Mostly in these posts I have considered topics or approaches involving the psalms in general or a group of psalms. In conclusion it might introduce a contrasting element of diversity if we compare a number of translations and approaches to the interpretation of a single psalm. For this purpose I have chosen Psalm 4, whose Latin title is Cum invocarem. In most Western liturgical uses this psalm was one of the fixed psalms said daily in the final Daily Office of the day, Compline, which was said just before retiring for the night. For present purposes this psalm has the advantages of being relatively short and open to allegorical as well as other kinds of interpretation. Psalm 4 also fairly typically combines complaint against the wicked with expressions of confidence in God.
First, I will give four English translations of the Psalm: the Coverdale (early 16th century), King James (early 17th century), Revised Standard (mid-20th century), and Robert Alter versions (early 21st century).
Coverdale (English Book of Common Prayer)
HEAR me when I call, O God of my righteousness : thou hast set me at liberty when I was in trouble; have mercy upon me, and hearken unto my prayer.
2. O ye sons of men, how long will ye blaspheme mine honour : and have such pleasure in vanity, and seek after leasing?
3. Know this also, that the Lord hath chosen to himself the man that is godly : when I call upon the Lord, he will hear me.
4. Stand in awe, and sin not : commune with your own heart, and in your chamber, and be still.
5. Offer the sacrifice of righteousness : and put your trust in the Lord.
6. There be many that say : Who will shew us any good?
7. Lord, lift thou up : the light of thy countenance upon us.
8. Thou hast put gladness in my heart : since the time that their corn and wine and oil increased.
9. I will lay me down in peace, and take my rest : for it is thou, Lord, only, that makest me dwell in safety.
King James’ Version (1611)
To the chief Musician on Neginoth, A Psalm of David.
1. Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness: thou hast enlarged me when I was in distress; have mercy upon me, and hear my prayer.
2. O ye sons of men, how long will ye turn my glory into shame? how long will ye love vanity, and seek after leasing? Selah.
3. But know that the LORD hath set apart him that is godly for himself: the LORD will hear when I call unto him.
4. Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah.
5. Offer the sacrifices of righteousness and put your trust in the LORD.
6. There be many that say, Who will shew us any good? Lord, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us.
7. Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than in the time that their corn and their wine increased.
8. I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety.
[Note in the KJV the Hebrew superscription, which is also given in the following RSV & Alter translations but was simply suppressed in the Prayer Book psalter. The KJV also retains the Hebrew note ‘Selah’, as do the modern translations. The KJV uniquely italicizes words not in the Hebrew but supplied for purposes of smooth translation.]
Revised Standard Version
To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. A Psalm of David.
- Answer me when I call, O God of my right!
Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.
- O men, how long shall my house suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies. Selah
- But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him.
- Be angry, but sin not; Commune with your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah
- Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.
- There are many who say, “O that we might see some good! Lift up the light of thy countenance upon us, O LORD!
- Thou hast 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 thou alone, O LORD, makest me dwell in safety.
Robert Alter’s Translation
- For the lead player, with stringed instruments, a David psalm.
- When I call out, answer me, my righteous God. In the straits, You set me free. Have mercy upon me and hear my prayer.
- Sons of man, how long will My glory be shamed? You love vain things and seek out lies.
- But know that the LORD set apart his faithful. The LORD will hear when I call to Him.
- Quake, and do not offend. Speak in your hearts on your beds, and be still. selah
- Offer righteous sacrifices and trust in the LORD.
- Many say, “Who will show us good things?” Lift up the light of Your face to us, LORD.
- You put joy in my heart, from the time their grain and their drink did abound.
- In peace, all whole, let me lie down and sleep. For You, LORD, alone, do set me down safely.
