Sunday worship, Easter 3, April 18, 2021
Posted by FirstPresbyterian Regina on Sunday, April 18, 2021
“Selah: Pause, Ponder, Be Silent”
It’s fairly rare for most Christian preachers to focus a sermon on one of the psalms. I’ve done it before – on some of the famous ones like Psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd), like Psalm 139 (O Lord, you have searched me and known me), and even Psalm 22 (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?), the one Jesus quotes as he is dying on the cross. I don’t think I’ve ever taken much notice of today’s Psalm 4, but I was intrigued by it this week.
One of the first things I noticed was that Psalm 4 doesn’t sound like it was written for the public worship and song of a gathered congregation. It seems more fitting for an individual, approaching God in prayer at the end of the day. And isn’t that what a lot of our praying looks like these days?
Even if we are connecting with other praying people through our screens on Sunday mornings, much of our prayer takes place in our personal contemplation in our own homes, where we are encouraged to stay as the pandemic rages on with multiplying variants of concern.
Psalm 4 invites us into the personal prayer of one faithful, if frustrated, follower of God. It takes place on her bed, as she reflects on the day, and on the struggles and difficulties of life. We join her as she talks to God about all these things, getting them off her chest, perhaps. And then eventually, as she lies down and goes to sleep.
I’ve been using a female pronoun for the psalmist, which may have started you wondering about who she is. Of course, we don’t know who wrote this prayer, but we can tell that they were in anguish when they did. The one who prays does not hide their feelings of despair from God, and we also can hear their weariness in the extreme.
One commentator, W.C. Turner, wonders about the subject of this lament, and suggests that it could be King David, who is known to have authored some of the other psalms. It could be about those moments when David ran in attempts to escape the raging of King Saul. Maybe it was written during the time he spent as an outlaw hiding in the wilderness. Or perhaps it expresses his feelings from the time of his abdication from the throne for fear of his own son – Absalom, the usurper.
Of course, “it could be the cry of any pious Jew during the days when it seemed there would be no hope for the restoration of peaceful harmonious life… when there was no refuge from the heat, no protection from marauding hordes, or no escape from hostile armies…”
But whatever the context and the personal or collective struggles of the original psalm-writer, Psalm 4 found its way into the songbook of the Jewish people because it expressed a lament to which others could relate in their own time and circumstances. Although the details would change, others could use these words to cry out to God and find help, solace, and peace in God’s presence too.
Noting that the psalms are the songbook of the Jewish people should remind us Christians that Jesus would have known and prayed this prayer too. Episcopal theologian, Paul van Buren, has suggested that “we Christians read Israel’s Scriptures over Jesus’ shoulder. He, after all, did himself read and sing these wonderful poems as a faithful, if radical, first-century Jew of Galilee.” And so, we may remember that Psalm 4 was undoubtedly a prayer on Jesus’ lips from time to time.
We might think of Jesus at the end of a long and tiring day of healing and helping, with people scrambling over each other to receive his help first. We might imagine Jesus reflecting on his bed after a day when his disciples had been arguing about who was the greatest or when they failed to do any healings because they didn’t pray. We might see Jesus on the night he was betrayed, despairing alone as his friends fall asleep, fearing what the next day would certainly bring.
“Answer me when I call, God of my justice! Give me relief from my distress! Have mercy! Hear my prayer!”
In his despair, Jesus prays to God and asks for what he wants – what, in that moment at least, he thinks he needs. And we are invited to do the same. Talk to God about how scared we are in this pandemic, or how lonely, or how angry! And yes, talk to God about the people who are frustrating and angering us too.
It’s got to be better than yelling back at the TV when government leaders and decision-makers are making you mad… or yelling out your car window when the anti-maskers are frustrating you to no end… or taking out your anger on people you love with whom you’ve been cooped up for too long and you are all letting your human frailties show.
The psalmist, in the midst of her prayer to God, rails against her enemies: “How long will you people dishonour me before God? How long will you love delusion and pursue lies?”
She sounds like a leader giving up patience, like a rejected prophet, or like Jesus must have felt when the people would not see the truth of God’s love right in front of them.
And then, after the complaint is expressed, there is a strange word inserted into the psalm. Selah (S-E-L-A-H, in English). Perhaps you’ve noticed that word scattered here and there in other psalms too. It comes up 71 times in the 150 psalms of the Bible, and a few times in the Book of Habbakuk as well, but we’re not exactly sure what it means.
It is probably either a liturgical-musical mark or an instruction on the reading of the text, with the possible meaning of “stop and listen.” “Selah” may indicate a break in the song whose purpose is similar to that of saying, “Amen,” or “so be it,” in that it stresses the truth and importance of the preceding passage.
Another proposal suggests that it means “lift up” and that it may have been an instruction for the singer to pause while instrumentalists break in with loud music like a crash of symbols or blare of trumpets, or at least a musical interlude of some sort. At least some of the psalms were sung accompanied by musical instruments, and there are references to this in many chapters. And many of the ones that begin with the caption, “To the choir-master” also include the word “selah” somewhere in the text.
