The Vowels of Life

Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.


Well this is my fourth time getting to share with you all,
and that means we’re in the fourth psalm.

Last time we talked, we moved from the two-part introduction to the psalms—Psalm 1 and Psalm 2—into the the actual prayers of the psalms.

Psalm 1 and Psalm 2 invite us into the truly happy—into the truly meaningful—life.
The life that is overcome by the reality of the rule and reign of God revealed in Jesus.

All of the nations will be overcome with that reality one day…
and we’re invited to practice and participate in real life right now.

Then Psalm 3 plunged us into a world where we live naked and unashamed before God. A world where we trust that God is for us, and we begin honestly praying all of our lives—even our pain.

But now this fourth psalm is a test for us—it’s stretching.
The stretching thing about Psalm 4 is that
it’s not dispensing precision or certitude or easy-application.

There’s little-to-no setting for this psalm,
There’s no sensational backstory to this prayer,
there’s no real certainty among biblical scholars on exactly what this psalm is about.

In fact, this is an incredibly difficult psalm to translate and interpret.
Just start comparing different English translations and you’ll see what I mean.

You see, in the original text, there are no verse numbers.
there’s no quotation marks,
there’s no commas
there’s no punctuation at all.

That makes it this psalm almost impossible to nail down.

Oh! Did I mention no vowels?

There are no vowels in ancient Hebrew.
So there’s that.

I think if we’re always approaching the Bible demanding to know precisely what it means,
we’re going to be disappointed when we get to something like Psalm 4.

There are numerous ways to translate it.
And that means there are a lot of ways to understand it.

But when you think about it, if you walk into the Denver Art Museum tomorrow,
that’s one of the ways we could describe all good art.

Hard to translate into words.
Lots of ways to understand.
Open to interpretation.

Maybe God values a little ambiguity.
Maybe God values art.
Maybe that’s why God has given us art in the middle of the Bible.

Maybe the poetry of this prayer
can transform our souls and lives and imaginations
in a way that precision or certitude or easy-application can’t.

Maybe man does not live on application alone.

So with all that said, I’m we’re going to be reading Psalm 4. I’ll be reading from the English Standard Version:

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. A Psalm of David.

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!

And now the psalmist seems to be shifting who he’s talking to…

O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame?
How long will you love vain words and seek after lies?

But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself;
the Lord hears when I call to him.

Be angry, and do not sin;
ponder in your own hearts on your beds,
and be silent.
Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the Lord.

And now he seems to shift back to talking to God.

There are many who say,
“Who will show us some good?
Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!”

You have put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and wine abound.

In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.


So this psalm opens in verse 1 with a cry out to God.

Answer me when I call, God!

You’ve done it before! I’ve seen you answer prayer.
You have given me relief in distress (past tense).

The wording in Hebrew gives the impression of being released from restriction and being set free—of going from struggling in straightjacket to singing in the sierras.

It’s something we’ve experienced before,
but now we need it again—please answer, God.

When I look back at what I was worrying about a year ago (or even a month ago!)
and when I look back at the way that God has provided,
the way God has answered prayers,
the way God has so many prayers,

I find it amazing that I have so much trouble trusting him today. But I do.
And it’s nice that the psalms seem to give us permission to ask God to answer us.

But then the conversation seems to shift in verses 2-3. The psalmist seems to break from talking to God and starts talking to people around him.

In the same breath the psalmist moves from engaging God
to engaging those around him.

Talking to God and talking to people happen in the same moment:

Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!…
O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame?

It’s like our conversation with God and our conversation with each other belong together.

Side note—
What if prayer is about more than just how often we get on our knees?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely important for us to set aside specific times to focus and center ourselves on the true, on the real, on what God is like. It’s really important that we make time in our schedules to learn to listen for God’s voice of love.

But what if prayer is more?

What if it means waking up to the world we live in—
to relationships we already have, to the conversations we’re already having.

We like to divide the world up:
supernatural and natural, the miraculous and the mundane,
prayer life and public life, talking to God and talking to others,
but there’s only one real world.

