The lectionary is on a roll in these early weeks of autumn, or in a rut. How you see it will depend on whether you like being instructed. For the last four Sundays (Psalms 1, 113, 146, and part of Psalm 51) the lectionary has been focusing on Psalms that give counsel to God’s people in the framework of praise. These are hymns that teach, poems specifically designed to instruct God’s people in wise living.
Psalm 37 is perhaps the classic example of such didactic, sapiential Psalms. Indeed, there isn’t a single word of praise in this Psalm, not one word directed to God. It is all God speaking to us through the mouth of a teacher, preacher, mentor, or some other wise person. It is all teaching.
In fact, the Psalmist is so intent on instruction that he arranges the Psalm as an alphabetic acrostic; every other verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Thus, there is no progression of thought in the Psalm, just a drumbeat repetition of a theme developed around the alphabet. That is probably a mnemonic device designed to help children or older disciples learn the single lesson being taught here.
The entire Psalm is directed toward one question, a question that occupied Israel’s thought for centuries. We hear it at the end of our reading for today in verse 9, but it is repeated in verses 11, 22, 29, and 34. Who will inherit the land, that is, the land promised to Abraham in the original covenant promises in Genesis? In his fine book, Waiting for the Land, Dr. Arie Leder (my colleague at Calvin Theological Seminary), shows how central the land was in Israel’s life: the promise of the land to a nomadic family, the yearning for it in a foreign land, the march toward it through the wilderness, the conquest and settlement of it, the enjoyment of it during the golden years, the loss of it in the Babylon Captivity, the promise of restoration to the land, etc.
The land was central to Israel’s identity and welfare. But when Psalm 37 was written, God’s people were worried about their future in the land. Who would inherit it in this new age? Who will continue to live in the land, enjoying the promised blessings of Yahweh? God’s simple answer is first heard in verse 9, but it reverberates throughout this Psalm. “For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.”
Given the specificity of that problem, a contemporary North American preacher may well wonder how she can preach this Psalm to a non-Jewish 21st century congregation. Well, think of that last verse again. Where do we see evil threatening the welfare of those who hope in the Lord? Where do we see the wicked persecuting the righteous? Obviously, we see that in the Middle East, where the Christians in Iraq and Syria are specifically targeted by ISIS and threatened with death if they don’t convert, pay a tax, or leave. They are being driven off their land by “evil men.” More subtly, we see it in America or Canada, where some of your congregants will identify with Israel because they feel they are losing the land they love. Having suffered one defeat after another in the culture wars that have changed the moral and spiritual landscape of their country, they feel like men and woman without a country.
Who will inherit the land? What kind of people will win? What are the conditions that will assure us a full and happy life in the land God has given us? All those questions raise the existential question common to all human beings, how do we decide how to live? Do we take our directions from the culture around us or from the revelation of God’s will in Scripture? Do we watch the human drama and particularly the power and prosperity of the wicked or do we trust the providence of God and his promises about the future? Do we give in to the pressures of the present or live by the promises of the future? Do we focus on the way things seem in the world or do we have faith in what God says in his Word? Do we live by sight or by faith?
As we deal with the answer Psalm 37 gives to that central question, we will need to be careful how we define the alternatives, particularly because Psalm 37 frames the issue as a struggle between the wicked and the righteous. Who are the wicked? Because Psalm 37 often talks about the wealthy, it would be easy to identify the wicked as the uber-wealthy, the infamous 1% or the upper 10%. In this day of glaring and growing income inequality, any socially conscious preacher would be tempted to move in that direction in a sermon on Psalm 37.
But a careful reading of Psalm 37 shows that these “wicked wealthy” are not wicked because they are wealthy, but are wealthy because they are wicked. Not all wealthy people are wicked; indeed, some are chief among the righteous (e.g., Job, Abraham, David). But the wealthy identified as wicked in Psalm 37 have gotten their riches by oppression and violence, by financial schemes and cheating, by ruthless business practices, by keeping far too much of what they gain rather than using it for the welfare of others. They have taken charge of their own affairs and achieved success “by hook or by crook.” They are the masters of their own fate, the captains of their souls.
We know those last words are a true description of the wicked, because of the way the Psalm characterizes the righteous—not in terms of a legalistic adherence to a list of rules, but in terms of a deep trust in the Lord and a commitment to doing good. “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture (verse 3).” The righteous are not the self-righteous Pharisees strutting around so that all can see their goodness, but the humble waiting in stillness and hope in times of trouble (verse 7). The righteous are not the irritating “goody two shoes” who give a bad name to holiness, but humble folks who simply look to the Lord as their prime source of joy and peace and their refuge in the challenges of life (verses 39-40).