What seems to be universally agreed upon is the idea that “selah” is a pause for the singer. Something beyond words is required at this point.
So, “selah” is indicated in today’s psalm right after the psalmist’s angry and bitter complaint. It makes me think of that wise and level-headed friend who listens to your rant about all that is wrong with the world, and then says, “Okay, now take a breath. Let’s pause for a moment before we even start to think about what we might do about this situation.”
I wonder if you have someone who does that for you when you get worked up about something. I wonder if you are that someone for a friend, or a spouse, or your kids?
Recently, when there were lots of arguments and heated debates happening in a church-related social media group, I noticed someone suggest that the group’s administrators should consider requiring approval for every post that goes up in the group.
“It would slow down the conversation,” they noted, “but maybe that would be good for everyone to really think carefully about what they are writing and avoid the quick, reactive, often insensitive posts that are becoming the norm.”
Eric Wall suggests that the psalmist is promoting a similar strategy. He writes: “In a high-tech world of instantaneity, quick shaming, knee-jerk rebuttal, immediate like or dislike back at someone simply by hitting ‘send,’ Psalm 4 instructs us in a different way.”
After a pause, the psalmist reminds herself (and us) that “the Lord has set apart the faithful for God-self; the Lord hears when [we] call.”
And isn’t that easy for us to forget? When someone insults us or dismisses our ideas, when someone excludes us or demeans us, when someone misrepresents or judges us? We want to clear our reputation. We want to be treated fairly. We want our voices to be heard, and understood, and valued.
It needs to be acknowledged that there are some among us who are treated particularly poorly because of racism, sexism, ableism, or other injustices. But we likely all know that feeling – when our confidence, our sense of security, our assurance that we are loved is in question.
“You belong to God,” we are told, “and God is listening.”
As the psalm continues, the NRSV translation exhorts us, “When you are disturbed, do not sin.” Or as some other translations put it, “Be angry, but do not sin.” Or as my mother used to say to us when we were children, “You can hate them, but you can’t hit them.”
We are called to step back from the despair of life, the disappointment with our community, even the skepticism about God’s presence, and find some time for stillness, a time to wait on the presence of the Lord.
This is not to say that no action may be required – a response, or a call for help or for justice. But our response will be carefully considered, thoughtful, and measured. “Maybe you should sleep on it,” you might hear someone suggest, and I feel like that’s what our psalmist is recommending.
She says, “Ponder it on your beds, and be silent.” And then there’s another “selah” marking in the text. Talk to God about it in your prayers tonight, and then sleep, take an overnight pause, and see what tomorrow will bring.
And what happens in the morning? My experience is that the problems don’t evaporate overnight. But my ability to respond to them often changes – because I’m rested, because I’ve put things into perspective, because I’ve remembered that I am God’s beloved child regardless of the outcome of the situation.
After the “selah” – the extended pause of the night, the psalmist suggests offering sacrifices and trusting in God. So, no matter what other issues there may be to sort through, at least our relationship with God is in good shape. And that will take us a long way.
The psalms are a gift to us because they express the full range of human struggle and triumph, despair and joy and thanksgiving. They do not pretend that God’s people are immune from the difficulties of life. Commentator Gary Simpson points out that “with a thorough reading of the psalms from beginning to end, one could easily come to the conclusion that life is [absolutely] full of enemies, tribulations, and hardships.”
And he warns that far to often, people of faith mistakenly assume that what should lead us to feel blessed in life is the absence of hardship and adversaries. But blessing, as this psalmist will conclude, is about having full confidence in God in the midst of the inevitable realities of hardship and enemies. The psalmist’s prayer does not end with the removal of the struggles, but with the assurance that God is there.
The psalmist is very much like any one of us, and like our neighbours too as we all struggle through this ongoing pandemic. She is well aware that she is not the only one who is frustrated, angry, or suffering. She declares that “there are many who say ‘O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us!’”
But the gift of God to us is the faith we have in God’s presence, love, and care for us. We know that blessing is not the absence of struggle, hardship, or even enemies, but it is the trust and confidence we have in God to help us.
While some look for hope in the abundance of possessions, the psalmist rejoices because God has put gladness in her heart – “more than when grain and wine abound.” She will both lie down and sleep in peace; for God alone makes her lie down in safety.
I invite you to consider reading through Psalm 4 again in your personal time of prayer and reflection – perhaps tonight before you go to sleep. Follow the pattern that the psalmist sets for us, and talk to God about your struggles, sorrows, or complaints.
But follow the “selah” markings that are there as well. Take a breath, pause, ponder, be silent. Remember that you are loved. Place your trust in God. Lie down and sleep in peace and safety.
And may God put gladness in your heart also, more than when grain and wine abound.