What if prayer is inviting us to wake up to that one real world?

So that would mean the prayer-filled life isn’t merely about being present and honest before God in our own private worlds. It’s also about being present and honest before others.

And as the psalmist turns to look around at others,
he’s upset because people around him are shaming him.

We don’t know what shape this is taking.

Maybe it’s water-cooler gossip,
maybe it’s Judean tabloids
maybe it’s ancient near-eastern social media.

Whatever it is, the psalmist’s honor is being wrecked.
These people are like the forces of darkness.
They’re pursuing and embracing lies rather than truth.
He’s surrounded by insanity.

And so the psalmist gets as honest as he does God:

“How long will you keep this up?
“Don’t you know that this won’t last?
“Don’t you know that God has set the godly apart?
“Don’t you know that God hears me?”

Those are powerful words to proclaim when you’re surrounded by the force of darkness—
be it people or circumstances or difficult situations or inner doubt.

But a lot of times, the words are so powerful that I have a tough time wielding them.

Because when I or someone I love is going through
hardship and heartbreak and struggle and shame,
and I hear the psalmist or even myself saying: “God has set apart the godly”
I also want to add, “For what? What exactly has he set them apart for?”

Because a lot of times it seems like the darkness is winning.
It’s doesn’t feel like he’s answering a lot of times.

I desperately want to wake up to the one real world that we live.
I want to speak to God and others honestly.
I want to live the prayer-filled life and believe these powerful words.

But a lot of times I’m having trouble interpreting my life.
Forget the psalm for a second, sometimes it’s like the life I’m living has no vowels.
I just don’t know how to understand it.


To this we’ll return.
But in verses 4-5—in the very heart of this prayer—the psalmist shifts his tone.

So far this prayer has been bringing the psalmist into honest conversation with God and with those around him—but now in verses 4-5 we’re not exactly sure who he’s talking to.

He says things like “be angry” (literally: “tremble” with emotion)
and do not sin—don’t fall short.

In the stillness of your bedroom,
pause, breathe, reflect, meditate, speak to yourself.

Stop talking. Be silent.
Stop assuming that you need to be heard and listen for a minute.

Offer right sacrifices.
That is, do the right thing in your relationship with God.

Trust in the Lord, in Yahweh,
in the God revealed in Jesus.

These are good words for someone.
Someone needs to listen to these words.

But, you see, this is an example of part of this psalm
where absolutely no one knows who’s saying what to whom.

Is the psalmist still speaking or this another voice?
(Hard to tell with no punctuation or vowels.)

Is this addressed to friends of the psalmist who might be angry and want to defend him?
Or is this addressed to those spreading lies?
Or has the psalmist suddenly started talking to himself?

You can read the commentaries,
but when you cut through all the scholar’s sentences—no one really knows.

There are lots of theories but nothing’s nailed down.
But maybe that’s something of the point.

Who are these words talking to?

Well, the minute I found out that these words are
talking to you,
talking to him or her,
talking to them,
is the minute that I don’t hear these words for myself.

These words might be meant for me.

It’s interesting. I think the general shape of this behavior applies across the board:
Whether you’re the person being attacked,
the person wanting to defend
or the person doing the attacking,
I don’t this wisdom leads you down the wrong path.

Maybe some of the ambiguity of this prayer—maybe the art of this prayer—makes room for us to consider that the voice of wisdom in this psalm might just be addressing us.

I mean really—how much pain and trouble would I be spared
in this situation or in that relationship
if I would just heed these words?

Feel deeply but don’t sin. Pause in private.
Be silent. Do the right thing. Trust God.

These are good words,
that’s some good application,
that someone needs to listen to.

And maybe I’m the someone.

But now here’s the thing.

But these words—this application—come in the midst of the pain,
in the midst of the trouble, in the midst of the lies.

They’re definitely helpful.
These are certainly wise words—words to help the someone who hears them.

But all that guiding words of wisdom can do is save us some pain and some trouble.
Applying something to our lives can’t save us from all pain and all trouble.

