Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 24, 2019
Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40 Commentary
Across the spectrum of poems in the Hebrew Psalter are prayers that fit most every occasion and season in life. Laments, petitions, confessions, praise, thanksgiving; songs that fit happy days and songs that fit rotten days; lyric expressions of trust and bitter cries of abandonment and anger. It’s all in there. That’s an important thing to remember when we preach or teach the Psalms. Because given the rich and supple texture of the Psalms taken as a whole, it would be a mistake to take any one Psalm in isolation and absolutize it, make it sound like everybody in the church has to think the way this psalmist thinks and they must do this all the time.
Psalm 37 is a good example of why we ought not do that. Because here is a decidedly “sunny side up” sort of Hebrew poem and prayer. This is at least one of those “glass half full” Psalms and it may even be a “glass filled to overflowing” kind of prayer. This psalmist’s confidence in God and in the inherent fairness of the universe is either breathtaking or a bit unnerving.
Bad people, we are assured over and over, always come to nothing. It’s not that they never have a good day but it is more like: Who cares even if they do? In the end there’s just nothing to those who thrive on ill-gotten gain. They will choke on their wealth in the end. Meanwhile, it’s clear sailing for those who trust in God. Every desire of your heart will be granted. And—in a verse the Lectionary would have us skip over—we are assured that it just never happens that righteous people suffer. “I have never seen a good and righteous person or their children go hungry or fail to get what they need” the psalmist croons in verse 25.
So one reads all of this and is tempted to say, “Really? Are you serious? I can make a list as long as your arm of good, holy, Christian people in this world whose kids die, who are hungry, who have their homes foreclosed on by the bank. And I can also point you toward some really pretty devious and wretched folks who are getting along just fine, thank you very much, and who show no signs of slowing down or being miserable. Get real!”
Is this a valid response to the hyper-confident tone of Psalm 37? Well, in one sense yes and if for no other reason than the fact alluded to above: there are other Psalms in this collection of 150 poems that lament loudly and firmly the fact that the wicked do often prosper while the righteous do often get the short end of the stick and suffer. We cannot preach on Psalm 37 in isolation from those other honest laments that size up the world rather differently and in somewhat starker terms than this Psalm typically does.
In short, life and our outlook on the world does not always look like Psalm 37 and, apparently, neither need that be the case in order for us to qualify as faithful believers in God. Sometimes the faithful can lament life’s apparent unfairness and that’s OK to do before the face of God.
Even so, that still leaves us with the question of what to do with and what to make of this psalmist’s exceedingly optimistic and sunny outlook. And let’s just set off to one side the fact that some of us know people who actually do talk like this all the time. And let’s leave to one side the fact that when they talk this way to us at the funeral home where we are getting ready to bury a loved one or in the hospital room where we are still absorbing a stingingly bad diagnosis, these people are not our favorite folks. If anything we are tempted to tell them to take their optimistic piety and . . . well, do something with it.
However, can we even so see that Psalm 37—even if it’s not always true in the short run of life—nevertheless represents a valid vision for the long run? True, knowing that at the end of the day “all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well” does not always give us a lift when we’re downtrodden and sad. And also true, we are often better off not trying to cheer someone up with that idea when things are legitimately terrible for someone. But isn’t this finally our Christian hope for the kingdom of God? For all the ins and outs of life that we flat out cannot comprehend on a day to day basis, don’t we finally believe that there is a loving and faithful and gracious covenant God at the bright center to all existence? And if we believe that, can’t we be encouraged by the little signposts we see now and then in life that remind us that in the end, God will straighten this whole mess out?
I will cease asking rhetorical questions to affirm that there is something to all that. Psalm 37 may be the wrong thing to lob at someone we know who is in active and acute pain. But it’s not a bad place to turn if and when we need to have reaffirmed for us our ultimate hope in a God of justice and righteousness who has a plan to iron out life’s wrinkles by and by.
Psalm 37 may also provide some spiritual guardrails for our lives in another sense: because now and then it can be very tempting to go along with the crowd, to cheat on our taxes because, what the heck, everybody else who does it gets away with so why shouldn’t I? This Psalm can be a check on us when we are tempted to think, “What good is it being honest when some exceedingly dishonest people can rise to some of the most powerful positions in the world without ever paying a price for their serial dishonesty and lying? If virtue doesn’t pay, I’ll try vice.”
Even though it is true that the wicked and the dishonest and the criminally devious can get along just fine in life, nevertheless we as believers need always to be checking ourselves to see whether we have aligned ourselves with our holy God of all righteousness or not. For all we know, maybe Psalm 37 was even written by someone who was attempting to do just that: to call back to morality and faithfulness some friends who had thrown up their hands in defeat when it came to trying to live virtuously and who were seriously considering throwing in their lot with some of life’s shadier characters since it seemed to work out just fine for them.
Again, there’s a Psalm for almost every season in life. These poems have lots and lots of uses for lots and lots of occasions. No, we ought not make them a one-size-fits-all prescription for how every believer should feel at every moment. But there are moments and there are people who need a dose of Psalm 37 now and again, including our own selves sometimes. And on those occasions we can be glad even for a Psalm that strikes us as a little too hopeful by half!
Many of us are familiar with—some of us are very familiar with/hooked on—the film The Shawshank Redemption. If it is true in one sense—as suggested in this Sermon Commentary—that Psalm 37 is designed in part to give wavering believers some hope in God’s ultimate designs for the universe, then thinking about hope might be appropriate.
Early in the movie, Andy Dufrense talks to his fellow inmates about the need to hold onto hope. But Andy’s friend, Red, isn’t buying it. Hope is dangerous when, in fact, there is no good reason to have it.
But later in the film, after Andy escapes Shawshank Prison and after Red is paroled a couple years later, Andy manages to get a message to Red in the form of a letter inviting Red to join Andy in the Mexican town where he has started a new life. And he reminds Red that hope is neither dangerous nor bad. It is, in fact, the best of things.
Maybe that is in part what Psalm 37 wants to remind us about when we too look around us and wonder if there could ever be a blessed reason to have any hope. Psalm 37 says that hope just might be the best of things after all.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!