Several points concerning this psalm are generally agreed upon. All agree that ‘selah’, which the Prayer Book simply omits, is ‘a choral or musical notation’ whose meaning and etymology are now beyond recovery (Alter, p. 8). Likewise, while the Prayer Book simply omits the superscription, the later translations retain the Hebrew note that this is a ‘psalm of David’. Alter notes that the preposition rendered as ‘of’ is ambiguous and might mean ‘of’ or ‘by’ or ‘belonging to’ (Alter, p. 8): that is, the precise meaning of ‘psalm of David’ is also now probably beyond recovery. The suggestion might be that the psalm was written by David himself, that it was written for him personally, or that it refers to a situation involving him. Finally, there is general agreement that the superscription means something like the RSV’s rendering: ‘To the choirmaster – with stringed instruments’. The precise nature of the instruments is, again, beyond recovery, but in a general way is suggested by the fact that ‘the verbal stem’ of the word used ‘is often associated with plucking strings’ (Alter, p. 10).
On the literal level, the general meaning of the psalm seems fairly clear. The psalm begins with a supplication to God to ‘Hear’ (Coverdale, KJV) or ‘Answer’ (RSV, Alter) the psalmist when he calls. At or near the beginnings of Psalms 5, 55, 61, 64, 86, 130, 141, and 143 there are similar calls by the psalmist for God to hear or listen or hearken or attend to his prayer or cry or situation. There are similar calls within other psalms. ‘Psalm of supplication’ would be a reasonable title particularly with psalms that begin with such prayers. The fidelity of the God so called upon is contrasted with the infidelity of men. Because the psalmist is confident in God, he is at peace.
Neale and Littledale’s general introduction to the psalm’s meaning quotes the Venerable Bede, who says that in the first part of the psalm, ‘holy Mother Church speaks…she makes supplications that her prayers may be heard, and blames unbelievers…In the second’ part of the psalm ‘she admonishes the Gentile world to forsake their false superstition, and to offer the Sacrifice of Righteousness.’ Saint Ambrose’s summary of the psalm is ‘That the GOD of justice heard His SON on the Cross, against Whom the Jews in their rage sin even to this very day.’ (Neale & Littledale, I.110)
Most of the commentary by the Church Fathers and medieval writers fits into this introductory picture. The complaint of the psalms is usually read typologically as spoken in the voice of Christ or of his Church and its members. The complaint of the psalmist/Church/Christ is against the idolatry of the pagan world, which on the literal level would fit with an Old Testament complaint against the Gentiles. ‘Vanity’ (v. 2) is a common term for false gods in the Old Testament. But typological reading extends the Old Testament complaint against idolatry beyond, first into a complaint from Christ against his opponents, and then further and later to a complaint from the Church against her foes. In verse 5 or 6, the ‘sacrifice of righteousness’ is in the first instance ‘the glory that is [God’s] due…the love we should bear Him’, but also in New Testament terms the ‘setting forth of the LORD’s Death till His coming again’ (Mason & Littledale, I.113).
The psalms in this way often are read as rooted in an Old Testament setting (David, old Israel), are then applied to Christ (David’s Son, the gospel), and finally extended from Christ to the Church (the body of Christ) and her sacramental system. The text constantly is read as having such multiple levels of meaning. In the case of verse 4 the ecclesial and sacramental level is not surprisingly noted particularly in regard to verse 8 (or 7 in the later translations) with its reference to ‘corn and wine and oil’. The late medieval commentator, Michael Ayguan, observes that since
…the LORD left us His Blessed Sacraments; the corn, namely, the Body which He took for us men, and which was born in Bethlehem, which is by interpretation, the “House of Bread;” the wine, His precious Blood, which indeed “maketh glad the heart of man,” and the oil, the graces of the HOLY GHOST; gladness is truly put into the heart of His servants…. (Mason & Littledale, I.114)
Of course for a more literal or Jewish interpretation, the text simply refers to material plenty. Likewise for Christian readers the reference to lying down in sleep hints at death and subsequent resurrection, while the text may more literally be read as asking for peaceful sleep as a fruit of divine favor and care.
Put another way, the interpretation of this psalm depends on the speaker of the psalm: what voice or person does the reader or interpreter imagine speaking the psalm, making the complaint, and calling upon God? David or an Israelite speaker asks for material prosperity, tranquility, and deliverance from worldly foes by God’s favor. If the speaker is Christ or the Church, then the material blessings are types for spiritual graces. Such typological readings are compatible with a literal reading that focuses on the original situation of the psalmist, but simply add to such reading multiple layers of additional symbolic meaning.