Commentary on Psalm 37:1-9
A dear relative once told me, “You know, people don’t have good sense until they get old.”
Now, as then, I find a good deal of wisdom in his observation. In the present lectionary reading, we encounter a portion of a wisdom psalm spun by a sage who has grown old (verse 25). As younger, more idealistic students of the ancient wisdom school most certainly needed the direction of their senior mentors, so too we who are but infants in our faith require the nurture offered by scripture.
It is a question that the faithful have always grappled with: “How is it that the wicked often seem to prosper?” There could hardly be a more human response than for a faith still seeking understanding to become frustrated, angry, or even wrathful in the face of such a paradox. Yet, the life experiences of the sage offer in these verses a corrective to such a reactionary response. Three times in only nine verses (1, 7, 8) the writer admonishes: “Do not fret.” Indeed, the Hebrew verb “thus” translated by the NRSV goes further than cautioning against an emotion. The real danger lies in the state of being in which one is “intensely worked up” or even “consumed” by the problem of the apparent prospering of the wicked. The verb has a reflexive sense in which the writer cautions readers not to inflict self-harm by bringing this state of being upon themselves.
One of the problems with this state of being is the impact it has on one’s relationship with God. While the Psalter condones and even encourages questioning in dialogue with God, a state of self-consuming vexation with the wicked can lead to mistrust of God and even the questioning of the reality of God’s power and dominion in the world.1 Thus, it is no surprise that the sage twice exhorts that readers should trust in the Lord (verse 3, 5). Despite evidence which would seem to the contrary God is in control of the world and as a result, the prospering of evildoers will endure only briefly.
Shunning vexation and trusting God, however, does not mean that the faithful sit idly by and do nothing. Verse seven calls on believers to “be still” and “wait patiently.” Although these would seem to be quite passive exhortations, close examination reveals a greater depth of meaning. The verse begins with not only “be still” (or be silent), but “be still before the Lord.”
The sense here is to stand in awe of God, speechless in the face of the breadth of God’s power and dominion. The implication is that God is in control and doing something in the world, otherwise there would be no reason to stand in awe. Further, wait patiently does not do justice to the second Hebrew imperative in the verse. The verb would be better translated “wait longingly.” This nuance adds a more dynamic component to the waiting, again implying that God is at work now.2
Since God is at work, believers too are called to be doing something. First and foremost, as mentioned above, this means trusting God and knowing that God is at work in the world. As a result, the faithful are called to “do good” (verse 3), “take delight in the Lord” (verse 4), and “commit your way to the Lord” (verse 5). If there is to be any kind of response on our part to the brief prospering of the wicked, these three things are it.
In short, stay true to who and whose we are. As a result, light shines onto the deeds and ways of the wicked so that they may be clearly seen for what they are and thus fade and wither as the sage promises in verse one. It is not we who shine this light, but God who “will make your vindication” 3 shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday (verse 6).
A pitfall to avoid here is the implication of works-righteousness, either in the text or in the presentation of the text. There are textual components that could be interpreted and presented in this way. After being told to “trust in the Lord” and “do good” in verse three, we hear: “[Y]ou will live in the land and enjoy security.” What would appear to be exhortations followed by rewards also occur in verses four, five, and nine.
However, the only works-righteousness here is that which we may erroneously superimpose from our own theological points of departure. In verse three, there is no “so” in the Hebrew. In fact, the last two verbs of the verse are imperatives, just as the first two. Further, neither the “rewards” of the above-mentioned verses nor the swift end met by the wicked are the results of God waving a magic wand. They are, instead, the outcome of the respective activities.
In turning from God, the wicked will wither and fade just as in turning from water a body will dehydrate. Likewise, those who “do good”(verse 3), “take delight in the Lord” (verse 4), and expect the Lord to act (verse 9) will see the Lord act (verse 5) and will inherit the earth (verse 9). These things are certainly true because God promises them, even if we strain to understand until we attain the sense brought by old age!
1Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), 405.
2Similarly, the NRSV’s “wait” in verse 9 might better be translated as “expect” to reflect the ongoing activity of God. The Hebrew verb here has the sense of looking and hope.
3The Hebrew word here is more usually translated as “righteousness.”