As we call our congregations to be righteous in a wicked world, we should pay attention to the pregnant words and phrases of Psalm 37. For example, the Psalmist uses the word “fret” three times in our reading for today, obviously emphasizing that response to a world in which the wicked seem to win all the time. “Do not fret because of evil men….” The word conjures up images of little old ladies nervously knotting their hankies or anxious little children obsessively chewing their fingernails.
But the word is more powerful than that. In the Hebrew it is harah, which means “heated, inflamed with anger, intensely worked up in a self-harmful way.” No wonder verse 8 precedes the call not to fret with a warning about anger. “Refrain from anger and turn from wrath.” This kind of intense, angry fretting can lead to disillusionment and mistrust. That’s why the Psalmist contrasts fretting with trusting. Don’t let the inequities of life shake your faith in the Lord. “Do not fret—it leads only to evil.”
Further, don’t miss the positive way Psalm 37 describes the life of the righteous. God’s people can get the impression that trusting God and following Christ is restrictive and boring, especially if we spend a lot of time watching the cavorting and carousing of the wicked. But verse 4 pictures the life of the faithful in very positive terms. “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
Of course, we’ll need to take care that we don’t fall into a “health and wealth gospel” understanding of that verse. It’s not a promise that we’ll get everything the world calls prosperity and success, if we just focus on God and his promises. If we truly delight in the Lord, our values will be shaped by the Lord and we will desire what he values. Verse 5 and 6 put it very well. “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of our cause like the noon day sun.” Show your congregation the beauty of those words, and you will help them want to be righteous. The life of the righteous is filled with delight and light.
We will also need to help our people understand verse 7, where those who trust the Lord are told to “be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him….” That is not a call to what one writer called “passive quietism” that simply rolls over and plays dead before the evil in the world. In the face of overwhelming wickedness, there is surely a place for righteous anger (but remember the warning of James 1:20 about the ultimate ineffectiveness of such anger). While such anger may be justified, verse 7 seems to be saying that it is more effective to calmly seek justice in an unjust world. The words of Jesus in Matthew 25 about his identification with the hurting are a clarion call to get up and help the marginalized. Sitting passively in the face of is itself an evil thing. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Edmund Burke) So, don’t let your folks read verse 7 that way.
Rather, focus on what that verse actually says. We are to “be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him….” It is easy to be overwhelmed by the power of evil in the world, to be cowed into inactivity by the sheer force of wickedness. So we must focus on the awesomeness of the Lord. We won’t be able to do that if we are fearfully watching the world go by and fretting that God isn’t doing anything. We have to stop our racing minds, quiet our fearful hearts, and be still before the Lord’s sovereign power. We have to fold our busy hand, close our darting eyes, stand still in the rat race, and wait patiently for the Lord to act.
He will do that in the future. That emphasis on the future is a key in Psalm 37. It doesn’t so much explain the situation that makes the righteous fret; there is no theodicy here, clarifying the ways of God with his people. Rather there are promises and reassurances of what God will do in the future. Note the preponderance of future tenses, culminating in verse 9. “For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.”
Time is a key factor in this Psalm, but it is time as God calculates it. The wicked seem so successful and substantial, but their day in the sun is as temporary as the grass in an arid land, as insubstantial as a wisp of weed. The righteous cry out, “How long, O Lord?” It seems as though he will never act. But, says the Psalm, you have to believe that God will come in his own good time.
It takes a lot of faith to believe that. And that’s exactly what Psalm 37 is, a statement of faith. The only way we can do all the things Psalm 37 calls us to do is to trust that the Lord is sovereign and faithful to his people. Our reading for today is filled with imperatives, and we should preach that. We need to strongly call ourselves and our people to an active faith. But to actually trust him that way, we’ll need a solid foundation truth. The Psalm ends with exactly that. “The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble. The Lord helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him.”
Those last words can easily be connected to Jesus Christ, in whom and through whom God saves us. Indeed, unless we focus on him, people will not be able to trust an unseen and sometimes apparently inactive God. When we find ourselves fretting about our place in a world filled with wickedness, we must put our faith in Christ who said, “In the world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) The future promised in Psalm 37 has come in Christ, and he is coming again to finish the job. So, “trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.” The Good Shepherd is with you.
To bring closer to home the central issue of inheriting the land, you might think of your own variations on examples like these. I know a teacher whose professional life was shortened by the bullying of a group of “mean girl” colleagues who pushed her out of her place as department head by a campaign of lies. Or, I remember a little boy who hated school because the “cool kids” had decided he wasn’t cool enough and ostracized him. Every day he wandered the playground in exquisitely painful isolation. There was with no place he felt at home and accepted. He had no place in the land.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 2, 2016
Psalm 37:1-9 Commentary