Ancient Roman coins were frequently produced with an image of a god or the current Caesar. This currency was forbidden as trade in the Jewish temple precisely because it presented Caesar as a quasi-deity. The Jews served the one, true God, they claimed, and would not allow idolatrous currency to pollute the temple.
We might be tempted to believe the narrative that the ancient Israelites were stringent monotheists but, in fact, the Old Testament frequently suggests that they were as prone to idolatry as the nations that surround them. Psalm 4 seems to pick up on this theme.
The psalm is unusual in that its words are addressed largely to people and not to God. But this is appropriate, for it appears to be a challenge to worshippers of false gods, whether overt and intentional, or subtle and incidental, to put their trust in the true God.
The psalm begins with a traditional prayer (v. 1) but quickly moves to addressing the “men” who turned David’s honour to shame and loved vain words and lies (v. 2). The superscription does not reveal who these “men” were, but the context is suggestive.
These “men” are contrasted with “the righteous,” whom Yahweh has “set apart … for himself” and whose prayers he “hears” (v. 3). The “men” offer sacrifices, but not “right” ones and “trust” but not in Yahweh (v. 5). Their worship and their trust are misplaced. Because of this, they wonder who will show them good (v. 6a). Though they pay lip service to Yahweh, he apparently does not hear them, as he hears the righteous (v. 6b). They are amply supplied with material goods—grain and wine—but their abundant supply does not bring them joy (v. 7). Verses 4 and 8 bring the contrast into sharp relief.
In v. 4, David exhorts the “men” to (in the ESV) “be angry, and do not sin.” The word translated “be angry” means to tremble and can imply trembling in anger or in fear. The NASB does well by translating the word (“tremble”) rather than interpreting it as the ESV does (“be angry”). The thought of “trembling” in trepidation or uncertainty fits the context better than anger. David seems to contrast the trembling of the false worshippers on their bed with his peaceful sleep as he trusts in Yahweh (v. 8).
Here, then, is David’s challenge: In whom—in which God—will you trust? Though they paid lip service to Yahweh (v. 6), the idolaters found themselves trembling in their beds, uncertain as to any real sense of security. Their grain and their wine abounded, yet they lacked peace and joy. David’s exhortation is simple: “Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD” (v. 5). Redirect your worship and your trust to Yahweh and find the peace you need for a good night’s sleep.
Most of us have grown accustomed to being spoiled for choice when it comes to gods worthy of our devotion. We have had opportunity to idolise financial stability, job security, health stability, and interactive relationships. But what happens when something—a global pandemic, for example—systematically dismantles these idols? Where do we turn when we find ourselves trembling on our bed with no peace about the future?
David tells us to turn that trembling to pondering, and then to be silent before the majesty of the King. He exhorts us to redirect our trust and our worship in the right way to the right God, who hears and answers his people with true peace and security so that, while others are trembling in their bed, we can both lie down and sleep in peace, knowing that Yahweh will provide the security we need.
Has lockdown left you trembling on your bed, your idols falling spectacularly around you? If so, use this opportunity to ponder your relationship with the true God, and then “offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.” Will you allow lockdown to reorient your trust in the true God, who alone can provide lasting peace and give good sleep? Let’s learn together to do this.