Anger, when accumulated, can result in bitterness, so it is not surprising to see Paul talking about handling anger just before talking about bitterness.
Ephesians 4:26 says “In your anger do not sin.” Many people have read this verse but not realized that Paul is quoting the Old Testament.
In reading/studying the bible, it is important to recognize quotations. When someone says “this is the land of the free,” he is communicating some message that one cannot get by merely understanding the words ‘land’ and ‘free’. If a hearer does not know where that line is from, he will most likely miss the sense that the speaker is trying to convey.1 Likewise, in order to fully get the sense that Paul is communicating, we need to realize that “in your anger do not sin” is a quotation from Psalm 4:4 in the Old Testament.2
In Psalm 4, some people had wronged against the author,3 and he was angry at least at some point (that is why he talked about anger), and he was probably unable to sleep (that is why he talked about what to do while on beds). It is under this context that the author wrote Psalm 4, and it is this background that Paul had in mind when he quoted Psalm 4. Try to read Eph 4:29 as if you hear Paul saying, “remember what Psalm 4 teaches us?”
With that background introduced, let us hear what Psalm 4 and Ephesians 4:26 are teaching us.
Have a clear conscience about our anger
When we are angry, most often than not we feel that we are right, but we need to be able to look at the situation honestly and be sure that we are not the wrong side! The psalmist was sure that he was wrongly accused or wronged against. He could face God and knew that God will vindicate him (vv. 1, 3).
Control our anger (Eph 4:26; Ps 4:4)
Anger cannot be completely avoided. Sometimes it is even understandable that we get angry. Yet we must control ourselves not to sin in our anger. A lot of physical or emotional damages were done in anger. The Bible teaches that “our anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (Jam 1:20) And here Paul warns us not to “give the devil a foothold.” (Eph 4:27) It is important to learn how to control our anger.
Do not store up anger (Eph 4:26)
“Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” The going down of the sun signifies end of activities of a day, especially in the days when electricity had not been invented. While this verse does not have to be taken to strictest literal sense because triggers for anger might occur even in the evening, it does teach us that anger should not be stored up and should be handled as soon as possible.
Trust in the Lord
Even though the psalmist might be angry, he knows that God is righteous (Ps 4:1), and he trusts that God sees his faithfulness4 (Ps 4:3). Despite his anger, he meditates on giving offerings of righteousness and on trusting in the Lord (Ps 4:5).
Let go of our anger
If we have taken the above steps, and we know that God is in control of everything, our heart can be filled with joy (Ps 4:7) and in peace we can lie down and sleep (Ps 4:8). In reality we all know it is not easy and it takes a lot of trust in the Lord to attain such calmness when you we angry, yet the message is pretty clear to us: be faithful to God, do not sin, do not store up anger, trust God, let go of our anger and move on.
God replaces the anger on the Psalmist with a heart full of joy and peace, and Paul encourages us to learn from the psalmist. May we all continue to trust God, control ourselves, and experience the same peace!
Concerning different translation for Psalm 4:4 (MT and LXX 4:5) and Ephesians 4:26, remember that Old Testament was written in Hebrew whereas the New Testament was written in Greek. That alone can cause difference in translations. Moreover, the verb in Psalm 4:4 (רַגָּ֔ז) literally means to be shaken, so some translations have “to tremble” (in fear before the Lord or in rage). Consider the context, however, it is likely that the word means “to tremble in rage”, thus “in anger”. BDB Hebrew and English Lexicon lists it as “be agitated, quiver, quake, be excited, perturbed” (entry 8891) while Koehler-Baumgartner’s Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon has “to get excited” (entry 8658.4).
Then there is an issue with direct translation. Literally, the Greek (in the New Testament and the Septuagint) says “be angry and do not sin.” The grammatical mood for the verb is imperative, so some scholars see it as a command to be angry with righteous anger, but imperative mood does not always mean a command. It could be permissive as in “it is understandable to be angry.”
For a discussion of different interpretations of this sentence, please see Harold W. Hoener, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), pp. 618-22. Hoener himself thinks it is a command although he warns that “one should not conclude… that the positive imperative means that Christians were required to be angry.”
Considering the context and tone of Psalm 4, however, I think the sentence is not a command but is meant to be permissive, so the meaning is closer to “it is ok to be angry, but do not sin.” A. T. Lincoln also says in his commentary: “Its force may be conveyed by a paraphrase, “Anger is to be avoided at all costs, but if, for whatever reason, you do get angry, then refuse to indulge such anger so that you do not sin.”” See Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians (Dallas: Word Incorporated, 1990), p. 301.
“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. (Ephesians 4:26 TNIV)
For the director of music. With stringed instruments. A psalm of David. Answer me when I call to you, my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer. How long will you men turn my glory into shame? How long will you love delusions and seek false gods? Know that the LORD has set apart his faithful servant for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him. Tremble and do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. Offer the sacrifices of the righteous and trust in the LORD. Many, LORD, are asking, “Who will bring us prosperity?” Let the light of your face shine on us. Fill my heart with joy when their grain and new wine abound. In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, LORD, make me dwell in safety. (Psalm 4:1-8 TNIV)
- If anyone, perhaps from another country, is not familiar with the phrase “the land of the free”, it is from the national anthem of the United States of America. ↩
- One reason is that there are different translations for both Eph 4:26 and Psalm 4:4 (or 4:5 in MT and LXX), but in the original Greek and the Septuagint (the Greek translation that Paul likely used), Eph 4:26 and Psalm 4:4 have exact same wording: “ὀργίζεσθε καὶ μὴ ἁμαρτάνετε”. ↩
- I am using “the author” in describing the person who wrote Psalm 4 because the description “a psalm of David” could mean that the psalm was written by David but could also mean that it was somehow related to David but not necessarily written by him. ↩
- The Hebrew word חָסִ֣יד can mean faithful or godly. See Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), entry 3060. ↩