We’re like the psalmist—we’re already in it.
Already living a life that we’re having a tough time interpreting.

When we or those around us are surrounded by hardship and heartbreak and struggle and shame—maybe this wisdom is nice and helpful.

But I think a lot of times we’re longing for understanding more than just application.

What kind of answer is God giving when we call? (v1)
What does it mean that God set the godly apart? (v3)

Beyond just doing things in life, how can we understand life?
What will help us interpret our lives?


The psalmist continues and says in verses 6-7:

There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?
Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!”

This sounds a lot like an ancient Hebrew prayer for blessing that is recorded for us in the book of Numbers:

“The Lord bless you
and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace.”
(Num 6:24-26)

These were words that countless people—including us—have prayed over the years.

Many people are praying this, the psalmist says.
Praying for some good.
Praying that God’s face would light up our lives and help us understand them.

We’ve got something we’re looking for. We’re looking for some good.
Some sign. Some blessing. Some answer.

But the strange thing is what the psalmist goes on to say. Lot’s of people are looking for “some good” but…

…You have put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and wine abound.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.

That’s what’s crazy about this psalm.
There doesn’t seem to be a dramatic answer to the psalmist’s prayer for deliverance.

He’s confident that God does indeed answer prayer,
and he’s exhausted with those who are living destructively around him,
and he’s willing to speak—or maybe hear—guiding words of wisdom…
…but then he’s done.

Others are asking (or even receiving!) some great sign of blessing,
maybe a incredible harvest of grain or wine,
but he’s already got joy in his heart.

He’s at peace,
he’s sleeping soundly,
and he knows that he is perfectly safe.

All that—and I can’t find a dramatic answer to his prayer.

It’s like the psalmist trusts Yahweh in a way that makes sense of his life.

He knows who Yahweh is.
He knows that God is trustworthy.
And that makes sense out of his life.

In the first century—after some inexplicable events under the reign of Pontius Pilate—a few hundred people began insisting that this God has made himself known even more clearly. One of them said:

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Cor 4:6)

I think our lives are like this psalm:
Open to interpretation.
Hard to translate.
Almost impossible to nail down.

But the witness of the earliest Christians is
that God has shone his light on us,
and it looks far different than we ever expected.

The forces of darkness were banished as darkness covered the land.

Our sign, our blessing, our answer,
came at the moment of cosmic insanity—the moment when the deity died.

Our good comes through God’s execution.

And the earliest Christians insisted that Jesus is how we interpret our lives.
In Jesus, God has nailed down the vowels.

The way we understand what God is like,
and they way we make sense of our lives,
is we look at the face of Jesus.

To look at the face of Jesus crucified and Jesus risen.
In that face—ravaged and resurrected—God has accomplished our deepest rescue.

But we often don’t feel rescued. We keep asking for “some good.”
And then we don’t feel like God is answering our prayers.
And then we feel like life doesn’t make any sense.

But, you see, God is not answering “yes” to “some good” for us.
God is answering “yes” to our deepest good (2 Cor 1:20).

And evidently the deepest good for us involves transforming us be like him.
To be fully human. To reflect the image of God.

And that deepest good means sharing his cross so we can share in his resurrection.
That’s what he’s set us apart for.

That’s the good news that all of us are invited to trust.
Not just trust with your mind but with all your energy, all your resources, all your life.

We’re invited to confess that Jesus is Lord
and to let him interpret all of our lives.

What if in the midst of your pain,
in the midst of your life making no sense,
God is asking you to sleep in safety?

What if we began to read our lives with the vowels supplied by Jesus?
I don’t exactly know we apply this to our lives.
I think we need to learn to recognize that, in Jesus, this is our life.

Perhaps we could do worse than learning to feel deeply but not sin.
Maybe we could pause and pray in private.

Perhaps we could stop talking, keep doing the right thing
and ruthlessly and relentlessly trust our crucified God.

So may you heed wisdom’s call and trust God with your life,
may you recognize the story of resurrection that God is writing
by reading the vowels that Jesus supplies,
and may you sleep in safety because God is saying “yes” to your deepest good.