might listen to our pleas.
When we have sinned and completely blown it, the wonderful thing is that God, as a loving heavenly Father, doesn’t turn His back on us but, to the contrary, is out there looking to hear those words that indicate change of heart, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” (Lk 15:18,19) and then to our amazement He throws His arms around us and kisses us (v.20) and orders a celebration (v.22,23). It is because we know that, that we can pray, even when we have got it seriously wrong. How wonderful is that; hold on to that if that is you.