+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
One important strand of Christian teaching about Jesus from the very earliest days is that Jesus fulfils the prophecy of the Hebrew Scriptures. This tradition goes right the way back to the sayings of Jesus recorded in the gospels, and the gospel writers regularly cite Old Testament prophecies as they are fulfilled by Jesus; this is most striking in the gospel according to St Matthew, but it is found to some extent in all the gospels.
When we think about prophecy in the Old Testament, we quite naturally think about those books in the Hebrew scriptures which are named after prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and so forth. But today’s gospel reading reminds us that there are prophetic elements to be found right the way through the Old Testament. Jesus says to His disciples: ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’
Not then only the prophetic books, but also the law of Moses and the psalms are fulfilled in Jesus.
I have spoken already many times about the ways in which the psalms are frequently found on Jesus’ lips, and it is worth noting that Jesus’ quotes from the psalms to try to explain who He is, and to defend Himself against the accusations of His opponents. And the psalms are used by other New Testament writers to explain who Jesus is, particularly the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, who builds up his argument that Jesus is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” using a number of quotations from the psalms. Understanding the psalms as pointing to Jesus, and reading the psalms as it were in the voice of Jesus, these are important aspects of the Christian interpretation of the bible.
Psalm 4 is perhaps one of the more well-known psalms, as it is traditionally said every day at Compline, that is at the prayers said before bedtime in a monastic community. Many use a form of Compline including Psalm 4 as a private devotion. It is easy enough to see why this psalm would lend itself to prayer at bedtime, with its concluding line: “in peace I will lie down and sleep, for it is you Lord only who make me dwell in safety”. It feels quite strange to use this psalm in the context of a morning service. I am sure many of you say your prayers one way or another when you go to bed, and if you do, or if you would like to start now, do consider using Psalm 4: it is short enough that there is a chance that you could get to the end before you fall asleep!
The superscription for Psalm 4 describes it as a Psalm of David. Whether we take it to be literally written by King David himself, or rather as belonging to the Davidic dynasty, the psalm reads very naturally as the prayer of a ruler facing struggles. In particular, the ruler faces the scorn and dishonour of prominent members of his community, who are pursuing things without value, who are enchanted by lies, and who ask cynically “Who will show us any good?”. The reference to corn and wine and oil towards the end of the psalm has led some to speculate that it was written during a time of food shortages, and that it was this that was the cause of the nobles’ dissatisfaction. Be that as it may, it is clear that this is the prayer of a ruler facing some serious difficulty.
But what is also clear is that the ruler has very great confidence in God. The final line – “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for it is you Lord only that make me dwell in safety” – this final line is the climax of this sense of trust. The psalmist does not fear the vulnerability of sleep; his enemies may be able to sneak up on him and kill him in the night, but he doesn’t worry about that because he trusts in God. He does not lie awake tossing and turning whilst thinking about those who conspire against him. Shakespeare’s King Henry IV may say “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”, but this king is able to lie down in peace. And this theme of trust in God is not found only in the final verse, but runs right the way through the psalm, from beginning to end.
We might well feel that we can connect with the words of the psalmist. We can look around us and see any number of examples of people bewitched by lies, of people pursuing things that are in reality worthless, of people pouring scorn on things that are good and true, of a corrosive cynicism which risks robbing us of the hope of anything better. And we can benefit too from the teaching of the psalmist: “Stand in awe, and sin not; commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Offer the sacrifices of righteousness and put your trust in the Lord”.
And at a deeper level, we can clearly discern in this psalm the person of Jesus, the Son of David and the Cosmic King. His glory is dishonoured by the powerful, He is treated with cynicism and attacked with lies, yet He teaches humility and faith, and rejoices in the Father’s love. He trusts in God, and that trust is pushed to an extreme point, almost to breaking point, on the Cross. And yet Jesus says in the words of another psalm “into your hands I commend my spirit”, and He lies down in the sleep of death.
The Resurrection which we celebrate every Sunday, and especially throughout this Easter season, is amongst other things an answered prayer: the Resurrection is the ultimate fulfilment of all of the anguished psalms in which the psalmist clings on to trust in God in the face of apparently insurmountable problems. Jesus’ anguished prayer to the Father is heard, even in the apparent despair and total defeat of the Cross, and the Father raises Him up, putting gladness in His heart and in the hearts of all His followers.
That same anguished yet trusting prayer is poured out constantly for us to the Father by Jesus Christ our great high priest, who shares our struggles and understands our weakness. Strengthened by His example and by the power of the Holy Spirit, may we learn to stand in awe, to resist temptation, to commune with our hearts and to be still, that we may grow in faith, in trust and in joy, to the glory of God, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.