David begins Psalm 4 with this prayer:
Answer me when I call, O God of my right!
You gave me room when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me and hear my prayer.
The Hebrew word behind “distress” means literally “closed in.” It is used in the Bible to describe a sheepfold and also a walled fortress. Both of these can be comforting, to sheep and to a besieged population, but they can also be very limiting and constricting. You’re familiar with the feeling David is describing; it’s not necessarily painful, but it is stressful. Things are closing in around you, and you feel you can’t handle one more problem. People are giving you advice, but that only makes you feel more obligated and burdened. The noose seems to be getting tighter and tighter. You feel like you’re suffocating. Distress! Distress! Distress!
So what does a distressed person need most? Space. Breathing room. Elbow room. David looked back on previous experiences when he had asked the Lord for help:
You gave me room when I was distressed.
He knew from experience that God would not be tapping his foot impatiently, waiting for him to shape up. To the contrary, God (unlike others, unlike his own self-critical guilt) would give him room. He wouldn’t necessarily swoop in and solve his problems, but would make sure he had the space he needed to work things out. It’s interesting that the very next words are
Be gracious to me . . .
It seems that grace and space are close cousins. God’s grace doesn’t close doors and crowd us in the direction he wants us to go. Grace opens doors of opportunity for expressing our voluntary choice of his will. Grace gives us room.
Some of the fringe benefits of God’s gracious spacious way of relating to a person who is feeling distressed and closed in are mentioned in the rest of the psalm. For instance, a person who is angry finds that God allows space to come up with more positive solutions than lashing out in hurtful ways:
When you are disturbed, do not sin;
Ponder it on your bed, and be silent.
Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.
Also, a person who is experiencing the roominess of knowing God will not be focusing on the fact that their glass is half-empty
There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!
Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!”
but on the happy reality that the glass is half-full
You have put gladness in my heart
More than when their grain and wine abound.
And when the person living with spiritual breathing room and elbow room comes to the end of the day, their final prayer is likely to be
I will both lie down and sleep in peace;
For you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.
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The author of this comforting poem was David, and the artistic, poetic musician David will be the subject of this Sunday’s sermon in our series on the Old Testament. Please join us.
— Pastor George Van Alstine