I love the Book of Psalms. They are authoritative models of prayer and worship and therefore we return to them often for help. "When we don't know how to pray as we ought, the Spirit intercedes for us..." — and read some psalms. And in my experience, it's the easiest book to short-circuit meaning for application. Because the theology is so relevant, we can subtly gloss over what the text says to focus on us and our situations. But remember it's only for us — by God about his Son for us.
So how might it look if we read like this? Say, Psalm 4? How would it look if we asked first, "what does this text say?" and then second, "what does it mean for me right now?"
1 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!
2 O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame?
How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah
3 But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself;
the Lord hears when I call to him.
4 Be angry, and do not sin;
ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah
5 Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the Lord.
6 There are many who say, "Who will show us some good?
Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!"
7 You have put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and wine abound.
8 In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.
What It Means
Prayer is an important theme in this Psalm of David. It begins with the plea, "Answer me when I call" (verse 1). Again, "hear my prayer!" Then, "the Lord hears when I call to him" (verse 3). It's an amazing picture of fellowship. David talks to God and God hears David. And he keeps David. He sustains and guards him (Psalm 3:5; 4:8).
Now these are observations. They are all by the way of discovering what the text says. But don't think we're blank-slate readers. Jesus has let us in on an important tip: the whole Bible is about him (Luke 24:25–27; John 5:39, 46). So an integral part of discovering what this psalm means is seeing how it's connected to our Lord.
Consider again the amazing picture of fellowship: that David prays and God hears him. This is evident in Psalm 3:4 as well. David cried to the Lord and he gets an answer. This access mirrors Psalm 2:8 where the Lord invites his Son (and King) to ask whatever he wants and it will be given to him. The common thread in these first few psalms is that God hears the prayers of his king and no enemy will stand in his way. The Lord hears and ensures his King's dominion (Psalm 2:9–12). Though foes are many, the Lord lifts David's head (Psalm 3:1–3). Even when he's in great distress, David can trust in the Lord (Psalm 4:1–3).
David is undoubtedly a pointer to Jesus. The eternal kingdom promised in 2 Samuel 7:13 sets in motion a greater longing for the Messiah to come. David will have a son who is king forever (and it's not Solomon). We begin to see that God's fulfillment of his promised Messiah is wrapped up with his faithfulness to David. God cuts off David's enemies because he is keeping his promise about Jesus (2 Samuel 7:9; 8:1–13, 14). And this is why David is able to trust God amid his enemies in Psalm 4.
David indeed has enemies, but he says not to sin. Be angry, sure, be agitated or perturbed, but do not sin. David knows the promise and he trusts the Lord. Therefore, being the model of a faithful Israelite, he offers right sacrifices (Psalm 4:5). He believes. God is enough for him. Material stuff turns immaterial. Circumstances, come what may. His joy is in the Lord who keeps him (Psalm 4:7–8). David's faith — his trust that the Lord will keep his promise of an eternal throne (i.e., the reign of Jesus) — propelled him fearless when distress abounded. That's what is happening in Psalm. That is what it means.
Why It Matters
I was irritable a couple days last week when I got home from work. It was the crunch of deadlines and tasks and the feeling that I never seem to get enough accomplished in a day's time. More snappy than angry, my family caught the brunt of my displaced frustration. Then I read this psalm.
David was surrounded by enemies — real enemies. That is enough to make someone angry, or agitated or perturbed, but he says not to sin. He didn't try to take things into his own hands. He trusted the Lord, which included, as I said above, a hope in the future messianic king. The Lord's faithfulness to David concerning Jesus was the foundation of his fearlessness. That's why enemies may annoy him, but they won't lead him to sinful unbelief (Psalm 4:4).
Might this same reality bear the same implications for me? Sure, there are pressures. Responsibilities abound. Concede that point. But be stressed out and do not sin. God is faithful. His care for David in reference to his promise secures care for me. Right there with David, the object of my hope is the same. I look to the same Messiah. God's unfailing love for me in Jesus reaches down into the details of my life and wields them for my good (Romans 8:28). So rather than blow off steam toward my kids, I can ponder in my own heart and be silent. I can trust in the Lord. I can bank on the fact that he's got all this under control. And that makes me a different person.
What the text says (meaning) changes me now (application). We read illumined and walk transformed.